Education Social Commentary

Why the Federal Government’s Education Policy Misses The Mark…

educationWith a fair amount of fanfare this week, Australia’s federal government announced that it would invest an additional $1.2 billion from 2018 to 2020 that would be tied to a needs-based distribution of funding and reforms in our schools to “help every parent have confidence that their child is receiving the teaching they require.”

Most of the commentary around this decision has been around the fact that the figure of $1.2 billion falls some way short of the $5 billion that the Gonski report suggested was required in order to achieve a level of equity in education across Australia.

I’ve written before about the high levels of inequity in Australia, and whilst I’m no expert in these matters – and I’m aware that state governments carry the majority of the funding burden – it does strike me as strange that a search of the MySchool site tells me that a private school in my local area whose net income for 2014 was $52,000,000 (yes, fifty-two million, and that’s by no means an anomaly) receives three-and-half times the amount of federal funding that my local public high school gets, despite not having 3.5 times as many kids… curious.

But the seemingly inequitable funding of independent schools this isn’t just a Liberal government issue, as it was the then Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who in 2012, was the first to state that no private school would lose a dollar in any future funding agreements, when perhaps it might have been more prudent to ask private schools if perhaps – just perhaps, they might wish to curtail their spending on capital works, such as new dance studios, learning centres (always makes me smile that we need these in schools) or olympic size swimming pools, just for a year or two. After all as Prime Minister Turnbull pointed out this week,

“While Bill Shorten has promised more money for schools, Labor is ignoring the decades of significant funding growth yet declining performance. For all Labor knows, their extra funding will be used to build a second or third sports shed or pretty up a school gate rather than addressing the generational deficiencies of our schooling system.”

Hmm… quite.

But rather than just adding to the chorus of “Show me the money” , I want to have a look at some of the other aspects of the federal government’s approach to education that I believe are flawed.

First of all I take exception to the rhetoric that surrounds education in Australia. Politicians of all persuasions appear to want to reduce education to a competition, with Turnbull stating the aim is for our kids to “get ahead” and sprinkled with the usual dose of political xenophobia, the kids we really need to get ahead of are those from overseas. Particularly Asia.

Performance Related Pay (PRP)  is one of the pillars of the government’s policy with teachers being rewarded for meeting the criteria of the Australian Teaching Standards. I have a number of concerns about this, not least the fact that in a lot of cases results have been mixed to say the least. As the OECD states:

Performance-based pay is worth considering in some contexts; but making it work well and sustainably is a formidable challenge. Pay levels can only be part of the work environment: countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects, and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform. This requires teacher education that helps teachers to become innovators and researchers in education, not just civil servants who deliver curricula.

Incentivise high-performing teachers to work in disadvantaged schools. Leaving aside the insulting implication that there aren’t already high performing teachers in these schools, I’d argue that what constitutes “high performance” in one school might not cut the mustard in another. Every single school community is different, and with that come different challenges. We need to be clear what high performance means before we talk about this any further.

Maths for Everyone! The government has stated that every student will need to study a Maths or Science subject up to Year 12. Welcome to the #IdeasBoom! Leaving aside the fact that this is merely a narrowing of the curriculum, based on some fairly spurious claims that “the most exciting jobs of the future will require maths and science,” I can’t see this doing anything to raise standards can you? If anything mandating that all students study maths or science will only bring down levels. Then won’t we be panicking!

Standardised Tests for Year 1 Students. If you listen carefully, that distant cheering is the sound of publishing companies rejoicing that they now have a whole new market of anxious parents to target. For too long these parents have gotten away with reading the Gruffalo or Possum Magic… but no longer! Already NAPLAN preparation guides are among the best selling books in Australia and soon it will be the Year 1 preparation guides. To be clear, OF COURSE we should know where kids are at, and identify those at risk of falling behind. But I’d wager the vast majority of schools do that already, but then face the challenge of trying to help those kids with minimal resources. If only there was some way we could get more money and resources to these schools and communities…

But I’m not all about picking holes. I’m here to offer solutions too.

So Malcolm Turnbull and Simon Birmingham, if you’re reading this, perhaps you might glean some ideas about how we can win the Education Race from the advice I offered your predecessors some years ago.

Education Social Justice

Gonski isn’t about getting *more* money…

In today’s Sun Herald,  you may have come across a piece headlined, NSW public schools increasingly turning to cashed-up P&Cs for funding.

In brief the article points out that:

P&Cs are asking parents for annual voluntary contributions of $200 per child or more to help pay for education programs as well as iPads, upgrades to toilets and additional support teachers or in some cases to buy language textbooks, workbooks and to pay for student welfare support.

And to be clear, these are public schools we’re talking about. Not private.

The article goes on to suggest that it is not uncommon for public schools and P&Cs to have fundraising goals of in excess of $200,000.

Whilst some of the funds that schools raise may be spent on what you might perhaps call discretionary items – a minibus for example (although many schools rely on theirs for a whole host of reasons) – money spent on things like toilet blocks, student welfare, books and technology are not. They are necessities.

Schools don’t have enough money for the necessities.

So they reach out to their community. But clearly, this has repercussions.

Even schools in high socioeconomic surrounds will have families who do not fall into that category, and a lazy $100 isn’t that easy to come by. But it’s compounded in whole communities that simply don’t have that kind of money in their collective back pocket.

Much of the talk around funding in education is about Private v Public, but there is more to it than that. In the public system alone there are the haves & the have-nots.

This is where the needs-based funding model of David Gonski serves to address the issue. But as you’d no doubt be aware, the Australian Federal Government has said it won’t fund the final two years of that.

Since taking office as the Federal Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham’s mantra has been:

“In the end, what we know is just spending more money on schools doesn’t necessarily lift outcomes.”

I’m yet to meet a single person who believes that it would. Just spending more money.

In doing this, Senator Birmingham is creating a straw man argument – making a case against an opinion no one actually holds. To further advance his position, he then comes up with claims like this one during an interview with the SMH:

“Some officials have said, ‘We’re not quite sure what we’re going to do with the extra money, we’re just going to employ more teachers'”

I call ‘Bullshit’ sorry, ‘Rubbish.’

Who are these ‘officials?’ And if by some small chance they actually do exist, and are officials of some description then they need to be relieved of their position immediately. (Just my 2 cents)

But the bottom line is this. By continually framing Gonski as an argument that schools want more money without having any idea what they are going to do with it, is misinformed at best, and disrespectful and manipulative at worst.

In many cases, Gonski isn’t about getting more money. It’s about getting enough.

Education Social Commentary

The Great Australian Education Debate

My somewhat cynical, tongue-in-cheek, superficial (call it what you want) take on the education debate in Australia.

Blame Game_01(2)

Education Social Justice Tech & Social Media

In the Sydney Morning Herald today…

Imagine for a second you’re booked in for elective surgery, and six months before the operation you’re told it’s your responsibility to provide the hospital with the surgical tools and technology required for your operation.

The Department of Health suggests if you can’t afford to pay for the equipment, perhaps you could organise a cake stall to raise funds.

Of course this is a ludicrous scenario. It could never happen. Or could it? If the health sector follows a trend taking hold in the education world, you never know.

Read my full article at The Sydney Morning Herald


Gonski, Barry O’Farrell and the Case of the Missing iPod

Imagine for a second you had an iPod. Ok, it shouldn’t be that hard to imagine. Missing-ipod_240

What if last year, your dad Barry – again use some imagination if need be – decided that you didn’t need an iPod.

In fact he couldn’t believe that you’d been trusted with such technology in the first place, and took the iPod away from you.

He felt that there were others who could make much better use of your iPod, despite your favourite Uncle David telling him that taking iPod away from kids wasn’t the thing to be doing right now.

How would you feel then, when Aunty Julia finally persuaded your dad Barry to give you back your iPod.

You’d obviously be happy, but would you feel that Barry was a hero? Would you run around telling anyone who’d listen that your dad Barry was the best!

I doubt it. But this is exactly how Barry O’Farrell has been portrayed in the media for performing exactly the same sleight of hand with education funding.

Last year, the NSW government slashed $1.7billion from the education budget.

Ignoring the irony that he was doing this at a time when David Gonski was making a very well stated case that more money was needed for education from all levels of government.

Fast forward to this afternoon, and I’m reading tweet after tweet and headline after headline praising Barry O’Farrell for signing up to – albeit a watered-down version of – Gonski. Even the teachers unions are smiling!

And you’ll never guess how much the NSW Government have to stump up….


He’s just given us our iPod back, and we’re running around as if it’s the most magnanimous gesture any Premier has ever made.

I’m all for increased spending in education of course. I just dislike politicians using education to score political points. Especially when their policies and actions seems so counterproductive.

Take for example the ludicrous scenario that will see the Federal Government stripping money away from tertiary education to fund schools.

I’ve not had the time to reflect on this properly, but Gonski has – and he no like! He says:

I fervently believe in and will continue to advocate that increases be made in funding the university sector.

If I hear, “We want better teachers” come out of the mouth of a politician again I’ll throw something.

How do you suppose we train these better  teachers if we starve the universities of cash?

Maybe we could just put an instructional video up on YouTube. That should do it. That’s 21st Century teaching after all isn’t it?

We want better teachers! Pfft.

We need better politicians!

Education Leadership

“Class Size” debate just got farcical…

A couple of weeks back I blogged about the Class Size Myth.

I made two simple points.

  1. A smaller class size in and of itself does nothing to enhance student learning. A poor lesson infront of 40 kids will still be a poor lesson in front of 20.
  2. But, in order to implement the proven strategies for improved learning, we need smaller class sizes.

This post had more hits in one day than my blog normally gets in a month, and it presented an argument that most people seemed to understand.

Unless – that is – you are the CEO of the NSW Institute of Teachers (NSWIT) – the lead authority for teaching in NSW.

In a Sun-Herald article entitled, Bigger class sizes free teachers to raise standards, NSWIT CEO, Kate O’Donnell states,

It’s not about saying make the class sizes bigger so teachers can have less contact time but, rather, to make sure in the teaching day there is time allowed for teachers to do something else other than be physically in front of their students, which is ultimately where we want them to be at their best.

But it is about making class sizes bigger, with the inference that this will somehow raise teaching standards.

Interesting. It goes against all the research I’ve read as well as going against common sense… so what’s doing?

The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell recently cut $1 Billion or so from the NSW education budget at a time that increased spending on education has been identified as a key factor in improving teaching and learning. By cutting spending it could be construed that he cares little for education – not a good look for any politician, let alone a first-term premier.

What he needs here is, a way in which he can appear to be interested in raising teaching standards whilst saving money. If he can convince the electorate that he is a good bet educationally and economically speaking, he may well be able to swing this past the voters.

So, what better way then, than to have the head of the government’s teacher authority, Ms Kate O’Donnell cite the great performances of other countries (I presume like most in this debate, she is using PISA as her guiding light) who all have big class sizes… brilliant!

She says,

There’s evidence that in effective systems that do sacrifice smaller class sizes, particularly in older grades, they’re not sacrificing student outcomes.

But the only problem with this statement is that is no evidence that this is the case at all.

Let’s take the two “top-performing” systems (as much as it irks me to distil learning down to a simple PISA score).

The use of the word “sacrifice” by Ms O’Donnell suggests that governments are deliberately forgoing smaller classes in order to make educational gains.

But, in Finland the government committed to reducing class sizes in the late 60s, and as a result the maximum class size is now 20, with science lessons capped at 16.

Whilst, the OECD reports that in China,

In major cities (and Shanghai is typical), recent drastic declines in population have forced local governments to adopt small classes so as to minimise teacher layoffs. This has significantly reduced teachers’ workload and created room for student activities during lessons that would be impossible in large classes.

But hang on, Ms O’Donnell tells us that large classes will reduce teachers’ workload… geez my head hurts.

And the only city from which China’s PISA scores are formulated?  You guessed it… Shanghai.

I find it strange that the government would – on the one hand – use findings from the OECD to strengthen its argument to improve teaching, but then – on the other hand – dismiss (or ignore, or be completely unaware of) findings from the OECD that cite small class sizes as one of the reasons for academic success (albeit in standardised tests).

I can only assume that one of three things has happened here.

The Sun-Herald misquoted Ms O’Donnell, which would be alarming.

The Government and the NSWIT are misinterpreting data and research, which would be equally alarming given their level of responsibility.

Or they are deliberately misleading NSW, which would be even more alarming, if not entirely surprising. By citing that bigger classes pave the way to better teaching, are they laying a foundation for a policy change?

And, it’s not just happening in NSW.

The Federal Opposition Education Spokesman, Christopher Pyne, has already gone on the record saying he believes class size has little impact on learning, while the QLD government is keen to cram more kids into each classroom too.

I’m not sure what Ted Baillieu, the Victorian premier, thinks about class size, although he did give assurances in 2011 that class sizes would not increase. This came a year or so after he said that under his government, VIC teachers would be the best paid in the land and we all know how that is going!

Education Leadership

The Class Size Myths – Which do you believe?

Over the Australian Summer I finally decided to read John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers.True False

Hattie’s theories on education are backed up by countless research papers and evidence.

In the never-ending quest to improve teaching (and teachers) Hattie is as revered by politicians and system leaders around the world as he is viewed with suspicion by front-line teachers.

His most controversial assertion is that reducing class size is a waste of time and money. His research proves having fewer kids in class has little impact on teaching and learning.

And don’t the politicians love that!

Bigger Classes = Fewer Teachers = Less money needed for education – Take that Gonski!

In Queensland, the state government has moved to remove the maximum class size limit, presumably confident of a Coalition victory in the September Federal Election, given that Shadow Education Spokesman Christopher Pyne is on record as saying that class sizes have little impact on teaching.

But here’s the thing… each of the interventions that Hattie studied, were done so in isolation.

Does reducing class size in and of itself improve teaching? Is it the silver bullet? 

Of course not. A crap lesson in front of 40 kids will still be a crap lesson in front of 20. Hattie himself makes the point that looking at class sizes in isolation showed that some teachers didn’t change their methods regardless of the number of kids in front of them.

But when you look at Hattie’s list of interventions that he claims DO have a great impact then things really start to get interesting with regard to class size.

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 5.41.12 PM

A teacher’s ability to implement any one or all of these interventions is impacted on by the amount of kids they have in front of them. Anyone who says different has no understanding of teaching, or is clinging to this ideology because it’s the theory du jour and is probably helping them climb the international speaking ladder.

So when politicians say that they won’t be supporting a reduction in class size, what they are actually saying is that they do not support the concepts of developing high expectations for each student, providing quality feedback, improving teacher-student relationships, implementing quality vocabulary or comprehension programs. What politicians are saying is “We’re not particularly interested in improving teaching and learning in our schools. It’s just a little bit too expensive.”

This myth of class-size being irrelevant has permeated into the education debate in many countries like the UK and US. Although, interestingly not Finland where the government agreed to reduce class size, and now the average class size is around 20 kids, with science lessons capped at 16. Sixteen!!

I’m not dismissing Hattie’s work out of hand as I agree with every single one of his “High Influence” interventions for improving teaching & learning – it’s just that having smaller class sizes is essential in order to enable teachers to implement these interventions.

You can read more about the mathematics behind effect size here…

Education Social Justice

Educational Roulette – Mind the Gap

I stumbled upon this infographic this week. I’ve edited it to suit the layout of my blog.

It shows the inequities in educational outcomes between groups of higher and lower socioeconomic standing, across a number of countries.

In short, your educational achievement can be predicted at birth based on little more than your parents’ bank balance.

Of course,  there will always be exceptions at all points on the spectrum, but education boils down to luck. A game of Roulette.

In Australia, these inequities were highlighted in the Gonski Report and its recommendations aim (in part) to address them.

Last week I wrote on the ABC that I believe that government approaches to education reform really do miss the point.

This infographic only serves to reinforce my opinion.

How increasing class sizes, paying the top 10% of teachers more money and cutting teachers’ preparation time will help to close this educational gap is well beyond my grasp of education and pedagogy.

By clicking on the infographic below, you’ll view it in its original format, complete with sources. 

Achievement Gap Infographic Edited


Education Revolution: Right Idea, Wrong Method

The drum

I’ve been published on the ABC today giving my thoughts on the current state of play of education reform in Australia.

Here is an excerpt:

I’m not saying we shouldn’t aim to improve teaching and learning in schools. Of course we should; any profession worth its salt seeks to continually improve its impact.

But what I am saying is that whilst governments may say this is their aim, many of their actions only serve to undermine teaching and learning in our schools.

For example, the Federal Government is intent on paying the best teachers based on their performance. But by it’s own definition only 10% of teachers would pass muster, and there would – of course – be a reliance on standardized test scores to prove one teacher’s worth over another.

Forgetting for a moment that implementing Performance Related Pay in teaching is questionable at best, no single move could do more to destroy the fabric of education than this.

Only the most egocentric teacher would believe that her students’ performance was solely down to her. Schools rely on a sense of collegiality but introducing performance related pay would compromise this value.

I know there are good and bad teachers, just as there are good and bad politicians. But pitting politicians against each other hasn’t raised standards of governance, so why would we think it’s the answer to raising standards of education?

Read the full article on the ABC Drum

Social Justice Youth

What’s Wrong With the Juvenile Justice System?

Originally posted on The ABC Drum.

In the wake of two teenagers being shot by police in Kings Cross, The Sydney Morning Herald has been running a series of articles focusing on the  effectiveness of the juvenile justice system.

The facts presented by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics within the articles are startling.

As a result of a ten year study, the Bureau report that domestic violence cases involving 10 – 17 year-olds have increased by 167 per cent, while other violent crime, break and enter and malicious damage to property all rising 21, 13 and 47 per cent respectively.

Approximately 5000 young people per year have their first contact with the juvenile justice system, but of particular concern is the rate of recidivism of those juveniles brought before the courts. Of the 4938 juveniles who came before NSW courts in 1999, over 2600 of them reoffended, on average four times before 2010. For Indigenous kids the rate of recidivism was 84 percent.

What is going wrong with our juvenile justice system? Why are kids released only to return a few months or years down the track?

The fact is: If we want to stop these kids re-offending, we have to stop them offending in the first place.

We must address poverty in earnest. We need to be creative in how we run our schools. We need to provide genuine learning and employment opportunities. Provide better funding for youth workers, outreach programs and schools. We need to support families.

The government must realize that society as a whole is responsible for our youth, and funding in this area should not be seen as a cost but an investment.

You can read my full article on The ABC Drum…