The education challenge facing Labor

Apr 24, 2023
Red door of a public school.

On any measure since the mid 1980’s successive governments both Federal and State have progressively destroyed public education systems. 

By adopting a neo-liberal ‘rational’ approach to providing education for all we have come to the place where we have:

  • A two-tier education structure that is resulting in a residualised, under resourced public system
  • Overwhelming evidence that the funding of schools is heavily skewed towards the private schools
  • The overwhelming number of students with severely disruptive behaviours attending public schools
  • Massive staff shortages particularly in rural and low socio-economic communities

The real challenge of restoring our system to one that is inclusive, equitable, where all children regardless of the status of their parents have the opportunity to thrive and contribute to their community is immense. It is impossible without a complete overhaul of the existing bureaucracy.

This task falls to the elected representatives who becomes the Ministers of Education, Federally, Jason Clare and in all states except Tasmania these are part of the Labor Party. This is a unique opportunity to restore our system to one that provides equity, opportunity and compassion for those not born into privilege, a value that was once proudly championed by the ALP! Will they fail?

All our governments operate under the Westminster system where the Minister represents a portfolio and are ‘free to accept or reject the advice of their Department’. It is this relationship between the Minister and their Department Secretaries that exposes the challenge facing these Ministers.

There is ample literature that identifies the emergence of a rational approach to all forms of management. The Harvard MBA embodied this business-like approach. Industry was quick to adopt this philosophy and they enjoyed early improvement in productivity. Government agencies and service industries were soon enthusiastic followers. I will use NSW to demonstrate how, since the mid-eighties education departments have embraced this paradigm.

Until this time the department was headed by public servants who had emerged from the organisation of which they had responsibility, in the case of education they had worked their way up from the classroom. One quality that was required for those bureaucrats was to ‘provide advice to Ministers that is apolitical, frank and fearless and non-partisan’, a quote from the senior executive’s playbook. This advice was informed by the reality of the challenges facing the department.

This stopped in the mid-eighties when the Minister, in the first instance Rodney Cavalier from the ALP imposed his personal reforms onto schools. This ministerial intrusion energised by the admiration of all things business continued to escalate eventually having the traditional, emergent of an expert from the field replaced by a disciple of rational economics. These authorities in leadership held the belief that regardless of the portfolio they had the skills to lead.

A prime example of such an authority is Mark Scott, graduate from the elite Knox Grammar school. His academic career not surprisingly culminated in a Masters of Public Administration from the aforementioned Harvard University. He has worked in education and other public settings and after a term with the ABC he headed up Education.

For those in the trenches this was the beginning of the accelerated decline of the profession. The application of all control from the top stifled the cries from those at the bottom. Increases in accountability, the use of ‘measurement’ of outcomes (remember, if you can’t measure it it’s not worth doing), the most-subtle top down tactic of scapegoating the workers when ‘outcomes’ were not reached by continually decrying the ‘quality’ of the teaching staff; these are the deflecting strategies employed by the leadership to account for the increasing failures.

The issue is that now when the Ministers are selecting their departmental heads, the ‘fearless and frank’ advice will be from a bureaucracy that values the very qualities that have led to the crisis in education. Rarely do these ministers have any real expertise in the tasks they will confront and so they are forced to listen to their existing secretaries. An example of this reliance is illustrated in Jason Clare’s comments about the latest NAPLAN results which were released soon after his appointment. He quickly made statements like the results were damning and serious reform was needed. His statement are either an indication of genius or he is reading from a briefing report.

In very quick time he has engaged a panel of experts, led by none other than Mark Scott to devise a National Teacher Workforce Action Plan. On the face of it this seems to be a sensible idea if you are considering the shortage of teachers but if you are trying to revive the corpse of Australia’s education system more of the same even in more efficient manners will not solve the problem! It is putting the ‘experts’ in to solve the problem they have created

The draft report from the expert panel has been released and I would guarantee it would get a high distinction from Scott’s University. It is a superb synopsis of existing academic, education thinking. As an exercise I put a few of the objectives into ChatGPT and got very similar text in just 30 seconds. AI was just a much faster method of looking inside the square.

Thomas Kuhn in his ground-breaking book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ proposed the thesis that all areas of expertise are driven by an underlying belief system and all efforts to solve any anomalies must conform to that paradigm. Eventually the supporting arguments will give way to reality and a new model will emerge. We are in such a time in education.

I use the word emerge deliberately. It is obvious that neoliberal, economic rationalism fails in delivering public service none more so than public education. The children from privileged families can avoid the most damaging consequences of this failure by attending schools such as Knox Grammar but those disadvantaged children who look to the Labor Government to restore a quality education for all, they depend on these Labor Ministers to break this paradigm. Instead of furthering the top-down leadership it is time to consider the needs for those at the bottom, the kids and their exhausted teachers!

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