Winston Churchill famously said that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried’. One can certainly bemoan the messiness of what can only be described as a serious deficit of coherent national educational strategy, ironically, at a time when ‘Australia is falling behind’ is often heard from politicians.
I struggled to find an appropriate title for this post; many were deleted. ‘The Big Picture’ lasted at the top of the page for a while but somehow did not convey exactly what I wanted to say. That ‘picture’ is just too small to be called ‘big’. Much seems ambitious, a national curriculum, reports on funding models, more power for principals, improved teacher education programs and a national focus on our schools. There’s online forums and government twitter accounts keeping us informed, consultation and more media coverage of educational issues than I have seen in my career. Somehow, it all feels a little hollow at a time when the actual learning opportunities for students, for all of us, are expanding exponentially, without schools or teachers.
To summarise the current reality for an ‘average comprehensive’ school in Australia:
1. One of our most respected citizens, David Gonski, presided over a panel of eminent Australians that recommended the under-investment in schools doing the ‘heavily lifting’ be rectified with a massive injection of funds.
2. The Prime Minister largely supported the recommendations of the Gonski Report but was heavily criticised for the lack of detail and lengthy timeline.
3. The Federal Opposition does not support the recommendations made by Mr Gonski and curent polling suggests they will be elected by November 2013.
4. The Federal government has ended the DER (Digital Education Revolution) funding (at the end of 2013) that supported state schools in NSW to provide student laptops (Yr 9-12), wireless access and technical support officers.
5. The NSW state government has massively reduced education funding over the next 4 years to bring the budget back into surplus. This will result in ‘realignment’ of structures and the loss of many positions that support schools. The detail is not clear.
6. The new Australian Curriculum is to be implemented from 2014.
Or, in even briefer form.
- Fact: no DER funding + 1.7 billion dollar cuts in NSW
- Hope: Gonski (with no detail or clear timeline) IF federal govt. re-elected
- Reality: ‘Average’ comprehensive schools slip further behind while people already very well off talk about innovation and change but slash successful existing programs and student support
We do need, in Australian education, a bigger, more coherent picture that makes some sense. Many of us feel very excited about the exponential opportunities, for a skilful, professional teacher, to create learning conditions that will allow our students to flourish. Many will be doing this tomorrow, and the day after, regardless of the national discussion. The current, vexed, debate is not doing a great deal except to create disillusionment, disharmony and turmoil.
The only narrative that makes much sense is the one about democracy being messy. Quite clearly, the Australians responsible for the big picture direction of education in our country are not working together and our adversarial political system is costing us dearly. Many educators are finding it difficult to believe that the best interests of students are the prime consideration in the decisions that are being made.
The major players, I have always argued, must want the best for Young Australians, especially those who are our most disadvantaged. However, political realities aside, the mixed messages are stunning, embarrassing even, for learning professionals trying to work, day after day, with real students, to improve educational outcomes. Cynicism is debilitating. Many, however, will find it difficult not to feel cynical about the rhetoric when we live with the reality.
My friend made an interesting point the other day: how many of the major figures in Australian education have worked in a school this century, or ever? It sounds trite but many are wondering about the wisdom of our current directions in the twelfth year of ’21st century’ learning.