Christopher Pyne’s Report Card.

Christopher Pyne’s Report Card.

This post was originally published on the AARE Blog, EduResearch Matters. You can see the original here.

Christopher Pyne leaves the position of Minister for Education and Training and becomes Minister for Industry Innovation and Science in the new Turnbull Government. Keith Heggart gives Pyne a school style report on his efforts as the nation’s Education Minister.

Name: Christopher Pyne

Class: Education Minister of Australia (2013-2015)

Subject: Cooperation with stakeholders

Grade: F

Positive feedback is impossible to give in this subject area, much as I’d like to say he tried hard if nothing else. As I see it Christopher’s efforts have been more directed towards dismantling relationships with stakeholders, rather than building them.

Whether we are talking about primary, secondary or tertiary education, Christopher engaged in an ideological struggle against stakeholders that will have detrimental effects upon the education of students for years to come.

An example Christopher’s work in this subject is his dealings with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL).

Education in Australia is currently undergoing significant change, with the introduction of the Australian Curriculum and the move towards a new model of Professional Standards for Teachers ( neither of these being Christopher’s innovations). AITSL has a significant role to play in these changes. In the past, AITSL has adopted a co-operative and collaborative model, working with teachers, policy experts and other stakeholders in the field. Everybody had a chance to have a seat at the table.

However, recently, Christopher made the unilateral decision to completely restructure the board of AITSL. He excluded some stakeholders entirely, and made the Institute a political animal rather than an evidence based policy one. This decision was apparently made without consultation or advice with any of the organisations and institutions involved. It is a clear demonstration of the ideological agenda Christopher pursued at the expense of education in Australia.

Teachers, the profession most affected by any decisions made by AITSL, had their representative bodies removed from the board, and thus no longer have a voice in decisions that will directly affect their lives and careers. Both the Australian Education Union (AEU) and the Independent Education Union (IEU), who represent more than 250 000 Australian teachers, have now confirmed that they will have nothing further to do with AITSL until this decision is changed.

Perhaps this is a first and urgent job for new minister Simon Birmingham.

The role of an education minister is to improve educational standards across Australia; the best way to do this is through collaboration and cooperation. Due to failure to do this, and his destructive and counter-productive actions, I feel I have no choice but to fail Christopher for this part of his role.

Subject: Higher Education Reform

Grade: E

One of Christopher’s flagship reforms as Education Minister was his plan to uncap university fees. He was seeking to allow universities, specifically the elite sandstone institutions, to charge what they wanted for their degrees (which according to various reports, could have seen some degrees double or even triple to costs approaching $100 000).

Thankfully, the fractured nature of the Senate meant that Christopher had to negotiate with some of the crossbench senators if his legislation was ever going to reach the Australian people. Christopher proved himself spectacularly inept at doing this (hark back to his inability to achieve co-operation with stakeholders).

Despite promises and desperate text messages before the voting (and also the holding to ransom of 1700 researchers and their jobs), Christopher failed, not once, but twice, to get the vote through the upper house.

As I see it the reason is simple: Christopher did not engage the public in this matter. He did not convince us deregulation was vital or in the nation’s best interest. Even Senator Glenn Lazarus, a political unknown in many ways, was straightforward in his criticism: Lazarus said he could not find a single reason to support the bill.

Regardless of whether you support the idea of fee deregulation or not (and you shouldn’t, it’s a ridiculous idea), Christopher’s role in this parliament was to get the legislation through, and in this he has proved himself to be out of touch with the other members of the parliament, and lacking the communication skills necessary to establish a vision. In this case, Christopher is certainly no ‘fixer’.

Subject: Student needs and school funding

Grade: E

Australian schooling is facing many challenges and undergoing significant changes at the moment: for example, primary and high schools are wrestling with the adoption of the Australian Curriculum and the increased emphasis being placed on high stakes testing (neither are Christopher’s fault, though he has since fiddled with the curriculum, again in an ideological way, we’ll get to that soon).

Into this environment (before Christopher) the Gonski Report was introduced in 2011. It sought to establish student need as the fundamental principal for the amount of funding a school should receive from the government and in doing so it sought to restructure the labyrinthine complexities of the current school funding model. Recommendations from the Gonski report were to be implemented over six years under the previous Labor government, with most of the money coming in the final two years.

During the election, the Coalition repeatedly promised that there would be no cuts to education, and even claimed a ‘unity ticket’ with Labor on school funding.

However, after the election, by November 2013, Christopher had already backpedalled  from this promise as he slashed spending from the education budget. This was bad enough, but it was only the beginning: more strange reforms and thought bubbles were on their way.

One of the ideas raised by Christopher included the suggestion that wealthy parents could contribute a fee to send their children to local public schools. This grew out of the idea that the federal government should become the dominant funder of all schools and systems, a radical change to the education system that has more to do with economic efficiency than investing in the future of Australia and its education system.

Australia has had free public education for decades; charging parents $1000 or more, as was rumoured to be the case, would effectively destroy that principle. The reality is, once again, Christopher was demonstrating his lack of understanding about the educational domain, and rather than treating it as an important civil good, he seemed to see it as a business to be squeezed in order to extract every last drop of financial advantage. Such an approach might be good for a Fortune 500 company, but not for school education.

Subject: Knowledge of Pedagogy and Curriculum

Grade: E

Perhaps the most controversial of all of Christopher’s reforms was his decision to undertake a review of the Australian Curriculum, announced in 2014. Before examining the nature and purpose of the review, it is worth considering the timing: the Australian Curriculum had not even been fully implemented in all schools and states at that time; why on earth would you undertake a review into something that was still being implemented?

Of course, the reasons for the review were not about evidence based research policy, how could they be? Instead, they betrayed Christopher’s ideological bias. This is particularly obvious in his choice of reviewers. Never mind the fact that the curriculum is already overseen by an independent body and on that body sit the representatives of every state and territory education minister, and never mind the fact that they had already approved the curriculum for adoption in Australian schools. Instead, Christopher risked restarting the ‘culture wars’ by appointing arch-conservative Kevin Donnelly to conduct the review, a man with very close connections to the Liberal party and a conviction that the current curriculum (with its cross curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Sustainability and Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia) was some kind of Marxist conspiracy.

Not surprisingly, Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire (the other reviewer) made a number of recommendations, including emphasizing the role of Western civilization and placing more emphasis on ‘morals, values and spirituality’, effectively sending Australian education back to the early 20th century. The emphasis on a ‘back-to-basics’ approach’ was at the expense of a wider range of instructional pedagogies that would meet the needs of all students. It certainly did not acknowledge the changing nature of learning and teaching in Australian schools in the 21st Century.

Christopher, once again, made decisions based upon his own ideologies rather than consulting with a wide range of education experts currently working in the field, and considering their advice.

Recommendations

Despite Christopher’s apparent potential, his time as education minister has been a disappointment, especially for many educators who have worked with him. Much as he might benefit personally, I advise, most strongly, that he should not repeat this class.