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.

Overcoming the odds in high school

Blaise Joseph

02 August 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Parents often focus more on the choice of a secondary school, but it turns out primary school is probably more important for a child’s academic success.

Many parents send their child to the local primary school but then invest significantly more time and money in choosing a secondary school.

And Years 11 and 12 are often the time where parents are most hands-on in their child’s education, helping with subject selections, constantly updating ATAR calculations, and appealing assessment results to gain the moral victory of a few extra marks.

But ultimately, student achievement at this late stage depends largely on having mastered literacy and numeracy skills in primary school.

The well-established education phenomenon, the Matthew Effect — the tendency for differences in student achievement in early primary school to grow into more significant differences towards the end of secondary school, unless rectified — means that waiting for improvement in secondary school is often simply waiting to fail.

That’s why effective early literacy and numeracy teaching is so important to ensure students don’t fall behind. And it should be a priority for secondary schools to identify underachieving students when they enrol.

This is especially the case for students from disadvantaged social backgrounds. Our new research has found it is more challenging for secondary schools to help disadvantaged students succeed, compared to primary schools.

Using NAPLAN data and the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, we identified only 3 Australian secondary schools that are both disadvantaged and high-achieving (no, before you ask, these schools do not receive more funding than other similarly disadvantaged schools). In contrast, 21 Australian primary schools are both disadvantaged and high-achieving.

There are evidence-based policies for improving outcomes for disadvantaged students in high school. For example, international education datasets indicate school discipline issues are especially prevalent among disadvantaged secondary schools in Australia. And direct instruction — an evidence-based teaching practice, where new content is explicitly taught in sequenced and structured lessons — is less common at disadvantaged secondary schools.

A policy focus on building positive school cultures and ensuring teachers are well-equipped to use effective direct instruction could significantly improve academic outcomes for disadvantaged students. And this wouldn’t necessarily require more taxpayer funding.

We all want to ensure that no student finishes school without essential knowledge and skills. But the solution isn’t to spend more money.

CSR no license for private government

Jeremy Sammut

02 August 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

The trend for business to get involved in controversial political debates in the name of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) is gathering pace.

Last week, BHP Chief Executive Andrew Mackenzie announced that the ‘Big Australian’ would be ramping up its climate change policy. Not only will executive pay be linked to reducing the company’s greenhouse emissions, but BHP will also begin monitoring and seeking to reduce the carbon emissions of its customers.

My work on the CSR phenomenon has stressed that there may be legitimate commercial reasons for companies to proactively address environmental issues to protect the financial interests of shareholders.

Despite — or perhaps because of — BHP’s extensive coal business, commercial considerations could well be driving the company’s emission strategy, given the scope of the global transition to renewable energy.

But of concern is that the new approach appears to have been adopted in response to pressure from climate activists “who have been pushing mining majors to monitor and try to reduce so-called ‘scope 3’ emissions — those from downstream manufacturers, such as steel mills, that use the iron ore and other commodities that BHP mines.”

This seems to be a clear case of corporate power and influence being co-opted by activists to drive their political agenda, skirt the democratic process, and exert control over the otherwise legal activities of companies.

This type of CSR initiative might, therefore, be fairly characterised as inappropriate political meddling in pursuit of ‘systemic change’, given that climate change policy has been one of the most contested and partisan political issues of recent times.

In a democracy, it is the parliament that is sovereign and makes the laws which all are obliged to abide by.  As Milton Friedman argued in his classic essay on CSR, when the social role of companies extends – as in this case – outside of the rule of law, business is effectively usurping the functions and acting as “simultaneously legislator, executive and jurist.”

The standard rationale for CSR is that its demonstrating social responsibility that enhances the good standing of brands in the community.

But it is hard to see how company reputations are enhanced by opening them up to allegations of acting undemocratically and operating above the law.

CSR should not become a license for companies to initiate a form of private government that undermines our democratic traditions and rides roughshod over the rule of law.

Ban this chemical!

Greg Pulscher

02 August 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Help me ban a substance responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year! Not exactly the statement you expected from a classical liberal think tank. But since we’re clearly in an era where blanket activism is shouting down sound policy; if you can’t beat them…

The CDC estimates 360,000 people perished last year from excessive consumption of this chemical, while 3.4 million people will pass away from exposure to untreated sources in 2019.

Disadvantaged countries are most at risk of death, unable to defend against its unrelenting nature.

The United States is the third-largest user. But in assessing the massive risk our planet faces from the chemical, you should be aware that China, India and Brazil are all in the top five users and distributors.

All those negative facts and figures will be useful in our activist campaign for a ban. It’s the kind of angle to attract the attention of news media addicted to polarised issues.

However — as we see with just about every campaign to ban something — extreme and one-sided viewpoints do not paint an accurate picture in any debate. Where is the civil and considered discussion about trade-offs?

For instance, there are obvious trade-offs when you consider the issue of energy sources. Nuclear will go ‘boom’ if done irresponsibly, wind and solar done irresponsibly leave the poorest without energy and send hazardous rare-earth mining overseas. However, both when done in the right circumstances are a net positive.

Similarly, plastics have been a significant contributor to nearly every field of industry. However, if tossed irresponsibly or burnt in excess, they will build up to create unsavoury living conditions.

Free markets by themselves do not solve inequality (but neither do all other economic systems). When everyone’s talents and skills are stacked up, there will always be those with more, and those with less.

However, freer markets are allowing billions of those with less to gain more increasingly — to transcend daily struggles of survival; finding food, water, and shelter. Even the poorest dealing with inequality, in a free market, have the chance to live better and more fulfilling lives than most of history’s wealthiest in past generations.

Focussing on trade-offs, rather than polar negatives and positives is needed in this time of forgotten nuance. Emphasising the massive positives, while responsibly acknowledging the faults, will help improve policy.

Next time hazard warnings of plastics, nuclear, wind or capitalism come up — think about trade-offs.

Oh, and that chemical I wanted your help banning? It’s commonly known as water.