A Bigger Picture

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.

 


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by krossbow

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.

  1. Fact: no DER funding + 1.7 billion dollar cuts in NSW
  2. Hope: Gonski (with no detail or clear timeline) IF federal govt. re-elected
  3. 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.

 

Conclusions

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.

 

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15 Comments

  1. Oh Darcy, when I saw you had written something about this I just had to read. I too am appalled at the ‘mixed messages’. I am confused. I’ve been part of the NSW Education system since 1970. I’ve been through years of Metherall and how the government of the day became the education experts. THAT was a hard enough thing to manage, let me say.

    So now, when so much I read is both heartening and exciting, Australians are let down massively again by a country that cannot get its states to agree. On much at all.
    It has ceased being anything to do with kids, the need to have opportunities opened for those who need to have help to learn…oh no.

    It is a political game we play here. State vs State. Remember…the footy slogan.

    I’m retired from work as a teacher, but remain actively interested. In the consulting work I am doing via the blog and with some pre school groups I remain embarrassed that Australia still has 5 different styles of handwriting, different names for the first year of formal school, and different starting ages for school. No wonder parents are confused.

    A few years back John de la Bosca said, it’s all treasury’s fault. We have such a large workforce in NSW DEC schools that we can’t afford to pay them what they should get.

    Buck passing, and yearning for power and re-election more like.

    Thank you for the way you have put this tonight. I intend to send people this post.

    Warm wishes
    Denyse

  2. Sarah Walker:

    Good points, Darcy, and then Denyse. I am often (constantly?) amazed that the ‘powers-that-be’ think that education comes down to business rationale. I work in TAFE, often with people who have abandoned or been abandoned by the school system, and it seems obvious to me that money spent on education – and CHANGING LIVES – is a much better investment than our welfare system. Fingers crossed for the future of education in NSW and Australia…

  3. Tony Coleman:

    I am very confused. First i am promised a 6billion dollar increase in education funding by the federal government – then they delay until 2020 – then i am ambushed by the reality of an immediate 1.7billion dollar cut from the state government.
    What i sincerely believe is without innovative programs and funds to support them, we are going to see our teenagers permanently lose connection with our 20th century schools. With our current resources we are struggling to engage our students in our way of learning. IMHO Schools will simply become meeting places that young people choose or don’t choose to come to.
    At present I feel our schools greatest contribution to society is as very expensive baby sitting services.
    This is a particularly glum view Darcy, but no-one seems to want to pay for a school that is able to deliver engaging and relevant learning to hungry and curious teenagers.

  4. rondargh:

    I’ve started to write multiple replies to this, but each one has ended up with me screaming like a banshee and sounding as coherent as Bob Katter.

    I’m going to step away from the computer for a while and come back when I’ve calmed down :P

    In the meantime, I highly recommend the documentary ‘The Four Horsemen’ to illuminate my general take on the issue.

  5. David Chapman:

    As a bit of a politics tragic, I am not surprised at what is taking place. Saddened yes, but not surprised. Politicians first thoughts are how to be re-elected, and much of this means point scoring against the opposition (which gets further complicated with differing parties in the States and Fed).

    One hope I had for Gonski was that it might end the bickering between private and public. I sometimes feel like an odd fish at my school (I am a vocal supporter of public education, but work at a private school), and the teacher comments I see from both worlds are disappointing – often disparaging the other system.

    There are problems to be sure, and I had hoped that implementation of Gonski might move us beyond issues of funding, and onto best educational practices.

    Frankly the announcements of recent days (from Sydney and Canberra) have shattered even that dream.

  6. Troy:

    I agree with David, we would have to be naive to think these cuts were not coming.

    The vast majority of teachers were openly against the DER (I wish I had the figures, I am sure they exist…), at the classroom level, on one level oppossed as it was something, perceived to be dropped on many from above. Of course, the digital education revolution didn’t start with the Rudd government and just as the teachers who connected their students did so before, they will after because it not only engages students, it is skilling them for now, not the future.

    Much argument could be had about many teachers voting Liberal/National at the last state election. Many comments were made that a Liberal/National government would cut DER. Teachers had a clear choice and while the protests will come due to the announced cut in funding, the best protest comes at an election. In some ways we deserve what we have gained and lost.

    Much of the media debate blends the dual roles of Federal and State governments in funding of education. I don’t believe most people understand the different roles they do have and have had since the Whitlam days.

    Also, would the cuts have been reported if the state government just acted and didn’t hold a press conference? After all, they do have a mandate from the people.

  7. Mark Howie:

    Struck by this, Darcy: “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.” These things certainly create a certain sense of interest and energy, perhaps even innovation (at times). But I am struck increasingly by the irony that for all the possibilities for “connectedness”, levelling of hierachies and “democratic participation” that the digital realm supposedly offers us, people seem to be ever more disempowered in effect – or at least feeling so in some regards. And I find some of the consequences of these things to be pretty disturbing. One seems to be a fracturing of professional interests and identities, and the formation of enclaves. For example, I have noticed the way that some users of Yammer, for example, will openly define their professional identity (as ‘early uptakers’ of technology and innovators) in direct and stark contrast to their more reluctant colleagues, and too frequently do so in openly disparaging terms (as if they alone have the capacity “to create learning conditions that will allow our students to flourish”). I don’t find this particularly encouraging. In fact, the number of presentations in which someone sprouting the essential value of new technologies will talk in the imperative about new forms of democracy and the way in which Gen Y values “participatatory democracy”, telling their listeners “educators must now do this!” with no self-consciouness at all, is beginning to leave me quite despondant. So, the “mixed messages”, it appears to me, go all the way down, as does the disharmony and incoherence. In such conditions, its probably reassuruing (and certainly easier) to retreat into a space occupied by the like-minded and spend your time reaassuring each other that “we” are not like “them”. I guess what I am saying is that the capital ‘p’ Politics of the ‘Big Picture’ are very concerning and dispiriting, but so too are aspects of the small ‘p’ politics that stem from it.

    • Darcy Moore:

      Hello Mark,

      Thank you for your provocation. You quote what I say, maybe not realising that I am concerned by the online pseudo-consultation too. I am not sure what you mean about ‘enclaves’, as most Professional Associations or groups, online or not, tend to be about choice (and who can actually be bothered to show up to the PD, meeting or post an idea online). Often a group, who are passionate about some aspect of education, are then criticised for being progressive, elitist, or self-interested etc.. I remember when the stage 6 HSC syllabus for English was introduced. I loved it, many were not so enamoured. The more connected to a professional, collegial group one was, the better one started to unpack it. We all choose how to spend our professional and personal time and there’s never enough of it.

      I would argue for a professionalism that allows educators to use a range of tools and approaches. Professional growth would require that some strategies involved technology. For me, the end of DER, is the greatest travesty. The laptops were a great equity program for teenagers attending state schools in NSW. They also allowed teachers to have a tool to teach and learn, often updating their own skills in the process. I certainly want a more coherent approach to education policy, as I am sure you do.

      We all have multiple identities, some choose to be more social, or public, if you like, than others. I have read everything you have ever published and learned much. Very much. I always wish you would share more, via a blog or at Yammer etc.. In fact, I’d like nothing better.

      Darcy :)

      • Troy:

        Mark does pick up on a good point. I too see what could almost be considered the opposing forces, those early adopters and those reluctant in regards to technology and its promises and downfalls.
        I am not an early adopter. Nor am I reluctant. I guess we could also consider these enclaves described by Mark in the fact is I wouldn’t belittle and assess a colleagues use of 30 pieces of paper handouts, yet at times colleagues could and would belittle those trying to embrace the ICT element of the syllabus.
        I agree with Darcy that the rapid demise of DER is a travesty. But that is not going to stop me from embracing the ideals of connection, communication and collaborating, with ICT and without.
        I would hate to be considered like teachers I had in the 1980′s and 1990′s who didn’t teach grammar.

  8. Stu:

    It’s been a sad year for education in Australia and NSW in particular. The excesses and waste of the past state government had to come back to bite and for that, the decision has been that we are losing 3% of the budget over the next 4 years and 1,800 staff (1,000 from the schools/region/state office side). “Teachers” are “quarantined” from the job cuts. What the new world of NSW public schools will look like, I don’t really know, but invariably many of these major restructures cost as much to implement as the savings produced by the job cuts. When we went from 10 regions to 40 districts and back to 10 regions as part of the previous government and the waste was crazy. What will happen this time with statements like, “we can no longer sustain the current regional model of support to schools.”

    What does it mean? Less staff, less regional offices, less support for schools, more distance between offices and schools? It just points to schools needing to be more and more self-sufficient. Local School? Local Decision. Some will take on that challenge extremely well and prosper because of the leadership and the quality of the staff they currently enjoy. Other schools will struggle and continue to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

    Let’s hope this “correction” is brief and we can get back to the realisation as a nation that spending money on education is an investment that generates both economic and societal long-term benefits.

  9. Mathew:

    I am currently in Finland, a country that is often held to be a model of alternate values for education, namely equity, respect and investment in education not cut price accountancy and populist teacher bashing. I spent some time in a public special school here this week and it’s facilities and support staff would shame even private mainstream schools in Australia. The results are on the board, the students benefit here.

    I fear a generation of politicians and cheap shots have dealt a bad hand to students in our country.

  10. Unkle Cyril:

    I believe that, like a lot of things in the Western world, education is better than it ever has been. Students, parents and teachers are under more scrutiny to make sure that everyone is in a safe learning-environment than ever before. Despite the effectiveness of rote-learning and corporal-punishment I also believe that our current systems are more geared to take advantage of technology and skills to give students a more comprehensive and integrated education than ever before.
    However, in Australia the inadequacies and disadvantages that many students experience reveal that the education system needs more to improve it. Cultural barriers will have to be broken. Those who feel that it is their right to have a better education at the expense of others, and those who place no value on education, would have to undergo a dramatic turnaround… and that is not going to happen.

  11. Ian Woods:

    The current round of politicking and funding issues doesn’t help me to feel that teaching is a lasting career and I should still have another 20 years before I retire! However, I’ve always been one to focus on what I can do to improve the situation I find myself in and what I can then do to continue to move forward as an individual and as a member of my professional community.
    The Gonski review gave a glimmer of hope that maybe Education in Australia would start to be treated with a little more respect, but the spin from both Federal and State governments indicates to me that they aren’t really interested in improving the state of the education system and are more concerned with retaining or gaining power and improving budgets.
    I think we need to stop hoping that successive governments will actually take us seriously. It seems that they are increasingly wrapped up in spin and image and have developed a cynicism that we must also portray ourselves to them in the same way. I fail to see how, as a group, they can think that they act with integrity, when they must be aware of how evasive they can appear when confronted with questions. And I can’t see how they can justify that approach unless they feel that it is somehow acceptable, that it is just what everyone does. I sincerely hope that that is not how I am seen.
    I worry that our current form of Democracy is on a ride to extinction. As a populace, we are losing faith with our politicians and political parties and becoming so cynical that we feel that everything we hear from our governments must be taken with a pinch of salt. We are at a stage where social media is playing an increasing part in informing and driving public opinion. It isn’t necessarily always accurate, but we trust it because it appears to come from us! Activist websites and campaigns (Arab Spring, Anonymous, GetUp!, Avaaz) seem to be having more of an impact on our world than the government does. Part of me revels in this ability to stand up and be counted, but I’m scared as well. The Kody2012 campaign was one that could have gone badly wrong. Poorly informed public opinion demanding that governments react on the basis of a social media campaign.
    So, I have to look inward again, reflect on what I know and don’t know and do what I can to help education rise from the ashes and be born anew. A discussion with my colleagues the other day brought up the adage that schools are run on good-will rather than funding. That seems really trite in the face of $1.7 billion and 1800 jobs, but what can we do? Without funding, resources or support from our governments, it falls to us to bring Australian education back from the brink. Maybe we should stop looking for financial support from an ambivalent administration and find our own solutions to the problems?

  12. Jill McGeorge:

    I’m probably being extremely naive but I have to ask how much money could be poured into educational reforms such as the Gonski recommendations if our State politicians had not accepted a raise in pay earlier this year or even better perhaps it is time to consider the removal of our State Governments altogether so the country is run by one Federal government. One Australian curriculum one Australian government. Imagine the money released that could be used for education then…

    • Peter:

      The pollies forget that they are the servants of the people and should be standing up for those who are disadvantaged. When we start to link all salaries, wages and benefits to that of the pollies we may get some sense from them. Until them they will be driven b polls and interest groups who are well mobilised and noisy

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