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Who are the ones with an agenda?

04 Dec

Of course in any situation people tend to accuse the “other side” of having an agenda, and when you think about it I suppose you really hope there is an agenda, given that the alternative is probably ad-hoc muddle through policy… But we know what people mean when they make the comment.

Today we have an education issue running up against a serious finance issue. Rightly or wrongly, the Rudd government is trying to throw large amounts of money at non-government schools. Well, “throw” may be a bit much, I suppose, as all that’s happening is the implementation of arrangements already agreed to – or so it seemed before Senator Fielding (Family First) and certain of the like-minded members of the Opposition (thanks for that post and its prequel and promised sequels, Thomas) started throwing their weight around.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Opposition and Family First Senator Steve Fielding are refusing to pass the bill and therefore release the funding because it’s tied to a national curriculum which is yet to be written. To press home the message to them, Julia Gillard held a media conference flanked by two Bills, Bill Daniels from the Independent Schools Council and Bill Graham from the National Catholic Education Commission.
BILL DANIELS: This is legislation that was flagged pre-election. This is the Government doing exactly what it said it would do. We regard it as absolutely essential that this legislation is passed to give schools and parents the certainty and funding stability that they need from the 1st January next year.
BILL GRAHAM: The National Catholic Education Commission is comfortable with the process underway to develop the national curriculum and we would ask that the bill be agreed to and passed, the legislation passed before the end of the year.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: Ms Gillard’s not stopping there, thanking them for helping her send a letter to every non-government school in the country this afternoon.
JULIA GILLARD: And I quote, "the Independent Schools Council of Australia and the National Catholic Education Commission have supported the bill. Unfortunately the Senate has not passed the bill."

   — PM yesterday.

Now we have the delicious irony of funding perhaps being held back from the non-government school sector because the Senate has baulked at four words Fielding and company want inserted into the deal — “or other accredited course.” Now despite all the denials, we know that this  1) is a move emanating from the more recent Christian schools (I almost wrote “more feral” there) and 2) has something to do with Intelligent Design as “science”.

Fielding and company are also making life easy for any extremist madrassa that would like to set up in Australia, but they don’t see that. (And yes, I know that most of us have a rather jaundiced view of “madrassa” before you retort, if you are a Muslim reader; there are contexts where Muslim schools for the poor do a mighty job in both Pakistan and Indonesia — but of course it depends what they teach.)

There are strings to the Rudd government’s deal you see. One is that those getting the funds sign on to the new and developing national curriculum. That concept of course was brought forward by the Howard government, and has been pursued, but in my view in a somewhat more enlightened manner, by the current government. It is also the status quo in this country, in that all schools now have to implement the curricula of the state they happen to be in. In NSW they can also offer non-Board courses. So, for example, in the Jewish college where I once worked you had the NSW syllabus in English, Maths, Science etc, exactly as in any state school, though of course, and this is fair enough, taught from the perspective the college brought to them. You also had non-Board accredited courses like Jewish Studies. I am sure much the same applies in Catholic or Islamic schools.

Not good enough for Senator Fielding. They want more. And you don’t have to be Einstein, or indeed Charles Darwin, or Harry Potter, to work out what that “more” is. See the recent case of Pacific Hills Christian School in Dural, where it appears the hen-house was delivered to the fox in the end.

I of course was nasty enough to write here the other day, in reference to the USA situation:

The other thing I took from this program is how glad I am that we do not so far have the US-style tradition of local school boards here in NSW. With all the possible disadvantages we may experience in a centralised system, relying on boards and teams of experts to devise curriculum (even if implementation depends much on the local school), we gain far more, if this series is any indication. There are some things democracy is just not good at, and devising curriculum, in my opinion, is often one of them. By the way, one problem I always felt working in private schools was the sense that the “clients” owned me. That could have a plus side, but was also sometimes an unpleasant constraint. I am sure Aluminium knows exactly what I mean.

I stand by those views.

Then there is another issue getting up some noses. Should private schools publicly reveal the sources of their funding? I would definitely say yes. Here we have some of the wealthier schools saying the agenda here is to deprive them of at least some government funding.  At the moment the government denies this, but to be quite honest I really hope that is the agenda! There are much better things to do with the education dollar than enabling ermine lining in the swimming pool, if you see what I mean…

Update

Sanity seems to have prevailed, and Opposition Education spokesman Christopher Pyne is putting the best spin he can on the backflip.

Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has denied the Coalition has backflipped on its opposition to the Schools Assistance bill, after agreeing to pass it without further amendments.

But Education Minister Julia Gillard has described the move, which will now allow $28 billion of funding to reach independent schools, as a "humiliating backdown".

This morning the Opposition said it would move an amendment to allow schools such as Steiner and Montessori schools to teach an accredited equivalent of the national curriculum.

But Ms Gillard insisted the amendment was not needed…

There are 133 lively comments on that ABC News story too. For example:

keep in mind, that these same independent school councils are involved in the development of the new national curriculum. So they probably have a much better idea about the direction it is heading. Compare that to the automatically opposing opposition, who obviously hadn’t done the homework that was set out for them by the voting public of Australia and have been embarrassingly caught out.

The progress of the National Curriculum Board is easy to track. It is indeed drawing on a range of talent at all levels in education, government and non-government. I hold out much more hope on this than I did on earlier exercises.

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