Rudd’s plan for schools continues Howard’s legacy

Rudd’s new schools plan has been widely condemned. Not only does it revive the former Liberal government’s attempt to implement a “league table” ranking schools, it mimics Howard’s scapegoating of teacher unions for the problems created by government underfunding.

THE LATEST plank of Kevin Rudd’s “education revolution” is a plan to raise standards in disadvantaged schools by publishing data on individual schools’ performance, such as literacy and numeracy scores. This would expose “underperforming” schools and give parents greater choice in deciding where to send their children.

In return, schools which are deemed successful would be rewarded with grants of up to $500,000 (approximately the non-wage annual budget of an average school). Schools that don’t perform could see principals or teachers replaced. At worst, a school could be merged or closed.

League tables have been a disaster where implemented in Britain, according to education experts. The Opposition cried “plagiarism” in federal parliament, saying Rudd had pinched John Howard’s policies.

There are many parallels between Rudd’s approach and that of his predecessor. The language of “parental choice” is straight out of Howard’s book, and Labor has retained the SES market-based funding model, which favours private schools.

Rudd’s scare campaign about “failing schools” is very similar to the former government’s. In 1996, the then Federal Liberal Education Minister, David Kemp, announced a “literacy crisis” as a pretext for bringing in national testing. His claim flew in the face of state test results which showed that Australian school children were improving both every year and as they went up school grade years. So Kemp appointed a committee which set a mathematical bar high enough to create proof of a “crisis”.


One of Rudd’s major insinuations is that teaching unions are dinosaurs responsible for the supposed drop in educational standards. A number of journalists, including the usually left-leaning Quentin Dempster of the ABC, have swallowed this line, stating that unions have been hiding under performers and are “too strong”.

Rudd is using this issue to present himself as a strongman prepared to take on the unions. “Some of the unions have been completely resistant, it’s fair to say, and we expect a fair bit of argy-bargy,” he said. “But we don’t intend to shirk from it.”

Rudd’s “education revolution” thus far is heavy on rhetoric but light on results. Laptops have been delivered to private schools but not to state schools—which generally lack the necessary wireless infrastructure support.

His latest initiative, viewed in conjunction with the tightening of welfare payments for disadvantaged parents, is further proof that Rudd is following same kind of neo-liberal managerialism pioneered by Tony Blair in Britain. Blair introduced the highly controversial league tables in Britain in a similarly misguided attempt to raise standards in UK schools. As a result, students in Britain now sit up to 87 public examinations in their schooling life!

Providing comparisons between schools requires the proliferation of standardised testing, so that students and schools can be measured against one another. This creates greater stress for teachers and students and means far more time is spent on preparation for exams, at the expense of meaningful and interesting learning.

We only need to look at the failure of George Bush’s “No Student Left Behind” policy in the US (yes, it does have that grandiose name). So-called poor performing schools, usually in black and Hispanic neighbourhoods, have been closed or forced to take on military academies.

Schools with children from better-off areas have no trouble both fulfilling the national skills-based assessments as well as studying enlightening material. In the disadvantaged schools, the pressure of trying to get to the minimum levels on the nationals tests distorts the subject curriculum, resulting in frustration, boredom and a loss of the wider aspects of education.

Rudd’s approach, like that of Blair and Bush, attempts to shift the blame about problems in education away from its true causes—inadequate and inequitable provision of resources—to those further down the food chain: educators.

Even the conservative, pro-market Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development has warned that publishing data on schools’ results is not the best way to improve educational standards. Beatriz Pont, who co-authored a major OECD study, told ABC Radio that Finland has the best education system in the Western world, and it does not test its teachers or students. Instead, it focuses on attracting the best teachers and creating high standards for educators.

Rather than denigrating teachers, governments should be trying to attract the best graduates by providing more funding for salaries and teaching resources.

By John Morris


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