Christopher Pyne

What is happening with higher education in this election? (Yes you should be worried)

You might share my concerns about what is looming for higher education in the coming election. A returned conservative government would continue with its agenda to significantly cut funding to universities. It appears likely to continue with its plan to deregulate fees, albeit at a slower pace than previously proposed.

However the alternative that Labor seems to be proposing for higher education is based on a flawed assumption.

Pyne’s “dumped” package is still in play

Two years ago, the then federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, proposed a radical set of changes for higher education funding including, among other things, a 20% cut to university base funding and full fee deregulation. While the latter received support from some institutions and Vice-Chancellors, there were very few supporters of the whole package.

Among those who did not support it were the ‘cross-benchers’, the independent and minor party members of the Parliament of Australia who have held the balance of power since elected in 2014. So, thankfully, the proposals were not passed.

The Turnbull government has since introduced Senate voting reforms which means the minor parties will not be able to swap preferences in order to secure Senate seats as they have done in the past, and there is less likelihood of a future cross bench like the current one. This is a shame for higher education, in my view, as these folk actually listened to the sector and public and responded accordingly.

Mr Pyne has now moved onto other responsibilities. I will remind you just before he moved on he told us he was “the fixer”.

The new and current Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has released a discussion paper in lieu of budget measures.

However, a former senior Education bureaucrat, Mark Warburton, has pointed out in a piece in The Mandarin that Birmingham’s discussion paper includes some assumptions that were contained in Christopher Pyne’s 2014 budget, and abandons others. But is not completely clear what is in and what is out.

As Warburton says, it appears certain that the 20% cut to student subsidies under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) remains in the budget and that the government has also made it clear that it remains committed to Pyne’s reforms.

He adds that the government has clearly announced two additions to the higher education package. The first is that there would be an additional one-year delay to the start date, until the beginning of 2018. The second is removing the full deregulation of fees.

But Warburton points out that the additional proposals in the minister’s discussion paper are not included or mentioned in the official budget papers. They are simply options in a discussion paper. And one of these options is the incremental introduction of fee deregulation. This is indeed not Christopher Pyne’s proposed one-step approach, however it is very much an introduction of higher education fee deregulation.

To sum up my concerns about the Turnbull Government’s plans for higher education

I’m worried about the potential impact of a 20% funding cut to the ability of some regional and other smaller universities to operate. The opportunities for regional, rural and remote students to access university education would surely be affected.

Fee deregulation, no matter how it is undertaken, will lead to fee increases. My concern is this will set up yet another hurdle for various non-traditional student cohorts, because of actual costs or the perception that university education is too expensive.

Labor’s intentions for higher education is based on a flawed assumption

But I’m also worried about Labor’s intentions around higher education. Kim Carr has indicated that Labor will fund universities differently in the future, pointing to the importance of students completing programs of study that they start. The logical follow-through is that universities will be funded for completions, and the get-paid-as-you-enrol-students-each-year arrangement will no longer apply.
The assumption behind this sort of initiative is that universities need to stop letting students drop out. As if we do let students drop out. In fact, universities employ a wide range of strategies to keep students.

The strategies we use include the following: pre-enrolment advising; enabling and preparatory programs; concurrent academic support; counselling services; options to change enrolment internally with credit should a student’s original choice not be suitable; scholarships and bursaries; equipment loan schemes; financial assistance with study related costs; student-friendly approaches to administration and interaction; monitoring and responding to at-risk sub-cohorts; proactive advice provision; mentoring from experienced senior students; transition programs; staff coordinators; strategic directions from Councils; senior appointments charged with improving retention. Significant funding is directed at all of these efforts.

We do our best, improving our efforts every single semester, following every piece of research and other robust evidence that guides our efforts. At my university we trial new ways to put in place preventions and interventions, and we closely monitor the effects of these.

Having tried as hard as we can to keep them, we ask students who finally do decide to leave why they are leaving and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to drive continuous improvement. We ask students who stay what helped them to stay and succeed and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to recognise and reward efforts that work. Many other universities do the same.

But when students drop out, it is often because of demographic and/or personal factors, rather than because universities have stood by and let them fall away. Demographic factors that can contribute to the likelihood of drop out include being: part-time; mature-age; online; first year; an articulator from VET; the first in family to attend tertiary study; from a low socioeconomic status background; Indigenous; and/or a student with a disability. There are increasing numbers and proportions of these students in a massified university system.

Personal factors include challenges related to students’ physical and mental health, their finances, their family responsibilities, their paid employment commitments, relationship issues they might experience and/or accidents or misadventure. And when these personal challenges intersect with demographic characteristics, the impact can be profoundly negative for the student and their study success, despite every effort by a university to assist and to encourage them to stay in study.

Punishing universities for enabling students who have the characteristics above to get a higher education seems perverse. The exclusive universities will do well and the elite will prosper. Is this really what Labor wants?

We need an effective higher education package that will benefit all Australians

I’m worried that cuts to funding, fee hikes, funding formula changes and the absence of a cross bench who will not do deals with major parties will leave students, their families, their communities, the professions, the economy and society worse off.

As I see it the policies on offer so far will mean that many Australians will be turned away from higher education and the benefits it brings both personally and to the nation as a whole.

Marcia Feb 2016Professor Marcia Devlin is a Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin

Vice Chancellor Stephen Parker: Pyne’s higher education reforms doomed to failure

Christopher Pyne and I were on diametrically opposite sides over the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill and its associated Senate Committee inquiries, so the reader needs to interpret my comments in this light. 

Minster Pyne repeatedly said I was the only one of 41 “vice-chancellors” who did not support his reforms.  In the House of Representatives he was critical of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) at the University of Canberra, implying that its findings were biased because I was in charge of the university in which it was housed.  Even Tony Abbott acknowledged subsequently that NATSEM was one of the best-regarded modelling organisations in the country. So I guess I do have a starting point in this analysis!

I believe Christopher Pyne’s failed attempts at higher education reform is almost a textbook example of how not to get complex and controversial reforms through the Australian parliament. The Coalition did not control the Senate and did not spend time getting to know the people who held the balance of power.

The proposal to cut 20% funding to universities, partly to save money and partly to extend Commonwealth Supported Places to private higher education providers and sub-bachelor places, came out of the blue and flagrantly breached pre-election promises that there would be no cuts to education and no change to university funding arrangements.

Then there was the proposal to retrospectively apply a real interest rate to existing HECS debtors (when debts have been linked to CPI since the inception of the scheme).  I don’t think this really hit home to people. Hundreds of thousands of voters would have had a debt hike they could do nothing about. It was a real sleeper.

Let’s get on to allowing universities to charge domestic undergraduates what they wished, without any valid modelling of the impact on debt levels, or how young people would make choices in the light of an income-contingent loan scheme.  I use the word “valid”. I don’t actually know whether any modelling at all was done, because the nation’s experts could not say what the impact would be. Their best guess on fees was a doubling or trebling of levels, but it was only a guess.

Yes, the idea to apply the real rate of interest on HECS debts was dropped. It was a relief to many, but it also scuppered any logic to the scheme.  If the government were to borrow money at the long-term bond rate and lend it to students at a lower rate (in circumstances when default would also rise) then the changes would cost money not save it.   The more fees went up, the bigger the gap between the price of money to the Government and the amounts recouped. This was why I described the situation by December 2014 as “ideology in search of a problem”.

My colleague Ben Phillips pointed out that tertiary fees are part of the CPI basket, so a rise in higher education tuition fees would mean that a whole range of benefits and payments would also rise. He did not get a response to his observation from the Abbott government. By this stage we were talking about a scheme that would lose billions.  It couldn’t have lasted.  It would have inflicted debt on several cohorts of graduates until Treasury realised what was happening.  By this stage (circa February 2015) I was no longer sure it was ideology in search of a problem: it just seemed like it was all about saving the Minister’s skin, despite his self-proclaimed fixer status.

I could go on (I do, in fact, often) but suffice it to say this was policy by ambush, trimmed on the run in the face of evidence, and personalised in the face of opposition.

I welcome Labor’s intention, announced on Monday, to set up a Higher Education Commission, which would introduce a non-political rational actor to higher education reform, and to use Green and White Papers to allow reasoned debate.


Stephen-Parker1 copyProfessor Stephen Parker AO is the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra. He was previously the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Monash University in Melbourne. 

Prior to taking up senior management positions Stephen was a legal academic.  He has lectured at University College Cardiff, the Australian National University, Griffith University and Monash University.  He was Dean of Law at Monash from 1999 to 2003. 

Stephen moved to Australia from the UK in 1988, having mixed lecturing and legal practice over the previous decade.  He graduated with honours in Law from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and a Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Wales.  He is admitted to legal practice in England and Wales, the ACT and Queensland

Stephen has published books, monographs and articles on the court system, legal ethics, family law and children’s rights.  He is also the co-author of a textbook called Law in Context, which is designed to introduce law students to the way that other disciplines view law.

He has held various major research grants in relation to projects on lawyers’ tactics, lawyers’ values, discretionary rules, family law, judicial independence and reform of civil procedure.  In 2012 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law.

Stephen was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) as part of the Australia Day Honours in January 2014 for his distinguished service to tertiary education through administrative, academic and representational roles, and as a leader in the growth and development of the University of Canberra.

Pyne’s curriculum plans get an F for Fail (not Fixed)

Every Australian student deserves a quality education with access to the best teachers and resources. No-one would disagree with this lofty aspiration. But the Federal Government’s recent response to the Review of the National Curriculum gives us little evidence we are any closer to such a goal.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne asserts that there is a need to ‘rebalance’ the Australian Curriculum and ensure it is ‘robust and relevant’. Much of the national curriculum is yet to be implemented so rebalancing might be a bit premature. However, I would like to comment on several of the minister’s March 5th announcements.

Some seem to be at odds with each other and, in my opinion, advocate a further narrowing of the intended curriculum.

Pyne’s plans include:

‘reducing the quantity of content, adding more depth and less breadth’

Much has been written about a content-laden and overcrowded curriculum, especially in relation to the primary years. It is claimed that there needs to be a more explicit focus on literacy and numeracy in the early years. As Pyne puts it he wants more ‘basic literacy and numeracy’ taught, with no detail on what he means by ‘basic’ and how it could be taught.

We give children real world reasons for needing to learn how to read and write these days. Each subject area makes different literacy demands. At the same time subject areas do not stand in discrete isolation from each other. So a fair amount of content is necessary, unless the intention is that we go back to meaningless literacy (and numeracy) exercises, which were never really very effective in the first place.

The modern world is complicated and our children need to be able to respond positively to escalating change in knowledge. I believe we should be aiming for more than something labeled as ‘basic literacy and numeracy’.

 ‘strengthening the presence of phonics and phonemic awareness’

Phonics and phonemic awareness seem to be the panacea for the improvement of student literacy outcomes. Yet a knowledge of phonics and phonemic awareness will not make someone literate. Decoding letter sound relationships are only one aspect of learning to communicate through reading and writing. In any case the Australian Curriculum: English already includes a strong emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness.

 ‘combining history, geography, civics and citizenship and economics and business into a single combined humanities and  social sciences subject for primary schools’

This recommendation seems to be impossible and seems to work against some of the original intentions of a national curriculum. It implies a return to a weak and superficial 1950s type of Social Studies with no understanding of the knowledge base for these different disciplines. It appears to be another classic attack on the Social Sciences.

‘improving clarity, reducing duplication and complexity – especially in the way cross curriculum priorities and general capabilities are presented’

This is based on how the national curriculum is being read or interpreted. The general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities were never intended to be seen as additional curriculum content. Rather they were to be seen as ‘lenses’ which teachers could use to plan to ensure that content was linked meaningfully to the real world across the learning areas and across the grades. So the development of cross curricula skills need to be emphasized rather than reduced.

 ‘improving the accessibility for all students especially those with disabilities’

Everyone wants an inclusive curriculum that will enable all students to learn and develop. No argument there. But equitable access means some students will need more investment of expertise, time and resources. If the Federal Government is serious about this issue it will need to dramatically increase its specific funding for disadvantaged children and children with disabilities. Words make little difference here.

‘making the curriculum more parent friendly’

Teachers welcome parent involvement and participation in their children’s schooling. Those of us involved in education know how important it is to educate parents to ensure they understand the intentions of the curriculum. This does not mean, however, that the curriculum needs to be over-simplified or ‘dumbed down’.

As I see it, all of the above ignore the need for new and creative ways of thinking about curriculum and teaching methods. Worse, I believe they are likely to contribute to less equity, access, participation and therefore less social justice for many Australian children and young people.


r-ewing-am copyInitially a primary teacher, Robyn Ewing is currently Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts and Interim ProDean, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She lectures in Curriculum, English, Literacy and Drama across pre-service and postgraduate teacher education programs and is passionate about the role that the Arts can play in transforming learning. Robyn’s teaching, research and extensive publications include a focus on the use of drama strategies with literature to enhance students’ English and literacy learning. Teacher education, especially the experiences of early career teachers and the role of mentoring, sustaining curriculum innovation and evaluation, inquiry & case based learning and the use of arts informed, particularly narrative, inquiry in educational research are also current research interests.  She has worked alongside teachers in classrooms as a mentor since 1995 and is also working in partnership with Sydney Theatre Company on the School Drama project. She is National President of the Australian Literacy Educators Association, Vice President of the Sydney Story Factory Board and a Council Member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS).

Manufactured panic around teacher quality obscures the bigger issue

Politicians of all persuasions use the language of panic and crisis to whip up fear about the ‘quality’ of teachers, and their teaching.

The consequence of this deliberate attempt to shape public opinion, is that ‘quality’ has effectively become a smoke screen, obscuring the real and serious educational equity problems we have in Australia.

Equity is the equal opportunity for all children to get a decent education in schools that are adequately funded and resourced.

Some of my recent research has looked at how the language of panic and crisis are playing a role in public discussions about schooling in Australia.

In 2011, Australian writer David Marr wrote Panic, a collection of essays in which he examined the use of moral panic by Australian politicians in the shaping of public discourse in relation to different areas of social life.  On the dynamic of panic within Australian society, he wrote:

I’ve come to believe the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between Right and Left as panic and calm…This is an issue that goes deeper than division between the parties.  It’s about the odd willingness of Australia’s leaders to beat up on the nation’s fears.  They coarsen politics. They narrow our sympathies. They make careers for themselves in this peaceful and good-hearted country in states of exaggerated alarm…

Education is fertile ground for panic, as it provides a mass point of reference for the electorate: most voters attended school themselves and a large proportion of the population at any given time has children at school.

As Marr suggests, the key consequence of moral panic is fear.  Along with panics regarding ‘law and order’ (pink jumpsuits for bikies, anyone?) or the ‘takeover’ by immigrants and asylum seekers, educational panic seeks to undermine social trust while at the same time offering a simple solution to a complex problem.  In this case the solution is “improving teacher quality.”

I recently analysed 42 Prime Ministerial and Ministerial speeches, media releases and interviews, along with related print media articles, produced over a period of one week in September 2012.  The week in question began with the announcement, in an address given by the then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the National Press Club, of the ‘National Plan for School Improvement’ (NPSI).  The NPSI was the long-awaited Government response to the Independent Review of School Funding conducted by a panel chaired by David Gonski AC (otherwise known as the ‘Gonski review’).

The Government’s response at the time was surprising.  While the Gonski review had been set up to make recommendations about achieving greater equity, the response that came out the other end was largely about quality.  Largely absent from the ‘solution’ was any sense that the ‘problem’ was one of fairness and equity.  The NPSI looked more like a response to a review of teacher quality itself.

The claim that “nothing matters more to the quality of a child’s education than the quality of the teacher standing in front of the class room” is dominant in these texts.  This notion is deeply troubling because it discounts students’ background and simplifies the education discussion to the point where success or failure hinges on the quality of the teacher ‘in front of’ the class.

Kevin Donnelly, long-term opponent of “progressive fads” in education, like current Education Minister Christopher Pyne, extended the argument to suggest that the key problem here lies in “teacher training institutes”:

Attempting to lift teacher quality, by mentoring beginning teachers and ensuring trainee teachers have more practical experience, will come to naught unless teacher training institutes are forced to base what they teach on evidence-based research about effective pedagogy and less on postmodern, new-age, politically correct theory.

Accepted is the claim is that teachers are not effective enough, not literate and numerate enough, not skilled enough, seduced by dubious ‘fads’ and entranced by political correctness.

As Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, argued in a recent address on this issue in the US:

We need to stop chasing silver bullets and shibboleths if we are going to create genuine educational opportunities for all.  And finally, if American education is to improve we will need to support rather than blame our teachers.

The issue raised by Darling-Hammond of support rather than blame for teachers, is a salient one here in Australia. No matter how far we see that our educational problems as a society are complex consequences of a lack of equity, teacher quality is repeatedly named as the problem that needs to be fixed.

Australian politics has been particularly volatile in the months since the completion of my study.  First we saw the exit of Gillard and Garrett, the key champions of the NPSI, and subsequently the defeat of the Rudd-Gillard Government by the Abbott Liberal Government.

However the points I make about the role of panic and crisis in manipulation by politicians are perhaps even more salient now.

Current Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne tells us our education performance is falling according to OECD measures (as did Julia Gillard) but he said,

It is not money or smaller classrooms that make a difference because we have increased spending by 44 per cent in the past decade and reduced classroom numbers by 40 per cent. It is the quality of our teacher education training and the way we teach that has impact on student performance.

He also said at the same time,

Teacher education quality has been put in the too-hard basket for too long. A quality education system must be underpinned by quality teachers. The profession knows it, parents want it, our students deserve it and the nation needs it.

In other words, it’s all about teacher quality.  No equity issues to look at here, folks. (Read the full text of his piece HERE.)

All of this is not to argue against accountability.  Teachers must be accountable for their practice – to their students, their colleagues and their school communities.  But the kind of accountability embedded in critiques and crises of quality not only undermines trust in the profession but is also unlikely to bring about actual improvements in quality, despite ‘ticking all the boxes’.  The sad truth is that the vision of ‘teacher quality’ embedded in this version of accountability is an impoverished one.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the goal of attracting the ‘best and brightest’ into the teaching profession will be met under the current conditions and trajectory of accountability. What is required is perhaps a more intelligent form of accountability, described thus by Onora O’Neill, a teacher, philosopher and crossbench member of the House of Lords, in her BBC Reith Lectures in 2002:

Perhaps the present revolution in accountability will make us all trustworthier. Perhaps we shall be trusted once again. But I think that this is a vain hope – not because accountability is undesirable or unnecessary, but because currently fashionable methods of accountability damage rather than repair trust. If we want greater accountability without damaging professional performance we need intelligent accountability…Intelligent accountability, I suspect, requires more attention to good governance and fewer fantasies about total control.

For those of us within the teaching profession, there are specific implications and imperatives from this manufactured ‘crisis’.  We need to understand more deeply the political context of our work and the political processes that capture education.

We need to play a part in public debate and discussions of education, to address misconceptions and misunderstandings, to reject the premise of politically expedient yet educationally empty strategies and to suggest good alternatives.  We all – teachers, teacher educators, educational researchers – have a part to play in this.

Anything less is likely to contribute to, rather than address, a very real crisis of educational quality.


Mockler2Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Student Voice: Beyond Legitimation and Guardianship (Springer, Forthcoming) and the Australian Curriculum: Classroom Approaches series (Palgrave, 2013).  She is a member of the Executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education, an Associate Editor of Critical Studies in Education, and a General Editor of the book series Local/Global Issues in Education.


Class size DOES make a difference: latest research shows smaller classes have lasting effect

Money spent on reducing class sizes has not been wasted as Education Minister Christopher Pyne believes. The advice he has been given is wrong.

Reducing class size does make a difference, and the biggest difference it makes is to the schooling outcomes of our most vulnerable children.

I have just completed a comprehensive review of 112 research papers on class sizes written between 1979 and 2014 by researchers in Australia and similar education systems in England, Canada, New Zealand and non-English speaking countries of Europe.

I found that reducing class size in the first four years of school can have an important and lasting effect on student achievement. The more years students spend in small classes during grades K-3, the longer the benefits for achievement last during grades 4-8.

Smaller class sizes are especially important for children who come from disadvantaged families. I need not point out these children are overwhelming the responsibility of public schools in Australia.

The policy advice and commentary that says class size doesn’t matter, or is a waste of money, relies heavily on a Grattan Institute  report by Ben Jensen’s on Australian education and teacher quality.

Jensen suggests that the majority of studies around the world have shown that class size reductions do not significantly improve student outcomes, and that the funds should have been redirected toward enhancing teacher quality. The results of individual studies are always questionable.

But most significantly a range of newer peer reviewed studies on the effects of small classes have now emerged and they paint a very different picture.

I have used these in my review.

Notably, of the 112 papers I reviewed, only three authors supported the notion that smaller class sizes did not produce better outcomes to justify the expenditure.

Reducing class size to increase student achievement is an approach that has been tried, debated, and analysed for many decades. The premise seems logical: with fewer students to teach, teachers should achieve better academic outcomes for all students.

For those who choose private education for their children in Australia, it is often cited as a major consideration.

So it is important that politicians and educational decision makers get the right advice and the right information about class size.

For example it is commonly assumed that class sizes in Australia are smaller than they have ever been. This is not the case. While older members of our society may recall being in classes of 40 or more students in the 1950s and early 1960s, by 1981 class sizes in Australia were generally capped at 25 in high schools and 22 in technical schools. These caps have increased since their low point in 1981, even in primary schools; while the early years in many jurisdictions are capped below 26, grades 3-6 are treated like secondary classes and capped between 28 and 30.

In Australia commentators and politicians alike point to high performing systems such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, where large class sizes are the norm, as evidence that reducing class sizes is a futile exercise. But research indicates that students from Confucian heritage cultures are socialised in ways that make them amenable to work in large classes, so that management problems are minimal and teachers can focus on meaningful learning using whole-class methods.

An educational system forms a working whole, each component interacting with all other components. Isolating any one component (such as class size) and transplanting it into a different system shows a deep misunderstanding of how educational systems work.

However let’s look at how our class size compares. In 2010 Australia’s average public primary class size was 23.2 – above the OECD average of 21.3 and EU average of 20. This compares to 15 in Korea; 17 in Germany and the Russian Federation; 19 in Finland; 20 in the UK, Poland and Luxembourg; and 26 in India (OECD 2013).

Class sizes are smaller in both the Independent and Catholic sectors in Australia. As far back as 1979 there has been evidence that smaller class sizes make a difference.

Class size can make an even bigger difference when teachers change their teaching methods to suit smaller groups.  Read my paper for more.

You might be interested in this list of things that happen in smaller classes:-

  • Teachers were more able not only to complete their lessons in smaller classes, but to develop their lessons in more depth;
  • Teachers moved through curricula more quickly and were able to provide additional enrichment activities;
  • Teachers reported that they managed their classes better, and classes functioned more smoothly as less time was spent on discipline and more on learning;
  • Students received more individualised attention, including more encouragement, counselling, and monitoring;
  • Students were more attentive to their classwork;
  • Students had to wait less time to receive help or have their papers checked, and they had more opportunities to participate in group lessons.

Go to my paper for more lists of beneficial outcomes of smaller class sizes.

Policy makers, politicians and media too often discuss data about class sizes and impact on student learning without an evidence base, relying largely on second-hand research or anecdotes. Too frequently, advocates for particular positions select their evidence, conveniently ignoring research that raises questions about their favoured position.

Class size reduction is about equity – any policy debate must start with the basic inequality of schooling, and aim to ameliorate the damage that poverty, violence, inadequate child care and other factors do to our children’s learning outcomes.

I suggest we should have a policy to reduce class size in Australia’s most disadvantaged schools during  the first four years of education specifically when children are developing literacy and numeracy skills. This is more cost effective than an across the board approach.

While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall in closing the widening gap between the lowest and highest achievers.

Anyone looking at the bottom line of future costs to Australia needs to urgently and seriously consider further policies to reduce class size.

Dr David Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.

Decisions about teaching methods should be made by educators not politicians

Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia

One of the chilling features of the Federal Government’s education policy is its obvious intention to tell teachers how they should teach.

Until now governments have stopped short of dictating how teachers should teach, on the assumption that these are professional decisions that are best made by educators armed with the technical expertise, and knowledge of their students and their learning context.

No longer. It is clear that this government wants to follow teachers into the classroom and direct their practice. How so?

Let’s start with one of what Minister Pyne calls his ‘four policy pillars’ – quality teachers. On the surface this would appear to be a reasonable policy goal. Who could disagree that all our students deserve quality teachers?  But scratch beneath the surface and you will find some worrying policy intentions.

The first is the rationale behind the call for ‘quality teachers’. One of the features of the education debate over the past few years has been commentators and politicians confidently pronouncing on educational matters about which they have little knowledge or understanding. This is usually preceded by a recitation of the bleeding obvious, the most well-known being the platitude that ‘research demonstrates that the quality of the teacher is the most important in-school factor which promotes student learning’. If you say that seriously enough, it can sound quite profound.

Of course, once you have established this earth shattering revelation it is but a small step to making a number of other claims. The most prominent of these is to take the quality of the teacher as an independent variable, and then dismiss as irrelevant such matters as class size, teaching resources and factors of educational disadvantage.

Once this is done it is possible to claim that all the money spent on these peripheral matters has resulted in reduced learning outcomes, and hey-presto, you have an educational justification for reducing expenditure.  It is not surprising that Minister Pyne finds this an attractive thesis.

The problem is that it is nonsense. It is the interrelationship of the variables in the context of the learning which is important. They cannot sensibly be separated out in this way.

But having isolated teacher quality, the government is able to focus on those strategies which it claims will enhance it. This demands a view of what good teaching looks like – something Minister Pyne has not been shy to articulate.

In an interview with the Minister on November 28 last year, Alan Jones asked:

… Now you’ve got kids and you know that the way they’re being taught in the classroom is not the way you were taught and it’s not better than the way you were taught,

to which Minister Pyne replied: Well we’ve said all along Alan that we want to return to more orthodox teaching methods….

Then, after being sworn in as Minister he reflected that:

My instincts tell me that a back-to-basics approach to education is what the country is looking for, what parents feel comfortable about.

In these examples we have a lawyer, turned politician, suggesting that education policy should take us back to an earlier era on the basis of his intuition, the comfort level of parents, and how he was taught many years ago.

Since then, the Minister has fleshed out his vision. It involves going back to teacher-centred methods of teaching with an emphasis on ‘direct’ or ‘explicit’ instruction – both models based on the theory that learning is telling children things, getting them to remember things, and then having them reproduce what they have been told. This fits with his narrow view of curriculum as being largely about facts.

Now if this was just a personal view I guess there would be no harm done. But unfortunately there are signs that Minister Pyne wants to ensure that such approaches to teaching become the norm in Australian education.

A favourite target has been teacher education, and it is clear that the current review into teacher education is one of the vehicles selected to carry his version of how teachers should teach.

My view is that directive approaches to teaching have a place in any classroom, but they should not be dominant. If the curriculum aims to develop young people to be critical, creative, empathetic and inquiring, then there is an important, indeed central, place for process models of teaching which foster the capacity of students to learn how to learn.

With any single cohort of students, teachers will use a number of teaching models ranging from teacher-centred to student centred  as they are needed. Teachers must have the capacity to adjust programs to suit the needs and interests of their students, to assess student learning outcomes, and work with their peers to investigate issues, problems and dilemmas in their teaching.

And yet the Minister’s excursions into teaching practice never mention this. He and his acolytes focus solely on direct and explicit teaching methods, and ignore the fact that it is the professional responsibility of the teacher to select the balance of teaching approaches needed for the students in her/his care.

If we want to prepare students for the challenges of this century, education policy should focus on providing the conditions within which quality teaching can flourish, not seek to tell teachers how to teach.

An approach which values teachers and enables them to professionally develop throughout their careers is far more likely to result in quality teaching than one which demeans their professionalism.

Educators don’t need their Minister to be making decisions for them about how they should teach, any more than surgeons need the Health Minister to be telling them how they should operate.


alanreid-1 copyProfessor Alan Reid AM is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include education policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. Alan presented the Radford Lecture at the AARE annual conference in December 2012.