Australia’s education debate is shifting at last, from how much money governments should spend on schools to how best to spend the money for the benefit of students.
After winning parliamentary approval for the Gonski 2.0 schools funding deal (the “how much”), the Turnbull Government has commissioned the “Gonski 2.0 Review” to advise on how to spend the money wisely (the “how best”).
But the extra Commonwealth money going to schools (A$23 billion over the next 10 years compared to previous Coalition policy) is only 3% of all government spending on schools over the decade. It should not be used as an excuse for the Commonwealth to intervene more heavily in school education policy.
The states run schools, as well as providing most of the funding. Heavy-handed Commonwealth intervention is likely to be counterproductive, costly and confusing.
Most of the big reforms needed are within the responsibilities of state governments. For example, all the evidence shows effective teaching has the largest impact on student achievement. The biggest advances will be made when teachers know what works in the classroom, and how they can adapt their methods to better target their teaching to the particular needs of their students.
For this to happen, teachers need better support from the “system”: for example, better teacher development and greater standardisation of classroom materials so individual teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
In school education, the states and territories are the “system” managers. Driving reforms such as these from Canberra would be difficult.
Federal funding conditions aren’t the way to go
Australia must learn from its history. Our report shows imposing prescriptive funding conditions on states and territories has been tried before, with little benefit.
Commonwealth interference can destroy policy coherence and simply increase red tape. The Commonwealth has few ways to independently verify if change is actually happening in the classroom, so adding an extra layer of government policies that chop and change only disrupts schools and teachers.
For example, the 2008-2013 National Partnership agreements for school education included a number of prescriptive and input-based conditions. These increased the administrative and compliance burden of states, and created instability in schools when the funding and initiatives stopped abruptly five years later.
Before looking to new reforms, the Commonwealth government should first deliver its existing responsibilities more effectively. These include initial teacher training, the national curriculum and national student testing. All require constant attention, and some require urgent reform.
If determined to act, we suggest the Commonwealth focus strategically on a small number of national reforms only. It is far better to focus on a few actions with a high chance of success.
We suggest the Commonwealth only pursue reforms that meet all of three criteria: the evidence shows it’s a good idea, the government can make it happen, and Commonwealth intervention will help. While many Commonwealth ideas are good in theory, many fall down on whether they can be readily implemented by state governments and actually lead to change in practice.
For example, in 2016 the Commonwealth signalled an intention to require all schools to use explicit teaching. While backed by evidence, this type of Commonwealth policy requirement is unlikely to lead to change without a raft of complementary state government policies. These include the right training and school support for teachers to switch to explicit teaching. It would be difficult for the Commonwealth to independently verify, and it also creates confusion by coming in over the top of state policies on effective teaching methods.
Commonwealth intervention must satisfy three criteria
Four suggestions for new national reforms
We have four suggestions for new national reform areas where there are benefits of scale and coordination. These only to be pursued if state government’s have strong “buy in” and there is close collaboration in design and delivery:
1. Create a new national school education research organisation to investigate what works to drive school improvement and to spread the word across schools, states and sectors. The new body should be charged with lifting the standard of education research in Australia, establishing a long-term research agenda for school education, and promoting key findings across the country. It could link up all research on education for people from birth through to age 18, so policy makers and the community better understand the continuum of learning, from early childhood to school and vocational education.
2. Invest more in measuring new, non-cognitive skills such as teamwork and resilience, in the classroom. At present, Australia focuses much more on old, foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy, which are only one element of what we expect from 21st century schooling.
3. Develop better ways to measure student progress, for national bench-marking and for use in the classroom. NAPLAN seeks to measure students’ learning progress in core literacy and numeracy skills at the national level, but NAPLAN gain scores are not easy to interpret when comparing the progress of different student groups.
4. Invest in high-quality digital assessment tools for the classroom, so teachers know what their students know and how much progress their students have made.
This piece is republished with permission from Commonwealth Now, the 59th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis on the relevance of the Commonwealth of Nations in today’s geopolitical landscape.
Twelve years after William the Conqueror sailed across what’s now known as the English Channel to invade England, kill the king and claim the crown in 1066, he constructed the Tower of London.
Defiant locals viewed the stone tower, built into the remnants of the city’s Roman wall, as a symbol of the oppression of the continental regime. For the new monarch it was an important defensive hold on the north bank of the Thames, a useful place for temporary retreat if needed.
Over the following millennia the tower, more than any other building, has represented the power of the throne: a palace, treasury, public-record office, mint, menagerie and, most famously, a prison – the place where opponents were imprisoned and, sometimes, executed.
Now it has more than a touch of Disneyland – a World Heritage site visited by nearly 3 million people a year, and home to the crown jewels, the most glittering embodiment of a former empire.
Sentiment, glamour, heritage and power are a heady mix, and over the past decade the tower has gone from being a dour embodiment of imperial might to the place that one in ten of those who come to the second-most-visited city in the world pay to see.
It is one of six historic Royal Palaces, a royal charity with commercial and political clout. This was symbolised most compellingly in 2014 when the precinct was covered with nearly 1 million red ceramic poppies – one for each of the 888,246 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the first world war.
The unexpected and overwhelming success of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, and subsequent sale of each flower, presented the challenge of success for the tower’s management. What next could match this achievement?
In 2017, I was a member of a group of international cultural leaders invited to meet with the tower’s executive to brainstorm new ideas that could help continue this success. We were a diverse group of artists and administrators from many countries.
Those from the former colonies – South Africa, Uganda, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia – had plenty of suggestions:
include the history of the empire (those jewels…)
invite artists from the Commonwealth to create and present works that engage with history
provide new points of connection with the City of London, and with local communities in East London – many of whom trace their heritage to lands once ruled by Britannia.
The initial reaction was swift and somewhat unexpected. “What has that got to do with the tower?” one executive asked, his face revealing his genuine astonishment.
To those of us from the former colonies, who had grown up in places named for long-forgotten monarchs and were quickly discovering how much we had in common, it was straightforward. The empire had been built in the name of, and to the benefit of, the Crown. In country after country, on five continents, when independence was granted or won, the royals presided and then departed.
By the end of the day, it seemed there was a polite hint that this unexpected idea might possibly be something that might be considered – maybe. None of us left the meeting thinking it was likely the tower would include a more robust representation of the legacy of empire anytime soon, let alone attempt to reconcile what had been done in the name of the Crown.
As those who opposed William the Conqueror had learnt, like their successors in far-flung lands who were later subjected to British rule: to the victor goes the spoils.
A changed power balance
We are so accustomed to hearing about American exceptionalism that British exceptionalism is rarely discussed. But, as the epigenetic precursor of the American condition, it deserves consideration. It may help make sense of the Brexit vote, which mystifies those not steeped in centuries of British myth-making and its resurgent Europe-as-other drumbeat over the past two decades.
It did not take long after the narrow vote to leave the European Union was declared in June 2015 before a new phrase intruded into public discussion.
Seventy years after the war that marked the end of the British Empire, a quaint, ahistorical notion emerged. In the jargon of the day, it was time for the Commonwealth to become Empire 2.0: a sphere of influence with one-third of the world’s population, one-fifth of global trade, and the dominant global language.
It did not take long before British political leaders were invoking this revival, reciting Rudyard Kipling on journeys abroad, conjuring a nostalgic vision of a wealthy mother country enriched by trade with the former colonies.
No-one bothered to ask whether this vision was shared by the independent states that had once been part of an empire. When they did, the answer was unexpected. The power balance had changed – trade with Europe, China and the US were more important.
If there is a moment that marks the end of the British Empire it was when the Royal Yacht Britannia sailed out of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour at midnight on June 30, 1997, on her last voyage. Charles, Prince of Wales, was there to oversee the handover to China, or what he called “the great Chinese takeaway”, with accompanying displays of military might and unlikely promises of “one country with two systems”.
On the flight back to London, Charles wrote in his diary that Prime Minister Tony Blair:
… understands only too well the identity problem that Britain has with the loss of an empire and an inability to know what to do next. Introspection, cynicism and criticism seem to have become the order of the day and clearly he recognises the need to find ways of overcoming apathy and loss of self-belief by finding a fresh national direction.
Charles was surprised to realise that he was seated in business class, and the Labour politicians were on the lower deck of the British Airways jumbo in first class:
Such is the end of empire, I sighed to myself.
Two decades later, as the Empire 2.0 dream gained some traction in Britain, Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrated the anniversary of the handover by stressing the overwhelming importance of China being “one country”.
At that moment it was unequivocally clear that power and influence had moved east. Beijing was now the emerging global epicentre.
The decline of British exceptionalism
The creation in the 1960s of what was called the “New Commonwealth” was an example of British exceptionalism.
The New Commonwealth was conceived as a progressive league of nations with some shared history, values, institutions and language, which came into its own as negotiated settlements and bloody wars of independence in the former colonies concluded in the years after the second world war. Never before had a fallen empire found such an ingenious way to hold on to influence.
The New Commonwealth marked the beginning of a grand experiment. It extended rights and recognised the connection of people from beyond the eight nations that founded the Commonwealth in 1949, to those from former colonies in the rest of the world.
During the years of Empire, the “mother country” had a special appeal, and people gravitated to the “green and pleasant land” in the north Atlantic to study and work.
As the Commonwealth grew, more people came from equatorial lands to work and live in British cities. As novelist Zadie Smith reflected:
… to have been raised in London, with, say, Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street, is thought of, by others, as evidence of a specific historical social experiment …
Of course, as a child I did not realise that the life I was living was considered in any way provisional or experimental by others: I thought it was just life. And when I wrote a novel about the London I grew up in, I further did not realise that by describing an environment in which people from different places lived relatively peaceably side by side, I was “championing” a situation that was in fact on trial and whose conditions could suddenly be revoked.
Britain changed as a result. But when it joined the Common Market in 1973, the hard work of interrogating and reconciling the past was pushed aside, before a settled understanding of the legacy of empire could be fully realised.
Britain’s leap into Europe cast countries – including Australia and New Zealand – adrift, like teenagers thrown out of home before they were ready. They found new partners and geographic destinies, and the past was buffed with nostalgia.
What now for the Commonwealth?
The history of the Commonwealth during the period from 1973 to 2015, when Britain shifted focus to Europe – and its four freedoms of movement of people, goods, services and capital – is an interesting story of redefinition, shifting power relations and emerging values.
During those decades, the Commonwealth of Nations and its London-based secretariat pursued, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, an increasingly human-rights-focused agenda: educating, empowering, encouraging the rule of law and sustainability, excluding countries that stepped beyond acceptable norms.
As time went on, the Commonwealth seemed to make less sense. Surveys suggested it was a relic from another age – today, only 16 of the 52 member countries retain the Queen as head of state. The Commonwealth Games endured as an important international sporting fixture, but royal tours became less frequent and the once relatively free movement of people between the former colonies became more complicated.
Expert groups were appointed to test the continuing relevance of the institution in the face of public “indifference”. They recommended reforms to ensure the Commonwealth of Nations might continue to exercise geopolitical and cultural influence.
The tensions between the Global North, and its focus on human rights, and the Global South, which resented any hint of imperialism, took a toll on its legitimacy.
After the underwhelming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth in 2011, The Economist took the advocates of what was to become Empire 2.0 to task.
Talk of the Commonwealth forming the dynamic, like-minded, free-trading core of a new British global network for prosperity is, to use the technical term, cobblers. The Commonwealth is many things: a talking shop, a useful place to exchange best practice on everything from education for girls to fighting malaria, an occasionally effective forum for putting pressure on regimes to clean up their governance or face the embarrassment of suspension. But it is also seriously dysfunctional.
Following negotiations, a new Commonwealth Charter was signed by the Queen, as head of the organisation, in March 2013. Designed to give new meaning to an institution crafted for another era, it restates democratic and independent values and notes:
… that in an era of changing economic circumstances and uncertainty, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge in popular demands for democracy, human rights and broadened economic opportunities, the potential of and need for the Commonwealth – as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for co-operation and for promoting development – has never been greater.
The resilience of the new charter and the commitment of member countries to “mutual respect, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, legitimacy and responsiveness” will be tested in 2018. The Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast will set the scene, with an inclusive, competitive, people-to-people exchange, followed by the People’s Forum of civil society groups, and then CHOGM in London in April 2018.
These meetings will consider the many challenges of creating a robust multilateral organisation that represents most of the world’s poorest, most populous and youthful countries, against the uncertain backdrop of succession planning for the new head of the Commonwealth.
Despite the added complication of Brexit negotiations and the nostalgic attachment to past glory, the prospect of Commonwealth becoming Empire 2.0 remains, as The Economist suggested, “cobblers”.
You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.
CANBERRA, Australia, November 11, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has legalized civil partnership ceremonies for homosexuals.
Same-sex couples in the ACT have been able to register their union since last year, but were not permitted a ceremony.
The legislature of the territory, where the nation’s parliament is located, passed the bill on Wednesday, following an amendment banning opposite-sex couples from obtaining the civil unions. The bill was moved by the ACT’s Greens party.
The ACT’s amendment was passed so as to satisfy federal requirements that such unions not mimic marriage.
"We understand that this is not same-sex marriage," said Shane Rattenbury, the Greens member who drafted the bill. "This legislation is another step along the road to full equality for same-sex couples in Australia, and we are delighted that the assembly has passed it today."
The federal Commonwealth Parliament, which has the power to override legislation passed in the country’s two territories, has strongly opposed same-sex "marriage," and the ACT legislature has been fighting with them for same-sex civil unions since 2006.
That year, the ACT passed legislation approving same-sex civil unions, but their attempt was struck down by then-Governor General Michael Jeffery on the advice of then-Attorney General Philip Ruddock.
The law would have effectively granted same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples, simply leaving out the term "marriage." At the time, then-Prime Minister John Howard said the ACT’s move sought to undermine the nation’s 2004 Marriage Amendment Bill, which established marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and specifically excluded same-sex "marriage."
Regarding the current bill, one member of the ACT’s legislature, Vicki Dunne, who serves as shadow attorney-general, predicted that the federal government would stop the bill. "It is almost certain the Commonwealth will intervene," she told the Telegraph. "It still sounds like a marriage and it still feels like a marriage and therefore it probably is a marriage."
Last year, the federal government granted new legal and financial benefits to same-sex couples by making changes to about 100 federal laws. Nevertheless, they continued to declare their intention to uphold the true definition of marriage.
"The government believes that marriage is between a man and a woman so it won’t amend the marriage act," said Attorney-General Robert McClelland.
Australia’s Senate has now initiated an inquiry into the Marriage Amendment Bill, however, hearing arguments this week both for and against same-sex "marriage." The submissions the committee received, totalling more than 20,000, were against same-sex "marriage" by a ratio of two to one.