Concern For Educational Outcomes Gonski As Gillard Plays Politics

A CLAIM to be an “Education Prime Minister” or to lead an “Education Party” is one thing; to act like it is another matter. As with most issues, Julia Gillard and Labor seem happy to jettison outcomes in order to sabotage the Liberals, and show no evidence of giving a rat’s rectum about Education at all.

Labor’s form, since Kevin Rudd proclaimed the party would launch “an education revolution” during the 2007 election campaign, has been woeful, to the extent there is little or no evidence of “a revolution” occurring in education at all.

Remember Rudd cavorting about with a laptop computer, claiming that “this (was) the toolbox of the future?”

Or the histrionically-titled “Building the Education Revolution” program, which amounted to a smattering of unusable buildings erected on school premises across the country, and paid for with billions of borrowed dollars from China?

All of that aside — and I say this purely in the context of federal Labor and its grandiose rhetoric — there is no tangible evidence after five and a half years that the Rudd-Gillard government has advanced educational standards in Australia, or educational outcomes, in any way, shape, or form.

It doesn’t matter that since the ALP took office, state Labor regimes (who pay for most of education spending anyway) have been booted out in NSW, Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory, with those in South Australia and Tasmania almost certain to suffer the same fate when they face voters early in 2014: it was federal Labor that made the promises, and it is federal Labor that has failed to deliver on them.

And it doesn’t matter that teacher unions win pay rises for their members every time their agreements with relevant state governments are up for renewal: with no disrespect intended to teachers, this is money that (rightly) benefits them, not their students; and again, salary arrangements between a state government and its teacher workforce do not in any way influence an “education revolution” of the type promised by Rudd in 2007.

And — to be clear — the promise and the pretence of an “education revolution” has never been abandoned by the continuing Labor government under Gillard — quite the contrary.

This brings me to the so-called Gonski reforms to overhaul funding arrangements for schools in Australia, with the headline figure of $14.5 billion of increased funding on school education over a six-year period.

I will just say — before I sink the boot into Gillard over her po-faced, “non-negotiable,” but politically strategic “reform” package — that anything that increases education funding should be received and reviewed favourably, especially if targeted toward actual improvements in educational standards and outcomes rather than simply bankrolling additional bureaucrats who deliver nothing of benefit to young minds in a classroom.

But that said, the debate over the Gonski reforms — and the package Gillard is attempting to force state Premiers to commit to — is a farce.

What was non-negotiable, according to Gillard, was a 2:1 funding “offer” in which the federal government would cover two-thirds of the costs, and the state Premiers the balance; it had to be signed off today — no ifs or buts.

Unsurprisingly, not a single Premier signed up — not even those from the two remaining Labor states — as suspicious state leaders realised in some cases they would get next to nothing, or that some school sectors would actually go backwards, and in any case refused to agree point-blank to the blackmail-style demand that they sign up — or else.

Tonight, there’s now a new deadline in June, and talk of a revision of the split between the Commonwealth and the states from 2:1 to 3:1, which amplifies the question of how the federal government is supposed to be able to afford such an extravagant measure.

And if there is no agreement then — which will happen, if the Premiers still find uncertain odours emanating from the “deal” — then presumably the whole thing falls in a heap, and Gillard goes looking for another ruse to pin her scant re-election hopes on.

So much for non-negotiability; the Premiers called Gillard’s bluff, and Gillard capitulated.

Gillard’s package, simply stated, is no more than an attempt to lock an incoming Abbott government into a Labor spending program that is unaffordable, inadequately costed, and unlikely to make a scrap of difference in terms of delivering outcomes.

Readers will of course recall the raid on superannuation funds the ALP is proposing to attempt to legislate before it leaves office; this was meant to form part of the looming horror budget Wayne Swan must deliver next month, but was brought forward as a direct result of the horrific numbers being leaked and on account of the public intervention of sacked frontbencher Simon Crean (who, until recently, was a member of the Gillard government’s Expenditure Review Committee, or “razor gang”).

Those changes — unlikely to ever be legislated, in my view — produce additional available revenue for the government of $1 billion, which Gillard has signalled will be redirected toward funding the Commonwealth’s share of the Gonski reforms.

This is in addition to $2.8 billion her government plans to rip out of the university sector; $2.3 billion of it in direct funding, and another $500 million in cuts to deductions for work-related self-education expenses that the bubble of self-importance Swan claims will result in a “more fairly targeted annual cap” of $2,000 per person.

Forget the rhetoric: this Labor government has committed to slash university funding by almost $3 billion over six years in a repudiation of its commitment to higher education and in apparent contravention of its “proud Whitlam tradition” of “free” university education for all Australians.

Even so, the question of where the money is coming from to fund the Gonski reforms is a potent and valid one and, it seems, a point Gillard is either unable or unwilling to satisfactorily explain.

She was interviewed by Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 program last night, and proved unable to give an adequate account of how funding could affordably be found for the package; faced with Sales’ persistent and blunt line of questioning, Gillard repeatedly referred to “the professionals at Treasury” as if this was somehow an answer.

That was after she talked herself into a virtual admission there was a $5 billion shortfall on the part of the Commonwealth in funding the reforms; Gillard had tried a bit of swift talking (savings are over six years, Gonski expenditure over four years) but a quick totting up of the numbers still produced a $5 billion hole that Gillard couldn’t or wouldn’t say how would be covered.

(My tip is savage cuts and hefty tax rises in the budget, as I’ve said before, but then I don’t expect much when it comes to Labor governments, or Gillard and Swan in particular).

The same response — droning on about “professionals at Treasury” — was deployed when Sales pointed out to Gillard, helpfully, that the funding “solutions” for the Gonski reforms (as well as other initiatives Labor is frantically trying to legislate) hit “a bottleneck” in 2015.

2015, conveniently enough, is after the federal election is out of the way and at a point in time at which an Abbott government will have to begin to think about re-election.

And remember, the starting point for the upcoming budget is likely to be a deficit of between $20 billion and $40 billion, with the exact figure largely dependent on how honest the government is about the advice from its beloved “professionals at Treasury.”

Let’s forget about whether more money should be spent on education — I don’t think anyone disagrees with that proposition if, indeed, there is actual money in the tin to spend.

I think Gillard and her government are using this issue like they’re using everything else: to sabotage an Abbott government, wreck its budgets, and ensure an almighty fiscal bomb detonates in Abbott’s face just in time for his re-election prospects to be seriously compromised.

To hell with any genuine concern for education in the process.

Unconvinced? Then consider this:

  • A botched raid on superannuation which — if ever legislated — will raise $1 billion instead of the intended $3 billion;
  • The attempt to ram Gonski reforms down the throats of state Premiers and force them to commit, in time for the package (and its recurrent costs) to be legislated well ahead of the September election;
  • A similar modus operandi in the case of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which was recently agreed, but which will soak up billions more in recurrent expenditure which, like Gonski, has to come from somewhere;
  • The refusal to modify the $23/tonne carbon price at the heart of Labor’s carbon tax in the face of the comparable rate in Europe collapsing to about $3; revenue assumptions in the budget as it stands rest on the higher figure, which means reality will dictate a further blowout in national finances;
  • The attempt to legislate penalty rates and other union-dictated terms prior to leaving office, making it harder for Abbott to wind back the Fair Work junta that was a sop to Labor’s union masters.

There are other items that might be added to the list, but in the interests of brevity…

The point is that when taken altogether, a trend becomes obvious: Labor’s 2013 is proving an unusually active one, and when its legislative agenda for the year is compiled and viewed from an overall perspective, it becomes clear that Gillard and her cohorts are lining up a neat little list of measures to inflict as much damage as possible on their replacements in government.

It’s the type of endeavour which — if undertaken by a corporation rather than a government — would constitute white collar crime on an unprecedented scale, with prosecutions and jail terms and fines running to hundreds of millions of dollars rained down upon anyone involved in its perpetuation.

So much for education. Or the environment. Or anything else Gillard Labor, hand-on-heart, professes to be the national champion of the welfare of.

Back To The Future: The Education Revolution We Need

I’ve been reading the newspapers online today, shaking my head; it sticks in my craw that powerful education unions — backed by a pliant Labor government — demand usurious pay increases whilst generating outcomes that, frankly, are a fraud against any reasonable measure of expectation.

Some readers may accuse me of curmudgeonly petulance — or at least they might, if they have any idea of what a “curmudgeon” is, of course.

It’s a great bugbear of mine that Australia’s schools seem increasingly destined to turn out “graduates” with a flawed grasp of the English language, and an increasingly faulty application of it in daily life.

Reading the opinion section today of one of the supposed leading newspapers in this country, I’ve been treated to a discussion of the political “judgment” of Julia Gillard, written by somebody recognised as one of the leading political opinion writers both nationally and within that journalist’s media organisation.

The same news outlet recently published a feature piece on the “aging” population.

Switching news sites — and reading coverage of last night’s win by the Carlton Football Club over Fremantle in a NAB Cup match — I was informed that “It was difficult to fully gauge the merits of the Blues practice match romp.”

Having listened to the radio coverage on 3AW, I know the Blues’ efforts were stellar.

Listening to that match came after a visit to a bank branch earlier in the day, in which I was invited to add my “signiture” to an official deposit form in order to complete a transaction.

And, shortly thereafter, a sign I encountered during a window-shopping visit to a clothes store informed me that “food and drink are definately not to be consumed in this store.”

These are, to be sure, examples that I have come across in the space of one 24 hour period.

Regrettably, however, they are not isolated, they do not represent every such instance I noticed during those 24 hours, and — sadly — this sort of thing is fast becoming the norm rather than the exception.

I am writing this piece because in the present climate, it is both relevant and topical; as things stand in the state of Victoria, Ted Baillieu’s government is locked in a protracted dispute with the Victorian Teachers’ Federation over pay rates for teachers.

Baillieu had promised during the 2010 state election campaign to make Victoria’s teachers the best paid in Australia: “not the worst-paid, but the best paid,” he memorably pledged.

Negotiations hit an immediate impasse when the powerful VTF entered negotiations seeking annual 30% pay rises for its members, as opposed to a government offer of 2.5% plus additional amounts in return for productivity.

Naturally, the situation is deadlocked, with both sides in the dispute refusing to back down (although the teachers’ union did revise its ambit and ridiculous demand of 30% pay rises down to 12.5% over a three-year period).

In case readers think this is a Victoria-centric article, I assure you it isn’t; I merely make a skeletal summary of the situation in Victoria by way of example.

I could just as easily have chosen to talk about negotiations over teacher pay in any other state; the script — especially on the union side — is depressingly familiar wherever one looks and, somewhat surprisingly, it matters little whether the state government at the centre of negotiations is Labor or Liberal.

The only real difference on that last point seems to be a greater inclination on the part of teacher unions to strike and cause disruption when dealing with a Liberal government than with a Labor one, but in honesty, it’s simply a question of degrees.

In short, teachers (or at least, their unions) think they should be paid at a level which reflects their self-designated “status” at the very apex of society.

Indeed, some teachers I have had the misfortune to encounter over the years have told me that in their view, teaching is more important than any other vocation.

I call it “a vocation” because it’s too much of a stretch to describe it as “a profession:” if I were completely honest, the example set by teacher unions make it “just a job” like anything else.

And as far as I am concerned, it’s a job whose outcomes neither match the hype nor merit the ridiculous pay structures its protagonists seek.

Using Victoria as an example again, a look through the relevant state government website reveals that starting pay for a graduate teacher (with no previous experience) is $56,985 per annum; pay rates increase through a series of grades up to “Leading Teacher Level 3” which commands $91,883 per annum — or a shade under $1,770.00 per week.

This is an industry that offers its members 21 contact hours per week (“contact hours” being the length of time they actually stand in front of a class); significant amounts of designated time for preparation and marking (free periods) during what the rest of us would call business hours; 12-13 weeks’ paid annual leave each year; a number of paid student-free days; and a raft of other benefits not typically available to workers in other industries.

I’ve heard the argument that teachers take a lot of work home with them, and I am not unsympathetic. But so do plenty of people in other jobs, often earning a hell of a lot less than a teacher does.

My point is that I think teachers are more than adequately remunerated for what they do — the importance of teaching as a vocation not in any way subject to challenge here — but it is my firm contention that if the teachers’ unions want more, their focus must be on improved outcomes rather than increasing the fortunes (literally) of the collective.

This is a point that has been repeatedly made by Victoria’s education minister, Martin Dixon, although it applies to every jurisdiction in the country.

Dixon simply says that the government is happy in principle to pay the best teachers more money (and for the record, it’s a position I not only endorse heartily, but am also an advocate of).

He also says that what the government is not prepared to do is to embrace a position by which underperformers are rewarded at the same level as those who deserve and merit higher pay for the better outcomes they achieve and again, I can’t argue with him.

The VTF can, however, and does; it says that it cannot and will not agree to any resolution of the current dispute in which differential rates of pay (i.e. the productivity route by which the government seeks to reward better teachers) leave any of its members “straggling” or create different tiers of remuneration for its constituency, the members of which “all do the same job.”

I’ll concede that quantifying and scaling teacher outcomes on an equitable and reasonable basis is a difficult question, but it is one that needs to be addressed.

And if that means that the likes of the Victorian Teachers’ Federation needs to pull its head in — or have it kicked — then so be it.

For the past six years we have witnessed the spectacle of a federal Labor Party making even more noise about education than it historically has — and “education” is something the Labor Party has arrogated to itself as its own issue for a long time.

Yet reality has not matched its rhetoric; Kevin Rudd campaigned on an “Education Revolution” wielding a laptop computer, proclaiming it to be “the toolbox of the future.”

After more than five years in government Labor’s laptops have not been distributed to schools in any comprehensive manner, and its education “revolution” has manifested itself in the form of a series of largely useless structures strewn across school grounds throughout Australia.

Now, Julia Gillard wants to commit upwards of $9 billion to the school sector to fund the so-called Gonski reforms; it has been made abundantly clear that she expects state governments to fund this particular adventure, but I would ask, very simply: will these so-called reforms make one jot of difference to educational outcomes?

I doubt it.

And this brings me back to my opening remarks on the failing standard of teaching the English language, and my criticisms of the perpetrators of those failings.

I once dated a girl who was studying for a Diploma of Education; having offered to type her assignments for her, I was amazed to find the handwritten drafts not just unintelligible, but that she had extreme difficulty even explaining what they were intended to communicate.

Ultimately — after I spent many hours rewriting them — the two assignments in question earned her the highest pass level available to students in her course; it’s something I have regretted being responsible for ever since, and something I’m sure the Queensland University of Technology would be aghast at.

But I am not singling anyone out here — rather, the illustration highlights to my mind the probability that where one such example exists, there are bound to be many, many more.

The problem we face is that there is a great number of excellent teachers who are well worth the money they are paid (and, in fairness, probably deserve more if it’s affordable to pay them accordingly).

There is also a large contingent of “teachers” who shouldn’t even be in the education system: incoherent and unable to accurately communicate, these people are taking good money to turn out students inadequately equipped for real life in the traditional “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic.

I know I am focused on the language side of the ledger here; the English language is my forte, whilst I do not even pretend to amount to a mathematician’s bootlaces.

Even so, what I am talking about is alarming enough.

Many so-called educators argue that accuracy is unimportant; that provided graduates are able to convey meaning and effect communication, it shouldn’t matter about such niceties as spelling, or punctuation, or grammar.

In other words, sloppiness and mediocrity are not only acceptable, they should be aspired to in the name of so-called teachers being allowed to hide behind their own incompetence.

And everyone has heard the contemporary stereotype that “spell check” has rendered such considerations irrelevant.

That might — on one level — have some substance, were it not for the fact that spell checkers themselves now perpetuate incorrect and inaccurate executions of the English language; type “aging” and “judgment” into the spell checker on the latest version of Microsoft Word, and it won’t miss a beat: those bastardisations of the language are now stock issue, it seems.

It’s the latest INSTALMENT in the degradation of language; even then, many spell checkers will seek to change “instalment” to “installment,” because slovenly contemporary practice has seen the latter (incorrect) spelling supersede the former.

And fire up your Apple device…and watch the so-called auto-correct function change any permutation of the three letters “its” to “it’s.”

It’s enough to drive you nuts when the computer wants it’s (incorrect) version to prevail.

Closer to home — and returning to the media — words such as flavour, saviour, candour et al are not correct when the “u” is omitted, despite what whoever sets editorial policy might proclaim, or the pap spouted to justify it.

Readers will also note I referred earlier to BASTARDISATIONS of the language, not BASTARDIZATIONS: this is Australia, not the USA.

The buck has to stop somewhere for all of this.

Teachers, if they cannot communicate accurately or use the language correctly, cannot expect to have usurious sums of money thrown at them to reward a culture of error and mediocrity.

Government policy makers — be they conservatives or social democrats — have a responsibility to address this, be it through additional training, modifications to curriculum, or through evaluation metrics used to gauge teacher performance.

And the community at large has a responsibility to hold both entities to account rigorously, to ensure coming generations receive the level and quality of education to which they are entitled, and which the vast sums of public money expended on education must deliver.

The teacher unions have a role to play, and I need to be clear about that point.

But they are not entitled to demand that society rewards an education culture that delivers utter mediocrity in terms of outcomes, and they must never be allowed to elicit huge monetary stipends for individuals who, on balance, are too incompetent and/or illiterate to justify the stain they place on their vocation, merely by virtue of their presence.

Winston Churchill once opined that anyone who could not write a sentence in good English must have very little of interest to say.

Alas, I fear it’s not so much a case of having anything of interest to say, but of having the means with which to say it; and when it comes to educational outcomes, “near enough” simply isn’t good enough.

If governments of whatever stripe wish to embark on an education “revolution,” perhaps they could begin by getting the basics right.