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A Future Australia?

December 11th, 2008

Museum people, I hope, are taking careful note of the announcements, assertions and debate of the last three weeks in Australia about education policy and funding, the assertions that our public education sytem is a disgrace, that what we need is greater accountability, that the latest international tests are a wake up call for Australian educators and that Australia is failing in the standards of its child care institutions. Because all of this has implications for what museums will do in the next few years.

Fourteen months ago (on 19 September 2007) I gave an invited talk to a small audience at the South Bank Campus of Griffith University’s College of the Arts as part of their Lunch Box talks. As I am writing an essay on education and schooling at the present time I thought it might be time to publish the text of that talk.

The three weeks from the last week of November through mid December have been times of substantial developments in education and schooling in Australia. “Experts” told us again that if schools are to improve, and they must, then we need a culture of performance and accountability. In his fourth Boyer lecture, expatriate Australian Rupert Murdoch reminded us that “The unvarnished truth is that in countries such as Australia, Britain, and particularly the United States, our public education systems 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.” I doubt the veracity of Mr Murdoch’s assertions as they relate to Australia.

New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, brought to Australia by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education Julia Gillard, told us of the great successes of his program to replace a culture of excuse to a culture of performance. Careful consisderation of the time since Mr Klein has been Chancellor have led some to claim that there have been anything but advances in student achievement in New York.

At the end of the week, it was announced that very substantial funds were to be granted by the Commonwealth to education and schooling through the Council of the Heads of Government (COAG) for some extremely important strategies.

This month (December) we have seen arguments in the Australian Parliament about the provision of funds to Independent schools and whether that funding should be tied to a national curriculum. On December 9 the results of TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) for 2007 (tests conducted in 2006 in Australia) were announced and some newspapers pounced on the results to claim they were a wake up call for teachers since the results were not as good as they should be.

On December 11 a UNICEF sponsored study found serious problems in the early childhood sector in many countries, especially Australia and England. As always the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Adele Horin had a very good article about the issue. Much of the consideration of this issue will unbdoubtedly be placed in the context of the ongoing consideration of the collapse or the ABC Learning Centres and child minding which is doubtfully where it should be placed.

And on December 12 Prime Minister Rudd announced substantial funds for infrastructure including funds for training and development in TAFE institutions .

In my view the vitally important issue of ensuring the highest quality of teachers, through recruitment, training, mentoring, appropriate pay and conditions, gets submerged in pointless arguments about accountability and league tables for schools, accusations that public schools are failing and so on. That is also the view of experts in the field!

Similarly, the vitally important issue of early childhood education, especially in respect of children from less well off parts of the community which is where the greatest gains are to be made, get submerged in issues about child minding so working mothers can go to work to make enough money to cover the mortgage and buy the food and the failure so far to put in place a paid maternity (and paternity) leave scheme which equates with that of many advanced economies.

As always with these essays, none of this is irrelevant to museums. Increasingly, early childhood education is recognised by museum people as an area where they can make substantial contributions, as shown by the Queensland Art Gallery and the studies of Barbara Piscitelli and by some other museums including the Australian Museum.

The drive for accountability and testing severely cramps the time of school classes for other activities which give substantial complementary experiences outside the classroom, such as visits to museums: the children are too busy practising for their tests! And the arguments about curriculum can end up constraining the kinds of experiences offered by the museum to visiting school groups through a focus on learning facts ““ the dreaded “˜worksheet’ – rather than experiencing the joy of stimulating experiences when the children are able to be in charge of their own learning, making their own creative connections between things and events previously unconnected in their minds.

In all of this is the influence of certain special interest groups, amongst whom are the “˜economists’. As a friend of mine, a distinguished educator said the other day, “I’m sick of economists running the system, and I’m sick of schools being so filled up with audits of various kinds that there is no space for teachers to inspire kids.”

In my talk, I started by saying “Education is one of the three or four critical issues for all peoples and communities and investment in it leads to increased wellbeing as well as economic growth. It requires investment. Recent economic policies have instead steered us toward an education and work environment more suited to a low wage economy: learning and creativity are being undervalued. The solutions are to be found in recognising the positive outcomes of self determination and encouragement of creativity, not centralised control.” (Reember that this was written in mid 2007!)

By the question “Is there a future for an Educated Australia?” I meant, “do we, or more particularly those with influence and we as those who influence them, recognise that our common future depends on our investing in learning and understanding. And I am not going to argue that we learn certain things rather than others, math and spelling rather than Indonesian or the classics. To a very large extent engaging in educational experiences, no matter the content, leads to a more enriching life.”

I talked about three gains from education:

Continue to “Is there a Future for an Educated Australia“

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