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Think-Ed: Building for the future – tests and edifices

Stuart Middleton


11 May 2010

Things are playing out along similar lines on both sides of the Tasman with regard to the reporting of student progress to parents.

Last week teachers in NSW decided that they would not co-operate with the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy programme which has the unfortunate acronym of NAPLAN, I kept thinking NAPALM as both sides bombed in their respective arguments.

Just as in New Zealand, the Minister is able to keep up a simple argument – parents have a right to know and so on. But this time Minister Julia Guillard (or one of her officials perhaps) took it all a step further. When teachers said that they would not administer the NAPLAN tests, officials swooped on schools to collect the test papers with the claim that they would administer the tests themselves in church halls if they had to! This was Keystone Cops farce at its best. Eventually the government offered a Working Party and the teachers backed off if not down.

Now the whole business emphasised a critical difference between Australia and New Zealand. Over there the reporting programme is based on tests – external tests, delivered to the school and administered on the same day to all the little ones – this is School Certificate with trainer wheels and NSW teachers are right to call it crazy. At least in New Zealand teachers have the choice of assessment tools and procedures they can use provided they are able to report progress against standards that are prescribed,

But is the heat of the issue in Australia that surprises me. Gilliard has one of those Australian manners that mean when she gets on to the front foot she is aggressive and frankly unpleasant. She introduced the “myschool” website which offers to parents a chance to get the league tables without having to wait for the media to piece it together. Parents’ right-to-know-about-their-“schule” and all that.

I predict further troubles with the direction they are heading in. And it is not as if everything else is going well in the school sector.

When the economic recession came along the Australian federal government launched into a programme they called the Building the Education Revolution Programme in which a new school hall or library would be built in each and every school. The problem was that it was a new school hall or library whether you wanted or needed one or not and some schools most certainly did not. Others thought the idea great until they saw what they got!

It is reported that some schools had perfectly sound buildings removed to make way for the new hall only to find that the old one it replaced (which was too small to fit the school in) was too small to fit the school in. In one case this was achieved by demolishing a child-care facility to make room for it! In another a perfectly sound classroom block (surplus to requirements you know) was bowled over. Schools were pretty tetchy about it and have been for some time.

Now the Auditor General reports that the planning of the programme was flawed right from the start and that the $AUD1.7 billion blowout was inevitable. The $AUD12.4 billion allocated to the BER programme was simply calculated on the basis that at least 10% of schools would not participate and more would accept something less that then the maximum grant. So what on the face of it looked like a wonderful chance to enhance infrastructure is suddenly getting bas press. The well-meaning scheme was designed also to support te building industry and they have certainly come to the party with construction costs for some single storey school halls costing twice as much per square metre than a Sydney high-rise.

It is all very well for the Australian government to introduce scorecards of various kinds to assess the quality of the work of teachers and schools (however well such a programme is dressed up to be about the progress of students) but what about a scorecard for the performance of the government? Was the $14.1billion spent to this point on building the education revolution well targeted? It seems not. Would it have every produced the kind of step change that constitutes a revolution? It seems not.

But it did provide the Rudd government with some great press early on when the scheme was announced.

Quick political wins in education in Australia are seemingly not being translated into long term gains and that is the issue.

Would not an “education revolution” have focussed on the literacy needs of young Australians and could not the resources poured into school halls (and some into libraries) have been more wisely spent on better instruction, better levels of availability of high quality teachers and better ways of getting government, teachers and communities to work together to win the real war – the battle against incompetence, lack of skills and impoverished life chances? Of course it would.

But then there would not have been the political photo-opportunities for politicians. Better to open a building than watch as a national testing regime fails to lift literacy and numeracy rates.  

Thank goodness New Zealand has not gone down the road to more testing. Buildings are testing enough!

Published inEducation

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