Battle for the Education State
The “Education State” election campaign barrelled on this week, with the announcement of a number of education-related policies emerging from the camps of Victorian Premier Denis Napthine and leader of the Labor Opposition Daniel Andrews. Expanding on a 2010 commitment made by then Opposition leader Ted Baillieu, Premier Napthine announced a $78 million investment over four years to give every state primary school access to welfare officers, contending:
“This initiative will help all government primary schools to better manage challenges such as bullying and will support students with behavioural, mental health and welfare issues”.
The Labor Opposition returned serve on Tuesday with the quasi-education-related announcement of free compulsory defensive driving courses for Year 10 students across the state at a cost of $24 million over four years. Mr Andrews described the policy as:
“The sort of radical change that we need if we’re going to deal with chronic over-representation in our road toll of young people aged between 18 and 25”.
Labor committed to further radical change on Wednesday by announcing a $1.4 million investment to “help bring music lessons to every Victorian school” in partnership with Musical Futures Victoria. Referencing a recent Parliamentary Inquiry, Mr Andrews claimed:
“Exposure to music education means better grades, better results and better attendance – it’s a proven link”.
While an analysis of the impact of Arts participation on student outcomes by UK education evidence body The Education Endowment Foundation shows “reasonably consistent but weak evidence that participation in artistic and creative activities is beneficial”, the jury is still out among parents across the country about whether the use of recorders by primary school-aged children constitutes “music”.
Perhaps the most significant education policy announced this week was the reform package intending to support the learning outcomes of students with disabilities. Labor promised on Wednesday to:
- require all teaching degrees to consider the special needs of disabled students
- prioritise school professional development around catering to the needs of disabled students
- ensure new and refurbished school infrastructure is accessible to students with a disability
- investigate early screening programs for dyslexia and the establishment of a commission to hear complaints from parents and students.
Predictably, party leaders of both stripes savaged the policy announcements of the other, with the Australian Education Union (AEU) laying on further criticism for good measure. Deputy Opposition Leader James Merlino used the announcement of the Coalition welfare officer program to criticiseNapthine’s lack of focus on vocational education and skills training, while AEU Victoria President Meredith Peace described it as “too little too late”. In turn, Napthine criticised Labor’s defensive driving policy, arguing that road safety “shouldn’t be subject to politically-motivated populist thought bubbles”. There was no word from either camp around whether bubbles of these kind constitute acceptable education policy.
The great divide
A study by the National Institute of Labour Studies, reported on this week in the Fairfax Press, used international testing data to demonstrate that “school quality” does not depend on the sector of the school. That is, in terms of student outcomes on certain measures of reading, mathematics and science, it doesn’t make a difference whether students attend a government school or an independent school once their socioeconomic status (i.e. how wealthy their families are) is taken into account. Researchers Stephane Mahuteau and Kostas Mavromaras corroborated the findings of previous studies on the impact of school sector on student outcomes, concluding:
“The data strongly supports the simple proposition that the main determinant of higher scores in non-Government schools is the higher socio economic status of the students that choose to go to non-Government schools”.
While findings like these effectively slap down any claim that government schools utilise funds less efficiently than their non-government counterparts, or provide a lower quality of education, the public vs public debate is still likely to persist at backyard barbeques across the country. The pooling of relative advantage in the independent school sector does mean that non-government schools achieve relatively higher results than government schools, and this arguably does have positive implications for the future life and work of their students.