Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, seems distracted by other political events as some disturbing developments emerge in Australian schooling.
The first is the astounding decision of the Victorian Government to drop the teaching of religious education in school time in Victorian public schools. This is quite contrary in spirit, if not also in law, to the national curriculum. The curriculum is underpinned, ironically, by something called the “Melbourne Declaration” agreed by all states. This declaration says the curriculum must be based in moral and spiritual values.
Perhaps the car number plates in Victoria should now read “Victoria: No Faith in this State”.
The second incident is the amazing court decision in Western Australia preventing a parent from obtaining access to questions asked of his child in a school test. This was achieved, it seems, on the spurious grounds that examiners would not be able to use those questions again.
The Western Australian Government looks to be taking no action on this while, at the same time, Minister Pyne released an app which is aimed at helping parents engage with school curriculum. The Curriculum Review, I point out, also put parental engagement at the forefront of its recommendations, including simplification of the wording of the document.
Then there is the disturbing decision by the national curriculum body, ACARA, to run future NAPLAN tests online, including the writing task. This will severely discriminate against up to 20 % of Australian schools students, especially those with disabilities.
The Chair of ACARA has defended the decisions, in an arrogant way as I see it, by saying it is a “as much a teaching issue as it is an assessment issue” and therefore is the responsibility of schools.
To me this is the kind of attitude we noted in the Review of the National Curriculum. Which prompts me to urge Minister Pyne to release his response to the Cook Review of ACARA, which he has now had for some time.
Surrounding all these missteps there is also the use of Naplan results to compare schools and states, a function for which it is neither designed nor suitable.
And now some schools are using Naplan results to help decide who will be offered future places, a serious misuse of this information. I believe the only valid use of Naplan is as a diagnostic instrument for teachers, in association with parents, to monitor progress of individual students and address any challenges. Good schools are doing this.
Naplan should not be used as a barometer to decide whether Australia is a smart or dumb nation.
If we are to have a national curriculum, and if we wish to lift Australia’s educational performance, developments like these need to be nipped in the bud and perhaps even trigger suspension of federal funding.
We are about to embark on a great debate over reform to the federation and it is very relevant here.
There may be some merit in devolving some powers over school education from the Commonwealth to the States but the performance of a few states, and the performance of the national curriculum authority over which they have a controlling interest, indicates they are not yet ready to be trusted.
Emeritus Professor Kenneth Wiltshire is JD Story Professor of Public Administration of the University of Queensland Business School. He was Co-Chair of the Review of the National Curriculum and Special Adviser to the Australian National Training Authority
He has published extensively on comparative federalism and constitutional reform, and for nine years was a Member of the Commonwealth Grants Commission.
Professor Wiltshire was a consultant for the New Federalism reforms of the Fraser and Hawke governments, and he was a founding Board member of the Constitutional Centenary Foundation. He has served as Chair of a number of Commonwealth-State bodies including the Australian Heritage Commission and the Wet Tropics Management Authority.
Professor Wiltshire served for six years as Australia’s representative on the Executive Board of UNESCO. In 1998, he was awarded the Order of Australia for services to policy making, public administration and UNESCO.