Jim and Jillian Dellit established this website to bring together their various endeavours, to engage with and contribute to the educational community and educational delivery. Jillian is continuing this work both in her own right, and to keep faith with Jim's life, 1947-2014, and their productive partnership 1970-2014.

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Australian education today: strategies in search of policies

Posted by Jim in Curriculum, Education policy, Education reform, Primary schooling, Secondary schooling
February 21

In 1995 a UNESCO report identified a trend among member states towards a disjunction
between policy making and program or strategy development in education. Their
report, (Haddad, W Education policy process an applied framework, UNESCO, 1995) identified a shift in the balance of interest between educational planning (with
its emphasis on design, implementation, and monitoring) and educational policy
making (with an emphasis on how educational policy alternatives are identified
and final choices made)
. The report identified two ‘exacerbators’ of this disjunction: failure to utilize the insights of the ‘planners’ by the ‘policy makers’; and the impact of local decision making and political policy making in response to perceived and lobbied ‘public’ interest. This disjunction is evident today in Australian education reform which across the Commonwealth, states and territories, lacks a coherent policy framework.  Strategy development by government has replaced vision and policy.

Commonwealth and state/territory Ministers are collectively responsible for developing educational policies that create a framework for the effective operation of educational institutions and the effectiveness of the learning which occurs in them. Such a policy framework is designed to serve stated national and local economic, social and cultural objectives. This ‘big-picture’ policy development is a difficult task for Ministers given the focus of the media on conflict and the perceived electorate focus on short-term benefit. Ministers need support from the profession, (‘wise counsel’ as distinct from ‘advocacy’) if they are to show the sort of policy leadership we expect.

There is much chatter among political commentators and bloggers about the inability of governments to articulate a vision, to create a national aspiration and to embed these in policy. This policy vacuum appears to have resulted from a focus on polling, compromise and achievable politics together with the politicisation of the senior public service. It was senior career public servants working closely with their Ministers who created policies and visions, (think Harold Wyndham, think Alby Jones, think Ken Boston, think Frank Tate, think Martin Forrest, think Bruce Davis, think Geoff Spring, think Ken Smith) and because these Directors-Generals and their staff had an educational framework, a deep knowledge of their systems, and a historical view of progress, they knew what could be achieved. The loss of these career public servants has made it harder for governments to develop, articulate and actualise grand visions and policy frameworks.

An example of this disjuncture between policy and program development is currently evident in South Australia. The recently appointed South Australian Education Minister has announced a review of the one year old Year 11/12 South Australian Certificate of Education, commonly referred to as the ‘new SACE’. The ‘new SACE’ resulted from a 2005-06 review of the ‘old SACE’, which was instituted in 1989 following a review of the then Year 12 Public Examination Board Matriculation syllabus curriculum/examinations.  Whilst an evaluation of the ‘new SACE’ was foreshadowed at its inception, the new review, after one year, seems premature. There has been much dissatisfaction expressed by educators, teachers, students and parents. An anti ‘New SACE’ Facebook page had thousands of student ‘likes’. The new SACE has reduced the number of subjects students are required to undertake and an individual research project was designed to ensure depth: ‘depth over breadth’. Greater ‘depth’ has not been evident while Humanities and Languages subjects have had significantly reduced enrolments. The Minister for Education is feeling some heat.

I was involved in both the reviews of 1989 and 2006, co-authoring a booklet with Tanya Rogers, Within the reach of all, for the 1989 review arguing for particular inclusive curriculum content, structures, and assessments. The government policy at the time was very clear – the post-Dunstan Labor government provided a clear social justice and economic reform policy remit for the review and its recommendations.  My involvement in the new SACE development was less creative as the remit for the review was less clear. I was contracted to do some writing and to provide advice. I am not contractually able to reveal that advice which was largely ignored. So, in fairness, I have some baggage here.

The Terms of Reference for the current review are described on the SACE Board website as ‘broad, and… designed to facilitate consultation’. (http://www.sace.sa.edu.au/about/key-information/first-year-evaluation ) They refer the reviewers to only one policy area: the principles and legislation that framed the ‘new SACE’. The outcome may be a ‘tweaked  SACE’ or even a ‘New New SACE’, or ‘Newer SACE’, but the Terms of Reference do not include any consideration of the broad policies that the government is seeking for social, economic and cultural reform in South Australia and ignore national developments. The new Minister is clever and conscientious. The review panel is experienced and politically adept. The problem with the 2005/06 review was not that there were not clever and good people involved, but that the remit for the review contained an inadequate framework and failed to explain, in hard policy terms, what the government wanted to achieve for South Australia’s future from a ‘new SACE’.

The South Australian experience seems to reflect a general policy malaise affecting governments of all persuasions across Australia. The Commonwealth has initiated a host of strategies; the My School website, the National Curriculum, merit pay for teachers, Asia education initiatives, and so on, without a clearly articulated, farsighted policy imperative. It is much easier for governments to focus on strategies, to implement and review them, than to drive significant lasting reform through policy. When initiatives occur in a policy vacuum they become, what educators call ‘busy work’. Citizens deserve better. A civil society requires vision and policy.

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