During the Christmas/New Year holiday period, prior to the tragedy of floods and fires, Prime Minister Julia Gillard chose to feed out some media announcements about local school autonomy.
Her proposal was to give schools the right to “hire and fire” teachers. The model would give school principals and local parent representatives control of staffing, replacing the current statewide system of appointments.
Many states have a variation of this localised system to some extent. However, NSW and Queensland, which are still under state-based employment relations, do not.
It is in these states that Gillard's “reforms” are aimed — and especially at the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF).
Right-wing commentators, such as Dr Kevin Donnelly of the Education Standards Institute, have espoused school autonomy as a means to “raise education standards”, in the face of so-called obstruction from unions.
It is part of a general neoliberal model for education based on the “New York model”.
This involves the market-based agendas of performance pay, mass testing of students (NAPLAN), localised hire and fire of teachers and the corporate takeover of so-called failing schools. It’s a privatisation agenda.
Gillard herself visited New York and spoke to the architect of the New York model, Joel Klein. It is a result of Labor's retreat from social democratic principles that this market-based agenda has filled the vacuum of Labor's education policy.
However, all is not going well for the free marketeers.
To date, the relaunch of MySchool — the government website that presents a ranking or league table of schools based on NAPLAN scores — has been delayed. This is due to threats of legal action by the private school lobby over the public exposure of school fees.
However, MySchool was already under pressure. Academics had exposed significant errors and ridiculous school comparisons. Media reports had also revealed other limitations and distortions, including the potential for cheating, in the NAPLAN test itself.
The core of the New York model — mass testing — is a stick to force schools to compete with one another and to paint teachers as the cause of poor student performance.
National and state teachers say such tests are a waste of government funds. But they did not carry through a complete ban on the tests last year.
Significantly, opposition to the New York model is growing.
In November, Donnelly himself wrote a “mea culpa” and said he had been convinced by the arguments of US Professor Diane Ravitch that the tests are a problem.
The problems have been further demonstrated by the resignation of Klein, following revelations the New York tests were manipulated to fudge an appearance of progress.
In contrast, results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests on english, science and mathematics, which were released in December 2010, reaffirmed what has been known for some time — Australia is a top performer but there is still a problem in poorer communities.
It is resourcing, not testing, that will solve this. Indeed, PISA shows that a high overall result occurs where there is lowest inequity — in Finland and now the emerging Asian giants such as Shanghai in China.
National and state teaching unions met at the Australian Education Union (AEU) national conference in January and reaffirmed their opposition to the neoliberal agenda of Gillard’s Labor.
In his opening address to the conference, federal AEU President Angelo Gavrielatos said: “When I hear the words ‘local autonomy’ uttered by governments, I can't help but think that what they are granting principals and teachers is nothing more than the freedom to obey.
“They want to give us the autonomy to do the plumbing and fix faulty power points whilst dictating that when reporting on student achievement we can only use five letters of the alphabet, A-E.”
If MySchool 2.0 is released and school league tables are subsequently published, the AEU intends to resume some form of industrial action.
However, while NAPLAN remains the test upon which the other elements of the market agenda are measured, then the unions face a weakness unless they oppose the mass test regime itself.
PISA shows Australian schools need resources most of all — the NAPLAN mass testing regime should be ended and the money redirected to remote and poor area schools.
[John Morris is a member of the Activist Teacher Network, a teachers rank-and-file group in the NSWTF, a member of the NSWTF Executive and a member of Solidarity.]