“…the animals toiled harder than ever, thinking it well worth while to plod to and fro all day with blocks of stone if by doing so they could raise the walls another foot. Boxer would even come out at nights and work for an hour or two on his own by the light of the harvest moon. In their spare moments the animals would walk round and round the half-finished mill, admiring the strength and perpendicularity of its walls and marvelling that they should ever have been able to build anything so imposing. Only old Benjamin refused to grow enthusiastic about the windmill, though, as usual, he would utter nothing beyond the cryptic remark that donkeys live a long time.” Animal Farm
The last week has been another where debate about education policy in Australia permeates all traditional and social media. This should be a good thing but for more than a decade now we have been in disarray due to the perverse politicisation of education in Australia. A good example of this terrible reality is the politics of manipulation behind the use of the powerful, albeit confusing brand – “Gonski” – which continues to fuel talkback, newspapers, current affairs and politicians. I do not have the strength to write about this any more. Many teachers will continue to build The Windmill not paying much attention to either side of what is a problematic, ongoing and faux debate.
The truth is that we have had a “values free zone” for some time as both sides of politics fetishistically support market-based policies rather than research-based action in education. Much-praised data, sometimes collected dubiously, tells politicians they have been wrong for almost two decades pursuing these inequitable policies. NAPLAN is just one example of how politics always trumps sound educational policy for our children. This is how most teachers feel as our focus is on the challenge and reward of working professionally with children in their communities every week, regardless of what new (or old) wisdom is being spouted or rescinded. There is a great sense of injustice (despair really) that those who do not actually work with children, or in schools, know what is best for children and schools (until they are replaced as a result of the endlessly Machiavellian machinations in the blood sport that is Australian politics).
“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say…Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.” George Orwell
Reflection (or Oceania is no longer at war with Eurasia)
I applaud the clever strategy employed this year by our Union to challenge the omniscience of NAPLAN in Australian education. Authority was successfully built using the research of Dr Perelman and alliances forged with the most unlikely players in what has been a masterclass in how to have a genuinely intersectional approach on an issue of shared concern.
Good job! Great job!
There is some pretty awkward history to face though.
The realpolitik in Australian education must make many cringe (Short Memory playing softly in the background) as the loop from 2010, when we lifted professional bans on NAPLAN (citing concerns about fines) is almost complete. At that time, the NSW Education Department’s Director-General gave a written directive to all principals ensuring the exam was invigilated (the first time this had ever happened):
“If principals are simply being reminded that they have a duty of care to children, they can’t walk off the job, it’s absolutely appropriate that those messages be sent…That’s the purpose of my directive – to simply explain to a minority of principals who are still thinking of whether or not adhere to the union’s now unlawful ban, that it’s the wrong thing to do.”
Coincidentally at that time, the NSW D-G’s partner, Tanya Plibersek, the current Deputy Leader of the Opposition, sat next to Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the Front Bench in Canberra. Gillard’s (signature policy) education reforms – ie MySchool and NAPLAN – were clearly in danger of being undermined by union action. That was soon stopped. Gillard, in the ascendant, supported by Bob Hawke and the Union Movement, ousted Kevin Rudd (just weeks after the NAPLAN ban was lifted). It is such a pity we did not “unlawfully” continue with the ban and save a generation of children the trauma.
Now, eight years later, we read the policy statements about reversal of funding cuts by the current federal government if the ALP resumes power and Gillard’s gutlessness (and ultimately failed strategy) of ensuring that no private school would be worse off – which completely undermined the original Gonski recommendations – is conveniently forgotten or at least relegated to history (as is her support for chaplains in our schools). The late John Hirst said it best at the time:
“Julia Gillard made a bold attempt to reform school funding, a great generator of inequality. She promised that no school would get less but then – can it be credited? – that all schools would get more. So Scotch College had to be made richer before a state-school kid could get extra help with his reading. God save us from such Labor governments.”
It is easy to be wise after the event but it was clear to everyone in education at the time what this kind of standardised testing (soon to be turned into pseudo-league tables) would do to our schools and communities. Now, we are all about to embark on the next iteration of school reform with many of the same players in place and the same kind of flawed, grand educational policy about to start afresh. One can only hope we do not forget the lessons of Animal Farm for those of us who have to carry out the real work of planning for the never-ending rebuilding of The Windmill:
Napoleon, was only now for the first time announcing it – that the name ‘Animal Farm’ had been abolished. Henceforward the farm was to be known as the ‘Manor Farm’ – which, he believed, was its correct and original name.
‘Gentlemen,’ concluded Napoleon, ‘I will give you the same toast as before, but in a different form. Fill your glasses to the brim. Gentlemen, here is my toast: To the prosperity of The Manor Farm!’ There was the same hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs? Clover’s old dim eyes flitted from one face to another. Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing. Then, the applause having come to an end, the company took up their cards and continued the game that had been interrupted, and the animals crept silently away.
But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously.
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.
And the pigs held a banquet in honour of the public school system, and toasted it with the whisky they bought with the money they received for it’s sale.
It feels like people are picking and choosing the bits that they like in the new Gonski review, I wonder though whether we can have the collaboration without the newfound accountability?
Anyway, off to push the rock to the top of the hill once again.
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