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First Public Address: An Indulgence

Friday, August 7th, 2015

As one advances in years there is a tendency to more strongly believe the merit of what one has said in ealier years. I don’t see why I should be an exception.

Shortly after I became Director of the Australian Museum in Sydney in 1976, the Museum celebrated its 150th year or sesquicentennial. As is customary in such circumstances there were speeches, exhibitions and other celebratory events.

I gave my first invited public address as Director later that year. The most important point to make, looking back at that time, is not that many in the audience fell asleep, which is unsurprising considering the length of the talk and its didactic style. What is important is that I still hold to many of the same views I expressed then: a concern for the rights of those on the margin, especially indigenous peoples, a belief in the importance of the natural and human environment and a distrust of the actions of many of those in power.

President John F Kennedy, speaking in mid 1963 at the American University in Washington DC (where incidentally President Barrack Obama also chose to speak of the importance of the agreements reached with Iran concerning nuclear non-proliferation) expressed hope for a world where the powerful were just and the weak were safe. Kennedy’s hopes have not been realised.

Notwithstanding the horrors of the present day, the ongoing destruction of the natural environment, the increasing inequality as the powerful grab ever more benefits for themselves, often robbing the citizenry in the process, the refusal by those with major political power to accept the challenge of negotiating for a more just world, the intellectual laziness of many with influence, the persecution of those with different beliefs and backgrounds, I express those hopes also!

I celebrate the innate creativity of the young, the contribution of people in science and the arts and the many who make so many exciting intellectual contributions, those who, as the 2006 Nobel Prizewinner in economics Edmund Phelps says, seek to prosper through mastery of their abilities and those who flourish through their creativity, through fascinating journeys into the unknown. I especially celebrate the courage of those who do accept the challenge to make the world a better place, often by overcoming the terrible challenges which face them in their own lives or the situations they face. What other way is there?

Continue to the talk



Finnish History and Schooling: A Perspective from Hannu Simola

Friday, August 7th, 2015

How the school education system works in Finland is something that has attracted a lot of attention over the last decade or more since that country’s 15 year-olds achieved top of the class in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000. It is undoubtedly true that the practices within organisations are significantly influenced by the cultural norms of that country which are in turn significantly influenced by the country’s history. Much of what we know about effective learning at school has come from studies of schools in Finland.

Though Finland’s students, like those of some other countries are no longer in first place in the PISA project, the practices in that country are still of great interest. The most prominent writer on the system is Pasi Sahlberg and his views have appeared recently in books and articles. Of perhaps special interest are his comparisons of the approaches taken in Finland with those of the USA.

There are numerous accounts of Finnish education from educators who have visited. A new book takes an historical approach to how school education is practiced in Finland.

Hannu Simola, until recently Professor of Sociology of Education in the Institute of Behavioural Sciences, University of Helsinki, has written the series of essays, some of them with colleagues over an 18 year period to 2011. The Finnish Education Mystery, published as an e-book by Routledge, bring them together. The essays focus on how the nature of Finnish society and political history have influenced Finland’s education system. (A consideration of the reforms in the United States might well be similarly instructive.)

Continue to article.




The Crisis in Education is the Crisis in the Homes of the Disadvantaged

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

The heightened attention to inequality in society, in developed countries more than developing, and the seeming impossibility of gaining the attention of those with influence to the need to understand how inequality affects the achievement of the goals of improving education leads me to publish another edited extract from the book Education: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity (Springer, 2014). The publication of sociologist Robert Putnam’s latest book, subtitled The American Dream in Crisis is relevant to these issues.

The overcoming of disadvantage, evident in homelessness and the housing crisis, urban decay, inadequate public infrastructure including public transport and recreation facilities, resort to substance abuse, increased stress in  families trying to cope with government policies and the practices of many commercial organisations, including greedy financial institutions, cannot be judged as recognised by those with the responsibility for governance in countries overrun by adherence to market economics and small government which regards elimination of deficits and debts as the primary goal of responsible government.

I recall that perspective on the United States in relation to health care. When people are asked what they would like to see by way of health policy they frequently mention Canada. But when they are told that Canadian polices are very like those in Scandinavia and much of Europe, the response is, “Oh no, we don’t want that, that is socialism!” We have heard that cry in Australia from time to time. That those countries’ economic performance in many dimensions is superior to that of many other countries is seldom reported, and those with influence see no reason to enlighten us.

Of the issues which must be tackled if inequality is to be seriously addressed education and health are amongst the most important. In the US especially neither area can be regarded honestly as anything but dysfunctional. In Australia, genuine progress in education is stalled, as discussed on this site already. The Abbott government’s health policies, founded on cutting costs grounded in phoney arithmetic and a lack of courage, are irrelevant: as in education and every other area, there are experts in Australia extremely well informed about all these areas. The government sees no reason to take any notice of them.

So, another two essays address these issues, one dealing with education and inequality, the other a review of Putnam’s book, or at least the account of it in a recent article in The Economist. I have recently again addressed early childhood issues at the end of the essay Learning, Creativity and Early Childhood. Economic issues and early childhood are also dealt with in the first six essays on education, also edited extracts from Education: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity.

Indigenous Peoples: Closing the Gap in the Face of Resilience, Courage and Humour

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

The following post was first published on the website of Civil Liberties Australia under the title, Aborigines: resilience, courage and humour. The post is a response to the Report by the Productivity Commission,  Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage  published 19 Nov 2014. It is also cross posted on my blog.

As the lights go down at the Belvoir Theatre, an elderly man with a wonderful white beard leads other actors in a recalled presentation to a Royal Commission.

In 1874 the Victorian government moved to close an economically successful enterprise at Coranderrk, near Healesville. Nearby farmers protested the land was too valuable for Aboriginal people. The people resisted. But anyway the area was closed in 1924 despite protests from Wurundjeri men, returned soldiers from the Great War: people were moved to Lake Tyers. There are scores of similar stories, hardly known.

Uncle Jack Charles, now 72, was taken from his mother at Cummeragunja mission as a one year old and raised in a boys’ home at suburban Box Hill. He was the only Aboriginal child there: they ”thrashed the living bejesus out of me’’, and worse. Jack was in and out of jail for minor crime and substance abuse. Reunited with some family at age 17, it was two more years before that included his mother. Jack is considered a founder of black theatre: he now helps young Aboriginal people.

As I watch Uncle Jack Charles perform, I perceive the resilience, courage and humour permeating every performance, comprising cultural achievement in spite of a life lived against the odds. (The play Beautiful One Day, also performed at Belvoir, has the same characteristics.)

Indigenous people are still here, teaching us cultural lessons, as we who are not indigenous have passed from hideous assimilation to integration through policies based on arrogance and now ignorance.

Denial, exploitation, removal of children, murder and rape, suppression of language. Refusal to acknowledge the past. Refusal to acknowledge a unique relationship with land with all its meanings, and managing the land through ice-age and desert periods. Refusal of equal rights despite judgements of the High Court, despite legislation, despite Royal Commissions, despite so many statements from elders white and black, despite increasing achievements in every field, not only music, painting and literature.

Disadvantage: Closing the Gap?

The extraordinarily comprehensive and, in some places, terribly disturbing Productivity Commission Report of late 2014 reveals trends that are a disgrace of international proportion against global standards. The report is comprehensive and detailed: every aspect of Indigenous disadvantage explored. It contains numerous examples of “Things that Work”. And it received about as much media attention as the chime on a time clock.

Horrendous statistics overshadow small gains and losses. Health, education and housing, which characterise Indigenous peoples’ problems worldwide, remain major issues. Australia is worse than anywhere: 78% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households lack acceptable access to water, sewerage and electricity service, but that figure is 5 points down from 2008…so overcrowding declined!

There is no progress in employment (likely affected by changes in the Community Employment Program), or in disability and chronic disease at 1.7 times the incidence for non-Indigenous people.



An increase in the non-Indigenous rate of family and community violence means the Indigenous rate remains 2.2 times the non-Indigenous rate. Over the nine years to 2012-13 the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on care and protection orders increased almost five times from 11 to 49 per 1000 children; for non-Indigenous children the rate was between 3 and 6 per 1000 children.

Adult Indigenous jailing increased by 57% in the past 14 years. Youth imprisonment increased sharply to 2008 and has since remained at about 24 times the non-Indigenous rate. Repeat offending is 1.5 times the rate of 55% for non-Indigenous prisoners, as in 2000.



The over-representation of indigenous people in prison in Australia is 10 times that of the USA!

The suicide rate in the five years to 2012 was almost twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. The hospitalisation rate for intentional self-harm increased by almost 50% to more than 400 per 100,000 in the past eight years; for other Australians it remained relatively stable.

In education, the figures are also far worse than for Indigenous people in other countries. In New Zealand, 85% of Maori have post-school qualifications and in the US it is about 65% of Native Americans: in Australia less than 20% have such qualifications.

Decades of continuing discrimination

Gough Whitlam, on election as Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, directed one of his first two major initiatives at Aboriginal people: no more grants of leases on Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory, appointment of Justice Woodward to commence an inquiry into land rights, and establishment of special schools.

Before and since Whitlam, any moves to advantage Indigenous peoples have been opposed by special interests in pastoral and mining activities and by state governments, except South Australia. In Western Australia discrimination continues as Premier Colin Barnett does his best to remove Indigenous people from remote areas, refusing allocation of mining royalties to support them and maintains mandatory sentencing for minor crime.

In 2006 Prime Minister Howard and Minister Mal Brough established the Northern Territory Intervention or National Emergency Response (NTER) to address alleged high levels of child abuse and neglect, with some allegations later found to be fraudulent and invented by an employee in the Minister’s office. The army was sent in, social security payments were managed, the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended. Contrary to recommendations from a government-commissioned report, action was centralised.

Delivering the 2007 Vincent Lingiari lecture, Reconciliation Australia co-chair Fred Chaney expressed shock: the Intervention was contemptuous of Aboriginal property rights and the principles of non-discrimination, authorised micro management of lives, forced people into towns with devastating social consequences likely returning people to dependence, crushing the engagement essential to progress.

The Intervention has produced no gains. In the five years to 2011 Indigenous hospitalisation rates increased by 14%, income support recipients by 20%, reported child abuse by 56% and school attendance declined by 2 percentage points according to emeritus Professor Jon Altman.

Professor Larissa Behrendt says trying to change behaviour through welfare quarantining in an already dysfunctional situation likely exacerbates the stress on households. Improved attendance would be better achieved by breakfast and lunch programs, bringing the Aboriginal community, especially elders, into schools; teacher’s aides and Aboriginal teachers; a curriculum engaging for Aboriginal children which blends development self-esteem and confidence through engaging with culture as well as academic excellence.

A failure of policy: What could have been

Dr Christine Nicholls, now at Flinders University, was principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendumu for almost a decade. In Quarterly Essay 36 (2009), she points out that the issues of housing, health and employment need to be equal, simultaneous and concurrent foci of government and private attention before education can bring about real and lasting change.

People visited from government agencies out of town but nothing happened! The kids have otitis media (a disease of the Third World!) and can’t hear properly: if you can’t hear, you muck up in school, and don’t learn. It is ignored.

Few ESL teachers are employed, the value of teaching in language is denied, housing construction is appalling (and successive governments have done nothing about it). There is nowhere at home to do homework, overcrowding (with its attendant problems of potential child abuse), compromised health and hygiene. Lack of work for parents. Successive governments come to power wanting to be the one that fixes “the problem”. None do, small successes are not built on.

Many programs to advance Indigenous people are supported by private donations, corporate philanthropy, some together with government. Several help young people particularly. What on earth persuaded the Howard and Abbott governments to force on to Indigenous people wholly ineffectual policies that simply repeat all the mistakes of the past, are based on colonial and assimilative policies and in the end waste money and destroy people’s lives?

Governments could have decided to be far more engaged in ensuring proper housing, education and health programs. They could have ensured a substantial funding component of every initiative went to training Indigenous people. They could have stopped trying to justify policy by lying! And the federal government could have rejected the sometimes racist and backward looking objections of many provincial governments. Almost none have the courage to face down critics wanting to solve it all through rational economic solutions like private ownership and put everything in the “they need to adapt to our society” basket.

The majority of Indigenous people live in New South Wales and Victoria. The situations revealed in the Aboriginal-directed and -produced, award-winning TV dramas Redfern Now are situations of all people in towns and cities on the margin: difficulties of employment and daily living: health issues flowing from bad diet, cheap fast food, substance and alcohol abuse, poor housing.

There are three fundamental requirements: Self Determination, Financial Security, and support of Women/Early Childhood and Parenting

Self Determination

The right to self-determination must be embraced completely. Sovereignty matters! The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has run hundreds of research studies over more than two decades in Native American communities. When Native Americans make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental forms, natural resource management, economic development, health care and social service provision.

Self-determination is a constant theme in every speech by Indigenous people. It is an expression of control over one’s own life. Many, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, have pointed out that redressing disadvantage in the longer term depends upon people having the power to make decisions that affect them, to be responsible for the programs designed to meet their needs, and accountable for the successes and failures that follow.

Michael Dockery of Curtin University has found these same outcomes for Indigenous people in Australia. But no notice is taken. What is axiomatic for white groups in society is seen as a threat if given to black groups! Capable institutions of governance, adoption of stable decision rules, establishment of fair and independent mechanisms of dispute resolution and leaders who introduce new knowledge and experiences, challenge assumptions, and propose change are recognised as essential by Harvard.

Financial security

Second is equitable funding as the bottom line, and more beyond that as success builds. Under-funding has typified programs for more than 100 years. Except for the Whitlam government, almost every federal government has strenuously failed to adequately fund Indigenous programs. Wages and social security payments have been withheld and compensation ignored. The funding must acknowledge the right to determine the nature of projects directed to community improvement.

Under the government of Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott:

Recently Prof Altman has pointed to the success of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme which began in the 1970s: it increased earnings, provided more time for ceremonial activities, and crime decreased. Howard cancelled the increasingly demonised scheme because it wasn’t “real work”. In December 2014 the Abbott government announced a work for the dole scheme for remote Australia. Utterly pointless!

Early childhood and parenting

Australian and international understanding of early childhood, mother–child relationships, cognitive development and the impact on later life has increased significantly. These relationships are critical. The stimulation and warmth of the relationship contributes to a successful later life. Young children learn how to behave, and about human relationships and self-control which is a greater predictor of later “success” than any other indicator. And they learn self-confidence which helps manage the stress of later life better.

Recalled experiences in early childhood carry over to later parenting situations. So a potential cycle is developed. Therefore maximum support must be given to women and young families. Preschool staffed by qualified teachers and before that maximum effective support. Later, while Indigenous parents may not be clear about what school has to do with education, because of their background, that does not mean they have no interest in education. On the other hand intervening at school age will not likely undo the damage of early life. And availability of jobs after schooling is completed is essential.


The Productivity Commission and many people working and studying in the area have identified successes. But generally governments have not addressed the causes of problems, they have not co-ordinated the policies across significant areas and have not recognised the obligations to First Peoples whose right to the land was denied for 200 years. The invidious comparisons with the Indigenous peoples of other countries testifies to that.

There is a crisis of intellectual laziness combined with arrogance. In particular, the critical importance of cultural issues have not been attended to, nor has the impact of removal from land and of forced removal of children from families, which continues. Nothing has been learned from elsewhere.

The paternalistic approach which denies people any sense of control over their own lives leaves them more than marginalised. A friend points to the fact that many Aboriginal people have little understanding of white institutions and the implications of such things as court judgements.

But they know very well what denial of liberty means. Anything approaching racial profiling, failure to deliver in the judicial and police arena, criminalising minor crimes, mandatory sentencing and imprisonment produces more destructive behaviour and undermines progress elsewhere. It should be stopped immediately. Everything should be geared to developing a sense of self-worth grounded in a unique culture so that Indigenous identity is genuinely valued by the whole Australian community. Surprising as it may seem, many Aboriginal people regard all white people as of greater value than any Aboriginal person.

David Gulpilil won best lead actor for his role in Rolf de Heer’s film Charlie’s Country at the annual Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) event in January 2015.  There are lessons in that if we only think about them.

Christopher Pyne’s education: not politically correct!

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

The school education policies of the Abbott government enunciated by Minister Christopher Pyne focus on several important features. These are a uniform curriculum, standardised testing of students, a didactic approach to teaching including “Direct Instruction”, school choice linked to support for private or independent schools based on the implication that government or public schools are failing and, implicitly, teacher accountability which can mean student test scores being the measure of teacher effectiveness. Pyne has said that those who oppose his policies are simply being politically correct.

The policies are unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. They largely follow the highly prescriptive conservative push which has typified the approach of the United States based on accountability and uniformity across schools. The policies are strongly advocated by the Institute for Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies, the former a particular influence on the Abbott government. Conservative individuals and groups in the US also have substantial influence on school education policies there. The policies are not ones followed by those countries which are successful in international student assessments. Those who have studied the approach to schooling in countries such as Finland point that out in respect of the US.

Two major issues are at stake and are the subject of major conflict: the relative importance of student inequality and influence of the school relative to other influences such as the home, peers and out-of-school activities. All impact on teaching and learning and on creativity.

The Pyne policy sidelines or even denies inequality as an issue. Rather, the view is that public schools are ineffective and the only way to achieve improvement is by encouraging independent schools. This is a policy pursued relentlessly in the US through charter schools and in the UK through Academies but not in European or Asian countries though the relative attention to inequality may vary. An essential correlate of the judgement about relative effectiveness of school is the emphasis on standardised tests and on uniform curriculum. Teachers are considered the key to effective learning, effective teachers should be rewarded financially and that many of the people employed as teachers are not suitable and should be dismissed. A high degree of autonomy for schools in respect of financial management and teacher recruitment is advocated. (These are issues which have been addressed elsewhere on this site.)

Early childhood intervention is a major contributor to student educational achievement. That is significantly influenced by the social and economic advantage of the family. Recognising that, most countries whose school students achieve high test scores support universal preschool: that brings greatest gains for less advantaged children. They also support government funded paid parental leave allowing parents to spend more time with the very young child during a critical period of life. The early years’ learning experiences influence the development of self-control which has a greater effect than any other influence on later life, as shown by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania in 2005.

Over 50 per cent of the contribution to school student achievement is contributed by what the child brings to school and a further proportion is contributed by out of school influences. In other words, most of the factors which influence student achievement are outside the control of the school. And, as John Hattie points out it is the school, not the teacher which has most influence. Almost all children are taught by many different teachers: to single out one teacher, as is done when teacher effectiveness is assessed on the basis of students’ test scores, is nonsense.

The Howard government from 1997 through 2006 had financially supported independent schools leading to a significant drift of students from public to independent schools. Writing in Quarterly Essay 36 (2009) writer Jane Caro quotes researcher Barbara Preston’s statement that by 2006 there were 16 low-income students to every 10 high-income students in high school playgrounds, compared with 13 students from low-income families 10 years earlier. The Rudd and Gillard governments continued support for independent schools by acknowledging, when the review of funding of education was announced, by undertaking that no school would lose money in any government policy flowing from the review.

The Gonski panel strongly supported special funding to address inequality. The Gillard government also sought substantial improvement in teacher training: though initially teacher progression and promotion was linked to student test scores, that was dropped in favour of linking teacher pay to individual teacher attainment of progression through an agreed professional performance framework.

The National Plan for School Improvement, the legislation implementing the Gonski recommendations, provided for increases in funding targeted at disadvantage and committed States to direct their funding to complement the Plan. Pyne removed those provisions in respect of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory which had not signed up to the National Plan before the September 2013 election. He was loudly opposed by every member of the Gonski Panel and large sections of the community for these decisions.

Pursuit of Pyne’s policies will waste money and take Australian school education policy back decades. The accompanying policies of early childhood education introduced by the Gillard government have stalled amid claims that increases in salaries for teachers are a sop to unions.

The essays accompanying this post summarises a number of recent reports and studies bearing on the fundamentals of Pyne’s policies for schools. These include, in the first essay dealing with learning, creativity and early childhood

And in the second essay on teaching and school performance

Continue to Learning, Creativity and Early Childhood