A few weeks ago, I set my third year education students a task. They were to research two hypothetical and alternative scenarios. The first of these was a proposed move, with a young family, to a locality in the UK for a few years. The second scenario was a similar move to northern Victoria.

In each instance, and using the Internet, my students were to scout out government (local authority in the UK) schools for their hypothetical, school-age children. The object of the exercise? To see which system was the more transparent, the more informative and more immediately responsive to parental enquiries, bearing in mind that the UK newspapers publish league tables.

At the end of the task, opinion was unanimous: the UK system provided far more candid information than did the Australian schools. This is because the UK’s Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) publishes detailed reports of the regular evaluations of all schools and these reports can be very easily found on the Ofsted site, arranged by category, by school name, by area and even by postcode. In these reports you will find measured and professionally-based comments on all curriculum matters, with a careful outline of the good – and the bad – together with suggested strategies for improvement.

In contrast, information about Victorian government schools can only be found by looking at individual school websites (if they exist at all) or the school annual reports on the departmental website (brief, bland and unhelpful). My students, all budding teachers looking for frank external assessment of potential employers, with some of them actual parents looking for the real lowdown on what goes on in a school, had no doubt about which system they preferred: Ofsted won hands down.

This sensible conclusion makes the current spat about Julia Gillard’s proposals for clearer access to genuine information about school achievement all the more puzzling, that is until you consider the recent political history. This narrative includes the Howard government’s big stick 2006 ‘accountability’ campaign, set up to deal with a supposedly recalcitrant teaching profession protected by an allegedly militant union organization.

Howard’s implacable revisiting of an old conservative NSW chestnut, cheered on by sections of the press, excited teacher suspicions. These misgivings were not alleviated by the 2007 general election result since, in late 2008, New York city’s schools’ Chancellor Joel Klein, was invited to Australia for a roadshow and tell.

Appointed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2002 to rescue the city’s ramshackle and under-performing education service, and with a reputation for talking tough and firing incompetent principals, the well-intentioned, if highly controversial, Klein seemed to have become a beacon of hope for educational policymakers, until, that is, his seven-year record was examined more carefully over time by independent experts. Critics of Klein range from Jennifer Jennings, a liberalish researcher from Columbia University, to academic Diane Ravitch, a conservative veteran of the 1990s US History Wars.

The anti-Klein view is based on accusations of statistical manipulation, simplistic progress assessment techniques, lack of actual and comparative progress in both socio-economic and ethnic-racial terms, hyped publicity about sacking of incompetent principals (compared with actual numbers fired) and offhand dumping of suspended teachers in so-called ‘rubber rooms’ scattered around the city. The conclusion? When a superficial and cosmetic political stunt, however benificent, is measured by a range of determined specialists, the outcome is generally not a good look.

That is why it’s important to try, as much as possible, to keep the discussion out of the realm of political and media opportunism and keep it firmly within a forum of rational and constructive debate about improving teaching and learning. This is going to be a tough task, if only for one reason: a tabloid media obsession with schools that ‘succeed’ and schools that ‘fail’, an approach combined with an editorial desire for league tables and a concomitant obsession with crude, vivid commentary that panders to prejudice.

This win/lose/blame mentality was exemplified in the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s notorious January 1997 caning of an entire and hapless Year 12 HSC group, at the western suburbs Mount Druitt High School, as the ‘Class We Failed’, complete with school photograph. The Telegraph, not a paper renowned for changing its tactics in the interest of common sense and good taste, was forced to apologise three years later by the New South Wales Supreme Court, with costs and an award to the student plaintiffs. However, that vindication came after a stubborn holdout by the Telegraph and trauma for the students and teachers.

As a precedent, it may not be counted as protection against future insults that are bound to come, because, however complex the published figures and details are, tabloid journalists will be keen to come up with league tables of one sort or another, not to mention sexy headlines and one-liner quotes – with winners, losers and evildoers. Whatever system is created to avoid over-simplification, the print and electronic media will find a way, even in New South Wales where, while press-instigated league tables are banned, the reduction of complex data to brief front page splashes, to feral op ed articles and to scathing editorials is not. And that is all to do with the relative freedom of the press, for good or ill.

The solution to the politicisation and sensationalisation of schooling therefore is threefold. First, the authorities must publish reports that give accessible, clear and authentic information that paints a fair, a detailed and a broad picture, and Barry McGaw, the federal curriculum head honcho, has promised this. It may take time, since it has taken Ofsted eighteen years to get to where they are today (with some major diversions along the way), so be patient.

Second, all governments, federal and state/territory, must educate parents and teachers so that they will actively look for the more complex backgrounding and make informed judgements about education, instead of just relying on banner headlines and crude rankings. This approach, presumably, is on its way and may result in an increasingly knowledgeable public disposition about schools and schooling. We live in hope.

Third, tabloid journalists must change their ways, look for a deeper meaning in life and disdain league tables. Don’t hold your breath.

Tony Taylor teaches and researches at Monash University.

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