The 2008 Melbourne Declaration, endorsed by state, territory and commonwealth education ministers, is the strategic ‘road map’ that has directed school education across Australia over the last 11 years. The primary aim of the Declaration is to improve ‘educational outcomes for all young Australians’ by promoting ‘equity and excellence’. The Declaration also promises to ‘improve the educational outcomes for all young Australians to become second to none amongst the world’s best school systems’.
Late last year Dan Tehan, the Commonwealth Education Minister, announced there would be a review of the Melbourne Declaration and to begin the process a national forum was recently held attended by education ministers, the heads of education and related bodies.
Given the additional billions invested and the multitude of initiatives and programs implemented to achieve excellence (a key goal of the 2008 declaration) one might imagine the issue would have been high on the agenda. Especially given over the last 11 years academic standards as measured by international and national literacy and numeracy tests have either flatlined or gone backwards.
Not so. Whether the Melbourne Declaration has been successful in promoting excellence as measured by a high-quality, rigorous curriculum, effective pedagogy and improved academic outcomes was treated as inconsequential and ignored. Such is the dominance of the cultural-Left’s PC agenda that it should not surprise all the speakers at the forum, with a couple of exceptions, focused on the issue of equity and overcoming disadvantage.
Speaker after speaker argued more must be done to help indigenous students, those with disabilities or those living in rural and remote areas thereby ignoring the needs of the majority of students, especially high achievers, that consistently underperform. It’s no secret that top-performing countries like Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea are able to get significant numbers of students to perform at the advanced level in international tests while Australian students pale by comparison.
The day was spent in an alternate reality far removed from the practicalities and challenges of the classroom where bureaucrats and representatives from peak bodies engaged in the usual platitudes and clichés bedevilling the profession. One speaker enthusiastically lauded the fact that Australia’s underperforming students are happy go to school with smiles on their faces compared to the apparently glum students in Japan who excel in international literacy, numeracy and science tests. Another speaker despite various reports commissioned over the last 10 to 15 years suggested all teachers and school leaders are equally committed and positive and the profession is beyond criticism or reproach.
A third speaker, as did a number of others, expressed concerns about the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests on the supposed basis that setting minimum standards and testing students works against equity. Better if parents remain ignorant about whether their child’s school is performing as well as other schools and taxpayers are denied the information to evaluate overall standards.
Not unexpectedly, the indigenous representatives argued Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children must be taught about their unique language and culture and there needs to be a greater focus on indigenous issues across the entire curriculum. The impact of the digital age and the need to promote 21st century learning involving a curriculum based on generic competencies and capabilities like critical thinking and working in teams also rated highly.
Ignored, as one speaker had the temerity to say, is that the basics are equally important as the overwhelming majority of business people surveyed agreed too many students left school and began their working lives barely literate and numerate.
The most unsettling aspect of last week’s forum, even though the Melbourne Declaration has failed to achieve its goals, were the speakers arguing there should be even more government and bureaucratic involvement. Whereas the Declaration only dealt with schools a number of speakers argued any new declaration should be expanded to include pre-school and tertiary education. Ignored is the likelihood that increased government interference will lead to an even more substandard and flawed system. Overseas research proves reducing bureaucratic interference and red tape and giving schools greater autonomy leads to stronger educational outcomes. What is needed in Australia is an education system based on subsidiarity instead of a top down, inflexible, command and control approach much loved by politicians and educrats.
Notwithstanding the above concerns there are a number of positive observations about the talkfest that suggest, if acknowledged and allowed to inform any new declaration, all is not lost.
Information is not knowledge and understanding is not wisdom and as argued by one speaker students need a deep knowledge and appreciation of key subjects and disciplines. Creativity and the ability to solve problems are domain-specific and to suggest otherwise flies in the face of all the research.
While education is utilitarian and, by necessity, must involve practical knowledge and skills it is equally true as noted by another speaker that central to learning are the ‘spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life’. Overemphasising Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects promotes a narrow and restrictive view of education, as to be fully human and fully alive students require a more culturally-enriching view of education.
While there is no doubt that the new technologies have a place in the 21st century classroom it is also true that learning involves human interaction. Teachers are crucial in engaging and motivating students and ensuring they are capable and willing to learn. It should not surprise that research carried out by the OECD concludes that in countries like Australia, that have heavilyinvested in the new technologies, standards as measured by international tests havefailed to improve.
The one-day national forum illustrates why Australia’s education system is in such a parlous state and why standards will continue to fall. Indeed one can envisage in another ten or so years there will be yet another forum that repeats the same platitudes and politically correct clichés; refusing to accept the emperor has no clothes.
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