Election promises expand market agenda for education

The battle over NAPLAN testing and the MySchool website earlier this year indicated Julia Gillard’s vision for the future of education. Market reforms aimed at forcing competition between teachers and schools would be used to blame teachers for the government’s failure to properly fund the sector.
Both Gillard and Abbott announced policies during the election that indicate they want to speed up this agenda. Their plans included performance pay for teachers, a continuation of the inequitable schools funding model introduced by the Howard government and an ongoing commitment to NAPLAN testing.
This is all part of the ongoing attempt to build the “New York Model” of schooling in Australia. Yet this market model has seen American schools slipping down the international rankings for the past 20 years.
The focus on standardised testing and NAPLAN in particular is set to increase. The Coalition wants to expand it, making tests an annual event from Year 3 to Year 10.
Currently students complete the tests in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. This would divert millions of dollars that could be spent on more teachers and improved infrastructure.
Meanwhile Gillard’s working party of unions and department officials, established to negotiate the “improvement” of the MySchool website, is adding additional information to the website in an attempt to divert attention from raw NAPLAN data. However there are no guarantees about a ban on league tables or the misuse of NAPLAN data, let alone the scrapping of the tests themselves.
Standardised testing narrows the curriculum, with teachers expected to improve results—which means spending valuable classroom hours teaching students how to answer the tests rather than spending time on engaging and relevant work.
Gillard and Abbott announced similar programs to “reward” teachers through performance pay. They have been vague about how they will judge these “high achieving” teachers, but it is likely that results on NAPLAN tests will play a crucial role.
Performance pay seeks to do a number of things: To stymie ongoing, sector-wide pay increases, to undermine solidarity in the workplace and to place an increased emphasis on standardised test results. If failing to improve test results costs a teacher $10,000, the pressure is going to be on to teach to the test.
Gillard’s model, which also includes a proposal to pay one-off reward payments for school-wide improvements on tests, would not only pit teachers against each other—it would turn school against school. Currently, schools in similar regions share strategies for improving retention and achievement—but if it could cost $100,000, the incentive to share will dissipate.

Funding private schools
The notorious Howard government funding arrangements for private schools also remain unquestioned. Federal funding for private schools is set to increase to $9.5 billion per year by 2016 compared to $3.1 billion for public schools.
Labor has delayed the findings of a review into this funding model until 2013, effectively guaranteeing its continuation for the medium-term future. Many private schools receive more than they are entitled to even under this model, but the model says that no schools’ funding can be cut.
The Coalition plans to entrench the model. On top of this, Abbott pledged to cut $3.1 billion from education if the Coalition forms government, which is set to disproportionately affect public schools.
The private school lobby justifies this model on the basis that the majority of public school funding comes from state governments—however the very idea that private schools receive any government funding, let alone three times that of public schools, is anathema to the heartland of Labor voters.
But both Gillard and Abbott should be on notice that the teachers’ unions oppose the market agenda.
Whilst the unions hesitated at the final moment in the confrontation over MySchool, widespread anger remains over league tables and standardised testing.
The unions also oppose performance pay and must fight its introduction every step of the way. Whilst the unions are seeking greater autonomy over the spending of infrastructure funding from the Building the Education Revolution spending, they still support the spending in principle and will fight the budget cuts from the Coalition.
As was seen with MySchool, teacher activists are willing to fight the conservative agenda for education.
As the battle lines are drawn in the coming months we need to ensure that when the pressure is on this time, union leaders don’t flinch.

Ernest Price


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