Rudd Labor hammers public education

A significant blow against the Australian public school system was delivered on January 29 when the Rudd Labor government launched a website providing data on the performance of schools across the country — the much heralded “MySchool” website, hosted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. It will dramatically deepen inequality in the education system.

The website compares schools based on data collected by the National Assessment Plan-Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), a yearly test introduced by the Labor government in 2008. It is purely a diagnostic, one-day test, restricted to very narrow criteria of literacy and numeracy. It was never designed, nor is it able, to provide a general comparison between schools. Furthermore, the website’s statistics contain an admitted 34% margin of error.

Deputy PM and employment, workplace relations, education and “social inclusion” minister Julia Gillard nevertheless stridently defended the launch of the website in the face of broad opposition, claiming that the publication of comparative results would hold “under-performing” schools, teachers and principals to account and thereby improve educational outcomes. Most of the mainstream press and the Business Council of Australia also trumpeted the launch as improving accountability and transparency.

Gillard has claimed that the Rudd government is opposed to the publication of any schools “league table” based on the MySchool-provided data. However, a number of newspaters and a private company have already done this. The February 26 Sydney Morning Herald reported that “Australia School Ranking, sells a report ranking about 8000 schools via its website for $97. Its rankings are based on data — including national literacy and numeracy test results, attendance rates and staff numbers — drawn from the Federal Government’s My School website”.

The SMH quoted Australian Education Union federal president Angelo Gavrielatos as saying that while the Rudd government officially “opposes league tables because they are damaging but they facilitated their creation through the My School website. They did nothing about the newspapers who created league tables and now this online profiteer is getting away with selling them for profit.’’

At the mercy of markets

The MySchool website fits neatly within Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s neoliberal “education revolution”. This has nothing to do with improving education and everything to do with putting education more at the mercy of the “free” market. As SMH economics writer Jessica Irvine observed in a January 26 column, “This is no socialist revolution, but a ruthlessly free-market revolution whereby schools are service providers that can be measured on outcomes much like companies on the sharemarket.”

The aim of the MySchool website is to encourage parents to use the data to shop around for a “better performing” school for their children. The outcome of this shopping around, promoted by Gillard as about “choice”, will be entirely negative. The school system will be further split into two tiers — an elite tier and an under-achieving tier, attracting disproportionate funds, teachers and students accordingly.

Another aim of the league tables is to divide teachers as a means of further hobbling teachers’ unions in the face of future attacks on teachers’ pay and working conditions. This is to be done by rewarding “performing teachers” (who will receive much better pay and conditions) and sanctioning “failing” teachers. It aims at establishing greater inequality of pay among school teachers so as to encourage competition between them in place of solidarity.

Gillard has already warned “under-performing” schools, teachers and principals that they could be sacked. She has also tried to divide teachers from parents by blaming teachers for the parlous state of public education, and encouraging parents to confront teachers and principals with “robust conversations”.

Another negative effect will be the further narrowing of the curriculum. As pressure mounts to “teach to the test”, subjects outside the narrow parameters of the test will be increasingly downgraded. The arts and humanities are most likely to be whittled away, as they have been already in Australian universities.

It’s not just on paper that league tables look bad. The real-world experience has been disastrous. England’s education system has been ruined by the publication of league tables, according to the former chief of Britain’s Qualification and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston. He found that even capitalist employers were disappointed: “Employers have found that despite formal education qualifications, many candidates are lacking the ability to think fluently and lack initiative”, he told an Australian Primary Principals’ Association (APPA) forum in Sydney last August.

Opposition

There has long been broad opposition to the publication of national school “league tables”. Teachers’ unions, parents’ organisations, principals’ associations and some state governments were opposed to the Rudd government’s move. Public opinion is also overwhelmingly opposed. In this context, the teachers’ unions could have gone on the offensive, uniting and leading this opposition into a strong, combative movement in defence of public education. Instead, they have suffered a serious defeat. So the question must be asked: how did it happen?

The prime responsibility must lie with the leadership of the teachers’ unions and their failure to mobilise their own members and other working people in a genuine campaign against the tables’ publication. At first, it seemed like a real campaign was on the agenda. On August 27, a mass meeting called by teachers’ unions at Rosehill Racecourse in Sydney protested the proposed league tables. But by November, the Australian Education Union (AEU) executive had already braced itself for defeat, adopting a policy of “non-cooperation” with NAPLAN for May 2010 if the mass media went ahead with publishing the 2009 results. So, two months before the tables were published, the teachers’ union leadership vowed to take up arms after the forthcoming battle had been lost!

The 2009 NSW Teachers Federation annual conference also unanimously upheld its members’ opposition to league tables, but it too proposed NAPLAN bans in 2010 along with local actions, instead of calling for even a state-wide campaign of mobilisation. Then, at a media conference on January 29, after the MySchool website was launched that morning, Teachers Federation president Bob Lipscomb reaffirmed this course of action, stating: “In the absence of action by governments, teachers will take action to protect students, their schools and communities from the publication of league tables in the future.” But this was to shut the gate after the horse had bolted — the data upon which league tables can be compiled had already been published.

Relying on parliament

Instead of mobilising its members, the federation put its hopes in the NSW Greens to stymie the move in the state parliament. On June 18, the NSW Labor government introduced legislation aimed at overturning a ban on the publication of league tables. Instead of opposing league tables outright, the Greens only introduced an amendment to the legislation to stop newspapers publishing such tables, on penalty of fines of $55,000.

While Green Left Weekly reported the Greens amendment as a “significant victory for public education”, in reality it was token opposition: $55,000 is small change for the media monopolies. On December 2, GLW conceded that this “significant victory” was in fact the opposite, admitting, “it is very likely that NSW newspapers will defy the ban”. Of course, both the SMH and the Sydney Daily Telegraph published league tables the same day the MySchool web site went up. Moreover, MySchool itself is essentially a league table; the publication of its data in the newspapers was entirely secondary.

Selective work bans and token stoppages every three or four months have not proved enough to stop the Rudd government’s attacks on education. Nor can the unions rely on the parliamentary manoeuvres of the Greens or other parties. Only a systematic and concerted campaign that mobilises teachers themselves, alongside parents and students, in defence of public education has any hope of defeating Rudd’s anti-working-class “education revolution”.

[Owen Richards is a member of the NSW Teachers Federation and the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]