In The New Authoritarianism, University of Sydney academic Salvatore Babones makes the telling observation that while elected politicians might believe they are in command it’s actually the ‘bureaucracies and independent agencies’ that determine policy and decide how government mandates are implemented. Babones also makes the point that these unelected policy brokers and so-called experts are very effective at ensuring their leftist agenda dominates public debate regardless of what political parties might promise during election campaigns.
In Australia, school education provides an illuminating and convincing example of this. Much like the old industrial relations club that dominated our systems of setting wages and employment conditions during the Sixties and Seventies, those who dominate Australia’s education system act as a self-serving cartel committed to furthering their own agenda to the exclusion of all who fail to conform.
While education ministers come and go depending on the electoral cycle, professional organisations like the Australian Education Union, the Australian Council for Educational Research, the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English are permanent features. For decades, such organisations have championed a progressive, cultural-left view of schooling. The AEU, for example, argues that Australian society is riven with inequality and disadvantage and that education is a critical part of the ideological state apparatus employed by capitalist elites to reinforce their power and privilege.
The AATE has long since embraced unproven innovations like whole language, where the mistaken assumption is that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak. This organisation also promotes the belief that literature must be deconstructed in terms of power relationships involving a rainbow alliance of politically correct narratives ranging from neo-Marxist to postmodern, post-colonial and gender and sexuality theories.
It is also true that over the last thirty years or so a handful of individuals have positioned themselves across key organisations to shape the agenda and ensure that they control what is happening in schools and across education departments. It is hard to overstate the influence of these unelected individuals and professional bodies on how schools are structured and managed and how the curriculum is designed. The development and design of the national curriculum and the various state and territory equivalent documents provide a good example.
Adopted by both the ALP and the Coalition, the national curriculum was developed under the Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott governments. As with much public policy and governance, such is the complexity and detail required in developing a national curriculum that elected politicians are incapable of carrying out the task. As a result, once the broad policy parameters are decided by the relevant minister and the government of the day, development and implementation are left to the usual educrats and professional bodies more concerned with remaining true to their own agendas and ensuring the outcomes conform with their particular ideology and educational philosophy.
Such is the power and influence of Australia’s education cartel that even under the conservative Howard and Abbott governments the national curriculum championed a cultural-left, politically correct view regarding a range of issues including: multiculturalism, indigenous culture and history, sustainability and the environment, citizenship, the significance of Western civilisation, liberalism and the significance of Judeo-Christianity.
Another example of the enduring power of those individuals and organisations controlling education is the current move to reshape curriculums across Australia to embrace a 21st century, new-age and cultural-left approach. An approach that draws heavily on the OECD’s Education 2030 project and its commitment to implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Awash with the usual educational jargon and clichés employed by educrats, the OECD project describes future societies as ‘changing rapidly and profoundly’, beset with ‘a growing array of complex societal problems’ and experiencing ‘disruptive waves of change in every sector’.
Instead of balancing the curriculum by recognising the long-established disciplines that embody essential knowledge, understanding and skills, the argument is that schools must adopt a ‘new ecosystem of learning’ where students are ‘change agents’, ‘future-ready’ and ‘system thinkers’. Notwithstanding its flaws and the absence of any evidence it will be successful or beneficial, Rob Randall, when head of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority boasted, ‘ACARA is leading Australia’s participation in the OECD 2030 Education and Skills Project. It’s exploring the best ways to structure and design a curriculum that fosters competencies essential for life and work in 2030’. In addition to embracing the OECD’s 2030 project, Randall also committed the national curriculum body to adopt the recommendations of the Gonski review into how best to raise standards and ensure the additional billions promised to schools were not wasted.
The only problem is that the recommendations of the Gonski review also champion a new-age, faddish approach to the curriculum guaranteed to further lower standards and ensure generations of students continue to underperform and leave school illiterate, innumerate and culturally impoverished.
Such is the power and dominance of the unelected and unaccountable educrats running education that the state and territory ministers of education have endorsed the Gonski recommendations for learning progressions and the associated online formative assessments even though such innovations have never been fully tested or implemented successfully elsewhere.
The irony is that while Australian students continue to underperform in international tests such as TIMSS, PISA and PIRLS and politicians, employers and the media bemoan our dumbed down and substandard curriculums, those directing education are intent on implementing their own untested agenda calculated to further erode standards.
Even worse is that those educrats most responsible have long since left the classroom and consistently evade responsibility for their failures as they are promoted from one position to the next based on the Peter Principle – a situation where individuals are promoted to their least level of ability.
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