CATEGORIES
September.21.2015

A report card on Christopher Pyne’s performance as Education Minister

By Keith Heggart

Christopher Pyne leaves the position of Minister for Education and Training and becomes Minister for Industry Innovation and Science in the new Turnbull Government. Keith Heggart gives Pyne a school style report on his efforts as the nation’s Education Minister.

 

Name: Christopher Pyne

Class: Education Minister of Australia (2013-2015)

 

Subject: Cooperation with stakeholders

Grade: F

Positive feedback is impossible to give in this subject area, much as I’d like to say he tried hard if nothing else. As I see it Christopher’s efforts have been more directed towards dismantling relationships with stakeholders, rather than building them.

Whether we are talking about primary, secondary or tertiary education, Christopher engaged in an ideological struggle against stakeholders that will have detrimental effects upon the education of students for years to come.

An example Christopher’s work in this subject is his dealings with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL).

Education in Australia is currently undergoing significant change, with the introduction of the Australian Curriculum and the move towards a new model of Professional Standards for Teachers ( neither of these being Christopher’s innovations). AITSL has a significant role to play in these changes. In the past, AITSL has adopted a co-operative and collaborative model, working with teachers, policy experts and other stakeholders in the field. Everybody had a chance to have a seat at the table.

However, recently, Christopher made the unilateral decision to completely restructure the board of AITSL. He excluded some stakeholders entirely, and made the Institute a political animal rather than an evidence based policy one. This decision was apparently made without consultation or advice with any of the organisations and institutions involved. It is a clear demonstration of the ideological agenda Christopher pursued at the expense of education in Australia.

Teachers, the profession most affected by any decisions made by AITSL, had their representative bodies removed from the board, and thus no longer have a voice in decisions that will directly affect their lives and careers. Both the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the Independent Education Union (IEU), who represent more than 250 000 Australian teachers, have now confirmed that they will have nothing further to do with AITSL until this decision is changed.

Perhaps this is a first and urgent job for new minister Simon Birmingham.

The role of an education minister is to improve educational standards across Australia; the best way to do this is through collaboration and cooperation. Due to failure to do this, and his destructive and counter-productive actions, I feel I have no choice but to fail Christopher for this part of his role.

 

Subject: Higher Education Reform

Grade: E

One of Christopher’s flagship reforms as Education Minister was his plan to uncap university fees. He was seeking to allow universities, specifically the elite sandstone institutions, to charge what they wanted for their degrees (which according to various reports, could have seen some degrees double or even triple to costs approaching $100 000).

Thankfully, the fractured nature of the Senate meant that Christopher had to negotiate with some of the crossbench senators if his legislation was ever going to reach the Australian people. Christopher proved himself spectacularly inept at doing this (hark back to his inability to achieve co-operation with stakeholders).

Despite promises and desperate text messages before the voting (and also the holding to ransom of 1700 researchers and their jobs), Christopher failed, not once, but twice, to get the vote through the upper house.

As I see it the reason is simple: Christopher did not engage the public in this matter. He did not convince us deregulation was vital or in the nation’s best interest. Even Senator Glenn Lazarus, a political unknown in many ways, was straightforward in his criticism: Lazarus said he could not find a single reason to support the bill.

Regardless of whether you support the idea of fee deregulation or not (and you shouldn’t, it’s a ridiculous idea), Christopher’s role in this parliament was to get the legislation through, and in this he has proved himself to be out of touch with the other members of the parliament, and lacking the communication skills necessary to establish a vision. In this case, Christopher is certainly no ‘fixer’.

 

Subject: Student needs and school funding

Grade: E

Australian schooling is facing many challenges and undergoing significant changes at the moment: for example, primary and high schools are wrestling with the adoption of the Australian Curriculum and the increased emphasis being placed on high stakes testing (neither are Christopher’s fault, though he has since fiddled with the curriculum, again in an ideological way, we’ll get to that soon).

Into this environment (before Christopher) the Gonski Report was introduced in 2011. It sought to establish student need as the fundamental principal for the amount of funding a school should receive from the government and in doing so it sought to restructure the labyrinthine complexities of the current school funding model. Recommendations from the Gonski report were to be implemented over six years under the previous Labor government, with most of the money coming in the final two years.

During the election, the Coalition repeatedly promised that there would be no cuts to education, and even claimed a ‘unity ticket’ with Labor on school funding.

However, after the election, by November 2013, Christopher had already backpedalled  from this promise as he slashed spending from the education budget. This was bad enough, but it was only the beginning: more strange reforms and thought bubbles were on their way.

One of the ideas raised by Christopher included the suggestion that wealthy parents could contribute a fee to send their children to local public schools. This grew out of the idea that the federal government should become the dominant funder of all schools and systems, a radical change to the education system that has more to do with economic efficiency than investing in the future of Australia and its education system.

Australia has had free public education for decades; charging parents $1000 or more, as was rumoured to be the case, would effectively destroy that principle. The reality is, once again, Christopher was demonstrating his lack of understanding about the educational domain, and rather than treating it as an important civil good, he seemed to see it as a business to be squeezed in order to extract every last drop of financial advantage. Such an approach might be good for a Fortune 500 company, but not for school education.

 

Subject: Knowledge of Pedagogy and Curriculum

Grade: E

Perhaps the most controversial of all of Christopher’s reforms was his decision to undertake a review of the Australian Curriculum, announced in 2014. Before examining the nature and purpose of the review, it is worth considering the timing: the Australian Curriculum had not even been fully implemented in all schools and states at that time; why on earth would you undertake a review into something that was still being implemented?

Of course, the reasons for the review were not about evidence based research policy, how could they be? Instead, they betrayed Christopher’s ideological bias. This is particularly obvious in his choice of reviewers. Never mind the fact that the curriculum is already overseen by an independent body and on that body sit the representatives of every state and territory education minister, and never mind the fact that they had already approved the curriculum for adoption in Australian schools. Instead, Christopher risked restarting the ‘culture wars’ by appointing arch-conservative Kevin Donnelly to conduct the review, a man with very close connections to the Liberal party and a conviction that the current curriculum (with its cross curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Sustainability and Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia) was some kind of Marxist conspiracy.

Not surprisingly, Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire (the other reviewer) made a number of recommendations, including emphasizing the role of Western civilization and placing more emphasis on ‘morals, values and spirituality’, effectively sending Australian education back to the early 20th century. The emphasis on a ‘back-to-basics’ approach’ was at the expense of a wider range of instructional pedagogies that would meet the needs of all students. It certainly did not acknowledge the changing nature of learning and teaching in Australian schools in the 21st Century.

Christopher, once again, made decisions based upon his own ideologies rather than consulting with a wide range of education experts currently working in the field, and considering their advice.

 

Recommendations

Despite Christopher’s apparent potential, his time as education minister has been a disappointment, especially for many educators who have worked with him. Much as he might benefit personally, I advise, most strongly, that he should not repeat this class.

 

Here is Christopher Pyne’s self report  on his performance as Education Minister

 

Heggart copy

 

Keith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney.

 

 

13 thoughts on “A report card on Christopher Pyne’s performance as Education Minister

  1. Daniel Quin says:

    Can anything be salvaged for this student?! Effort?! Attendance?

  2. Keith Heggart says:

    Hi Daniel, funny you should mention that – I was at a conference in 2014 that Pyne was too ill to attend -so he can’t even get marks for attendance!

  3. Keith perhaps you have been a bit harsh on poor Christopher – he did turn up most days and he did try (hard) to return our education system back to the “bad ol days” of the past.

    And he was kind of funny as the class clown too!

  4. Keith Heggart says:

    David,
    I like to think that I was ‘firm but fair’ – after all, surely, Christopher would want to be held to the same high standards that he held teachers to.

  5. I agree Keith with firm but fair. Perhaps he came from a disadvantaged background and needed some extra support? Oh I forgot he made sure that extra support only was available to private schools!

  6. Des Griffin says:

    The proposition that “much was achieved” by Pyne as Minister for Education is not just disingenuous, it is wrong. Pyne misunderstood the nature of education and the recent contributions to knowledge and understanding about it.

    Despite the well-known difficulties, the Rudd-Gillard governments’ reforms introduced in school education and related matters, including teacher competence and in early childhood, were the most far reaching in 35 years. The Whitlam Government which came to power in 1972 had addressed the very same issues.

    Pyne and Abbott accepted, then rudely repudiated and ultimately abandoned the National Plan for School Improvement which had adopted much of the Gonski Panel’s recommendations. Under the Plan the Commonwealth was to provide two-thirds of the extra funding. In their headlong drive to reduce expenditure they junked the last two years of the Plan. Even conservative politicians, members of the Panel, condemned the decisions! More recently, a paper on Federation reform examined possibilities for changing funding, as if that was the major issue!

    The Rudd-Gillard years largely reflected the Howard Government’s support for independent schools which saw a huge move away from public schools. When Lyndsay Connors & Jim McMorrow examined school funding (ACER, Camberwell 2015) they found the costs to government of this shift over the period 1972 through 2012 exceeded $3,300 per student for the 634,000 additional students or $2.1 billion more than would have been incurred had the students attended public schools! Asserting that educational achievement declined despite increased expenditure as if money was not important is wrong, not just simplistic! Years of research show independent schools do not contribute to better outcomes! Supporting them is a waste of taxpayer’s money though unfortunately funding of some of them has become embedded in the way Australia functions.

    Pyne’s support for Direct Instruction which demonstrably does not meet the need for essential student engagement is no more than an uninformed attack on that engagement. His support to bring NAPLAN on line ignored all the evidence, well-rehearsed, that standardised testing contributes nothing to educational gains and certainly does not allow valid between school comparisons.

    The promotion of greater independence for school principals in financial and staffing functions ignored the fact that it is curriculum independence and teacher cooperation that is important and that a focus of principals on education, not administration, counts. Lauding the experience of Western Australia was silly: no supporting evidence was found by Melbourne University’s audit.

    The curriculum review by persons not expert in the area was unnecessary and partisan. The ongoing support for chaplains in schools subverted the High Court’s judgement.

    Teacher quality was substantially addressed by the previous government: simply demanding demonstrated competence in numeracy and literacy was superficial. Last minute support for music education in schools by Pyne and by Brandis was the real highlight. Not mentioned in Pyne’s media release!

    The higher education reforms were a farce. That all bar one of the Group of Eight Vice Chancellors supported greater fee flexibility was not all that surprising: how else might they have gained more funding? Equitable access to higher education is a major issue as demonstrated by substantial research outlined recently by Simon Marginson and others. Allowing private providers into the industry led to more corruption and billions of dollars gong to shonky promoters who enrolled students with little or no hope of completing courses which anyway often did not exist. Promotion of the reforms concealed further substantial cuts to university funding and for a while a vitally important element of scientific research infrastructure.

    The Abbott government’s education policies were based on the assumptions of neoclassical economics, that choice and competition drive improvement, that efficiency is improved by involvement of the private sector, that financial incentives drive individual performance and that much of the gains in higher education are to the individual and therefore are not appropriately funded by the taxpayer. The “accountability” in the form of the NAPLAN tests had unfortunately received support by Rudd-Gillard. The irrelevance of these assumptions is not part of some socialist agenda: discard of them is supported by thoroughgoing peer reviewed research which people like Trevor Cobbold have relentlessly and carefully gathered.

    The greatest tragedy of the last few years concerns early childhood. Economic and social disadvantage – parents both working or unemployed, lack of educational resources in the home, limited opportunities for participation in stimulating creative activities or even adequate neighbourhood recreation space – then has greatest impact. It seriously limits later upward mobility and the educational potential of the child. It is then that the greatest cognitive development occurs and when behaviours are learned in areas such as self-control and self-confidence. The consequences in later life are profound. Fail to address that and the divide of inequality remains, even increases, bringing a cost to all of society. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds attending well-resourced preschool staffed by qualified and trained staff gain substantially. This has been demonstrated by substantial research from studies of neurophysiology, behaviour and psychology as well as behavioural economics.

    A recent University of Queensland study using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children showed factors such as demographic location, books in the home and whether the mother worked to be the critical factors significantly driving educational gains. Independent schools did not contribute. The latest Human Development Report, for 2013, from the United Nations points out that a mother’s education level is more important to child survival than is household income.

    The former government had obtained buy-in from the states through COAG to a medium term plan to ensure all children attended preschool for at least a year before they entered school. The early childhood sector, like all sectors of education, has been underfunded in Australia. Not all states achieved the targets.

    The Abbott government’s response? It couldn’t see past the contribution parental leave might make to participation of women in the workforce: an economic issue instead of early childhood development which anyway ignored job availability! Time and money were wasted in promoting an overgenerous scheme which was ultimately dropped, in attacking the unions involved in seeking better pay and conditions for teachers in the early childhood area and in favouring allowances for nannies which contributes nothing to cognitive gain of the less advantaged.

    The Abbott Government’s education policies were disastrous because they ignored every shred of evidence which did not accord with their preconceived ideas about how the world worked. The grade which should be attributed to Pyne is off the scale. Keith Heggart’s report card is comprehensive but he is far too generous.

  7. Des Griffin says:

    Further commentary with appropriate links, on the issues raised in my perhaps excessively long response, can be found in these articles: The Education of Christopher Pyne, Christopher Pyne’s University Reform Fiasco and in other articles within the folder Education: Life’s Choices. Renewed efforts must be made to convince Minister Simon Birmingham to reform the policies of the Pyne era.

    Further commentary with appropriate links, on the issues raised in my perhaps excessively long response, can be found in these articles: The Education of Christopher Pyne (http://desgriffin.com/education-backgrnd/pynes-school-education/), Christopher Pyne’s University Reform Fiasco (http://desgriffin.com/in-australia/university-reform-fiasco/) and in other articles within the folder Education: Life’s Choices (http://desgriffin.com/education-backgrnd/).

    Renewed efforts must be made to convince Minister Simon Birmingham to reform the policies of the Pyne era.

    This is interesting: the Minister, in accordance with Administrative Arrangements Order signed by the Governor-General on 21 September, now has responsibility for early childhood matters including childcare policy and programs and their development, tax assistance as it concerns Family Assistance, child care benefits, rebates, services and carers, the Early Years Quality Fund and other relevant matters. These were previously within the Social Services portfolio.

  8. Dr Kevin Donnelly says:

    In relation to the national curriculum, that I co-chaired, funny how most of the recommendations have been endorsed by ALP and Liberal/National Party governments at the state, territory and commonwealth level.

    Last week’s meeting accepted a greater focus on Christianity and Western civilization. ACARA has also accepted the change of emphasis.

    Hard to describe as a neo-conservative plot 🙂

  9. Keith Heggart says:

    Kevin,
    Thanks for taking the time to read my piece. I think your argument is a little disingenuous. Education ministers and ACARA approved the original Shape of the Australian Curriculum document back in 2009, and again in 2012 – without seeing any need for a greater focus on Christianity and Western civilization. I’m sure you’re conscious of the fact that governments influence educational decisions in significant ways – such was the point of my criticism. While politicians and political bodies might have accepted the review’s suggestions, many teachers and education academics remain unconvinced. Perhaps you’d like to address their criticisms?

  10. Keith Heggart says:

    And while we’re on the topic, I hardly think that the review has the unqualified support from state governments that you claim. For example, I note the Adrian Piccoli in NSW is in no rush to adopt the changes. See here for more: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/education-nsw-goes-slow-on-primary-curriculum-as-commonwealth-chalks-up-changes-20150920-gjqpd1.html

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