Christopher Pyne’s failures as Federal Education Minister

Christopher Pyne’s failures as Federal Education Minister

This post was originally posted here:

There will be few teachers or principals who are sad to see the back of Christopher Pyne as Federal Minister for Education.

Much like the rest of the Abbott Government, Pyne’s time in charge of education in Australia has been characterised by ideologically-driven approaches, sudden backflips, changes in policy and poorly communicated thought bubbles.

There’s not space in this column to list Pyne’s failures, but there are a few that are particularly worthy of mention. Let’s take his review into the Australian Curriculum for a start.

Despite agreement on the content and implementation of the Australian Curriculum from state education ministers in 2009 and again in 2012, one of Pyne’s first actions as minister was to announce a review into the curriculum – even though the national curriculum was yet to be implemented in all subjects across Australia.

This review was blatantly partisan – one of the two reviewers was former Liberal Party staffer and failed candidate Kevin Donnelly – and sought to reinstate supposed “Judeo-Christian values” as well as return to the “basics” of reading, writing and numeracy. There was no evidence that such an approach was needed – and it blatantly ignored modern approaches to teaching and learning for old-fashioned pedagogies.

The final report was a muddle, with Donnelly and the other reviewer, Ken Wiltshire, apparently disagreeing over the changes that should be made to the subjects taught in primary school. In New South Wales, Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has slammed the review, saying that he is in no rush to adopt the changes.

That’s not all that Pyne was responsible for in his time as education minister. There was also the interminable debate about university fee deregulation. Pyne wanted to reform the tertiary sector and his approach was to allow universities to uncap fees; meaning they would be able to charge what they wanted for degrees, causing some to suggest that courses could cost more than $100,000.

Most university leaders were in favour of this idea, but fortunately, the Senate intervened, and sent the legislation back to the lower house on two separate occasions. Despite this slap in the face, Pyne insisted that the legislation would get through, claiming, in a bizarre interview, that he was a ‘fixer’. The evidence would suggest otherwise.

And then there’s Gonski. This review into school funding arrangements, undertaken during the previous government’s term, sought to establish an equitable approach to funding based on need. Before the 2013 federal election, both Abbott and Pyne claimed that there was a ‘unity ticket’ between the Labor party and the Coalition on the matter of funding.

No sooner had the Coalition been elected that Pyne announced changes to the proposed funding models, which effectively constituted a cut to school funding. In particular, Pyne tied the increases in school funding to CPI, as opposed to the original plan which was significantly above that. Even worse, Pyne abandoned the final two years of the plan, where much of the federal funding was committed. Some unity ticket.

Pyne wasn’t just content to meddle in school funding arrangements. Instead, despite his total lack of experience in educational matters, he made a number of unilateral decisions about pedagogy. For example, he supported the idea of direct instruction, despite a lack of evidence that it improves student learning. In fact, it actively works against engagement, which is central to improving outcomes.

Pyne continued to push the high stakes testing agenda, even bringing it online, despite concerns about the effect of that standardised testing, and he also advocated for more independence of public schools – again, in the face of evidence that argues such approaches are not necessarily linked to improved student outcomes.

I haven’t mentioned Pyne’s ongoing support for school chaplains, nor the simplistic approach of insisting on numeracy and literacy testing for teachers to improve quality or the politicisation of the AITSL board. There are too many failures to describe.

I, like many other educators, say this to the former education minister: good riddance.