Muddled thinking of Abbott Govt’s education policies undermines teachers and students

By Dr Eileen Honan

George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” We are in a remarkable policy moment in Australia, where the federal government is playing a strange, schizophrenic pantomime with Christopher Pyne perfectly cast in the role as education ‘reformer’.

It wouldn’t be too fanciful to make comparisons between Orwell’s dystopic vision of a society where history and the present are continuously re-shaped for political expediency and our own current political environment. It seems that each new week brings another ideology-driven announcement that relies on a blind faith in the logic of the market, while simultaneously ignoring the large body of education research.

The construction of this schizoid approach to education of course begins with the double backflip followed by a complete disappearing act on the Gonski school funding reforms. Despite going to the election on a unity ticket, the government has managed to not only reverse its commitment to an equitable school funding model but also to put pressure on the states to find the money themselves from 2017, as part of a broader divestment agenda.

A particularly striking example of doublethink came out in May’s budget, where Pyne announced a deregulation agenda for the higher education sector. He claimed that by removing the cap on fees, it will make studying more affordable and accessible for disadvantaged students because market competition will drive fees down. Never mind that, alongside this, federal government funding of student fees will be reduced and the cost of taking out a loan substantially increased. It was unsurprising that Universities Australia and several individual universities responded with evidence to show that, in fact, students would be much worse off under the proposed changes.

A further budget doublethink moment came from the government continuing to reduce investment in research through the ARC, NHMRC and CSIRO, while making grandiose claims about curing cancer from a new medical endowment fund that would be paid for by a $7 GP co-payment. Again, it was of little surprise when respondents pointed out that those who would be hardest hit were those already most disadvantaged in the community, while calling into question the veracity of the supposedly $20 billion medical endowment fund.

As most fledgling governments do, there are a number of reviews underway. Of interest to educators are the review of the Australian Curriculum and the review of pre-service teacher education. In particular, the choice of Kevin Donnelly to lead the Australian Curriculum review puts a cloud of doubt over the whole exercise, turning it into a farce. Donnelly has long been a heavily vocal detractor of the curriculum and, as a conservative commentator, is most certainly not the un-biased reviewer that he claims to be.

Further, the extraordinarily short timeframe for the review from call for submissions to providing the report to the government (less than 6 months), combined with Pyne’s claims that any changes would be ready for the start of the 2015 school year, make a mockery of the long, consultative and critically-engaged process undertaken in the development of the Australian Curriculum.

The combined announcements of the appointment of John Fleming to the AITSL board and the expansion of the Cape York Direct Instruction program provide us with some indication of where Mr Pyne sees the future for education in Australia. The $22 million expansion of the Cape York Direct Instruction  program to other Indigenous schools seems a complete mockery of the government’s commitment to closing the gap when held against the $534 million reduction in funding to Indigenous health and education programs. Many early years learning centres have no guarantee of continued funding beyond this year, yet a top-down, one-size-fits-all, interventionist approach to the teaching of reading English will be forced onto children across the country.

There are multiple concerns with the Direct Instruction approach (see Alan Luke’s post  from 7 July) which covers these), particularly in the long-term effects of the program. One worrying concern is that students who learn to read through DI might be very capable at decoding strategies such as ‘sounding out’ words but lack the contextual and semantic knowledge that would help them to understand what they are reading.

One doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict where this is all going. Pyne is on the record claiming that he supports a back-to-the-basics approach to school. Direct Instruction is one part of that picture, where teachers stand out the front of the classroom and lecture students from a pre-scripted program. Students sit quietly in nice straight rows and comply with the instructions to perform reading and writing skill drilling. Never mind that this goes against research that has shown, time and again, that students learn best when they are highly engaged, deeply involved and in control of their own inquiries.

Of course this approach to teaching fits in nicely with the Teach for Australia programme which has also had a $22million increase in its funding. The premise of this programme along with its counterparts in the USA and elsewhere is that teachers don’t require any pedagogical knowledge  and that this lack of pedagogical knowledge and skills can be filled through supplying these teachers with pre-prepared packages of materials.

The deep inherent contradictions in these moves by this government are summed up in the introduction to their Studentsfirst website where the first sentence about “teacher quality” is that “the first step to achieving a quality education, which is so critical for the future of young Australians and our nation, is to lift the quality, professionalisation and status of the teaching profession”.

There is no evidence that this government has done anything to take this first step: indeed the doublethink illustrated here is that they have done everything they can do to undermine the status of the profession.


Eileen Honan

Eileen Honan

Dr Eileen Eileen Honan is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Queensland. Her particular research interests include:
– the connections between teachers’ practices and curriculum guidelines;
– the interactions between home and school literacy practices particularly in relation to digital literacies;
– the development of vernacular literacy practices in Papua New Guinea and other nations in the Pacific Island region; – the development of new rhizomatic methodologies in  educational   research.

The author would like to thank Dr Stewart Riddle for his thoughtful contributions to this blog post.

4 thoughts on “Muddled thinking of Abbott Govt’s education policies undermines teachers and students

  1. Ania Lian says:

    So we have:
    1. A distrust in teachers and a rumour that teachers are basically incompetent. This feels almost like an attack on the profession.
    2. A return to a model of society where we educate for jobs except that those jobs wont be there once the students leave school so really we need young people who can engage in change, and this takes more than training in the “basics”.

    I am always astonished about this back to basics. What is basic? If reading is about differentiating between elements, how does the DI know what this process of differentiating involves? If we were to believe research first and most of all this process involves critical consideration of potentials. Yeah thats too deep. I know. Thats why many want academics with a message that they can all scream from the roof tops “I do , we we do, yu do” (try that with quantum mechanics). Anyway since I am at it, if sound is a wave, obviously, there is no single “it” that you can hear – in fact, you select what you hear and you can use computer programs to test it (thats why machines dont hear us well). So this selection process is about consideration of potentials. If you do not engage children in this consideration process and thereby reduce everything to a linguistic taxonomy, Damasio & Immordino-Yang’s research in neuroscience of emotion says, you PREVENT learning. In other words thats a recipe for killing learning. I doubt that anyone would want this.

    thank you
    Ania Lian
    Dr. Ania Lian
    Lecturer, School of Education
    Vice-President of AsiaCALL for Research & Innovation
    Darwin, Northern Territory, AUSTRALIA

  2. Hi Eileen, maybe read the national curriculum report when it is released instead of prejudging the outcomes. I’d expect no less of an academic. Best wishes, Kevin.

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