Back To Front Down Under On Education Policies

I spent quite a bit of October in Australia, giving talks on education, music and technology. It was my first time in the country, and all the people I met who were working in schools, colleges or universities were unfailingly generous, enormously gracious and deeply thoughtful – about as far away from the ‘ocker’ stereotype as you could get. I also met many people who were frankly bewildered that the Labour government there appeared to be considering the same education reform strategies the in-coming New Labour administration did in the UK in 1997. Most educators in Australia are well aware of developments in the UK. So when they hear politicians talking about an ‘education revolution’ and that ‘tough action is necessary’, they have a pretty good idea where they’re headed.

There’s been a remarkable team of state government educators working in South Australia that I had the pleasure to spend some time with. For almost 10 years they’ve been developing a ‘Learning to Learn’ scheme which has had input from some global heavyweights in learning and neuroscience. (You can learn more about it here). It’s rooted in what goes on in the classroom, which, as John Hattie has recently concluded, is where all the truly effective interventions take place. But that now seems set to be replaced by an all too familiar range of reform mechanisms, federally imposed.

Education minister (and deputy Prime Minister) Julia Gillard has reiterated her commitment to a form of league tables, and holding school principals accountable to their comparative performance. As Peter Mortimer wrote in this weeks Education Guardian, ‘I was struck by [parents and teachers] astonishment that minsters are embracing an approach that everyone knows has been problematic in England.”

Should the Aussies follow our lead, how long before, faced with diminishing teacher morale and increased pressure, Australian schools begin ‘teaching to the test’? You can’t have league tables without more frequent standardised testing and no-one’s yet found a way of presenting the data in league tables which is fair, balanced, and comparable of like with like.

Ironically, this has come in the week that we, in the UK, finally seem to be getting a sense of how far the pendulum has swung in the direction of standards and accountability. The eminently sensible Primary Review Interim recommendations recognise that keeping kids engaged in their learning, and giving teachers some curricular freedom to become more creative in their teaching, is what will improve performance.

But, even here, Jim Rose (who leads the UK Primary review) was told that discussing the standardised testing regime (SATs) was off-limits. Somewhat courageously, Rose still referred to SATs as ‘the elephant in the room’ in all his consultations with Head Teachers.

After a decade of massive investment in education, and a steely determination to drive up standards of literacy and numeracy, the UK scored 15th in the 2006 PISA study of reading, and 21st in maths. Australians were 7th and 12th respectively. The trend for our PISA scores has been downwards for the past six years. Why on earth would anyone want to copy our mistakes?

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