Ha! So the hero of school autonomy in NSW, Mark McConville, Principal of Toronto High School has recanted   Principal backtracks over power shift plans – Metro & Regional – National – Education – Stock & Land..

Many of us watched the ABC Four Corners program, hosted by Kerry O’Brien, Revolution in the Classroom, where school autonomy was touted as the latest magic bullet.  McConville was used as the poster boy for this solution. 

What I most remember from watching this program was McConville’s boast that, thanks to the NSW School autonomy trial, he was able to ‘clean out’ his top leadership team and bring in a totally new team. No-one asked about the old team:

      why did he need to move them?

      had he tried to create a leadership team out of them?

      where did they end up?

      how did this event impact on their morale or the morale of the schools they ended up at.

Now he has changed his tune.  He has realized that this is a process of massive cost shifting, as the work now done by the Department of recruiting and appointing teachers is devolved to schools, along with the responsibility to manage budgets – possibly shrinking budgets

Back then he said that devolution gave him a chance to drive big reforms at his school –  reforms that are kicking goals.  Now he is saying that “the benefits for the school from the trials had been largely financial’.

Now he is saying

We don’t want to be saddled with the staffing budget, with the potential for cost-shifting and cost-cutting [from the department to schools]. And we don’t want to go from making educational decisions to making financial decisions.

All perfectly reasonable which is of course why there is industrial action. 

He also supports claims that have been made by many who have reviewed school autonomy in Victoria and elsewhere.  He admits that he would be hard-pressed to cite anything a school could do under the local authority reforms that it wasn’t already able to do, to a certain extent, already and that the only area where savings can be made is in staffing.

If any NSW principals were sitting on the fence on this matter, this view from the voice of experience should make them sit up and take notice.


Lock up your daughters: Will the National Curriculum address this kind of sexism?

This article Lock Up Your Daughters. written by Melissa on the PigtailPals website is one of a growing number of articles one can find searching through blogs and tweets written by inspiring young feminist mothers trying to bring up their children in a culture riddled with sexism and worrying portrayals about what it means to be a boy or a girl.

This one is unusual because 95 per cent of what I find in my travels through these writings are concerns about the construction of femininity – the princess pinkness, the secondary status, the focus on body size and looks and the sexualisation – and rightly so.  But we all know that gender is relational and there is a growing awareness of the ways in which the war and rape culture of hyper-masculinity is increasingly part of the messaging for quite young boys.

In this article Melissa tells the story of being given a black t-shirt with the message ‘Lock-up your daughters’ and a picture of a padlock.  She did not use it until one day when all other t-shirt options were exhausted, and she knew she was not leaving the house.  She later found herself face to face with another sweet young child wearing this same t-shirt in the supermarket and was hit over the head with the power and horror of the message:


“On someone else’s baby, it was so obvious to me why that shirt had always made me feel uneasy.

It promotes Rape Culture. I stood there horrified I had ever put that on my son. My beautiful son, who loves his mama and his big sis and whom I am trying to raise to be a man like his father: intelligent, kind, caring, respectful, and strong. The shirt sends the message that the boy will be out on the prowl, and your daughters are not safe around him as he looks for prey. Best lock them up. It sends the message that girls are responsible for preventing sexual assault, as opposed to, you know, boys being taught never to rape.

This shirt’s message as: If those girls don’t watch out, the fault is on them. They were fairly warned, their parents were told to lock them up. Don’t keep them under lock and key, they become fair game.

On a physical level, it is making a joke of sexual assault with the “boys will be boys” attitude. That in and of itself, the excusing of rape based on caddish behavior assumed to be natural to boys, is vile. On an emotional level, it is saying your daughter will be manipulated and used, just before the boy moves on to the next girl. What an awful message for both boys and girls to get.”

My questions – to principals, teachers, curriculum writers, education policy officers, regional directors, professional learning leaders and others – who influence what is taught and how, are: as follows.

  • How are preschools and schools at all levels supporting the growing number of parents who do not want to stand idly by and let the world of commerce and marketing influence children’s sense of who they are, what can be, and how they understand and relate to each other?
  • Will the new Australian National Curriculum give guidance and support for teachers on how to provide students with the knowledge, understanding and skills to interrogate, discuss and co-construct different narratives about being a boy or a girl growing up today?



Two D.C. school reform events, competing visions – D.C. Schools Insider – The Washington Post

The two Washington DC meetings described in this article  Two D.C. school reform events, competing visions – D.C. Schools Insider – The Washington Post. say it all.  In the one meeting we have the wealthy, the powerful sitting down to a silver service dinner with high profile speakers celebrating their successes in changing the educational landscape in the territory through their privatisation,choice and charters agenda.  They are doing this of course for the poor and dispossessed because they know best and they have millions of dollars behind them.

Note: For those readers not yet familiar with the agenda of a group of phanthropists that include The Walton Family, Eli Broad and Billl and Melinda Gates a useful starting point is Joanna Barkan’s article in Dissent, Winter 2011, called, Got Dough, How Billionaires rule our schools

Down the road we have the teachers, parents and activists in a spare meeting room.  They have come together out of a concern that the choice/charter trajectory will without intervention lead to a completely privatised autonomous school system and the death of the neighbourhood government school.

Just as I was reading this the mail arrived and it included a timely article by Adam Smith (Philanthropy and Schools – A Changing Paradigm, Education Review, May 2012) about philanthropy and schools in the Australian context.  Smith reminds us that the Gonski report (you remember that ?) recommended a larger role for philanthropy.

Now diehards like me are very gun-shy of anything that dilutes the clear responsibility of government to provide, for every citizen, no matter how rich or poor, a high quality education with opportunities for progress for all.  I have a fear that the more philanthropy puts in, the more Governments can retreat – this sort of funding is highly fungible and hard to keep track of.  I also have concerns about the possible undue interest and influence of large corporations who we did not vote for and can not vote out.

But Smith is more optimistic that there is an important role for philanthropy in schools and he has form in this space – good form – through a number of ventures including a role in the development of the NAB-FYA Schools First Program.  His article lays out the ground rules for philanthropic engagement which if heeded could help to avoid the kind of problems that are taking place in the US.

Perhaps we need a set of protocols for the philanthropy sector wishing to work with Australian schools, protocols that could help to mitigate the risk of the kind of ideological agendas being  prosecuted so aggressively and so successfully in the US

Views anyone?

The results are in! There’s too much testing. « Rethinking Schools Blog



This blog post    The results are in! There’s too much testing. « Rethinking Schools Blog. on the wonderful US based Rethinking Schools blogsite creates a snapshot of all the ‘push-backs’ to the high stakes testing regime and associated reforms of NCLB and RTT legislation.  The list includes the widespread and growing opting out  by school districts across the state of Texas – the leader in test based accountability and the model for NCLB –  plus a growing non-cooperation movement by parents and students  including the aptly titled “Pencils Down” campaign.

Now these are the sorts of ‘push-backs’ that make the news, but this posts also mentions a range of other activities that do not tend to get the same attention.  These include people and/or organisations coming together to form a commission to investigate matters and advise on better policy options, the development of joint open letters to Obama, the preparation of manifestos as an organising tool and so on.

As we all know, the testing and accountability disease spread from the US to Australia and, on reading this piece, I started to wonder about whether its growing opposition movement might impact here too and whether we could help it along a bit.

In Australia the weight of educationally informed opinion is clearly against using the NAPLAN results to imply something about schools at the individual school level. These include experts in the field of assessment and testing, parents groups, researchers, teachers associations and unions, principals and policy makers.  Yet at the height of the controversy around NAPLAN testing and MySchool one could be forgiven for thinking that the issue was a teacher’s union issue alone.  It is not, of course, but they were the ones who threatened to boycott the tests, and the media singled them out as ‘the opposition’ on this matter.

I have yet to see a well reasoned Australian based manifesto or committee report that clearly sets out the arguments against the current approach to NAPLAN reporting in my school and outlines a more intelligent approach to school AND system accountability and improvement.  I am using the terms manifesto or committee report here to imply a statement that has endorsement from a group of people or organisations.  I  have of course seen many excellent papers outlining the technical  problems with how we use NAPLAN and many papers about the potential negative impacts, particularly on low SES, struggling schools.  But these have been prepared by a single person or body. Having a document that represents the considered thinking of a broad coalition of people and organisations is quite different.  It could certainly be done and then this could be a document individuals and organisations could sign on to, and or use to inform parents and other stakeholders .

This is a very common way in which opposition to poor public policy is addressed in the US context and our failure to use these kinds of tools puzzles me.  Are we content to each do our own small thing in isolation? Are we more individualistic that the Americans?  Is this something worth addressing?  Or do we need something really dreadful,  akin to the Victorian cuts to TAFE budgets, to galvanise us?

I would dearly love to see concerned Australians – as individuals or as representatives of associations or organisations, with an interest in supporting schools to be the best they could be, agreeing to come together – online or face to face – in order to develop a new education assessment and accountability strategy.  Such a strategy could include a realistic pathway forward for Australia that shows how over time we could replace NAPLAN with quality controlled and carefully developed banks of authentic assessment items – aligned to the national curriculum standards and able to be implemented by teachers as part of their assessment for learning program.

Am I a unrealistic dreamer?  I hope not.

Writing for Justice – Persuasion from the Inside Out

Writing for Justice – Persuasion from the Inside Out

I highly recommend this article by Mark Hansen because it doesn’t just talk about how to engage students in issues related to social justice.  This teacher has thought hard about how to connect the sense of passion students feel when thinking about social issues to their communication / writing / school work.

Hansen shows that this sort of work requires careful thinking  and a period of time to develop the connections between social justice and students as actors in their families and communities.

Class size and the Ben Jensen Effect-back on the agenda yet again

Post script to this article:  I wrote an article in 2010 in response to a highly publicised paper by Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute.  The paper argued that smaller class sizes do not bring returns on investment. I am providing a link to it here because the recently released Productivity Report into the School Workforce has stated that investing in class size reduction is a poor educational investment.  And the person quoted – why Ben Jensen of course.

Yet the report also supports greater school autonomy.  These two things are connected because in a schooling system so heavily influenced by parent choice rhetoric, schools seeking to market themselves to ‘desirable enrollments’ (e.g. mobile middle class parents) will almost certainly do what it takes to keep their average class size trending down or static but not up.  Class size for the middle class and well off may not be the best  investment for these groups but try to convince the parents who can vote with their feet.

Meanwhile this anti-small-class-size rhetoric will hurt most those schools at the bottom of the heap, who can’t compete in the market place for desirable families.  Yet these schools have large number of  students who need more intense support and the lowest teacher student ratios

The other well known critic of investing in smaller class sizes is John Hattie, author of Visible Learning.  I have spent some time trying to make sense of his position and the best that I can offer is that he is frustrated that reductions in class size are not accompanied by changes in teaching practice.  And changes to teaching practices towards strategies that have the most educational impact  should be the focus of reforms.

While I agree and share his frustration I also think it needs to be said that when teaching a class with large concentrations of disadvantaged children who start school without the pre literate skills of other children and who face multiple problems in their lives, a smaller class size is one very significant way to support teachers to personalize learning and provide high quality learning related feedback to each and every child.

Margaret Clark, Jensen’s class size claims need to be unpacked, ACE Notepad, Dec 2010


The paper looks at

  • Why Jensen’s paper created such a high level of media attention given that this is a well established position and no new information was provided
  • The details of his claims

This paper also looks at the detail behind the high level data and shows that there are complex movements in student teacher ratios across the education levels and sectors that are glossed over with high level data. These tell some interesting stories.

  • the major factor that contributed to the increase in school funding in was untied funding to the non Government school sector
  • where there has been a steady decrease in the teacher student ratio this did not necessarily mean that there were large reductions in class size across the board.  They also include literacy  supports in schools, remedial interventions and so on.
  • the independent school sector  has been the outstanding leader in the declining teacher student ratio – probably enabled by the generous Commonwealth funding provisions.
  • their lead in this almost certainly led to some pressure on other sectors – after all the policy context constructed by parent choice logics was one of competition and marketing
  • the changes in teacher student ratio in secondary Government schools has been almost negligible

The paper also looks at the case for the reduction in teacher student ratio especially for low SES schools

 It concludes that

We are not asking health services to choose between preventive health measures and high cost services to the aged.  A rational logic might suggest one brings larger social benefits than the other.  Why are influential researchers who have explicitly supported both the economic and the social benefits of schooling developing arguments within this either or logic?

We don’t have to choose in such a narrow way.  The key argument that investing in teacher capacity aught to be of the highest policy and funding priority does not depend on driving a wedge through the professional education community to be effective.  In fact I would go so far as to argue that  the key response to Jensen’s paper has been around his dismissal of class size   and his other very important arguments around investing in teacher capacity have been almost ignored.

The relative efficacy of class size reduction is in reality an argument based on an economic analysis about comparative returns on investment and one clear fact about class size reduction is that it is expensive if carried out on a student population basis.

But needs based funding provides opportunities for targeted reductions – for increasing early intervention for small groups or individuals. I would have liked to have seen Jensen take a more inclusive approach to his economic forensics and look more closely at the research evidence in contexts of high need.

…  Reductions in class size do not even rate a mention on the education revolution agenda but there are plenty of other policies with no evidence of a return on investment – or even a negative return.  Perhaps in his next paper Jensen could turn his mind to the evidence base for the return on investment of some of these other policies, such as one-off payments to the top 10% of teachers on some as yet unspecified basis, or the relative benefits of parent refunds for school uniforms, or the relative educational benefits of the increasing the social segregation of schools.


No Gerard, Schooling is not part of the social safety net: It is a PUBLIC GOOD!

When Tim Hawkes, Principal of The Kings School, proposed that the well off middle class who choose to send their children to government schools should pay extra for doing so, I, like many, shrugged and thought, ‘typical’ .

But now that both Gerard Henderson, Director of the Sydney Institute, (SMH, “Well off get a free ride from tax payer for children’s education,” 20 March 2012) and emeritus professor Don Watts, the former Vice chancellor of both Curtin and Bond universities (Education Review March 2012) have joined the chorus I think it is time that we had this issue out.

Education in the compulsory years is set up to be exactly that – compulsory – the democratic right of every child. In fact it is one of the few services provided by Government that is defined as compulsory regardless of circumstances. In a recent speech to the Sydney Institute, Minister Garrett makes a similar point ‘School education is unique in public policy terms because it reaches into every household in a way that is manifestly different from other forms of Government’

It is compulsory because the people, through their Government, commit to the goal of universal quality education, not just as an individual market good, but as an essential social or public good – in the public interest. This is because the benefits of education to each individual aggregate to strengthen communities, the polity and workplaces. That is to say the universal provision of a comprehensive, sequenced, quality exposure to knowledge, understandings, values and experiences is provided in order equip all future citizens, workers, parents, and community members to contribute to our social democracy and our economy.

As early as 1869 Henry Parkes articulated this vision

 …We are endeavouring to supply the means of sound instruction to those who, in a very few years, are to constitute the strength of the country…a Public school system in any country is an essential part of its institutions in the large sense ofgovernment politics.
It is part of the policy of the country. It is part of the intention and action of the Government; part of the very life of constituted authority.

He went on to say that, Whatever may be our form of Government … Let us by every means in our power take care that the children of the country grow up under such a sound and enlightened system of instruction, that they will consider the dearest of all possessions the free exercise of their own judgment in the secular affairs of life, and that each man will shrink from being subservient to any other man or earthly power.

My father was a passionate educator and so I imbibed this understanding – in a way that I often take for granted. But I do think it is widely accepted. This is why, at first, I did not think this middle class fee proposal merited a response. I assumed that it would be dismissed by most and I also assessed that implementing it would be very tricky. Would Australians stand idly by when families who refused to pay the fees are penalised? How can you make individual parents pay for something that they are required to have and that is in everyone’s interest? The reality is that all taxpayers benefit from a good school system not just individual parents.

But I am now convinced that responding to this sort of talk matters- it demands a robust critique.

It matters because pushing well-off families out of the public sector would lead to higher concentrations of disadvantage in government schools and we already know that schools with high concentration of the poor do worse even when controlling for the effect of the individual student demographics. And remember that this could be the impact even if the Government did not try and implement the policy. It would just require this idea to become part of the populist rhetoric.

It matters because, any further movement of the middle class out of the public system could lead to reduced government expenditure and reduced services in government schools because of the loss of articulate voices in support of public education.

It matters because, if schooling comes to be seen solely as a private good, we are really looking at a very grim social vision – a pre industrial vision. A vision that is incompatible with the whole enterprise of Australian nationhood. It matters because this kind of thinking takes us even further down the neoliberal market model of schooling.

We are already global outliers in this respect. For there would be almost no other comparably developed country in the world where this statement would be considered as anything but extreme neoconservative babble – even in the US. Our funding regime for Government and non-Government schools is highly irregular in global terms. Australia sits around the middle of OECD countries ranked in terms of per capita investment in schooling. But this obscures the bifurcated elements of the funding relative to other countries. Our funding to Government schools is very near the bottom, at third lowest. But our funding to the non-Government system is near the top of the list, at fourth highest. But this uniqueness is not apparent to most of us – our set up is the water we swim in.

This has led to some confused understandings. For example, the idea that the Government and non-Government systems are just different streams of the same set up is widespread. Schools are part of markets and you can choose A or B.

However, they are not separate but equal because the Government schools system is available and open to all comers – it is the default system. Garrett makes this clear in the Sydney Institute speech “Government schools provide access for all students irrespective of personal circumstance and remain the backbone of our education system. They educate the majority of Australian students and do most of the heavy lifting.” When Lyndsay Connors delivered the 2010 Henry Parkes Oration she used a biological metaphor to describe the nature of the public system (in the context of universal, compulsory schooling) as the ‘host organism’. This was because, she argued, public schools do not require the existence of private schools to be able to operate; whereas, non-government schooling, as currently constituted in Australia, is only viable because of the existence of the public schools that are open to all and, in this sense, it exists in a parasitical relationship with the host. This analogy was not used to make a moral point but to make the important and unassailable argument that the future health of the public school system is the key to the health of the school system as a whole.

There are also those who do see the two systems as separate but not equal and this slides into seeing the Government system as the social safety net for all who cannot afford to, or won’t make the ‘quality choice’. Henderson implies this when he castigates journalists for failing to apply their middle class welfare critique to schools. Needless to say those who see the schooling system in this way would not expect the social safety net ‘product’ to be funded to deliver a high quality education – adequate is the term I have often heard used.

It matters because we have already seen how this kind of market-based justification can be used to undermine an important government service. Many readers will remember that during the Howard years we were exhorted to be responsible citizens and to purchase private health cover. To persuade us to ‘make this choice’ the Government implemented an age based penalty system for everyone over the age of 30 who did not have private health cover.

Now to my shame and puzzlement I complied – out of fear I suspect. Nobody wants to find himself or herself at the mercy of an uncaring system as one ages. But in part my compliance was a response to a very loud silence – there was very little in the way of protest against this new policy direction. You see the justification for this policy was, ‘if you can afford it, you should not impose yourself on the public system, because these services can’t cope. You should use the non-public system or pay extra’.

This sort of logic, if it not interrogated, sounds intuitively sensible. But it ignores so much. There SHOULD have been outrage in response to this because it stripped away the fundamentals of the hard fought for National Universal Healthcare System. And yet when, in the 70s, the LNP made its first attempt to undermine the National Healthcare System there was a general strike and the Government had to cave in. So what happened between 1976 and 1996?

I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I do believe that in the 90s we lost a sense of something that is very important. We are not a bunch of individuals connected to each other only through the market and differentiated from each other only by our differentiated capacity to pay.

We need to respond vigorously to this kind of talk and to hold our Commonwealth government to account for staying true to the legacy of our founders by ensuring that in all its dealings with schooling, the primary obligation of the Commonwealth is to maintain and safeguard strong and socially representative public school systems that are of the highest standard and are open, without fees or religious tests, to all children and young people.

Henderson rails about the fact that the concept of free education is so ingrained in the Australian national psyche that it is rarely, if ever, challenged. I celebrate it and will continue to defend it. For as Garrett says, ‘if we are to have a productive, prosperous and sustainable future, it will be built on the capacity of our people’. And a nation’s capacity building starts with schooling.