Mark Latham, in a summary of the education section of his excellent Quarterly Essay (published by Crikey on Monday), reckons Australian public school education is not good enough. But he fails to describe the role the state might take to fix it.

He points out educational outcomes are overwhelmingly related to family expectations, a point made by Barry Jones in his book Sleepers Awake a couple of generations ago. Unfortunately, we ignored Jones’ book, and a conservative agenda that prescribed choice as the route to educational performance has dominated — and has comprehensively failed. Under this policy, federal money for school education has been targeted precisely where it can be guaranteed to do the least good. Latham as opposition leader tried to make this point, but with extraordinary help from the conservative media the message was swamped under the slogan of “the politics of envy”. Unfortunately, this is still the policy of the federal coalition.

Incrementally, federal Labor has defined a route that is likely to result in improved school results, particularly for our lower-performing students where the problem is most acute. Transparent accountability through the My School website is the first element. While opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has described the incorporation of financial data in this site as “the politics of envy”, this time it seems that the slogan did not work.

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Secondly, there is enormous potential in the national curriculum. This follows from the very successful introduction of a national vocational training system, started by the Bob Hawke government and continued under the Paul Keating and John Howard governments. The economies of scale offered by the national curriculum could lead to teacher certification to teach particular elements of the curriculum, online delivery and online assessment.  There are precedents for this in IT training systems.

And thirdly, there is Gonski.  For the first time, schools will be funded according to need, and this will allow the most important change of all: the allocation of our best teachers to the schools that most need them. This is a point I made in the comments section of Crikey in response to an article by Dean Ashenden. We cannot address educational shortcomings unless our best-paid teachers are doing the most difficult work and are awarded accordingly. Ashenden is pessimistic about the Gonski reforms, and in the short run he is probably correct. But the current situation is so clearly dysfunctional and will become electorally poisonous as people realise the consequences of not acting. In the medium term, something like Gonski will happen.

Currently, there is almost a complete lack of accountability of anyone in our public school systems from the director-generals downwards. Almost all positions are tenured, and those that are not might as well be. Teachers are not rewarded according to the quality of their work, but for survival. In an ideal system all promotion positions from senior teacher to director-general would be based on a contract, with performance evaluated at the end of the contract. The performance data that makes this possible is increasingly available, and there is a strong argument for increasing the scope of the My School project to enhance this potential. Ideally the system should allow mediocre performers to filter out of the system, and competent people to rise.

“What we lack in this country more than anything else in schools is genuine leadership.”

Our objective should be to place our best teachers in our most difficult jobs and reward them accordingly, the reverse is the case now. Under a high-functioning system, principals would receive funding commensurate with the difficulty of the job they face and would be able to recruit and pay teachers accordingly. For example, a school in an outer-suburban area with a particular issue with numeracy could recruit an expert in this area and perhaps pay as much or more than the current principal’s salary for this person. There is an analogy here with hospitals. The administrator does not expect his salary will necessarily exceed that of all doctors who work there.

Our best teachers are contemptuous of authority and administration, willful but focused, loose cannons and proud of that, charismatic and they change lives. Good principals get out of their way and pick up the pieces in their wake. Mediocre principals object to the flouting of their authority and drive them out of their schools. Needless to say, education departments are much happier with the actions of their mediocre principals. Were these senior administrators genuinely accountable, such teachers would be valued.

In order for our education systems to work we need to create an Australia-wide market for teachers. This would entail an extension of the recently introduced teacher registration systems to include for all interested teachers a form of validated online CV. Teachers should then have the ability to publish this registration page as far and wide as they choose. Principals would be able to advertise jobs through this system and indicate the salary they are prepared to pay and the skills they require.

Clearly such a system has huge implications for the education unions. They would have to morph from a 19th-century cloth-cap industrial model to an industrial consultancy capable of advising members on career pathways and available salary packages. This will not be easy, but every other professional union in the country seems to manage it, and does better for their members than the Australian Education Union.

Even assuming we can raise the standard of Australian education to be among the best in the world, it is highly unlikely that level of performance would justify the salary premium over the rest of the world that Australians expect. We need to add to our schools a culture of innovation that will transform the rate of wealth creation in this country. This is possible, and it does not even have to be expensive.

What we lack in this country more than anything else in schools is genuine leadership.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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