Ken Wiltshire: Pyne needs to do his job and fix these 3 emerging problems with schooling

By Ken Wiltshire

Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, seems distracted by other political events as some disturbing developments emerge in Australian schooling.

The first is the astounding decision of the Victorian Government to drop the teaching of religious education in school time in Victorian public schools. This is quite contrary in spirit, if not also in law, to the national curriculum. The curriculum is underpinned, ironically, by something called the “Melbourne Declaration” agreed by all states. This declaration says the curriculum must be based in moral and spiritual values.

Perhaps the car number plates in Victoria should now read “Victoria: No Faith in this State”.

The second incident is the amazing court decision in Western Australia preventing a parent from obtaining access to questions asked of his child in a school test. This was achieved, it seems, on the spurious grounds that examiners would not be able to use those questions again.

The Western Australian Government looks to be taking no action on this while, at the same time, Minister Pyne released an app which is aimed at helping parents engage with school curriculum. The Curriculum Review, I point out, also put parental engagement at the forefront of its recommendations, including simplification of the wording of the document.

Then there is the disturbing decision by the national curriculum body, ACARA, to run future NAPLAN tests online, including the writing task. This will severely discriminate against up to 20 % of Australian schools students, especially those with disabilities.

The Chair of ACARA has defended the decisions, in an arrogant way as I see it, by saying it is a “as much a teaching issue as it is an assessment issue”  and therefore is the responsibility of schools.

To me this is the kind of attitude we noted in the Review of the National Curriculum. Which prompts me to urge Minister Pyne to release his response to the Cook Review of ACARA, which he has now had for some time.

Surrounding all these missteps there is also the use of Naplan results to compare schools and states, a function for which it is neither designed nor suitable.

And now some schools are using Naplan results to help decide who will be offered future places, a serious misuse of this information. I believe the only valid use of Naplan is as a diagnostic instrument for teachers, in association with parents, to monitor progress of individual students and address any challenges. Good schools are doing this.

Naplan should not be used as a barometer to decide whether Australia is a smart or dumb nation.

If we are to have a national curriculum, and if we wish to lift Australia’s educational performance, developments like these need to be nipped in the bud and perhaps even trigger suspension of federal funding.

We are about to embark on a great debate over reform to the federation and it is very relevant here.

There may be some merit in devolving some powers over school education from the Commonwealth to the States but the performance of a few states, and the performance of the national curriculum authority over which they have a controlling interest, indicates they are not yet ready to be trusted.


ken-wiltshire copyEmeritus Professor Kenneth Wiltshire is JD Story Professor of Public Administration of the University of Queensland Business School. He was Co-Chair of the Review of the National Curriculum and Special Adviser to the Australian National Training Authority

He has published extensively on comparative federalism and constitutional reform, and for nine years was a Member of the Commonwealth Grants Commission.

Professor Wiltshire was a consultant for the New Federalism reforms of the Fraser and Hawke governments, and he was a founding Board member of the Constitutional Centenary Foundation. He has served as Chair of a number of Commonwealth-State bodies including the Australian Heritage Commission and the Wet Tropics Management Authority.

Professor Wiltshire served for six years as Australia’s representative on the Executive Board of UNESCO. In 1998, he was awarded the Order of Australia for services to policy making, public administration and UNESCO.


12 thoughts on “Ken Wiltshire: Pyne needs to do his job and fix these 3 emerging problems with schooling

  1. Ken thanks for the opportunity to engage with your ideas here. I will respond to your 3 issues in that order:

    1. Your lack of familiarity with the context of the delivery of Special Religious Instruction – SRI in Victoria is palpable (it is not Education and definitely not Teaching as you mistakenly state).

    It is all about fundamentalist Christian hijacking of the SRI program to evangelise and proselytise young children all in the name of their supposed “right of access” to schools as “mission fields”.

    After much media exposure and in department inquiries about some of the worst aberrations parents voted with their feet leaving fewer than 10% of students opted-in for these highly disruptive and hard to manage programs which segregated children on the basis of religion taking up valuable class time as all other curriculum lessons had to stop for this elective choice.

    If parents still want to have their children participate they can do this out of school hours – this will certainly test the viability of the program.

    And it will be replaced with a General Religious Education Curriculum developed by educators and professionally taught by teachers to all students. So much for your comment that this change is ” quite contrary in spirit, if not also in law, to the national curriculum.”

    2. Agreed with you on this one. Parents of course should not only have access to questions of a test but a child’s answers.

    3. Use of NAPLAN for comparing states and schools performance & use for entrance. Agreed it was never designed for this purpose and is not fit for to do this.

    However with NAPLAN going online – again you demonstrate your lack of understanding of school contetx – if NAPLAN is to be a genuine diagnostic tool for which it was designed teachers need to get the feedback quickly not many months later. I am sure that due consideration will need to be made for children with various disabilities – already most of these children are already withdrawn from the tests.

  2. Des Griffin says:

    Can one really assert, on careful reflection, that religious instruction is more important than world histories, cultures, faiths and ethics, domestic violence and respectful relationships? Attendance at special religious classes dropped by almost half.. The change has been widely welcomed! Australia is a secular state.

    As to NAPLAN the issue is whether standardised testing makes any contribution to educational achievement. The fact is that it does not! It’s time teachers were trusted to assess student achievement and supported those having difficulties. That is what happens in the nations where student achievement is highest such as Finland.

    Minister Pyne needs to focus on what makes a difference. The changes in Victoria are in the right direction.

  3. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks for your post, Ken.

    While I agree with many of your comments about NAPLAN – although I very much doubt that appropriate arrangements will not be made for children with disabilities – I think that your observations about the rationale for Special Religious Instruction are based on a misreading (or perhaps a fundamental misunderstanding) of the Melbourne Declaration.

    Far from saying that “the curriculum must be based in moral and spiritual values”, the Melbourne Declaration expresses the relationship between the curriculum and moral and spiritual dimensions as follows:
    The curriculum will enable students to develop knowledge in the disciplines of English, mathematics, science, languages, humanities and the arts; to understand the spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life; and open up new ways of thinking. (p.13)

    Surely it’s not in the spirit of the Australian Curriculum to relegate the development of the spiritual and moral dimensions of life to special religious education, the quality of which, as David has observed, is highly variable and taught by volunteers from religious organisations, and far more in the spirit of the curriculum for a religious education curriculum to be developed and implemented in schools by teachers for the benefit of all students.

    This is very much in the spirit of the “learning entitlement for all Australian students” which, as you would well know, was at the heart of the development of the Australian Curriculum in the first place.

  4. Linda Graham says:

    Dear Ken,

    Thank you for taking the time to make these points and for engaging with the AARE blog.

    On the matter of religion in schools, I have to say I don’t agree. Public education should be secular and there are plenty of (relatively) cheap, (government subsidised) private options should parents want their children to learn religion at school.

    Personally I don’t see why these parents don’t just avail themselves of Sunday school, whilst they themselves go to church, but perhaps that is because not many people go to church anymore and they’d rather the govt take responsibility for something they no longer want to do themselves?

    Like David, however, I agree with your comments about schools not allowing parents’ access to their child’s tests (and answers). As a parent, this one frustrates me no end. It is nigh on impossible to support childrens’ learning if we don’t know what they’re doing right or what they’re doing wrong. The reason that I’ve heard from my children is that the school is trying to discourage “cramming” for selective entry, as well as to avoid assessments/tests being passed between classes/years. It’s not ideal, either way.

    Finally, I agree completely that the use of NAPLAN to compare different states/territories is wrong but the cynic in me says that this was precisely what it was designed to do. Teachers already assess student learning and have always done so. Individual states have also had their own diagnostic assessments (e.g,, Developmental Continua and Year 2 Diagnostic Net in QLD, Basic Skills Test in NSW, and so on). Why else have a national version, if not to compare states? And that was always going to be an unfair contest, given that the states differ in the percentage of rural/remote schools, Indigenous students, public/private split, etc. I just shake my head when I think of the funding that has gone into this over the last decade. Talk about misdirected! Meanwhile results are declining but no one (in govt at least) stops to think that maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things…

    With regard to NAPLAN being taken online, I agree with David that the intent is supposedly to improve their diagnostic value however many of our schools lack the digital infrastructure to make this a reality. The changes may actually make NAPLAN more rather than less accessible to students with disability – if the developers succeed in personalising – but that won’t help if there isn’t the bandwidth to support all the devices in the first place!

    In any case, it is good to see these issues raised and I thank you for your contribution.

  5. James Ladwig says:

    Thanks to all for the interesting discussion. I thought I might add a few points (in what I think is ascending order of import).

    In relation to SRI, I think Nicole has noted the obvious: the Melbourne Declaration does not say a national curriculum must be based on moral and spiritual values, and there is no mention of there BEING a national curriculum in the ACARA legislation at all. So I think that line of argument is clearly, simply, false.

    The question of WHICH set of morals and values are to be adopted in a national curriculum does deserve debate and public consideration. Professionally, the case for all government agencies acting in secular fashion within a democracy has long been secure in political philosophy. I can commend John Rawls’ position on this to anyone interested (in his Theory of Justice, btw).

    The limits imposed if NAPLAN is on-line is truly something that can be addressed with sufficient resourcing to provide valid platforms for students in accordance with the ‘least restrictive environment’ principle of Special Education – and thus doesn’t really concern me. It will concern me greatly if that isn’t done – but most of the assessment boards are already well aware of these questions and ready to address them well. (Whether or not all individual schools and student GET that support is another matter. And that point is the source of Rob’s response — ACARA doesn’t have the authority, nor resources, to decide such things.)

    The issue of specific items being made public to parents, and the overall use of NAPLAN is a much, much more important concern, but I’m reasonably indifferent to the specific issue of specific items being made public. The fact they have been kept secret tells you all you need to know about the nature of the test, and its misuse. To me, The BIGGEST problem is that people are using NAPLAN in ways that are simply, technically, not valid.

    First: while I have repeatedly sought the technical specifications of the test (like its test-retest reliability), such information has not (to my knowledge) ever been made public. With a 40ish item measure per domain, no wonder. I HIGHLY doubt it is sufficient to the task of providing a reliable measure that can been attributed to individual students. So from a technical point of view, it shouldn’t be used in that manner. And yet we have repeatedly seen, heard, and been told about lots and lots of schools using it that way (Ken noted this). Unfortunately we have had some high level policy wonks advocating it for this purpose (e.g. Ken Boston made this slip a while back). Unless the use of its scores meets the level of confidence needed for that purpose, we should never hear anyone in a position of authority say that’s how to use it. To my knowledge, it simply isn’t up to that task.

    It’s utility as a school level diagnostic tool is more plausible, but as I and many others have pointed out, even when just considering sampling error (one grade level does not a school measure), we already know that the measures can not make the sorts of school to school comparisons being advocated by politicians who want to use the ‘parent choice’ market logic in their election pitches. And that doesn’t even raise the measurement error questions.

    It CAN provide independent measures of use for systems in identifying outliers. That’s about it, as far as I can see. Now that’s not to be sneezed at. I would suggest a regular regime of standardised testing isn’t useless, as many suggest. It is important for systems to be able to have relatively cheap means of identifying organisational units (schools) in need of support (and lets face it — standardised testing is a LOT cheaper than a system of independent cross moderation). But NAPLAN has been over sold and it is being used to do too many things for which it is not technically sufficient.

    As a parent, I would like to see an common sense evaluation of NAPLAN along the lines of: ‘is this new regime generating improvement in the measured outcomes over time?’ (doesn’t appear so), and ‘can anyone name one child whose life is better because of NAPLAN?’ Anyone? Compare that number to the number of kids lives made worse by it…

    The deployment of standardised testing CAN be an important systemic professional tool — with some stakes for teachers and principles at play. But we have yet to see any system on the planet that has improved because of the public use of this sort of data. (How’s England’s league table working out? Anyone seeing amazing results coming out of NYC? etc…)

    I suspect asking such questions will prove embarrassing to those who have made their careers advocating and rolling out these sorts of reforms. But the same sort of common sense can be applied to a host of reforms that have been politically forced onto systems over the past couple of decades:

    1) Anyone have any evidence that the teacher institutes have resulted in higher status and better quality pedagogy experienced by kids? I mention the status issue because that actually WAS the rationale in many states — at a time when objective measure of status indicated their wasn’t a problem (public perceptions of teacher status has been pretty steady for decades, last I checked). I am not defending that as a worthy outcome.

    2) Anyone seen any evidence that AISTL is worth funding at all? (same questions re teacher institutes of course)

    3) Anyone have evidence that the previous 25 odd teacher ed reviews and subsequent reforms actually helped anything? Really? (They surely have not helped education faculties within Universities.)

    etc, etc, etc.

    Before we start rolling out MORE standards that are ostensibly based on some sort of validity claim (now for principles, leaders, etc), I think we had better start being more open about the corporate and fiscal interests at play here. We all know who owns ‘Visible Learning,’ AND we all know who makes money from developing tests, literally, and we all know who wants SRI. Personally, I wish the profession really could stand up for itself and our children against undue influence of these interests — but we don’t really have professional representations that are independent of government or this or that industrial or sector interests (I include Uni’s in that btw).

    As for raising issues of who to be trusted, I’m not sure that’s helpful reasoning, nor all that trustworthy in itself. The individuals involved all work within systems that function in highly predictable ways — in fact, e.g., some of us predicted the effect of the teacher standards and institutes long ago. So to me the debate needs to keep focus on system design.

    I’d like to close by asking if Ken can elaborate more on his comments about devolving responsibilities to States…. Last I checked, the ACARA legislation was highly restricted, with the States carrying responsibilities for school ed (ACARA has to be limited to be within constitutional boundaries, doesn’t it?)

  6. Daniel Quin says:

    Others have more than adequately captured my thoughts in regards to the three main points of the article.

    Instead I wish to comment on the tone and style. I acknowledge I’m nitpicking but…..
    “Astounding decision by the Victorian Government”. It wasn’t particularly astounding to those of us in Victoria.
    “This declaration says the curriculum must be based in moral and spiritual values.” Must?? Nicole provided a more accurate representation.
    “defended the decisions, in an arrogant way”. Maybe he was arrogant (I’m not sure) but does this contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way.
    “trigger suspension of federal funding”. Again, maybe (I’m not sure) but does this type of scaremongering help?
    “Not yet ready to be trusted”. In the absence of more substantial evidence/ argument this seems condescending to me.

    Individually, each of my points are nitpicking but as a collective I don’t think the article reflects well upon research (AARE) particularly well. I appreciate strong opinions but not when it drifts into emotive scaremongering, lacking in evidence

  7. Thanks Daniel for your solid contribution here. You are spot on that KW uses inappropriate language for a researcher. James Ladwig’s comprehensive response ot the NAPLAN issues is worth sharing widely I thought.

    Note that Prof Wiltshire has not taken time to respond to any of the comments.

  8. Kenneth Wiltshire says:

    Just two comments in reply.
    The Melbourne Declaration does say that the national curriculum must be based on moral and spiritual values, and the state and territory governments do control ACARA since they have the majority voting power on the Board. This is part of the whole problem in that ACARA is a political body and not an educational one. Hence the Cook Report needs to be released.

    Ken Wiltshire

  9. Dr David Zyngier says:

    Prof Wiltshire your responses to the lengthy contributions from these esteemed researchers in education is dismissive and derisory. I would have hoped that you might take the time to actually respond in detail to the evidence provided in these comments .

    There are 3 references to morals is from the Melbourne Declaration:

    “Schools play a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social,
    emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians”

    “act with moral and ethical integrity ”

    “The curriculum will enable students to develop knowledge in the disciplines of English, mathematics, science, languages, humanities and the arts; to understand the spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life; and open up new ways of thinking”

    Values are mentioned 13 times however the term is never linked to moral but to democracy and nation. The term spiritual is mentioned as above 3 times but never linked to the term values.

  10. James Ladwig says:

    Ken, you are simply incorrect, factually, on Melbourne declaration. The relative influence of States is entirely consistent with their constitutional role. Hence, your reply includes a directly false claim and a truism.

    Such assertions add nothing, and in fact raise question of your competence to claim any expertise in the field. Care to try again?

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