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Issue #1446      10 March 2010

Assessing schools – the hidden agenda

It is perfectly natural that parents want their children to attend a good school. All children should attend good schools. Thirty or more years ago, it was not a big issue. The public school system offered quality, free, and secular education, open to all children regardless of their background. Parents could send their children to the local primary, high, or technical (in some states) school in their neighbourhood confident they would receive a good education.

Bandon Grove public school – thirty years ago the public school system offered quality, free, and secular education, open to all children regardless of their background.

Private independent and church schools were an option if you could afford them, and certainly no guarantee of as good let alone better education. The public education system was by no means perfect, teacher unions were fighting for more funding, smaller classrooms, more resources, programs for students with special needs, and so on.

Today parents are faced with a very different situation. Funding to public schools has been run down at a time when demands placed on schools have increased. They are grossly under-staffed and under-funded. Teachers in many public schools lack the resources they need for the basic curriculum, buildings have not been properly maintained and many classes remain too large. There are more behavioural problems. In some schools, a teacher may be faced with more than half a class whose first or only language is not English. The additional support and smaller classed they need are not there to the extent required. Many state schools have been forced to introduce charges (in reality voluntary or not so voluntary fees).

At the same time federal funding for private schools has been increased to the point where private schools with one third of the students receive two thirds of the funding. Government funding has financed the building of hundreds of small, religious and other private schools.

Some of these schools do not teach a secular curriculum – science, English, history, mathematics, etc – beyond year ten. Years 11 and 12 are religion. Some sit their children all day in small individual cubicles, where they rote learn their maths and English skills scattered between psalms and other religious trappings. In “science” they tell the children that scientists do not know about the world and perpetrate the myth that God created the universe a few thousand years ago.

Government funding to non-government schools has fuelled the division and social isolation of children on the basis of religion, academic ability, wealth, disability and other criteria. The implications of these divisions run contrary to multiculturalism and narrow the educational outcomes and tolerance of Australia’s future generations.

Education market

The centre-piece of the Rudd government’s “education revolution” is an education market, where schools compete for clients, a place where parents can shop around for the “best” school – if they can afford it. How can they choose the right school?

The government’s answer is the website My School. “My School provides an important opportunity for everyone to learn more about Australian schools, and for Australian schools to learn more from each other.” It is a means by which parents can compare schools.

It has all the ingredients of a league table that ranks schools based on the results of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests given to students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. It is an incredibly blunt instrument for comparing schools, and totally inappropriate for use as a means of selecting a school. Yet this is what it is being used for. Tragically, some parents have already pulled children out of schools whose rankings carried the red lines of failure on the website.

Students can be specifically be coached to pass NAPLAN. It can favour schools whose educational outcomes – in the fullest sense of the term – are highly questionable. For example, a school that sits students in cubicles rote learning all day, or selects its student population by such criteria of language and maths skills has a better chance of being higher up the league table. State schools accept all comers – they offer a truly secular education and mix of students.

The ability of a school to develop and educate students cannot be assessed on a crude, neo-liberal measurement of a technical test in literacy and numeracy. NAPLAN is first and foremost a ranking system, by its very nature there will always be schools that “fail”. There will always be a bottom 25 percent. League tables are not a measure of absolute performance.

Teacher unions, parents and others with an understanding of education have highlighted many other flaws such as not testing all students, the statistical unreliability of results for schools with smaller student populations.

The government claims that it will use the results to provide further assistance to schools that need it – the ones with poor results. They have been doing this for some years now, albeit with far too little assistance. There was no need for NAPLAN or publication of school results to do that.

The needs of schools are already well known and documented by those at the chalk front. Teachers are capable of testing and do assess their students by far more superior methods and on many aspects of their development. They know more about their students than any government test can tell them. The government’s approach undermines the professionalism and public image of thousands of dedicated and competent teachers who remain in the public education system despite the many additional pressures being place on them.

Privatisation

The government has another agenda. It is called privatisation. Education Minister Julia Gillard is working closely with education authorities in the US and on a visit in October last year met with some kindred soles.

She was invited to address a conference at the right-wing Foundation for Excellence in Education in Washington set up by George W Bush’s brother Jeb. She shared the platform with Swedish education entrepreneur Peje Emilsson and British Professor of Education James Tooley. (See Editorial, Guardian No 1433, 28-10-1009)

Emilsson’s chain of 22 private, for-profit schools in Sweden has an annual turnover of 45 million euro (A$73 million). He was involved in the introduction of a voucher system that publicly funded and facilitated the proliferation of private schools in Sweden, where two thirds of private schools are now run for profit.

Tooley’s vision for education is large private companies with brand names as familiar as Tesco and Safeway, running chains of private schools. “Big profits mean better schools”, says Tooley. (New Statesman 31-01-2000).

Ms Gillard also met with Michelle Rhee who runs Washington’s schools. Her record says it all: she closed 21 “failed” schools (15 percent of the total) and sacked 270 teachers, 36 principals and 100 other staff in her first 18 months. “She’s obviously bringing a single-minded, relentless focus on making a difference for those kids,” said an admiring Gillard.

Gillard said the USA and Australia have similar challenges and common views on how they should be tackled.

Next steps to watch for:

  • Labelling of schools as “failed” on the basis of testing;
  • Takeover by federal government of education or integration of state and federal funding for education;
  • Basing teacher pay on test results (“performance”);
  • State schools allowed to introduce modest fees;
  • State schools gain greater autonomy, hiring and firing staff, run by a board or company along similar lines to private schools;
  • Entry of for-profit, private corporations into education market, buying up “failed schools” and setting up new ones.
  • Voucher system of funding – a set amount attached to each student which is paid to the school they attend. Parents pay the gap between the fee and voucher.

A voucher system would in effect complete the privatisation of the public education system putting state schools on the same footing for funding and governance. Vouchers give parents “choice” and feed the profits of private schools.

The teacher unions and parents have a difficult job ahead to save public education. They need all the support they can get from the trade union movement, ethnic communities and other organisations and individuals.   

Next article –  Reflections by comrade Fidel – My recent meeting with Lula

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