So the Gonski Report on education funding has now been published

I haven’t read it and neither have you, more than likely. But I did download it just now, and the not unrelated report from the Grattan Institute, Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia. In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Gonski seems to have the Grattan Institute’s report in mind as much as his own.

As the global economy continues on its trajectory of change, the pressure is on Australia to maintain a knowledge and skills base that can change and adapt to keep up with the world around us.

The race is being run, won and lost every day. It is a continuing race and educational results tell us that Australia is losing ground from its strong position a decade ago.

It is no surprise to see Shanghai at the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s achievement table. There is an obvious link between its outstanding educational outcomes and its great leap forward as one of the world’s most dynamic cities and a centre for financial services and manufacturing.

But perhaps more of a surprise is the pack now ahead of us in mathematics – Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China: Macau. Canada also does better than us among 15-year-olds in the Program for International Student Assessment tests for reading, mathematics and science, and so does New Zealand…

I have been interested in the coverage given to the Grattan report – not an entirely objective outfit either, I would have thought, even if it claims to be. I have in the back of my mind some of the things very perceptive Singapore writer Alex Au has had to say over the years in his Yawning Bread blog, most recently Education system a high stakes board game.

The other day, as I was waiting in line at an automated bank teller, I overheard several schoolgirls talk among themselves about their choice of subjects to major in. They were about 14 years old  and were probably at the point of being streamed into Science, Arts . . . and then I said myself: Gee, I really don’t know what streams there are or how our educational system is structured anymore.  It’s been decades since I left school.

So, I asked around a few people more knowledgeable than I, and I thought I might share with readers what I learnt (apologies if you already know all this).

It’s obviously an important topic for many parents. A few months ago, I noticed several among my acquaintances figuratively biting their nails as their kids sat for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). This national exam for the 11-plus is often seen as a make-or-break point in their lives. The Education Ministry says it shouldn’t be (and rightly), and that our school system has several cross-pathways to allow slower developers to catch up. But I have the feeling that few parents know it or believe it. We more readily believe that the Singapore system is quick at judging and condemning, with no opportunities at remedy…

So much for the scheme, what about content?

Singapore’s overall educational scheme may be nice, but what about the quality of content? If at all to be considered, it has to be a separate discussion altogether, which I didn’t set out to engage my discussants on. However, there were tantalising side comments . . .

Generally, Singapore students do well in international comparisons in math and science, though whether it’s related to cramming is perhaps a pertinent question.

With language and communication skills, there may be room for doubt. One person I asked said something to this effect: “If you want to know about the quality of the teaching of English, all you need to do is just hold a conversation with any English teacher in a neighbourhood school.” This may well be an unfair statement reflecting the jaundiced view of that particular speaker, but seeing the language skills the vast majority of school leavers have, I have a feeling that she isn’t all that far off the mark.

Another teacher — she teaches chemistry — said something that made me even more worried: “Some of my colleagues hold shockingly unexamined views about race and religion — and they’re teaching the social sciences and humanities.”

A third contact reported increasing disciplinary issues in our schools, but with so much flux in thinking about how much control teachers should exercise, and how much spontaneity to encourage, there’s been a very uneven response to this issue.

See also Moral education likely to end up as immoral indoctrination, Old-style history lessons now history, Mother-tongue policy undermines education and our future, Confucius not allowed to teach here, Poor quality English in Singapore, Towards an open and inclusive society.

For an interesting perspective that I find well worth adding to our thoughts on this see David Zyngier on The Conversation. For example: Gonski review: another wasted opportunity.

The Gonski Review sought to create a new funding system for Australian schooling, because what we currently have is a mess. It was to be transparent, fair, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all students.

Gonski’s recommendations for a resource based funding model starts with a false premise. Since the Karmel Report 39 years ago we have witnessed a slow but ever increasing movement of taxpayer’s dollars from public schools to the private sector, all apparently on the basis of Commonwealth provision for school education on the principle of “need”.

The Gonski Review has accepted as holy writ that if parents decide not to send their child to the local public school, then the rest of the country is required to subsidise that choice.

The cost of choice

Why should a struggling worker on an average wage of $50,000 be asked to contribute to the education of the children of doctors and lawyers who have the financial capacity to choose to attend schools charging $25,000 after tax per student per annum. That worker doesn’t have the luxury of choice that the middle class have…

I well remember the Karmel Report. I was in the private sector at that time too and there was much angst, though everyone did survive – well, almost everyone. There is no doubt that Zyngier is quite right about the mess we have been stewing in for the past decade and more, a mess skewed heavily towards private rather than public education – hence the proliferation of religious schools of varying degrees of battiness over the past several decades.

Interesting too that we are having held up as models now by the Grattan Institute report countries or authorities – Shanghai is not a country – that are not necessarily famous for encouraging democratic values. Authorities indeed whose power to coerce policies and outcomes is rather greater than we (or presumably the Grattan Institute) would find palatable. Not that I am knocking the achievements reported there entirely, and what is said about matters like teacher mentoring is very impressive. And we are already following suit.

So over the next few days I will actually look at both reports. Maybe I’ll have something to say, maybe not. After all I am no longer in the game.

Locally see Illawarra gives education funding model tentative tick.

Spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong Peter McPherson said the Gonski findings were in line with Catholic education expectations, but said there would be a lot of discussion before the effects of the report would be seen.

He was concerned the new funding model could work against some Catholic schools.

The Illawarra Grammar School headmaster Stephen Kinsella said the report would spark interesting discussions, but was waiting to see how the Government would implement its recommendations before making a final judgment.

‘‘It is certainly recommending more funding for education overall and is maintaining the notion that there will be no winners and losers, which is a good thing,’’ Mr Kinsella said.

‘‘What has to be worked out is the process by which the schooling resource standard is calculated and that’s where some serious discussion will have to happen so the process is fair and transparent.’’

NSW Teachers Federation Illawarra regional organiser Nicole Calnan said the report had delivered good results for public schools and teachers but now it was up to the Government to act.

‘‘The problem is that this could end up becoming a political football, but we need all political parties to embrace the recommendations.’’