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Federal

Jun 23, 2017

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The shortcuts allocation on the keyboard is fast running out, but I suspect shift-control-F7 should be assigned to ‘”Pauline Hanson’s comments are appalling …” to save future time and energy. La Hanson’s comments about the teaching of special needs children are still ricocheting around the public sphere. They’re part of a longer speech about education and Gonski, and it’s a real One Nation special (pages 12 and 13 of the Hansard, for those who want a read) concerning the demise of standards of English comprehension and expression — expressed in sentences about one-in-three of which is well-formed — the failure to instil a sense of competition, and the decline of running writing (or cursive), inter alia. But it’s Hanson’s remarks on classroom problems that have attracted outrage, and it’s worth giving them in full, rather than the truncated reports of such. Here they are:

“There is another thing that we need to address, and I will go back to the classrooms again. I hear so many times from parents and teachers whose time is taken up with children — whether they have a disability or whether they are autistic — who are taking up the teacher’s time in the classroom. These kids have a right to an education, by all means, but, if there are a number of them, these children should go into a special classroom and be looked after and given that special attention. Because most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them they forget about the child who is straining at the bit and wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education. That child is held back by those others, because the teachers spend time with them. I am not denying them. If it were one of my children I would love all the time given to them to give them those opportunities. But it is about the loss for our other kids. I think that we have more autistic children, yet we are not providing the special classrooms or the schools for these autistic children. When they are available, they are at a huge expense to parents. I think we need to take that into consideration. We need to look at this. It is no good saying that we have to allow these kids to feel good about themselves and that we do not want to upset them and make them feel hurt. I understand that, but we have to be realistic at times and consider the impact this is having on other children in the classroom.”

Well yes, this is expressed from the perspective of the non-special needs child, constructing the special needs child as the problem. It could have been done more even-handedly. But to go by the news reports you’d think La Hanson wanted any kid who likes trainspotting and has impulse management issues to be consigned to the workhouse in calipers. Hanson is saying nothing of the sort. As I read it, she is suggesting that education would be better managed for special-needs kids and non-special needs kids alike with some degree of separate teaching.

Her expression of the issue suggests a less than rigorous examination of the research, but let’s deal with that further down. The crucial point I want to make is that Hanson’s suggestion that both teachers and parents are anything from disturbed to at their wits’ end by increasing problems of classroom management is spot on and appears to be nowhere registered in the debate around Gonski and other programs. For reasons that are cultural and political, much of the debate has been conducted as the exact reverse of Hanson’s intervention: almost wholly from the perspective of special-needs children and their parents, and with an unexamined bias towards the doctrine of total inclusion.

Hanson’s statement about teachers and parents rings true to me, because I’ve been hearing it from state school teachers — especially primary teachers — for years, and in a way that has not been registered in the public debate. Many find themselves unable to teach because their attention, energy and focus is consumed by one, two or three students or more in each class with serious behaviour management issues. Such kids have extreme attention deficit problems, restlessness, poor impulse control, learning difficulties, anger management, extreme aggressiveness and other issues. Some of them have learning problems; others are gifted, advanced and bored, as well as having poor social skills.

This is hardly news to anyone with a child in school, but there’s a curious veil of silence drawn across it. Over the past three decades, such challenges have come to take more and more of many teachers’ time and energy, as the spread of behaviour and forms of subjectivity of children has changed. Nostalgic ideas about children dutifully learning times tables without a peep are an illusion, but so too is the idea that nothing has changed. In an industrial mass-culture society, behaviour could be more patterned and regimented because society was. In a post-industrial society with multiple flows of media, fragmented social structures and a degree of “everyday autism” among adults who live lives surrounded by screens, images and texts, such regimenting goes awry. If we now talk incessantly about a spectrum, it’s because our society produces large numbers of children spread right across that spectrum — of behaviour, of subjectivity, of integration of self, and with others.

Our culture and society have changed, the social-psychological form of children has changed — but the way they’re educated has not. Or not enough. The working assumption of the single-teacher classroom is that all the students can be shaped to purposive activity by their sought consent, and, beyond that, discipline. If we now have a culture where increasing numbers of children cannot govern themselves — even if they want to — how can the classroom then be governed?

That was, of course, one of the issues the Gonski process was set up to deal with. Its partial roll-out was utterly inadequate to that challenge, and everyone knew it. Gonski 2.0 will also fall short. But even the most generous implementation of it may do so, because it is arguable that what underpins the process is a bias towards total inclusion that has less to do with outcomes, and more to do with ideology. Many parents and teachers suspect this — I can only report that many such people are more open to me about these matters, and say they are, than they are to their colleagues and fellow parents; this may have something to do with my status as a man with no children, and no skin in the game — and many are sceptical that disrupted classrooms can ever be made functional if a small minority of children in them are in need of constant behavioural management.

For many of those parents and teachers, Hanson’s remarks will come as a burst of honesty, in a debate from which they have felt excluded, since the Gonski process was first inaugurated in the Rudd/Gillard years. Like much of what came out of that era it is both well-intentioned and oppressive to many: social-technocratic, top-down, expert-led, with consultation after the fact. For many teachers it is just another policy cloud that drifts across their working lives from time to time: the curricula that change with the government of the day, the endless shifts in benchmarks, goals, the switch from chaplains saluting the flag pole to two periods of compulsory banana-condom led by the double-denimed central committee of Socialist Alternative, and on and on.

They know that a lot of this means very little. They know something else too: that problems such as the steady rise in hard-to-manage classrooms has a social class aspect. Private schools find myriad ways to exclude the behaviourally challenged; increasingly that becomes a selling point for parents who can afford their fees. Consequently, state schools find the ratio of disruptive students increase. Many parents feel exactly that sense of panic that Hanson alludes to: that the more their children need a good education and good grades to get any sort of place in life, the more difficult it is becoming to get taught.

Crucially, this is not something that is felt only by the parents of non-behaviourally challenged children.There are many parents of behaviourally challenged children who feel that a bias towards inclusion is a) unrealistic about the relatively “fixed” nature of children’s subjectivity beyond a certain age; b) being used as an excuse to not provide special facilities needed; and c) the product of a simplistic, moralising idea of “potential”, connected to political ideology rather than evidence-based social practice.

Those parents and teachers who do feel that Hanson is airing a point of view that needs discussing, will not be reassured — to say the least — by the blast of outrage, emotion, first-person discourse, drama of the autistic child, “letter to my office” response that has come in relation to it. It will confirm everything many believe about this policy debate: that it has swung round overwhelmingly to the point of view of the special-needs child, that any social category — gender, race, sexuality and disability — will trump social-economic class in the list of progressives’ concerns, that their deafness to the concerns Hanson is articulating come from a progressive class identification with the autistic/spectrum child, rather than the unremarkable kid in a working-class state school steadily going backward because they are deprived of teaching time.

Here’s an idea — if nothing else, it will provide year 12s with an example of “clear thinking” — why not reply to Hanson’s arguments, her alternative proposition about education, with counter-arguments, rather than emotive breast-beating? After all, the notion of maximum inclusion and minimum separation needs to be argued, not simply asserted. Most people who support it, and say “Gonski” as a one-word response to every educational issue, have no idea of the evidence for and against it. The more we acknowledge the changing nature of children, and the spread of behaviours, the more consideration there might be for a more modular process of teaching, beyond the one-size-fits-all industrial classroom, which Labor figures tend to have too much of a hankering for (disastrously, in many areas, such as indigenous education).

And above all, let’s face what we all know: current regimes of inclusion depend on the mass use of prescription amphetamines for teenagers, without any real consideration of the long-term physical and psychological effects. This is a continuing betrayal of children that is not addressed, because it is simply too hard to do so in the current framework. It is more scandalous than anything Hanson has said.

So, another fail by the progressive class. A result of lack of attention, poor preparation, and NOT ANSWERING THE QUESTION PUT. Must try harder. If you think no one notices these desperate and inadequate responses, think again.

Federal

Jun 22, 2017

5 comments

Pauline Hanson has long viewed people with disabilities as a threat that needed institutionalisation. Her outburst yesterday against disabled kids, whom she maintains should be withdrawn from mainstream schools, is only the most recent iteration of it.

Back in 1998, Hanson’s One Nation released a policy for “the disabled” ahead of the October federal election. In it, she made clear her dislike of de-institutionalisation of people with disabilities.

“The policy of shifting the emphasis away from ‘centre based care’ of the mentally and physically disadvantaged to community based housing will be reassessed.”

Why did Hanson have a problem with community-based care for people with disabilities?

“Much of the community concern at present stems from fear that residential areas will suffer from inappropriate placement of intellectually disabled people with anti-social behaviour.”

While Hanson was pandering to bigoted stereotypes about disabled people, the tragedy is that people with intellectual disabilities are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than either people with other forms of disability or people without disabilities. Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that people with an intellectual disability are around twice as likely to be the victim of a crime. This has been backed by other, older studies conducted well before Hanson vaulted to prominence in the 1990s.

And people with intellectual disabilities are massively more likely to be the victims of sexual assault — and much less likely to report it. In particular, as one study found, “it is predominantly women with a disability who continue to be the victims. The gendered pattern of sexual violence persists across diverse abilities and indeed across the lifespan.” A Senate inquiry in to violence, abuse and neglect of people with disabilities in both residential and institutional care unanimously recommended a judicial inquiry or royal commission into the whole area in 2015.

Regardless, Hanson continues to see disabled people as some sort of threat to and problem for the rest of us. Bigotry, it seems, never changes. Stupidity certainly doesn’t.

Federal

Jun 22, 2017

5 comments

It says much about the current state of federal Parliament that the government securing passage of $24 billion in additional schools funding is a big win, but it is. The economic reform purists won’t like it, and the sectarian rent-seekers of the Catholic education sector will complain, but this is reform that ticks the right boxes. It’s investment in human capital — exactly of the kind Reserve Bank head Phillip Lowe said should be a priority days ago. It reduces a misallocation of spending that has no economic benefit, it implements a sound funding model, and it does so in the face of opposition from influential sectors.

It’s not perfect — it’s a shame that an extra $50 million will be handed to the already overfunded Catholic sector — but the reversal of the position adopted by the Abbott government in its early days is now complete. There will be additional funding,  and there will be the features that then-education minister Christopher Pyne mocked and derided nearly four years: there will be a central body to oversight funding, there will be mechanisms to vet state government funding to ensure they maintain their funding. What was once a virtue — letting the states do whatever they like on school funding — is now a vice to be rigorously guarded against. And correctly so — the history of Commonwealth-state financial relations is the history of cost-shifting by the latter every time the Commonwealth provides funding.

[Doin’ the Gonski — a history of the Liberals’ school funding dance]

This is the kind of reform that Australia needs to be doing. Once you get beyond the hollow cliches and neoliberal nonsense of the business sector’s reform calls — less industrial relations regulation so companies can cut wages more, lower company tax rates, deregulation at any cost — where are the major reform priorities? Climate action, infrastructure, housing affordability and human capital — making our education and health systems work as effectively and efficiently as possible so that Australians can make the most of their opportunities in an era of challenging technological development.

[The ex-MPs sent out to spruik for the Catholic schools]

The other positive of the government’s funding package (Turnbull’s appalling appellation Gonski 2.0 should be taken out behind the Senate and shot) is that it also makes a start on reducing inequality in an age when inequality has worsened significantly. It could go much, much further — hundreds of millions could be saved by slashing funding to wealthy schools of all creeds and colours — but anything that targets inequality, the ever-present, background radiation of neoliberalism, is a good start. This won’t deliver equality of opportunity for school kids no matter their background, but it will shift a little toward that.

Now we’re left to watch an experiment — one you would have mocked as utterly implausible even a few years ago, let alone back in the days of Mark Latham’s private school hit list. Can Labor, in an alliance with the Catholic school sector, turn this into a campaign issue that will worry Coalition backbenchers enough that they start to panic?

That can be a problem for down the track. For today, Malcolm Turnbull and his minister Simon Birmingham can enjoy a welcome, and deserved, political and policy win.

Federal

Jun 22, 2017

5 comments

Crikey has been forwarded* an unverified memo regarding the Gonski legislation, allegedly written by Malcolm Turnbull. Its doubtful authenticity had us worried, so we contacted our super secret source to ask for corroborating evidence. But he’s out on a walk right now and unfortunately “left the proof in [his] other trackies”. This never would’ve happened in Spotlight …

MEMO

From: Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister

To: All Coalition Members, House and Senate

Members,

Please be advised that the government has secured the support of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation to facilitate the passage of education legislation through Parliament. In order to gain this support, the government has been obliged to make certain minor changes to education policy. The Prime Minister and Cabinet believe that these changes will strengthen our education package and provide a strong future both for the education sector and for the Liberal-National Coalition. It is important that all members be fully across these changes in the event that the media asks for detail about them, so this memo represents an outline of the tweaks which Ms Hanson and her party requested in exchange for their support. In essence:

  • Children with autism will no longer be allowed in mainstream classrooms, so as to not take teachers away from their prime duty of teaching Australian values to non-autistic children. Children with autism will be placed in special classes to learn to do sums incredibly quickly and play the piano, which Ms Hanson understands to be the main things that autistic people do.
  • Teachers will no longer be allowed to make students feel good. Any student caught feeling good will be severely disciplined under the new Constructive Cruelty Act 2017.
  • As per directions from Ms Hanson’s colleague Senator Malcolm Roberts, boys will no longer be permitted to attend school between the ages of 4 and 18.
  • Furthermore, the education system will return to competitive federalism, with the states to compete to be the best at education, and whatever state gets the best exam results to receive all the federal funding for the following year.
  • In line with One Nation’s pertinent observation that West Germany made better cars than East Germany after being liberated by Ludwig Erhard, a working committee will be set up to investigate the feasibility of Ludwig Erhard being made Minister of Education. Senator Roberts to chair this committee.
  • Every student to be given a Mercedes.
  • A return to teaching about the Constitution to be mandated in every school. Students who are found to be ignorant of the Constitution to be declared autistic.
  • Teachers to be given bonuses for liberating the human spirit.
  • Computers and calculators to be banned, and students to undertake mandatory work experience in Pauline Hanson’s shop with the electricity off to make sure they can add up.

Apart from this, the legislation remains essentially the same.

*via satirist Ben Pobjie

Federal

Jun 21, 2017

5 comments

Catholic Education Commission of Victoria executive director Stephen Elder

One of the many facets of the long-running and increasingly messy fight in Parliament this week over the issue of school funding has been that, like the banks and mining companies before them, the Catholic school sector has sent in former politicians to make the case that their schools are hard done by in the so-called Gonski 2.0 legislation.

The government this week is attempting to secure passage of its “Gonski 2.0” legislation for schools funding. Labor is opposed to the legislation on the grounds that it is substantially less than what the ALP had promised under the original Gonski model, in particular for the Catholic schools sector. While the government attempts to get crossbench support, the Catholic schools have been lobbying hard both in Parliament and in the media to get more funding than that currently on the table.

The most prominent is, naturally, the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC). This is an organisation headed up by former Labor MP for Macmillan Christian Zahra. Zahra spent his entire time in Parliament in opposition during John Howard’s tenure and left Parliament in 2004, when he lost his seat to Liberal MP Russell Broadbent. According to his speeches during his time in public office, Zahra has been consistent in his support for both public and private schooling.

Zahra was relatively young when he left Parliament and took on several directorships in the intervening years, most recently leading the indigenous social enterprise organisation Wunan Foundation.

In May this year, Zahra became the executive director of NCEC, taking up his post just a fortnight after the government announced the Gonski 2.0 funding proposal. Given his previous political career, his positioning seems less about getting the government to change its mind and more about shoring up Labor’s opposition, as well as fronting the media to make the case as to why the Catholic schools would lose out under Gonski 2.0. In announcing his appointment last month, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, the chairman of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education, said that Zahra would “speak clearly and passionately on behalf of Catholic school students, teachers and families”.

The other prominent spokesperson for the Catholic schools sector is Stephen Elder. Elder is the executive director of the Catholic Education Office in Victoria. Elder was a state Liberal MP until 1999, but unlike Zahra, he has been involved in the Catholic education sector since departing politics. This is possibly why Elder’s role has been more to front the parliamentary inquiry into the matter, but judging on the reaction he received from Coalition chair Bridget McKenzie, having a former Liberal MP in the position to lobby the government on behalf of the Catholic sector might not be that effective:

Elder: You are relying on a measure that it is flawed, so you keep pushing a public policy which everyone understands when they are talking about — whether it be the Grattan Institute, Gonski or Associate Professor Farish. If the model is flawed, you have to say, ‘This is bad public policy.’ You cannot say, ‘We’re going to give this amount to this school’ when–

McKenzie: Mr Elder, thank you for your commentary. You can hold a press conference after this hearing and go hammer and tongs — absolutely defend your right to do that — but here I am asking the questions.

Elder has a history of lobbying outside of the education sector, as well. In 2014 he lobbied then-minister Kevin Andrews to get rid of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (which the government did not scrap). Now dumped from the ministry, Andrews has been one of the most vocal opponents on the backbench against the Gonski 2.0 funding arrangement for Catholic schools.

On the same side, but from a different perspective, the education unions are lobbying the Greens to block or delay the legislation as the government attempts to cut some deal with the minor parties in order to secure the funding agreement.

Australia

Jun 20, 2017

5 comments

You can understand why the government is in a rush to try to get its Gonski 2.0 package through the Senate: the longer debate about it goes on, the longer rentseekers like the Catholic education sector and the Australian Education Union have to stir up both the left and the right against the package.

But much like when Labor re-embraced offshore processing in government, thus delivering the Coalition a major victory, trying to declare defeat and run proves difficult when your opponents prefer you to stay right where you are.

Failure to get some sort of package through the Senate this week means the issue will drag out through the coming parliamentary recess, allowing more time for troublemakers to complain, for Labor to tout its fictional claim of a $22 billion cut, for dodgy numbers to be paraded around, purporting to show how badly off Catholic private schools will be. The government has already shifted in response to retiring senator Chris Back’s threat to cross the floor, delaying the implementation of the package by a year for Catholic schools. That’s a signal to others that they might be accommodated, too. If it drags out, it will be at the same time that the internal dispute over energy policy is bubbling away. It could indeed be a winter of discontent in Coalition ranks.

Labor would be perfectly happy for the issue to remain unresolved at the next election, just as the Coalition was happy to ensure the problem of asylum seekers remained unresolved. For all the claims that Turnbull has, by co-opting David Gonski himself, neutralised schools funding, the entire issue remains one that Labor owns.

The Greens, who have had no difficulties agreeing to back the government in the past on small matters like changes to Senate voting or company tax transparency, appear unable to come to a position despite having the government keen to do a deal, even if it costs some serious money in expediting the rollout of the full funding model in coming years. Any decision from the Greens will be tomorrow, at the earliest. On the positive side for the government, One Nation has said they’ll back the package, despite Pauline Hanson making ridiculous — even by her standards — proposals to force schools to punish students more.

Embracing Gonski and taking the hard decision to cut spending on an over-funded private school sector was always a risk for Turnbull and his minister Simon Birmingham. If it doesn’t come off this week, it might become increasingly problematic. But there are still two and a half sitting days to go, and maybe some detention on Friday if there’s the possibility of late deal. Much rides on it.

Environment

Jun 14, 2017

5 comments

The Coalition government has been telling us since being elected in 2013 that the government does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.

The solution is clear: cut government spending.

But a representative survey of the Australian population, just completed by policy think tank Per Capita, casts doubt on this solution. Three-quarters of respondents believed the government should spend either a little bit more or a lot more on public services. This is the opposite of what the government is telling us, that we are spending too much. By contrast, only 15% answered either that the government should spend a bit less or a lot less on public services.

Allow me to repeat that for emphasis: only 15%  of the Australian population agree with the government’s “spending problem” narrative and its solution.

What are the government services that people want more government spending on? No prizes for guessing that topping the list are health and education, with 88% and 81% respectively (note: this is a separate question, and people can advocate more spending on health or education without advocating an increase in total expenditure).

What may come as a surprise is that nearly half the respondents believed we should be spending more on social security. This is despite ongoing rhetoric about lifters and leaners, taxed and taxed-nots and seemingly never-ending efforts to squeeze more government savings out of the social security budget.

While many survey respondents indicated that they would personally be prepared to pay higher taxes for this extra expenditure, the overwhelming majority felt that big business and wealthy individuals weren’t paying enough (82% and 68% respectively).

To further investigate attitudes to tax and government spending we asked respondents whether they thought, when compared with other developed countries, Australia was: a high-taxing, big-government country; mid-range-taxing; or low-taxing, small-government country. An outright majority (51%) believed that Australia was a high-taxing country, and 38% said mid-range. Only 4% of respondents correctly identified Australia as a low-taxing, small-government country. We are the sixth-lowest taxing of the 36 OECD countries, with only Switzerland, the United States, South Korea, Chile and Mexico having lower tax-to-GDP ratios than Australia.

One of the very interesting things about these results is that the majority think we should be spending more on government services even though they think we are already a high- or mid-range-taxing country. Imagine what these figures would be like if they knew the truth.

* Warwick Smith is a research economist at progressive think tank Per Capita. He tweets at @RecoEco

Australia

Jun 7, 2017

5 comments

This year marks a quarter of a century since former prime minister Paul Keating declared the “destiny” of Australia lay in Asia and the Pacific. Keating’s successors have followed this advice and kept Asia and in some ways Asian languages, firmly in the public consciousness, perhaps most theatrically by Julia Gillard government’s commissioning of the 2012 white paper Australia in the Asian century.

Gillard’s paper marked the nation’s commitment to Asian language study as key to helping the Australia of the future flourish, in both trade and diplomacy. Uncommonly in recent Australian politics, the commitment has proven somewhat bipartisan: Tony Abbott also pledged to raise the standard of school students graduating with Asian language proficiency during his tenure. This is a reflection on both major parties’ foresight in recognising how Australians can benefit from the continent to our north. “Asia Rising,” after all, is no empty moniker.

Therefore, 25 years on from Keating’s vision, the question must be tentatively raised: what state is Asian language study in today?

The short answer is, a poor one. For all the funding spent by state and federal governments on increasing enrollment, just 11% of secondary students graduate with a language other than English. The most recent Asian language study statistics are now several years old, so it is difficult to glean similar nationwide figures. However, the situation is dire if we focus on languages individually.

For example, the Asia-China Relations Institute estimate that students without Chinese background who choose to study Chinese in their final year of schooling dropped 20% between 2007 and 2015.

Moreover, class numbers are so low in tertiary level Indonesian, it is feared the language will have “virtually disappeared” from Universities by 2022. Losing the study of our closest neighbour’s language is undoubtedly ringing alarm bells in Canberra. Yet there are signs that this was inevitable.

Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, has suggested that the benefits of the current governmental approach are limited. He told Crikey: “Government funding does not achieve its aim. This is largely because support for Asian languages depends on school and university systems.”

As this suggests, there is no unified system that regulates language study in Australia. State education bodies and individual universities design their own language curriculums. This non-standardised approach is then offered to students who are encouraged to participate through rewards, such as bonus marks at VCE/HSC level or through scholarship opportunities at university (like the New Colombo Plan).

Clearly, this incentive-driven approach is not achieving the hoped-for results.

Unlike Australia, most countries in the European Union mandate that children learn at least one foreign language during their schooling. Japan, China and the Republic of Korea also have policies that make foreign language study compulsory for junior and senior secondary students.

In contrast, Australia has some of the lowest rates of second language proficiency in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Perhaps incentives alone will never achieve the language outcomes that other countries take for granted. Moreover, this decline in participation rates has led inevitably to lower expectations.

Yacinta Kurniasih, a lecturer in Indonesian language at Monash University, highlighted the lack of burden placed on language students. She told Crikey: “Australian educational bodies perceive (language) programs as tokenistic.” Consequentially, such bodies “only expect the minimum from students”.

Yet these minimum expectations Kurniasih refers to were not always standard in the Australian education system. Students were compelled to study languages other than English (LOTE) in the past; indeed, languages were once considered a prerequisite for some tertiary degrees. For example, in 1960, those students seeking to undertake a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University were required — regardless of their faculties’ extra prerequisites — to pass a matriculation exam in a language other than English. There is no coincidence that LOTE study also peaked in Australia in the 1960s, when some 40% of students undertook it at senior school level. This is a far cry from the 11% today.

If Australia wishes to achieve the same rates of language proficiency as that found in other OECD nations, it should consider adopting a mandatory approach. This seems to be the missing element in this discussion. Until that time, it is difficult to see how Asian language study can flourish in Australia.

There is hope. Over the last decade, Victoria has introduced language programs as a study requirement of all primary schools. Partly as a result, the number of students learning Chinese in the state increased from 10,000 to 40,000 between 2008 and 2015. If other states followed this initiative, then we may see the benefits reflected at secondary school and university levels. Moreover, the suggestions outlined in the “Australia in the Asian Century” white paper continue to be introduced into the national school curriculum.

Only time will tell if these policies lead to a greater numbers of students undertaking and persisting with the languages of Asia — the continent set to dominate the world stage — and which holds, as Keating opined, the “destiny” of our country in its hands.

Federal

May 26, 2017

5 comments

Bill Shorten and his team, evidently, know something the rest of us don’t know about schools funding that explains why Labor has adopted a “we refuse to be agreed with” strategy on Gonski. In question time last week, especially on Thursday, the opposition devoted most of its questions to the issue, including attacking the government on behalf of Catholic private schools. The days of the “Labor private school hit list” seem a distant memory.

But why Labor is stoutly defending the Catholic education sector, which has blatantly lied about the impact of the government’s big increase in education funding and which readily allocates taxpayer funding to richer schools ahead of poorer schools, is a political mystery that has stumped any number of commentators and even Catholic-educated MPs. Instead of celebrating the Liberals’ surrender on Gonski after years of resistance and multiple backflips, and promising even more funding for schools at the next election, Labor is fighting the package tooth and nail and insisting there’s a $22 billion funding gap.

One explanation is that Labor knows it is never going to lose votes to the Liberals on school funding, but it could gain votes, particularly in outer-suburban electorates, by defending the Catholic education system as well as public schools. Another is that, after Tony Abbott’s relentless negativity in opposition and government, Labor owes the Coalition exactly nothing and need brook no complaints about a lack of bipartisanship from Team Whyalla Wipeout. 

Today’s Newspoll, showing no noteworthy shift in Labor’s substantial lead over the government, suggests Shorten’s political instincts might, at least initially, be better than those of the rest of us who have been convinced Labor should have declared victory and vacated the field. And it’s despite a certain rattiness creeping into the opposition, with a shadow cabinet leak — extraordinarily rare since the 2013 election — internal divisions over Labor’s budget tactics and sniping at Anthony Albanese’s public statements.

The Prime Minister calls the $22 billion funding gap “fantasy money”, and he’s right. It never had any status. And whatever the government funding plan lacks in terms of comparison with Labor’s notional spending figure, it makes up for by finally reversing the funding gap between wealthy private schools and the public sector — something Labor (understandably) lacked the political courage to do. 

But as Abbott’s stint as opposition leader showed, fantasies can be every bit as damaging as reality, particularly when they play to voters’ perceptions. Labor is a big-taxing party, so why wouldn’t they impose a “big new tax on everything” that would wipe out the economy? Similarly, the Liberals don’t really believe in funding education properly, so why wouldn’t they “cut” $22 billion from schools funding?

Labor’s campaign has detracted from the focus on the governments higher education cuts, which have fallen out of the media cycle, although what looks like a difficult, if not impossible, passage through the Senate will restore them to public attention soon enough. But in effect Labor is campaigning hard in an area where it says additional funding isn’t enough, versus an area where real, and significant, cuts are being made.

The budget wasn’t designed to achieved an instant transformation in the government’s fortunes but to stop the rot and get voters to refocus on Turnbull, giving him another chance to rebuild credibility as a more centrist figure. So far, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that is happening. And much will depend on an issue that was wholly absent from the budget despite its pressing importance — climate change. The government’s climate action review — the one that caused a blow-up in Liberal ranks when the terms of reference didn’t include taking climate science out the back and shooting it — isn’t due until the end of the year, but Alan Finkel’s energy security review is due “mid year”, which is now a matter of weeks. How that’s handled, and whether it leads to another explosion by flat-earthers within the Liberal and Nationals, will play into whether voters give Turnbull a genuine second look, or the budget proves a mere distraction on the way out the door for him.

Meantime, Labor is proving coldly cynical in fighting on on Gonski despite the government’s abject surrender. The last people who can complain about that are their opponents.

Federal

May 5, 2017

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Labor is entitled to more than a little schadenfreude at the sight of a Coalition government defending its “Gonski 2.0” funding arrangements against complaints from Catholic education systems. Catholic groups should not try to “bully” the government into a special deal to increase funding and loosen allocation requirements, Education Minister Simon Birmingham said yesterday. Coming from the side of politics that reflexively accused Labor of having a “private school hit list” election after election, that’s rich indeed; that the Coalition once fought Labor moves to increase transparency and accountability for Commonwealth funding to private schools makes it all the richer.

The complaints from Catholic educators are also rich — about as rich as the Catholic schools that have been showered with taxpayer money in recent years. Between 1999 and 2007, Commonwealth funding for non-government schools rose by 111% in cash terms, while Commonwealth funding for government schools rose 61% in cash terms — reflecting the Howard government’s fantasy of an Aspirational Australia in which families would be subsidised by taxpayers to use private schools and private health insurance, buy privatised government business shares and be subsidised by taxpayers to invest in property.

That funding disparity didn’t go away under Labor. From 2008 to 2013, Commonwealth funding for government schools rose 7% in cash terms while non-government school funding rose 24%.

But Catholic schools are complaining that Catholic school funding will, under the government’s proposed funding increases, grow in cash terms by 53.5% over 2017-27 compared to 94% for government schools. The difference won’t even go close to denting the $27 billion extra that private schools received under Howard, Rudd and Gillard over government schools, of which Catholic schools received around half.

And as Birmingham correctly noted, Catholic educators were quite happy with the extra funding the government announced in the 2016 budget, intended to get Gonski off the government’s back for the election. This week’s announcement is yet more funding on top of the extra 2016 funding, but is now drawing criticism.

This is, then, hardly a repeat of the great state aid debate of the 1950s and 1960s. That debate was won nearly two generations ago by the Catholic Church and the Liberal Party. Instead, it’s something much more contemporary — the fury of rent-seekers who are already doing very well from government subsidies complaining that their increased subsidy is not going up as quickly as funding for a competing sector — despite enjoying a massive advantage for a decade and a half.

Tony Abbott, ever-eager for an issue on which to undermine Malcolm Turnbull, thinks differently, and is already invoking Menzies as he demands a “fair go for low-fee private schools” and foreshadows party room hostility. But so far he appears to be conducting a lone crusade. And with immaculate timing, the ABC happened upon an internal Catholic schools report from New South Wales that suggested students in the most disadvantaged diocese in the far west of the state have been disadvantaged by funding allocation to other dioceses.

This is the central issue of the whole schools funding debate — targeting funding at disadvantaged students to improve their performance. That’s the basis of the Gonski funding model from 2012: every student gets a set level of funding, but that is weighted to address disadvantage. The Catholic Church’s argument that it should control the allocation of funding, and it should not have to account for that allocation in the same way as government schools, vanishes if it is disadvantaging its own poorer students. Abbott will not so much be defending his alma mater, the luxuriantly appointed Catholic institution of Riverview, as he will a nontransparent and unfair Catholic education system, demanding even more of a no-strings-attached funding increase than it’s already getting.

Still, Abbott is a master of turning the thinnest, least plausible of arguments against sound, well-supported policy into a highly effective negative campaign.