John Hewson
Flat-earth politics

One of the most disappointing aspects of our recent politics – at a tremendous cost to our national interest and wellbeing – has been the treatment of education as something of a political football. Such a fundamentally important policy area has been basically neglected, ignoring the reality of the system’s failures and the magnitude and urgency of the challenge to “fix it”.

The outcomes have been most disturbing. Our schools have slid down global league tables in academic performance. The latest data I have seen suggests we rank about 16th in reading, 17th in science and 29th in maths. Our universities are mostly in serious decline, having lost much of their funding under the impact of the pandemic.

Back in 2007, Kevin Rudd promised an “education revolution”, including a specific commitment to give every high-school student a laptop. This failed in its implementation. Few schools had the power to run classrooms full of laptops, nor were the teachers adequately trained to run such classes.

Julia Gillard promised to raise teaching standards and performance, and both Rudd and Gillard supported the Gonski recommendations to address the inequity in school funding, in particular to address disadvantage in regard to funding schools in low socioeconomic areas and with personal student disadvantages.

Despite the enormous work of the Gonski review, its implementation was derailed by self-interest and a lack of forward thinking. One of the most disturbing features was that groups such as the Catholic system were given the money to allocate to their schools. In some cases this was not allocated on the basis of disadvantage. Only some of the money actually went to those most in need. Overall, governments knew little of how the money was actually being spent.

In New South Wales, where I am associated with the program Learning Ground in schools, the situation is now reaching crisis proportions. Teachers are basically exhausted, struggling out of the pandemic and the associated lockdowns. They are also forced to meet the administrative demands of the Department of Education, which requires them to report on all students and the full implementation of the curriculum. Relationships with school principals are strained. Morale is low. Teacher shortages are very real. Many are thinking of quitting or seeking early retirement. The recent teacher strikes have reflected their discontent in being offered low pay for doing more work. The differences in the funding of private and public schools have become more conspicuous.

Students are anxious, uncertain and many are depressed. There are examples of bad student behaviour, with declining or no interest in attending school, low self-esteem and little sense of belonging. There is evidence of sometimes severe mental illnesses, some leading to self-harm. Even though schools may have resident psychologists, counsellors and social workers, they are often poorly trained, inexperienced and under-resourced, and unable to deal with the behaviour and circumstances with which they are confronted.

In some cases the responses are very last-century, falling well short of what is required for present-day circumstances. The answer is not more and more discipline, suspensions, even expulsions; rather, there is a clear need for programs to raise student self-esteem and promote a sense of self-worth, belonging and wellbeing.

This will require professional learning and retraining programs for teachers, with skills for working with at-risk youth. Teachers have been wanting and asking for such training and professional development for some time.

All up, there is the real danger, if these circumstances continue to be neglected and are left to drift, of a lost generation in schooling children. It is time for a serious rethink of the nature of the challenges and the likely most effective responses.

Peter Dutton has recently announced he intends to make education a defining issue for his rebuild and reset of the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, his focus is completely ignorant of the challenges faced by both teachers and students. It is very narrow, promising to redraft the national curriculum. The model he seems to be proposing mirrors the United States’ Republican strategy. He is attempting a soft adaptation of right-wing American thinking on values, culture, race and gender wars, and the like. His News Corp mates have latched onto the opportunity to excise “woke issues” from the curriculum.

To be clear, Dutton is not interested in genuine education reform but rather just an exercise in the hope of attracting some more extreme right-wing representation to the party. The danger in his strategy is that he and the Liberal Party are precariously close to falling off the edge of their very flat earth. It is most unlikely to be an election winner, especially if the Albanese government embraces real education reform.

Dutton claims “there is a lot of non-core curriculum that is being driven by unions and by other activists that parents are concerned about”. His aim is basically to scare parents into being worried about these issues being taught to their children, which he claims is about offering parents “choice”. One of his senators, Hollie Hughes, has admitted this move is a membership drive, and says she wants to out the “Marxist teachers”.

Dutton’s dishonesty in his approach is likely to further compromise the value of a school education. Surely this is the last outcome parents would want for their children.

Dutton would consider it a success if first-time young voters at the next election were to join their parents in support of his attempt to win government. He doesn’t want children of today to be concerned with truth-telling on issues such as Indigenous recognition and climate. Unfortunately, the flow-on effect of this type of thinking is to produce bigoted, myopic leaders of tomorrow. We should strongly oppose any move towards this. It will surely guarantee the long-term irrelevance and failure of the Liberal Party.

The Albanese government is in a strong position to lead genuine education reform, having begun by linking improved childcare to universal early education, an effective base for a vertically integrated education reset.

Dutton is somewhat personally compromised in discussing early education, given his family interests in childcare centres. Indeed, I was surprised Malcolm Turnbull didn’t refer him to the High Court to determine his eligibility to stand for parliament, given that those childcare interests could be interpreted as a breach of section 44 of the Constitution if they represented “an office of profit under the Crown”.

At the other end of the education spectrum, the need for reform of the university sector became conspicuously apparent as a result of Scott Morrison’s personal prejudices against it. He utterly failed to support the sector through the pandemic. Ironically, the pandemic offered a unique opportunity to drive reform in the university sector, tied to financial support.

Given the magnitude and urgency of the challenges in schools and universities, there has never been a better time or a stronger need for a genuine education revolution. It should be a national embarrassment that we have let such a significant, important and valuable sector of our society fall into such disarray.

It will not just be a question of spending more money, but also dealing with the structural weaknesses in our schools and universities. We aspire to being a smart country; we need to reward excellence, and to train, nurture and retain our best teachers and students.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Flat-earth politics".

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