Mr PYNE: Please answer the bloody questions!

What a great job Jane Caro is doing trying to examine and counter the guts of Christopher Pyne’s arguments . This article: Pyne Picks The Easy Target On Schools | does a great job of  setting out Pynes rationale clearly  so it can be held up to examination.

If Jane is right (and, unlike me, she has had the dubious pleasure of direct engagement with Pyne) he believes that:  (if I might paraphrase)

There is no education equity problem in Australia and the differentiated learning outcomes (up to 3 years between students from high SES and students from very low SES schools) doesn’t mean there is inequity at all.  What it means is that

  • the teachers in these schools are bad teachers and should have been dismissed
  • Principals don’t have enough autonomy
  • teachers do not have enough independence
  • parental involvement in these schools needs to be improved as do governing councils for schools.

Now having laid this out – using Pyne’s own individualistic lens on schools Caro addresses each and every point.

I am motivated to write this article not because I don’t support Caro’s excellent analysis but because, in addition to her points there are some other powerful arguments that could – no should – be part of this hard-to-have debate.  So here I am summarising some of  Caro’s arguments and, in the best tradition of  building on the ideas of others, adding a few that I also think need an airing

Caro paraphrased:  The idea that all the worst teachers have somehow ended up concentrated in all the disadvantaged schools is just too quirky to be believable.

On the other hand , what if Pyne was correct?  Wouldn’t this prove that we had gross education inequity because all the bad teachers had been sent to all the poor schools?  How outrageous.  How dare he say this and not admit there is an equity issue!

In fact, I have been pushing for greater transparency around the distribution of neophyte and high quality teachers for years because it is true that  poor schools are hard-to-staff schools.  This doesnt mean the teachers in these schools are bad teachers – not at all.  But it may mean that the staff team is made up of a high proportion of brand new teachers who are still learning to some extent  and should be given lots of support and development.  I know of schools in the NT where over 80% of teachers were new to teaching – the best principal in the world would struggle to support all these new teachers to the level that is needed.  Hard-to-staff poor schools are also more likely to have high teacher turnover and, as Caro notes, principals who are new to level.

So if I were having this debate with Pyne I would be more inclined to say:

Low SES school outcomes may well be impacted by the fact that they have a higher ratio of inexperienced teachers,  neophyte principals and higher that usual turnover and this must be addressed through greater support.  This is an equity issue – it is about equal opportunity to learn.  School autonomy is highly likely to make this worse not better.  Systems should be held accountable  for ensuring that all school have access to a rich mix of teachers and a stable staff team – a mix that includes a fair share of those that are more experienced and capable.  Now we have professional standards for teachers with advanced teacher status – it would be possible to monitor this

Caro’s Response: Parents who are themselves products of unequal schooling, who are struggling and time poor and who are lacking in school valued social capital can never contribute to schools in the same way that parents at the other end of the spectrum can – education is meant to compensate for home background, give access to socially powerful knowledge beyond the access of all families not be limited by it.

Now to be fair Caro says this much better than I have here without the insidious overtones of unintended classism.  I strongly agree with Caro on this matter, but I would also be bursting to say to Pyne:

“But the decade plus long years of overfunding for non government schools and the unfettered promotion of parent choice has created the situation where, in many school communities, most of the families with the school valued social capital, the time, and the  confidence to participate  effectively in school decision making have taken their children out.

You have endorsed policies that have created this segregated unequal playng field and now you are telling parents it is up to them.  Universal compulsory secular schooling was set up by Australian federation visionaries to oversome this difference not to reinforce it.

By admitting that parents in these schools don’t do for the school and their children what parents in rich schools do you are admitting that your pro-choice policies have created inequality in the ability of the parent community to add value”.

So I have this little  discussion in my head , chuffed that I have shown Pyne how even his own arguments demonstrate school inequality.  But then I stop.

Who am I kidding?  You see trying to have a rational argument with Pyne is like trying to nail jelly to the wall!

Those who watched Pyne on Q and A , might have noted that every time someone tried to get him to acknowledge something that was obvious he used sleight of hand techniques to avoid responding.  When asked about Gonski he said – its not about money but his whole position is about money – not for low SES schools but about maintaining monetary privilege for the high SES schools.

He doesn’t engage in logical debate and I don’t know how one can have a meaningful discussion when someone refuses to address the arguments put to him.

But I really really would like to know what Pyne might say – if able to stick to topic- to this argument:

“Mr Pyne, you say that the cost of implementing Gonski is not $5 billion, and not $6.5 billion, but $113 billion.  This must mean that in order to apply the resource standard and the equity resource weightings we need an additional $113 billion.  This must mean that the funding inequities are much much worse than even Gonski protagonists realise.

In fact according to your figures things are SO UNEQUAL that we will never never ever be able to afford to use Government funds to provide Government schools with the funds that match – in funding weighted for equity – the level of government  funding available to non Government schools.  So how is this not a grave and urgent equity problem?


Indigenous education report misses the big picture

It was wonderful to see a high quality well informed response to Helen and Mark Hughes latest missive about education failure in the NT.

 The Article Indigenous education report misses the big picture by Bill Fogarty from ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies is a worthy contribution to the debate on this important wicked issue.

 It is important that the highly publicized work of Hughes and Hughes be countered.   Now I know that they are very committed to Indigneous education outcomes and I don’t for a minute want to imply anything less in terms of their motivation but having read their reports over the years  I have been struck by the fact that they consistently get it half right. 

 The poor outcomes and the poor education infrastructure and services tends to be the bit that they get right but the report wonders into simplistic demagoguery when they get to saying who is to blame.  And over the years this has varied.  Once upon a time it was post modernism and bilingual education but they can hardly argue this now.  Then it was land rights but even that has been changed in very significant ways.  Now it is teacher quality, school failure and pretend jobs.

 Fogarty reminds us that there is a whole field of international research  on the social determinants of education failure  and that we should look to this to guide the questions we bring to this problem 

He reminds us that:

“the daily routine of school in remote communities takes place against depressingly high rates of unemployment, early mortality, poor health, violence, crime, substance abuse and youth self harm and suicide.

Any consideration of education in remote regions of places like the Northern Territory must recognise the relationship between levels of attainment and poverty, health, housing, access to government services, infrastructure and socio-economic status.

These factors are not excuses for poor outcomes. They combine to constitute the reality within which teachers, students and parents battle every day to raise literacy and numeracy standards.”

But he also suggests that we can do better and shines a light on some clear areas of policy failure.  His pick of examples include

  • the very high untreated and unidentified hearing loss issues among remote Indigenous children
  • the under-spend – current and historical – in remote Indigenous schools
  • the impact of inappropriate NAPLN testing in Remote Indigenous schools
  • the failure of NT to apply the funds it receives from the Commonwealth Grants Commission for overcoming disadvantage for this purpose

 I agree with this list.  I would add

  • the serious long term underinvestment in housing which has resulted in average people per 3 bedroom housing rations of over 15 in many communities – how do kids do homework in such a setting?  The current investments only start to make inroads on the years of neglect.  even after new houses are built there will continue to be chronic over-crowding
  • the lack of enough well trained ESL teachers in remote schools – something that is being addressed
  • the lack of preparedness of teachers for the reality of remote schooling – and the subsequent high turnover rates which have a devastating impact on students (this is also being addressed) 
  • the lack of well designed adult literacy programs; and
  • the betrayal of the trust of communities across  the NT when after negotiating Remote school-Community  Partnership Agreements with many communities the government turned away from bilingual education – the centerpiece of many of these agreements.

One of the reasons for the historical and current under-spend in schooling is that the NT continues to fund schools on the basis of enrollment figures modified by attendance.   This is in my view a form of indirect discrimination because only remote Indigenous communities have attendance rates low enough to drastically reduce the number of teachers allocated. 

But a 65% attendance rate does not mean that only 65% of enrolled students attend.  All students attend but very few come every day of the week  (around 20-30%).  The rest attend intermittently.  So funding by attendance means that a teacher would end up with quite a large group of students on their class roll even if on average there were only 20 or so per day.  But they still have to plan for and teach all the students in the group.  Teaching students that attend irregularly is hard enough but teaching more than you would have to in a Darwin school is just plain unacceptable.

The implementation of NAPLAN tests for year 3 students in remote Indigenous communities is a tragic farce.  In most of these communities the only time students hear standard Australian English spoken is in the formal classroom.  By year 3 they are no most capable of being tested in English language written literacy that all the newly arrived non-English background migrants that are exempted in other states.  It is about tike there was a united push to abolish this useless practice and concentrate instead on developing and assessing children’s growing English language oracy.

Fogarty argues that the solutions to this challenge will necessarily be long term but that they should include redressing the historic under-investment and “finally, demand real commitment from all levels of government for all Indigenous students”.

I agree that this must be part of the solution but I am afraid I see no evidence of any focus on this matter.  In fact the historic changes to commonwealth state funding arrangements conducted under the auspices of COAG committed parties to ignoring financial input based reporting in order to focus on the main game of outcomes.  But I am afraid that in the case of the NT this was a seriously flawed backward step.

 Any medium to senior level public servant in the NT will tell you off the record that ‘there are no votes in Indigenous issues’ in the NT.  Until this is acknowledged and addressed I am afraid we will still be having these pointless blame game arguments in 20 years or even more.  And that is shameful.

Source: Indigenous education report misses the big picture.