Education – Failing From The First


The Tasmanian coat of arms features thylacines...

The Tasmanian coat of arms features thylacines as supporters. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Education is a serious topic. When we talk about schools we are talking about the most precious part of our lives, our children.

Previously in my post ‘Edumacation – Broken As Designed’ I argued that “we have an education system that is measured according to a limited set of outcomes and the outcomes we drive for are no longer relevant to the society we want to be.”

While that may be true there are some measures that are still as valid in the twenty first century as they were in the nineteenth when we first started public education.

The most basic of these would be literacy and numeracy. This is why I was so appalled by a Radio National story ‘A literacy deficit’ that informs us that in Tasmania half of all people between 15 and 74 are functionally illiterate, and more than half are functionally innumerate—meaning they don’t have the skills needed to get by in the modern world, like filling out forms, or reading the instructions on their prescription.

The story also identifies this as an intergenerational problem further fuelled by low expectations.

As a result Tasmania has the highest unemployment rates in the country and more than a third live on welfare.

Now we here in Sydney might think to make jokes about Tasmania and Tasmanians at this point but we should be careful what jokes we make as Tasmania is merely suffering writ large the same problems that infest pockets of intergenerational socio-economic disadvantage in areas across the country.

As a side note I should point out to all those that think that the “Gonski” funding reforms will solve our problems that Tasmania already spends more per student than any other State, mainly due to the high proportion of small rural schools.

Some of the problems in Tasmania’s education system are structural. High schools only run until Year 10 and further education is available only at city “colleges” so for a lot of Tasmanian’s “finishing high school” means only Year 10.

I also noticed that the graph ‘Percent of students not meeting the national minimum standard’ that is taken from the 2013 preliminary NAPLAN results overstates the current problem in Primary schools in Tasmania. If you grab the report from this page you will see that Tasmania perform better than other States in some areas and even when they are the worst performing State (the Northern Territory stands alone as a total, signal failure though if you adjust for the high absentee rate it is not too far from the States.) This may reflect a minimum standard that is too low, however.

If we can’t teach our children to be functionally literate and numerate we are failing from the first. If we can’t do that how do we expect to teach them anything else?

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Secular Education


Private School

Private School (Photo credit: mikecogh)

One of the myths of Australia is that we have a secular political system. Nowhere is this myth more obviously false than in our funding of education.

As well as the secular public education system we have a large number of “private” schools with a religious nature that receive generous public support. The Catholic school system, run by the Catholic Education Office, is so generously funded that it charges little in the way of fees and may as well be a public school system. Other so-called “private” schools may charge fees but still continue to receive a great deal of public support. At the same time the fees charged are tax deductible so still further money is taken from the public purse. The vast majority of these schools are Christian of some denomination or other with a small number of Jewish and Muslim schools adding to the high percentage of religious schools.

Australia is one of the few countries in the world where private schools receive public money and spends the greatest percentage of its education funds on these schools and it isn’t going to improve any time soon. One of the rules given to the Gonski committee when they were looking at school funding was that no school could be worse off under the scheme, and make no mistake this was meant to insulate the major private schools from inevitable funding cuts.

Given that they compromise such a large drain on the public purse you might think that these schools would be prepared to obey the same laws as the rest of our society, including the public schools.

There you would be wrong. Private, religious schools are exempt from a number of laws but most importantly discrimination legislation.

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Change The Conversation


Australian Coat of Arms (adopted 1912)

Australian Coat of Arms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here in Australia we are gearing up for a Federal election. As this happens the country will start a discussion and the character of that discussion will define the election.

Over the last thirty years the basis of that discussion has changed. The main topic of political discussion can be characterised as economic rather than social.

The perfect example is the major effort of the “Gonski reforms” which have been labelled as major reforms to education but they are almost entirely focussed on the financing and economics of schooling leaving the topic of what and how we teach our children entirely untouched.

If we wish to have a national conversation about education perhaps we might start with why we are graduating so many lawyers, economists and MBAs while we don’t have enough nurses, teachers and engineers. We might like to argue about why we are increasing TAFE fees while we don’t have enough skilled workers.

You can also look at the growing prominence of media reporting on the state of the economic market and economic news. The ABC station 702, for example, twice during the day has a report on the Australian Stock Exchange and major economic news as well as mentioning that major news during the hourly news.

Then we get to the political debate that talks so much about topics such as tax rates and government rebates such as the Family Tax Bonus, Baby and First Home Buyers Grant. When we were discussing the Carbon Tax much of the debate centred not on what was best for the country but who might be better off after the offsets were factored into family budgets.

If we do want to discuss the national economy perhaps we could talk about the restructure of our workforce. Do we want a nation where a huge rise in casual and contract labour that now has a rising number of Australian workers underemployed and unsure of their jobs?

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Edumacation – Broken As Designed


Etchingham School 1946

(Photo credit: ttelyob)

So the State and Federal governments of Australia are going to find an extra $5 billion dollars a year to spend on school funding according to the recommendations of the ‘Review of Funding for Schooling Final Report December 2011’, generally referred to as the “Gonski Report” after it’s chairman, David Gonski.

What if they are going to spend it on the wrong things? What if the system itself is concentrating on the wrong outcomes? What if our education system is broken as designed?

First, let’s contemplate the purpose of our education system. What is it meant to do? If we want we can turn to our Government to answer that question, politicians can always be relied upon to give us a great “motherhood statement” on any large social question. In Australia we only have to go back to 2008 when there was a conference of government Education ministers in Melbourne that produced a nice motherhood statement as a report, the ‘Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians’.

The Melbourne Declaration says

  • Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence
  • Goal 2: All young Australians become:
    • Successful learners
    • Confident and creative individuals
    • Active and informed citizens

The most interesting thing about this statement is that it says nothing about vocational outcomes. The preamble however is a little more revealing, it says in part:

Skilled jobs now dominate jobs growth and people with university or vocational education and training qualifications fare much better in the employment market than early school leavers. To maximise their opportunities for healthy, productive and rewarding futures, Australia’s young people must be encouraged not only to complete secondary education, but also to proceed into further training or education.

It should be noted that jobs and vocation are nowhere else mentioned in the declaration.

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