Kevin Donnelly thinks that Fabianism is a dirty word.

 

We’ve put up with absolute rubbish from Kevin Donnelly for too long.  It’s time to look at his claims without the emotion and invective

In his latest rant, in The Australian, called, “Education saviour is pulling too many levers[1]”, Donnelly makes the following claims.

1.        Julia Gillard “in a desperate attempt” is going to use education as her lever to stay in power

Sadly, and a little reluctantly, I share concerns about the growing centrality of education in the future election debate.  Although chances are slim, I am pinning my hopes on progress on implementing the key components of the Gonski reforms prior to the election to the extent that they cannot easily be rolled back. 

The temptation to use it the Gonski implementation plan as an election carrot will not save the ALP but it will cost public schools dearly.

2.        Billions have been wasted on the Building the Education Revolution program that forced off-the-shelf, centrally mandated infrastructure on schools with little, if any, educational benefit;

Donnelly clearly has not read the ANAO Audit report into the BER[2], because it concludes that where there were poor decisions and centralized rollouts the culprits were state Governments not the Commonwealth and that to some extent this was inevitable given the justifiable time constraints.  May I also remind him that this was a GFC response first and foremost not an education initiative? The audit report makes this clear:

The Government decided on school based infrastructure spending because it had a number of elements that supported stimulus objectives

It also notes that:

The objectives of the BER program are, first, to provide economic stimulus through the rapid construction and refurbishment of school infrastructure and, second, to build learning environments to help children, families and communities participate in activities that will support achievement, develop learning potential and bring communities together[3]

For many schools the capital works were a godsend because the new hall or learning space gave them the capacity to do the thing that Donnelly most encourages – use new space to increase local innovative solutions to education challenges.  Indeed the audit report noted that over 95% of principals that responded to the ANAO survey indicated that the program provided something of ongoing value to their school and school community.[4]

3.        The computers in schools program delivered thousands and thousands of now out-of-date computers that schools can ill-afford to maintain or update.

I am not one to argue that ICT is the magic bullet answer to everything about teaching and learning in our schools.  However I am convinced that with well-informed computer literate teachers, who are also good teachers in the broader sense, students can only benefit.  I also acknowledge that a high level of computer literacy is now a core area of learning.   To achieve this even “out of currency” computer hardware will be better than no computers

Any ICT hardware rollout will result in out-of-date computers and a maintenance/update impost.  But the state of ICT infrastructure in our schools desperately needed to be addressed.  Is Donnelly really arguing that schools that do not have enough in their budgets to manage the whole-of-life costs of having computers should go without?  I wonder which schools these might be?

 

4.        Julia Gillard’s data fetish is forcing a centralised and inflexible accountability regime on schools, government and non-government, that is imposing a command and control regime on classrooms across the nation.

There is no doubt that we could benefit from a better accountability and reporting regime  – for all schools. So this is one of the few areas where Donnelly and I have aligned concerns but possibly for different reasons. I continue to believe that the changes to the original intention of NAPLAN testing has been disastrous for some Australian schools – but possibly not the ones dear to Donnelly’s heart. 

The reporting of NAPLAN results at the school level has, almost certainly, distorted what is taught in schools[5].  This is especially the case in schools where students struggle – our highly concentrated low SES schools.  It has also contributed to the residualisation of the public school system.  And we now have evidence that when the middle class students are leached out of public schools, public school students loose out in lots of ways.  For example they lose out because of the loss of articulate and ‘entitled’ parent advocates for the needs of the schools.  But they also lose out because each middle class child is actually a resource.  That is their existence in the class enhances the learning of all students in that class.[6]

Donnelly, on the other hand, appears to be more concerned that non-Government schools are now under the same reporting obligations as government schools.  I know of no other area of Commonwealth funding that was not expected to provide a defined level of accountability and reporting.   This anomaly was way overdue. 

5.        The Gillard-inspired national curriculum, instead of embracing rigorous, academic standards, is awash with progressive fads such as child-centred, inquiry-based learning, all taught through a politically correct prism involving indigenous, Asian and environmental perspectives.

Donnelly appears to have a short memory on this matter.  The national curriculum effort was kicked off by the previous Howard Government – and that is why History was singled out above other social science disciplines. 

Perhaps Donnelly has not read the national curriculum? If he had he would know that it is just a sequence and scoping exercise and does not address pedagogy at all.  Donnelly has had a bee in his bonnet for years about so called ‘progressive fads’ based on nothing more than sheer ignorance.  And as for the cross curriculum perspectives – these came out of extensive consultation and negotiation and were not imposed by the Gillard Government.  While there are unfortunately many examples of Commonwealth overreach, the cross-curricular perspectives are not examples.

6.        Even though the Commonwealth Government neither manages any schools nor employs any teachers, Gillard is making it a condition of funding that every school across Australia must implement Canberra’s (sic) National Plan for School Improvement.

This is another area where, to some extent, I do agree with Donnelly but for very different reasons. 

My position is that the National Plan for School Improvement is Commonwealth overreach that was unnecessary and risky because it could have put the Gonski implementation at risk.

The National Plan for School Improvement was unnecessary because, all education systems throughout the country already had some form of school improvement planning and annual reporting, and had begun to share good practice through the National Partnership process.  It was also unnecessary because it foolishly cut across the more informed and consultative process being undertaken by AITSL to grow the teacher performance feedback and improvement process in collaboration with the various teaching institutes around Australia.  This process had a strong emphasis on supporting teacher development and self-reflection based on well-supported peer, supervisor and student feedback.  The Commonwealth initiative has recast the whole process into a high stakes, external reporting context that will be much less useful and teacher friendly.  This is a pity.  AITSL’s work should not have been distorted in this manner.

It was, and is, risky as some states seized on the obligations of the Plan as the rationale to push back on the Gonski reforms.  Tying the two together  was poor strategy, in light of the importance of implementing Gonski between now and September 2013.

Donnelly’s objection to the Plan appears to be that is is imposed on the non Government sectors that should, according to Donnelly, be able to receive significant levels of Commonwealth funding with no accountability?.   It’s the imposts he objects to, not their design elements.

7.        Research here and overseas proves that the most effective way to strengthen schools, raise standards and assist teachers is to embrace diversity, autonomy and choice in education. The solution lies in less government interference and micro-management, not more.

I am afraid that Donnelly’s claims that autonomy and choice is the best way to strengthen schools does not have a shred of evidence.  I, and others, have written about the autonomy claims[7] and there is now solid international evidence confirming that market models of education choice are disastrous for education equity and therefore for education overall[8].

8.        Autonomy in education helps to explain why Catholic and independent schools, on the whole, outperform government schools.

There is now enduring evidence that the differences in school outcomes are overwhelmingly connected with student demography and not schooling system.  When SES is taken into account the non Government systems do not perform any better at all.  The very detailed research undertaken by Richard Teese[9] in the context of the Gonski Review process concluded that:

Using NAPLAN data, the paper shows that public schools work as well or better than private schools (including Catholic schools).  This finding echoes the results of PISA 2009 that, after adjustment for intakes, public schools are as successful as private schools

9.        Gillard’s plan for increased government regulation and control and a one size fits all, lowest common denominator approach is fabianism and based on the socialist ideal of equality of outcomes.

Now this is the strangest claim of all.  Here Donnelly uses fabianism as a slur and it is not the first time he has taken this tack.  However it is a term so quaint, so rarely used, that this tactic may well pass unnoticed.  In fact in order to find a useful definition I had to go back to 1932 to an essay by GDH Cole[10].  Cole’s explanation is interesting given the implied nastiness of fabianism:

Whereas Marxism looked to the creation of socialism by revolution based on the increasing misery of the working class and the breakdown of capitalism through its inability to solve the problem of distribution, Webb argued that the economic position of the workers had improved in the nineteenth century, was still improving and might be expected to continue to improve. He regarded the social reforms of the nineteenth century (e.g. factory acts, mines acts, housing acts, education acts) as the beginnings of socialism within the framework of capitalist society. He saw legislation about wages, hours and conditions of labor, and progressive taxation of capitalist incomes as means for the more equitable distribution of wealth; …

And

The Fabians are essentially rationalists, seeking to convince men by logical argument that socialism is desirable and offering their arguments to all men without regard to the classes to which they belong. They seem to believe that if only they can demonstrate that socialism will make for greater efficiency and a greater sum of human happiness the demonstration is bound to prevail. 

So our progressive tax system, our Fair Work Australia, our transfer payments to those in poverty, our national health system, our public education system, our welfare safety net, our superannuation minimums – these are all examples of fabianism at work, not because fabianism is a secret sect with mal intent as implied by Donnelly but because we have come to see the benefits of a strong cohesive society where the wealth of the country is not enjoyed by the few while the majority slave in misery. 

What’s so bad about our proud achievements Donnelly?  I for one want to keep moving in this direction and for me implementing the Gonski reform is the essential next step in schooling policy.

10.     Tony Abbott’s view of education, is based on diversity and choice where schools are empowered to manage their own affairs free from over regulation and constraint.

It is interesting that Donnelly thinks he knows what Tony Abbott’s view of education is, because I suspect most of us remain unclear on this matter.  Abbott has said on one occasion that more funding should go to Independent schools – an astonishing claim given our profile relative to all other countries.  His shadow Minister has said a bit more but his statement that we should go back to didactic teaching (like when he was a boy) does not imply a commitment to allowing schools to manage their own affairs to me.  But maybe he only means that this is what Government schools should do.  That would probably be OK according Kevin Donnelly’s view of the world.


[3] Ibid P 8

[4] Ibid P 26

[5] A useful, research article about this is the submission prepared by Dr Greg Thompson in response to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Australian Education Bill 2012 – Submission no. 16 available at this URL http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=ee/auseducation/subs.htm

[6]The best explanation for the important of ‘ other student affect’ on student learning is from an unpublished paper by Chris Bonner where he notes that “the way this resource of students is distributed between schools really matters. Regardless of their own Socio-economic background, students attending schools in which  the average socio economic background is high tent to perform better that if they are enrolled in a school with below Socio-economic intake

 

 

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