Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Evidence will provide education solutions

Fiona Mueller

19 July 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

It is the duty of the State to educate, and the right of the people to demand education (Edmund Barton, Prime Minister of Australia 1901-1903)

Australia’s first Prime Minister, the Honourable Edmund Barton, was an outstanding scholar, dux of Sydney Grammar School and a prize-winning graduate in classics at the University of Sydney. A passionate advocate of Federation, he told audiences that ‘For the first time in history, we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation.’ Barton supported the provision of free, compulsory education and believed that schooling should be ‘unsectarian’.

How might he view the state of education in the 21st century?

On the basis of official reports and public commentary, Barton might well observe that Australia’s youngest citizens could be better served. Surely he would marvel at the very low level of public confidence in education, relative to the extraordinarily high levels of taxpayer funding.

Today’s educational deficits are due to the absence of genuine national commitment and collaboration as well as the ongoing adoption of fads and trends in the hope of quick fixes.

A clever Australia — to channel the late former Prime Minister Bob Hawke — needs powerful nation-building philosophies and strategies. This is particularly true of education, a public good that transforms lives and societies like no other and whose success depends on the intellectual credibility and humanitarian aspirations of its champions.

Evidence of a national loss of confidence in education comes from those who defend Australia’s annual program of standardised tests for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. However flawed NAPLAN may be, they argue, it must be retained because it constitutes the only objective mechanism for measuring student performance, monitoring teacher effectiveness and providing data to parents and schools.

Given the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on school education every year, it should be easy to point to steady improvements resulting from careful investment. While there are wonderful examples of achievement and innovation around Australia, the findings are largely negative, with descriptions such as ‘stagnant’, ‘declining’, ‘lacking in rigour’ and ‘inequitable’ appearing all too often.

Not only are Australian students underperforming in the national tests of literacy and numeracy, international assessments such as PISA reveal that our secondary school students are increasingly less academically competitive with their international counterparts. Employers and tertiary institutions are concerned about the poor knowledge and skills of school leavers, too many of whom need remedial support. Teacher morale is low, reflected in part by the continued high attrition rate of early-career educators.

Many factors contribute to a respected, high-performing system of education. Some, such as student motivation, parental involvement and socio-cultural understanding and support, are more external and can be hard to gauge and grow. Others are the business of school leaders and teachers, education authorities and professional bodies, such as setting consistently high academic standards and expectations of classroom behaviour and school culture, delivering high-quality instruction, designing useful, robust assessment tasks and reporting honestly and effectively on student performance.

Under Australia’s federal model of government, the states and territories carry constitutional responsibility for the education of all children. However, in recent decades, concerns about the direction and quality of schooling have brought changes in the national education infrastructure.
National collaboration was identified as one of the key strategies for achieving the educational goals articulated in the Melbourne Declaration; the ‘roadmap’ signed by all federal and state education ministers in 2008.

In addition to a national school funding model, Australia now has a national curriculum (the Australian Curriculum, completed in 2016), a national program of standardised testing (dominated by NAPLAN) and a national reporting instrument (My School), the last three managed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Another national body, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), is responsible for the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals.

The limitations of federation are clear, however. For example, only five of the eight states and territories have adopted the Australian Curriculum in its original form, and even that applies only to students in Kindergarten to Year 10. The policies and practices applicable to students in Years 11 and 12 vary significantly across the country; there are no agreed national academic standards for school leavers and there is minimal alignment of approaches across primary and secondary levels, including teaching, assessment and reporting. It can be very difficult for students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders to grasp what success looks like at the various stages of Australian schooling.

Duplication of effort is a waste of time and money. A useful first step would be to undertake an independent, comprehensive national information audit – likely the first of its kind –to ascertain the nature, extent and effectiveness of expenditure, collaboration and innovation in Australian school education. This would provide a unique platform on which to identify successes as well as overlap, blockages and deficits. Most importantly, it would demonstrate cross-sectoral commitment to national goals.

This great country, with its small, dispersed population and limited taxpayer base, has its work cut out to design and deliver the best possible education for all young Australians. A common sense, evidence-based approach will provide the solutions to most challenges — and this should not cost the earth.

The Forgotten Freedom No More

Jeremy Sammut

19 July 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

As a think tanker, I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a fact grubber and barrow pusher who is necessarily consumed by the nuts and bolts of key public policy debates.

So it has been a real pleasure to co-edit (with my colleague Rob Forsyth) the forthcoming CIS book, The Forgotten Freedom No More: Protecting Religious Freedom in Australia.

We have brought together a distinguished group of Australian writers and thinkers to offer their views on what should be done about this increasingly important issue.

It has been a joy to spend some time ‘in the minds’ of eminent scholars such as Henry Ergas, Patrick Parkinson, and Stephen Chavura — to name just three.

Reading their work has enriched my understanding of why properly protecting religious freedom is crucial to the future of Australia as a tolerant liberal democracy and genuine civil society.

As readers will also discover when the book is published, each of the different contributors is sympathetic to promoting religious liberty in Australia, while approaching the issue from varied viewpoints and experience.

Some have been asked to offer a general legal and academic analysis of the problem as they see it with suggested ways forward, while others have been asked to provide a more personal perspective based on their ‘lived experience’.

Sceptical secular readers will learn how important religious freedom is to allow deeply-held spiritual convictions to animate individual identity across their social, professional, and civic spheres of action and purpose.

We expect that this collection will not just be informative but helpful to readers of all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs.

This is crucial. For not only is greater mutual understanding across cultural and social divides important to help stimulate parliamentary action on religious freedom.

This is also the heart of the overall objective of protecting religious freedom: which is to allow all Australians, irrespective of their faith, to live harmoniously together, united in mutual respect for the rights of all.

When a game won’t end

Greg Pulscher

19 July 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Trigger warning: This piece is littered with American and hockey references.

Back in high school, I played a bit of hockey (that’s ‘ice hockey’ to Australians). I wasn’t very good, so I typically resorted to being the teams… well, the team’s troll.

I would seek out the other team’s best player to get inside their head or heckle right into their goalie’s face until their team forcefully removed me.

Either way, I ensured the opposing tribe’s best player was distracted, drew penalties on opposing tribesmen protecting their goalie, and every now and then my stick would be in the right place to deflect the puck for a goal.

Which brings us neatly to political heckling on Twitter — which is like having two hockey tribes with a full roster of trolls. Everyone is out looking to draw penalties, getting in the faces of star pundits, even calling out news referees with their handles yelling; “Hey @media look at me!”

I knew that if you kept your stick on the ice in front of the net enough, you would eventually deflect the puck in for a goal. That looks to be the mantra of many Twitter dwellers — type out enough rants or sarcasm, and eventually, one in a million goes viral.

However, in the game of ice hockey, these episodes only lasted 60 minutes. A team would eventually win, then afterwards all shook hands. Somehow, after shaking hands, opponents turned back into friends and neighbours.

Imagine if there was no end and no handshake to those hockey games… Katy, bar the doors!

But this is Twitter: a never-ending game of hockey with teams of nothing but Hanson Brothers (I realise I’m pushing my luck with multiple American/hockey references). To make matters worse, our passion for Twitter is like that of Canadians for hockey.

Sadly, this game that started exciting, witty, and fun is beginning to drone on — and even beginning to be played off the ice.
WSJ and Quillette journalist Andy Ngo’s assault recently in Portland was a chilling reminder that this game on Twitter needs a serious intermission. Especially the tribalism that’s ensued as a result. Even with multiple videos of the assault that left Ngo with a brain hemorrhage, we have tribal referees of the news proclaiming the ends justify these means.

Real people are rallying around the idea that Ngo deserved this. Antifa and their sympathisers are agreeing that some people in our physical reality world deserve to be punched and physically harmed.

Whether it’s a self-imposed month or two break, or deleting Twitter or Facebook off your phone, or deleting your account altogether, we need an intermission to realise these personas and personalities on ice, are not the reality around us. We all need a good post-game handshake to realise we are all still the same people we were before Twitter.

But if you still insist on taking one for the team playing in the Twitter rink, remember: keep your stick on the ice!