It is hard not to disagree with The Australian’s editorial of 22 May 2013 on the saga of education under the Rudd and Gillard governments, “So much was promised but so little delivered “.
They say this was “one of extravagant promises, lost opportunities, overblown rhetoric, dispiriting utilitarian thinking and wasted billions”.
“Never in the history of public education has so much money been spent for such little benefit. The problems Labor's 2007 education policy promised to fix - teaching standards, the neglect of basic subjects such as English, science and maths, declining results by international standards - are piled high in the in-tray of a future administration. This government's unimaginative response had been to throw more money at the sector and, when the money runs out, to blow smoke and position the mirrors.
“In practice, education policy under Labor quickly degenerated into stunts and announcements of questionable impact, contributing to the exhaustion of commonwealth revenue. There was the $1 billion digital education revolution, the distribution of the "toolboxes of the 21st century", the boxes the rest of us describe as laptop computers, delivered through cumbersome bureaucratic machines. Labor told us computers would "enhance the learning experience of every high school student in the country, giving them the tools they need to engage more effectively in the classroom and with the world". How much the "learning experience" was enhanced is an open question, but the march of technology has ensured that today's students are more attuned to digital technology than their parents or, often, their teachers. In hindsight, mandated laptops were a costly and foolish mistake.
“The global financial crisis provided an excuse for the Building the Education Revolution program, the wasteful and unnecessary construction of cookie-cutter designed school halls, outdoor learning centres and canteens managed through multiple layers of bureaucracy. As stimulus spending, it was badly planned and poorly executed. Much of the scheme was still being rolled out long after the worst of the financial crisis had passed. There is no evidence the grandly named BER made the slightest difference to education standards. The best that can be hoped is that the bureaucrats learned their lesson and such a centrally planned shemozzle is never contemplated again.
With the universities mishandling teacher education, the editorial goes on to point out that in December, 2012 “we learned that Australia's Year 4 students came 27th out of 48 countries - on a par with Bulgaria - in reading and last among English-speaking participants in the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. In science, the Australian children ranked 25th behind leaders South Korea, Singapore and Finland. In maths Australia's Year 4 students were ranked 18th. In March, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute sought action to address the shortfall of qualified maths teachers, especially in regional areas, because almost 40 per cent of maths high school teachers are unqualified to teach the subject. A year ago, the Productivity Commission's Schools Workforce report noted the shortage extended to science, technology and languages, including English, as well as those qualified to instruct special-needs students.
“Despite such critical shortages in key areas, it is a measure of the need for reform that tens of thousands of newly graduated primary teachers are on waiting lists in NSW and Queensland to find jobs. Tens of millions of dollars are being wasted training teachers at an annual cost of $16,500 each a year, but they never enter a classroom. That anomaly arises from the Gillard government's removal of the cap on subsidised university places, which has encouraged universities to enrol as many students as possible, casting a faux academic veneer on a poorly chosen curriculum that does nothing to equip student teachers for the realities of the classroom. Entry standards have suffered, which is at odds with Labor's pledge to improve teaching standards. This is a serious downside of the Bradley review's target of ensuring that 40 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds hold degrees by 2020. After a quarter of a century, the Dawkins reforms can be judged a failure in terms of teacher education.
“None of these serious challenges is addressed in Ms Gillard's endorsement of the Gonski plan or in her haste to lock in funding arrangements with states. Again the government has confused policy with politics. Either way, the fiscal foundations of the Gonski plan as now proposed are inadequate for the task. The federal government insists that $16.2 billion has been committed over the next six years, but the figure may just as well be written in candyfloss. The four-year forward estimates' spending of $2.9bn is all that Wayne Swan controls. The rest of the plan, stretching far into the future, is built on optimistic estimates of growth.”