Friday, March 02, 2007

hey, minister, leave our kids alone!

Having watched the education debate on the 7:30 Report on Wednesday night, I agree with Anne Patty writing in today's Sydney Morning Herald that what is still very murky is the issue of content.
As you’d expect, both Bishop and Smith quoted supporting statistics and denied each other’s. Viewers were left confused about whether or not Federal funding of unis has in fact decreased, and whether unis are now more reliant on private funding than before. It seems that Labor’s stance on education is 'you have to spend money to make money if you want graduates who are globally competitive'. Whereas the Liberal Party’s credo seems more like, 'use money as a weapon to extract certain ideological outcomes in Oz'.
Most reasonable people can appreciate the arguments for a national curriculum and luckily it has bipartisan support. Who would really deny that to try to improve literacy and numeracy is a good thing? Who would disagree that lifting standards and improving quality are positives? Such vague appeals to common sense can't disguise the fact that the real game is about maintaining oppressive and punitive relations with the States for political and ideological reasons.
Bishop reiterates her threat,

"What I’m going to do is take a proposal to the Education Ministers’ meeting in April and if I cannot get cooperation on a national curriculum, I will tie it to funding."

So do State education ministers just have to give in-principle go ahead to the basic idea of a consistent national curriculum or do they have to sign on the dotted line endorsing the Howard Government’s favored model there and then? Imposing sanctions may well punish recalcitrant State governments but perhaps it's the students who pay the price in the end.
The big meeting takes place next month, well before the comparative data is released next year. Pre-empting the research, Bishop promises the data will show significant qualitative differences between the States. Well, let's wait and see before rushing out and reforming ourselves stupid. Surely it makes more sense to await the results of the national comparative data next year and for everyone to get to take a really good look at it to determine which models and which content works best? Why the rush job?
Inexplicably, the Liberals seem to frown on competition between States, and differences are seen as something that must be artificially ironed out. This is in contrast to Labor's support for consistency for what appear to be more practical reasons (eg. labour force mobility).
The critical question for me is about curriculum content and this Bishop neatly skates over without providing any detail. Kerry O'Brien raised as an example the teaching of Australian history. Here Bishop replied, "It [her curriculum] is much broader than just the narrative". Are we really supposed to believe they are going to allow the teaching of critical thinking to continue? For me, anyway, that's the little red flag right there, the philosophical crux of the question of content. In talking about the narrative, Bishop betrays her Government's denial of postmodern pluralism, and its desire to see the simplistic teaching of a single approved narrative.
As 'proof' of a crisis in education, Bishop claims high schools are failing kids but later she seeks credit for the fact that more kids are attending uni than ever. How can that be, if there is such a decline in literacy and numeracy standards?
Anyway, it will be interesting to get a detailed look at the Government's proposed curriculum models, that's for sure. And until then, it's just politics.