xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: When policies are not solutions.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

When policies are not solutions.

Policy announcements are not solutions.

Just after announcing the double dissolution election on July 2, the Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, said that he would provide an “additional” 1.2 billion dollars for education. Many educators and opposition politicians quickly replied that it was not really additional funding, but part of the 80 billion dollars previously removed from state education and health budgets. This money was originally removed from the education budget because some states, notably Western Australia, did not sign up with Labor's Gonski programme.

Mr Turnbull said that he would provide this money for the states on three conditions. To get the money the states would need to: -
1. Introduce standardised literacy and numeracy tests for children entering Year One.
2. Introduce standardised literacy and numeracy tests for students finishing Year 12.
3. Introduce a regime of Merit Pay for Teachers.

This is a classic example of what Richard Dennis, the Chief Economist at the Australia Institute, has labelled “Announceables”. Writing in the May edition of the Monthly Magazine, Dennis wryly observed that, “In a country as rich as Australia it makes sense for politicians to focus more heavily on style rather than substance. What would be the point of solving problems if no one noticed?”
Dennis goes on to say, “Ministers are praised for the policies they launch, rather than the problems they solve, and a policy “works” if it helps the government send the right signal.”

The intention of Mr Turnbull’s announcement was not to address any real issues in education but to let the voting public know that he and his party are deeply interested in education. This has been the fundamental problem for education since the 1980s when politicians took over from educators in formulating policies for schools. The problem is that politicians invariably formulate policies that they hope will win them votes rather than policies designed to meet the real needs of children sitting at their desks and those who teach them. The Gonski scheme, a funding programme based on student and school needs, was a plan that went against this trend but unfortunately politicians have killed Gonski stone dead.

Let us exam the three conditions Mr Turnbull has placed on “extra” funding to school.
Most people would agree that testing Year 12 students for literacy and numeracy is a reasonable proposition. In fact, most people d probably think that that is already part of the purpose of having final exams in Year 12.The other two conditions, while sending out the signal of the PM’s great interest in education, are not solutions to any major issues in Australian education today.

A national standardised test of Literacy and Numeracy for children entering Year One would be a massive waste of money. Children enter Year One at the beginning of February. By the end of February, every Year One teacher in Australia would be able to confidently identify those children in the class who would thrive, those who would reach satisfactory outcomes and those who would struggle for a whole variety of intellectual, social, physical, psychological and economic reasons.
Those Year One teachers are not desperately crying out for national standardised tests for literacy and numeracy. What they desperately do require are more support teachers and more teacher assistants to provide enrichment and remediation to specific individual and groups.

They require more school psychologists, school nurses and social workers to help address the many problems in the class that stem from outside the classroom and the school. Unfortunately, the money needed to provide these valuable resources to address these problems will be used on creating a national testing regime.

Merit pay for teachers sounds like a great idea. Mr Turnbull has said that no teacher should move to a higher salary grade unless they demonstrate improved outcomes. Some may wonder if Mr Turnbull is deserving of the substantial pay rise he accrued when he replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. In the last sixteen months has Mr Turnbull demonstrated improved outcomes? In that time he has largely followed the policies and programmes that Mr Abbott introduced. In that time his poll ratings have fallen quite dramatically but he continues to be paid that much higher salary. Why is it we never hear of merit pay for politicians?

Of course Merit Pay for Teachers, or payment by results, is not a new concept. It has been tried before in many parts of the world, always without success. It did not produce increased educational outcomes and it made teachers frustrated and disgruntled. Believe me, every school student would want their teachers to be very gruntled. It makes for happier classrooms.

The cry for merit pay for teachers is another way of saying that our teachers are not working hard enough and must try harder. The fact is, the great majority of our teachers are working above and beyond the call of duty while starved for funds and resources by the very politicians who are critical of their efforts. It is similar to army generals putting their troops into the front line with faulty weapons and little ammunition and then complaining that they are not winning the battle.

Of course Malcolm Turnbull is not the only politician who announces a policy to send “the right signal” of interest rather than a solution to a problem. In this 2016 federal election campaign politicians of all hues will make policy statements that are designed to indicate their great interest in important areas of education or manufacturing or health or infrastructure. Solutions will be much harder to find.

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