Is Mark Latham running education policy in NSW? Maybe not, but the direction is concerning | Jane Caro

Education is too important to be left to fringe politicians with ideological barrows to push

Last week Mark Latham tweeted that it had been a “good end to 2020 for NSW One Nation school’s policy”. He listed a policy checklist of achievements: a mandatory year one phonics check, a “clean out” of the NSW Education Standards Authority’s 42,000 professional development courses, a new “earned autonomy” policy for struggling schools, and the introduction of the Teach for Australia program - which fast-tracks people into the teaching profession.

If you take this tweet at face value, you could be forgiven for thinking one of the largest public education systems in the world is now run by One Nation. Of course, that’s what politicians do. They’re quick to take credit whether they deserve it or not.

But the policy shifts he was gloating about are real and represent a right turn in New South Wales’ education policy that has come as a shock to many who work in the sector. Synthetic phonics is at the core of the long-running “reading wars” and, while all teachers agree phonics (decoding words) should be part of learning to read, as the be-all and end-all, its effectiveness is hotly disputed. The 42,000 courses were providing the 100 mandatory hours of professional development teachers must do over five years to maintain their accreditation. And “earned autonomy” – a reference to the government’s “school success model”, means the highest performing organisations (schools in this case) “earn” less central control than those judged to be less successful. This idea understandably makes principals of tough schools very uneasy.

Even if Latham is not running education policy per se – that is still the domain of the Berejiklian government and education minister Sarah Mitchell - he has certainly ascended to a position of real influence. Following his election to the state parliament last year, he was appointed chair of the upper house education committee, leading a review of school performance earlier this year and writing the report himself (breaking with tradition). Some of these changes, such as the “school success model” policy, are very similar to what was proposed in that report.

One Nation won just 6.9% of the vote and two upper house seats in the last NSW state election - hardly a mandate for deciding the direction of schools. Latham’s influence is also one that does not bode well for our secular and inclusive public school system. The former Labor leader is particularly exercised about “gender fluidity” and worried about teachers in public schools being supportive of students who are trans or gender diverse. His glee at deregistering the 42,000 professional accreditation courses is the result. Apparently, some of them are designed to help teachers deal compassionately and effectively with students struggling with their gender identity.

Now, only the Department of Education, the Catholic Education System and the Independent Schools Association will be accredited to deliver professional learning for teachers. Latham has also introduced a “Parental Rights Bill” banning teachers and staff from teaching about gender fluidity, which is not due to be debated until 2021 but already been described as an extreme attack on the transgender community.

David Brown, CEO of the Professional Teachers Council, says his organisation was blindsided by the government’s changes. “We provide over 800 professional development courses, designed by teachers for teachers. We have never had a single course rejected and now we’ve had all of them deregistered, literally overnight.”

Principals have also recently been given briefings by the department about the new “school success model”. The model sorts schools into supposedly successful and unsuccessful ones and requires schools to set targets for student results and receive “support” if they fail to reach them. NSW education minister Sarah Mitchell says “the reforms announced over the past month were all flagged earlier in the year, and stakeholders were consulted with at length.” But principals I have spoken to have complained that so far it is light on detail.

As Briony Scott, principal of the private girl’s school Wenona and, co-incidentally, wife of Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott, tweeted the night Latham celebrated his triumph “if a politician, with no expertise, wants to change education, & if educational bodies that set standards for schools & teachers, lets that happen, then these are political (not educational) decisions. Schools and teachers are not accountable for other people’s point-scoring – just education.”

She is right. NSW and Australia in general have a history of not just setting educational policy for political rather than educational reasons, but of repeatedly taking on programs, such as Naplan and MySchool, from overseas only after they have failed comprehensively.

Mitchell believes these latest reforms are different, however. “There is an extensive evidence base behind the School Success Model, which will scale best practice across the system and provide struggling schools with additional support to help them lift outcomes. Feedback from teachers on the trial phonics screening check is that it is helping children to read and identifying those who cannot sooner.” She goes on to emphasise “at the end of the day this reform is not aimed at professors, special interest groups or conservative stakeholders - it is about the students.”

It seems the essential argument is perhaps just how best to serve those students. Craig Petersen, president of the NSW Secondary Principals Council, says that what educators want from our political leaders is, well, political leadership. “We want them to set the broad direction of education but to leave the details to the profession. We want effective practice, not populist practice.”

Professor Adrian Piccoli of the UNSW Gonski Institute, who was the NSW minister for education who introduced the Gonski reforms, says he refused to implement elements of Latham’s checklist when he was minister – such as the Teach for Australia program – because the evidence did not support them.

Professor Pasi Sahlberg, previously of the famed Finnish education system, now also with the UNSW Gonski Institute, points out that we have 20 years of research proving that punitive accountability measures simply do not work. And that performance targets using standardised testing (hello year 1 phonics test) is also completely out of date. “When the Department of Education comes out with the claim that schools make evidence-based decisions, it would be nice if they did the same,” he says, sounding exasperated. “NSW may be one of the most successful education systems in the world at adopting failed ideas.”

Worse, as Petersen points out, when you ask knowledgeable professionals – such as teachers – to implement programs they know do not work, the result is demoralisation.

Yet, despite everything, educators still manage to bypass the nonsense and NSW public education continues to do well. Despite comprehensive changes in our schools – Naplan results have improved, our international rankings in maths and science have gone up, more kids sit the HSC than ever, and more of them achieve bands 5 and 6.

As Briony Scott suggested, education is too important to be left to fringe politicians with ideological barrows to push. Let’s give the last word to Andreas Schleicher, head of PISA itself. “If education systems knew what principals know, they’d all be so much better.”


Jane Caro

The GuardianTramp

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