Friday, September 17, 2010

A revolution that fizzled

Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party declared the "Education Revolution" at the beginning of 2007. They said it would go through various phases, and spent a lot of treasure on it. By now we should be showing results.

The first part of the revolution was equipment. The government promised a computer on the desk of every student in years 9 to 12. But there isn't. Not even one for every two desks. You couldn't share one between three. The government got its sums wrong and didn't allocate enough money for the back-up and the installation. It illustrates why we need to improve education - ministers need better numeracy standards - and showed this would be a revolution bigger on promise than delivery.

The next phase was to roll the revolution over to buildings. The government announced it was "Building the Education Revolution" with new halls and canteens in every school whether they were wanted or not. This would be revolutionary and "save" the economy by spending about $15 billion.

The BER stimulated a lot of inventive claims for project management fees and inflated building costs. It completed some useful projects, and some useless ones - like the hall at Hastings Public School, which is too small to hold the 39 students, and the canteen at Orange Grove Public School, nice but too small to fit a pie-warmer.

That great revolutionary Josef Stalin claimed that to make an omelette you have to break a few eggs. BER delivered breakages and spillages all over the country. Whether the omelette is worth $15 billion is the question. The BER "stimulus" is still being rolled out, even though we now have an unprecedented mining boom, with interest rates rising.

Julia Gillard says the revolution delivered the My School website that gives information on how students in each school compare with national averages. And that is a good idea. But one website does not a revolution make. If the literacy and numeracy standards showed persistent improvement against historical benchmarks and improvement against other countries, that would be an achievement. If the revolution is about anything, it should be about improving results.

After three years of revolution, it was a surprise that last weekend, when the PM announced her ministry, there was no one described as an education minister. This was once her No.1 priority. Later it was clarified there would be two ministers for education - Chris Evans for tertiary and Peter Garrett for schools - a kind of duumvirate to lead the revolution.

Both men are polite and sensitive. Neither is a fire-breathing reformer. Evans was in charge of stopping the tide of asylum seekers in his last ministerial role. The fact all of the asylum facilities are overflowing gives you some idea of how effective he was and why he had to be moved. And when you talk of ministerial fire it is not effectiveness that comes to mind with Garrett, but insulation batts and house fires. He is lucky to still be a minister.

Their appointment tells us how low a priority the education revolution has become. The sooner it moves out of public consciousness the happier Gillard will be. Don't expect too many more signs to be erected proclaiming the education revolution.

After three years, our Australian revolution is starting to look a bit like Castro's. He's been going 50 years and promises improvement is just around the corner. Cubans like to humour their leader. They know the truth but they keep up the joke. Australians are best advised to do the same. We know the revolution is an expensive fizzer, but we are polite and do not remind our Comrade Leader. She will bury it in her own good time.


Australia's Department of Immigration is 'at breaking point' with asylum claims

THE Department of Immigration is so stretched trying to process the 4775 asylum-seekers believed detained across Australia that 17 other government departments have been asked to lend it workers to meet an "urgent and increasing demand" for staff.

The call for immediate assistance to cope with rising numbers of asylum-seekers came as West Australian Premier Colin Barnett accused the Gillard government of using the west as a "prison" to house almost half the illegal boat arrivals detained on the mainland.

The head of the Department of Immigration, Andrew Metcalfe, wrote an urgent letter to his counterparts last month across a raft of agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Defence, Human Services and even Medicare Australia, requesting additional assistance.

"Over the last year there has been an increase in the rate of arrivals and the number of staff required to meet this demand has increased proportionately," Mr Metcalfe said in a letter to the head of the Department of Agriculture.

"The department is approaching a point where we will not be able to meet this demand from existing and internal staff."

An Immigration Department spokesman said the plea for additional workers was "normal practice and a routine business operation".

He said the department was experiencing an increase in "intense labour activity" as a result of more asylum-seekers' claims being refused.

But the leaking of the letter also followed the release yesterday of figures obtained by the opposition which showed that - of the more than 6300 illegal boat arrivals in the two years to June - only 75 had been refused entry and returned home.

By yesterday afternoon that figure had risen to 98 boatpeople, but new Immigration Minister Chris Bowen agreed those numbers could be improved.

"Certainly I want those numbers to be higher," he said on Sky News's Agenda. "When we reject a claim for asylum, I would like people to return to their home country more quickly."


Stigma and suspicion a reality for male childcare workers

This is a risk for me too as I love little kids and instinctively smile at them when I see them. I could easily be misjudged -- JR

Childcare centres are being encouraged to attract more male employees in order to combat staff shortages. But it’s not an easy task. With more than 95 per cent of childcare workers currently female, there’s a clear stigma attached to men working with children.

A male friend of mine used to work in a Queensland childcare centre and says he faced what he considered obvious discrimination. For example, he wasn’t permitted to change any nappies. He was highly offended by this rule, which applied only to him as the only male working in the centre.

It does seem unfair, not to mention sad - if he was trustworthy enough to employ, surely he could be trusted to change a nappy?

But the fact remains, many parents are uncomfortable with male childcare workers. According to Care For Kids, men who choose to work with children are often considered suspicious in their motives. Those funny looks and accusatory enquiries almost certainly a deterrent for men to work in an industry already considered women’s work.

But one childcare centre in NSW is breaking down barriers, with five of its current employees male.

Despite many parents welcoming access to male role models for their children, the men still report falling victim to stereotypes. In an age where parents are acutely aware of child predators, unfortunately it’s difficult to avoid.

To alleviate parents’ concerns, this centre also asks male employees not to change nappies, leaving that task to the female workers. If centres are prepared to hire male carers in the first place, it seems inconsistent not to grant them the same level of trust.

Sadly though, it’s not just the childcare industry that’s impacted by these sorts of stereotypes and concerns. Several men I know say while once they’d smile or wink at children, they no longer do so for fear of being judged or upsetting the child’s parents.

Others freeze if little ones try to play, often wanting cuddles or piggy-backs, as children do. It’s a sad fact, based on an unfortunate reality.


Greens threat to private schools

BETTER resources for regional education may well be on the national agenda, but new Schools, Early Childhood and Youth Minister Peter Garrett must not allow their delivery to be thwarted by giving in to the Greens, who will deny many young Australians a choice of independent schooling.

While the formal agreement between Julia Gillard and the Greens signed on September 1 makes no mention of education or schools funding, any intrusion of the Greens stance on schools into federal government policy will certainly undermine, for regional Australia, the social and economic sustainability they claim to champion.

Recognising the vital role of the independent schools sector, Prime Minister Gillard earlier this year committed to extending the existing school funding arrangements by 12 months and the capital grants program until 2014. However, to be enacted, this is likely to need the support of the Greens in both houses, putting them at odds with their party's commitment to attack independent schools with a blunt instrument.

According to their website, key planks of the Greens' policies include reducing funding across the board to 2003-04 levels; ending the arrangement for recurrent funding to non-government schools by the end of this year at the latest; and "[ensuring] the viability and diversity of existing public schools is not endangered by the development of new private schools", essentially preventing new independent schools from being set up even if there is a desire for them.

Such ideology makes naive assumptions, in particular about regional Australia and the millions of people who live here.

Negotiations between the three regional independent MPs and the two leading parties that wished to form minority government rightly put regional Australia back in the spotlight. So often overlooked in policy debates, it is a place where more than one-quarter of Australians live, are educated and work. However, regional Australia will suffer if its independent schools are threatened, because educational opportunity and diversity will be narrowed.

Independent schools enable regional children to have access to academic, sporting, cultural, spiritual and social programs that many would otherwise not have. For some, the nearest public secondary school may be hours away, and even then only provide education to Year 10. Most regional boarding schools, often the only option for a child from rural or remote Australia, are run on slim margins, with enrolments influenced mostly by the fickle vagaries of agricultural commodity markets rather than the salary packages of corporate executives.

Already making huge sacrifices for their children, parents who may no longer be able to afford an independent alternative but want a choice for their children will be forced to move from their one-high-school towns to larger centres or the city.

Further, a narrowing of educational choice and diversity will only lessen the attraction of regions to professionals already in short supply. The critical shortage of doctors will be placed on life support, and teachers, regardless of philosophical persuasion, will be harder to find.

Independent schools hold a valued place in regional Australia, not only as economic entities in their own right, but as providers of choice in lifestyle that is so critical to the attractions of living away from the city. Consequently, a threat to independent schools driven by new sympathy for the Greens agenda will have a greater impact in regional Australia than in metropolitan areas.

All this is hardly a recipe for a vibrant, diverse and inclusive regional Australia that can help take population pressures off overcrowded cities.

Educational equity for regional Australia means having equal access to the full breadth of school choices - government, Catholic and independent - and certainty of government funding arrangements is critical for maintaining this.

Depriving regional Australians of such opportunities will only increase social inequity, not help overcome it.


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