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My Opinion Pieces

The Australian - Gonski school of overthinking education ignores the worthy basics

   Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The recently released report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools chaired by David Gonski correctly identifies that in 15 years our students have dropped from fourth in the world for reading to 16th, from seventh in mathematics to 25th, and from fourth in science to 14th.

In its December 2016 report, the Productivity Commission found that “real government expenditure (state and federal) on schools increased by 24 per cent (from $40.7 billion to $50.4bn) between 2004-05 and 2013-14, or almost 14 per cent per student across government and non-government schools. This is not to say that funding does not matter, but rather that increasing expenditure alone does not guarantee an improvement in outcomes.”

However, Gonski “recommends placing increased emphasis on teaching general capabilities”. Furthermore, he claims “teachers need to teach general capabilities, like critical thinking and social capability to ensure students have the skills for a rapidly changing world”.

It seems this review has completely missed the point as to why our education outcomes are declining, particularly in comparison with our global competitors. Exhibit 15 of the review should concern the education establishment. This is a graphic showing the Australian Curriculum in three dimensions — seven general capabilities, eight learning areas, overlaid with three cross-curriculum priorities. Gonski wants to increase these “general capabilities” at the expense of more traditional areas of knowledge.

The Victorian Curriculum, foundation to Year 10, adopts three cross-curriculum priorities that are “embedded in the curriculum areas”: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and sustainability.

We agree with the importance of these topics but believe greater value would result from not having cross-curriculum priorities that serve to dilute the teaching of core competencies: literacy, numeracy and writing skills.

Let’s stop this overthinking and declutter the curriculum. We don’t need more emphasis on general capabilities or cross-curriculum priorities. We need young people to be equipped with sound literacy and numeracy skills, specific knowledge, taught by well-trained and competent teachers. Teachers are there to teach, not to program, the students.

The Victorian Curriculum runs to 2804 pages. The Australian Curriculum is even longer. One primary school teacher I spoke to laughed at me when I asked her if she taught all of it in one year. She said there was no chance of her teaching the entire curriculum, as it would take 18 months.

Parents expect a rigorous and knowledge-based curriculum benchmarked against international best practice. It should reflect ideas and traditions that have stood the test of time. It should conserve and pass on our shared cultural inheritance. It should distil what the generations that came before us deemed worth knowing, as well as equipping young people with the technical skills and values they need to negotiate a complex economy and an advanced democracy.

The Gonski review fails to mention the importance of discipline and respect for authority as values that will enable improved learning outcomes. It is obvious that schools that set high expectations are usually characterised by disciplined and orderly classrooms.

Australian classrooms, compared with other OECD education systems, have an unacceptably high incidence of disruption and unruly behaviour. Schools need greater freedom to manage unruly and disruptive students, and schools need to set clear consequences for bad behaviour.

In Victoria, some shocking incidents of potentially criminal violence in secondary schools led to principals expelling some students, only to find the Andrews government overturned those expulsions. One principal was so distressed at the undermining of his authority that he resigned.

Orderly classrooms, where students can focus on their lessons, are surely an integral part of improving student results. I have visited many schools and have been heartened to see that rather than open-plan classrooms, which provide myriad distractions, principals are rebuilding classroom walls to enable greater student concentration. That’s why the Victorian Liberal Nationals, if we win the November state election, will ban the use of mobile phones in classrooms unless they form a specific part of the lesson.

It’s encouraging to see the Gonski review highlight the importance of supporting and valuing teachers. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in our society; we need to recognise and reward our best teachers, and encourage our best and brightest to take up careers in education. Teachers are one of the most significant influences on student performance.

Yet we seem to have real difficulty in retaining teachers. About 40 per cent to 50 per cent of our newest teachers leave within their first five years. Gonski mentions a “structured career path” for teachers without any reference to teacher retention. Despite bright new graduates entering teaching degrees, the constant loss of experience from classrooms can only further degrade results.

I wholeheartedly agree with SCEGGS Darlinghurst head Jenny Allum’s assessment of this Gonski report: “Some things are drivel, some things are motherhood statements, some things we have tried before and they didn’t work, some things are interesting and possibly worth a really strong level of support.”

It’s time to stop overthinking education, and get back to teaching knowledge that matters — sound literacy and numeracy skills — not cross-curriculum priorities that clutter class time and prevent Australian students from being the best they can.