In his first few weeks as Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne has continued the Coalition’s penchant for pithy – if a little superficial – slogans, saying that the government’s policy on schools is “achievable, affordable and believable.”
It even rhymes.
But what does that actually – y’know – mean?
Speaking last week at the Independent Education Union’s National Conference, Pyne offered us a glimpse into his thinking. The government’s education reform policy is built around three pillars:
· The Australian Curriculum
· School Autonomy
· Raising Teaching Standards
It will be what Pyne describes as an “unapologetically students-first policy.”
In order to develop the “highest possible standard curriculum” Pyne, will “refocus” the work of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) – the group of education experts who have worked over the past five years to deliver Australia its first national curriculum.
By “refocus” he means cutting funds and “transferring to the Department of Education all data, reporting and compliance functions.”
But even with the agency focused solely only on curriculum development, Pyne is unlikely to take much notice of it.
”I don’t believe in handing over responsibility for government policy to third parties,” he says, ”The Westminster system of government requires ministers to take a hands-on approach to matters within their portfolio.”
So it appears ACARA will not only lose $23 million in funding, but also the last three letters of their acronym.
There is history between Pyne and ACARA’s chief Barry McGaw, when Pyne publicly criticized the History Curriculum. Apparently it had too much emphasis on indigenous history and nothing about the Westminster system of government.
It appears Dr McGaw is going to get a personal lesson in the ways of a Westminster system of government and Pyne himself will have a direct say in what is taught in schools.
But that might not be such a bad thing right? Because after all, he says the government’s plan for school education is “unapologetically a students-first policy”.
Great news. Until you realise Christopher Pyne’s idea of students-first might not be the same as a teacher’s idea of students first.
He believes we need more, “didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the past 20, 30 or 40 years.” He is intent on overturning child-centred learning although he doesacknowledge he will not be able to do this overnight.
And his instincts tell him that, “a back-to-basics approach to education is what the country is looking for.” He says, “We’ll review the Australian Curriculum so that it delivers what parents expect.”
An average mother (with regard to age, not parenting skills) who’s first born is going to high school next year will be forty, meaning that – assuming she finished year 12 – she left school twenty-two years ago.
Personally, I hope school is not what she expects.
I hope it’s changed significantly since she was at school when the hot topic of conversation on the school bus would have been about how to best record a mix-tape off the radio.
As an advocate for school autonomy, Pyne has committed $70 million to an Independent Public Schools Fund “to encourage schools to be more empowered, and to take on more autonomy and responsibility.”
And why wouldn’t he? As Pyne told the IEU Conference, “Such schools have proved a terrific success in Western Australia – allowing locals to set their own priorities and make more day-to-day decisions about important matters.”
Except they haven’t. Not in WA, or pretty much anywhere else in the world for that matter.
In talking about teaching standards in Australia, Mr Pyne recognised that teachers do, “outstanding work in Australia”, and that he and the Government are “here to support them to become the best professionals they can be.”
In fact he went as far as to say that this government wanted to be “The best friend teachers have ever had.”
Although presumably he doesn’t want to be BFF’s with the forty-odd thousand teachers who aren’t “up to scratch.” I think he wants to kick them out.
And it’s not just those bludgers that need to lift their game. The teachers’ best bud reckons, “Concerted action is required to lift the quality and status of the teaching profession.”
Perhaps teachers aren’t that outstanding after all?
Whilst Mr Pyne’s musings are cause for concern to many in the sector, it’s what he’s not saying that is – frankly – alarming. He is point blank refusing to talk funding.
Educational inequity – particularly for kids from indigenous and poorer backgrounds – is by far the greatest issue confronting the education sector (and dare I say the country).
56% of Australia’s indigenous population live in QLD, WA and NT.
The significance? These are the three jurisdictions yet to sign up to the new schools funding model.
And the minister’s response?
He says, he’ll have a plan, ‘Hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Far from being best friends forever, I’m tipping that the heady mix of the unwillingness to recognise the funding issues, its meddling in the curriculum and superficial slogans will mean that the relationship between teachers and this government will be far from rosy.