Competitive education: Is that what we want?

Published as ‘Lifting the bar’, Geelong Advertiser, Monday 1 December 2008, p. 17.

Isn’t it fascinating when you have Rupert Murdoch and Julia Gillard singing from the same song sheet?
Rupert Murdoch’s fourth Boyer Lecture was aimed directly at ‘our public education systems [which] are a disgrace. Despite spending more and more money, our children seem to be learning less and less—especially for those who are most vulnerable in our society’. Other countries, and he cites Finland, Korea and Singapore, are leaving us behind. In a competitive world we have to set much higher expectations for our students and hold schools accountable when they fail.

Much of what he has to say is sound and has the backing of the current Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard. In her introduction to an education forum in Melbourne earlier this week she stressed that the current government wanted a transformational change in Australian schools. She brought the Chancellor of the New York Department of Education Joel Klein to explain the changes he has presided over in that city. Gillard claims that Klein has ‘demonstrated that change has to be systematic, that it has to focus unrelentingly on quality improvement and that we must demand high standards of achievement from every student no matter how disadvantaged’.

‘The people who need a solid education to lift them out of deprived circumstances are the people who are falling further and further behind. That is unacceptable to me,’ Murdoch says. Rural areas, indigenous communities and inner urban poor areas tend to have under-resourced schools relative to the needs of their students. As Gillard points out, ‘A child from a working class family is only half as likely as a child from a high income family to go on to tertiary study.’ While tertiary study may be expensive, its contribution to the life-time earning stream of the recipient is massive and growing. A country like Australia which cannot compete in wage costs needs to offset that by greater investment in human capital, in the skills and knowledge of its workforce at all levels.

All three contributors to the debate want greater transparency and accountability, because lack of these hides failures, the sheeting home of responsibility and the ability to focus on where greater effort and investment are needed. That information needs to be available to parents and students, not just to educational bureaucrats and politicians.

So far so good, but let’s just be a little careful about some of the arguments being advanced. Murdoch asserts that ‘corporate leaders know better than government officials the skills that people need to get ahead in the 21st century’. Where is the evidence for this blanket statement? Of course, we have to improve basic literacy and numeracy, and students would benefit from exposure to the kind of conditions they would face in various forms of employment to help them make rational, informed choices of career. But there is a danger if we make a competitive industrial model the key to our educational system we may finish up with a vocational training structure rather than an educational one.

We have had examples in the past where we have tried to use a competitive model. In England in the 19th century it was called payment by results and it was abandoned as a failure. Measurement in education is one of the critical areas. It has its uses but also its limits. It is vital for accountability but it can be narrowing and misleading. It may well result in concentrating only on producing what is measurable and hence not valuing that which is not, or what is more difficult to measure, quality and variety.

Everyone will have his or her own experience from schooling of those occasions when an enthusiastic and capable teacher managed to awaken a love of learning and puzzle solving. When individuality and difference was encouraged and it helped change your view of the world. Whatever we do in the education revolution we have to retain that core of what it means to educate rather than train someone for the complex world we live in.

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