Lessons in Reforming Education: Dealing With Disadvantage and Unintended Policy Consequences

Education is by far the most important part of our lives, particularly given the competitive world that we live in. So it immediately follows that a strong education system that gives every citizen equal opportunity to fully participate in and the opportunity to succeed is a prerequisite for a strong, healthy and prosperous society.

But alas equal opportunity in education and how the broader education system operates is something that needs much work in civilised society like Australia. Education in recent days and months has been firmly back in the spotlight, as it always should be with such an essential area of public policy development and transformation.

First it was the Gonski Review by eminent businessperson David Gonski which called for a significant  further injection of funds into the education system.

Then, earlier this week, Christopher Pyne the Shadow Education Minister in the federal opposition made somewhat of a foray into the education policy debate, outlining some key ideas that would go forward as Coalition policy in the area. Most notably this included performance pay for teachers, greater local autonomy for schools and the ability to move under-performing teachers out of the sector.

From the outset, it is important to acknowledge that all politicians, regardless of political colour do at least try to attack the issue of education with sincerity and a commitment to bettering the learning experience of our young minds. Both sides of politics may come at this area of policy from different ideological directions but it is very hard to say that either side want poor outcomes for some and continued good outcomes for those who do not endure disadvantage.

Education policy is a very hard area and there are no easy solutions or proverbial silver bullets. But of course, all policies, no matter how sound, have unintended consequences. The key is looking for the best outcome for all as far as opportunity and support goes and then trusting in the individual students to do their best, though ultimately, many will prevail, but others will not.

First to the Gonski review of education. The major recommendation from this report was that the government inject a further $5 billion into the education system. It proposed assisting students of all types, from those who come from privilege, to those who experience major disadvantage which can have a major impact on educational outcomes.

In particular, the detailed recommendations called on the Gillard Government to commit to “loading” payments for schools to attract and support children that come from a life of disadvantage, including importantly, extra funding for schools to cater for students with a disability.

As yet the Prime Minister has not committed to a full implementation of the Gonski recommendations, but Julia Gillard has committed to funding all schools regardless of need and her government are working toward legislation to deal with education which will be released in the coming months.

It is essential for equality of opportunity that, at the very least the ALP Government commit to fully funding loading payments for students with a disability and those from other lower socioeconomic groups. This is one part of the policy puzzle that simply has to be implemented by the government and without delay.

On Monday, the Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne journeyed into the education debate with a focus on how to deal with the teaching profession, class sizes and giving local schools more autonomy.

The Opposition Education spokesperson focused his comments particularly on the teaching profession, advocating for performance pay and removing poorly performing teachers from the profession.

Performance pay for improved outcomes rather than for overall achievement would be the most appropriate way to reward strong teaching efforts from our education professionals. It is simply impractical to expect that all students, regardless of background and circumstance are automatically going to succeed and excel because they had access to strong teachers.

Similarly, removing teachers from the profession who are “under-performing” is also a problematic equation. For the same reason that performance pay should be based on improvements rather than broad excellence it is impossible to say in all cases that “bad teaching” is responsible for poor outcomes in educational experiences. At some point it comes down to the individual circumstances and at times want of the students.

On class sizes Mr Pyne asserted that smaller class sizes do not automatically lead to better results and this is somewhat true. Again, outcomes are still sometimes down to reasons beyond the control of individual teachers in the system. On the other hand, smaller class sizes do allow for greater teacher concentration on individual students and this is certainly a positive that must not be overlooked.

Greater school autonomy regarding staff and budget arrangements would be a big plus for schools around the country. We have to get away from the idea that bureaucrats and politicians in our capital cities know the best way of dealing with all staffing and budget requirements of all schools under their control. Many frankly wouldn’t have too much of a clue of the local and school specific issues facing every single school under their purview and a much higher usage of local knowledge and experience in the mix is essential.

The policy debate is now out there, our politicians now need to get on with the job of plugging the gaps in the education system, particularly around disadvantage. Our legislators must also be mindful of the ways in which they go about reforming the sector from whichever political standpoint they embark upon the policy process from.

About Tom Bridge

A perennial student of politics, providing commentary for money and for free. Email me at tbridgey@gmail.com or contact me on 0435 035 095 for engagements.

Posted on July 18, 2012, in Federal Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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