Sunday, February 12, 2012

SCHOOL CRACKDOWN: Dud teachers face axing in deal worth millions

Good if it actually happens. Government schools cannot afford to be too fussy, though. It's mainly the least talented of graduates who go into teaching these days. Trying to teach in an undisciplined school is only for the desperate -- aside from a few idealists

POORLY performing teachers will be sacked in a landmark education reform to be rolled out nationally.

In return for signing up to the Federal Government's teacher hiring policy, aimed at improving standards, state governments will be offered cash handouts worth millions.

The national reforms will need to be agreed to by each state and will be first rolled out in Queensland and New South Wales. The Queensland Government will be offered $7.5 million, and the NSW Government will be offered a handout of more than $12 million.

In a move that will break the longstanding deadlock about whether principals can hire and fire, school management will be given free rein to take over the recruitment and management of teachers and support staff.

School boards and councils will also take over the budget control and strategic planning, giving parents a greater role in oversight of their school operations. They will also be given the right to set salaries for teachers and contracts for school maintenance, such as cleaning.

"To get the best results we need principals to have the powers to get and keep the best teachers," Prime Minister Julia Gillard told The Daily Telegraph yesterday.

NSW government schools have the most centralised decision-making processes in Australia. All staff hiring is also centralised out of the state Department of Education, which has the say on hiring and firing of teachers.

The PM will announce the reforms ahead of the release of the Gonski review of school funding, due next week. It will be the first review of how schools receive funding since 1973 and is expected to call for major injections of funds into an education budget that tops $36 billion annually.

As federal education minister, Ms Gillard introduced the My School website and the Naplan tests, which brought in national standards for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in reading, writing and numeracy.

The Federal Government will withhold the additional funding if the State Governments do not sign up to the harder reforms, specifically around the hiring and firing of teachers by principals.

The onus is now on NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell to submit an implementation plan to the Federal Government to prove how he would lift education performance.

Inability to hire and fire staff has been one of the principals' greatest gripes. Principals will now become more accountable for their school's performance. A trial of the reforms will involve 325 schools in NSW over the next two years.


Good intentions but clean energy price too high

There are few things more dangerous than a bad policy built on good intentions. Communism springs to mind ("commune" is such a lovely word). The vast public housing estates built across the English speaking world in the 1960s and 1970s are another. The first famine in the Soviet Union, and the social dystopia in "the projects", should have quickly revealed that the policies were misconceived. Yet because the values behind the policies were ostensibly noble, they continued to operate on the original intention rather than the results. So it is with the government's Solar Flagships program.

"Renew" is also a gorgeous English word that carries with it a cache of that precious and elusive substance - hope. I don't want to disparage the search for diversified and sustainable energy security. I am concerned, as a taxpayer, that we get value for the $10 billion largesse we are pouring into renewables, as the price of Bob Brown's support for a minority government.

The policy was this week mugged by reality when both its Solar Flagship projects crashed. A $300 million grant to photovoltaic Moree Solar Farm must now be re-tendered because the proponents failed to attract matching private investment, in part because BP Solar, which was providing the technology, announced it was getting out of solar globally. (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the Czech Republic have all slashed solar subsidies and four of the biggest solar systems suppliers have filed for bankruptcy in the past 10 months). A solar thermal project at Chinchilla in Queensland (which has suffered a $300 million cost blowout since July 2011) has had to be granted a six-month stay of execution because it is yet to secure a customer.

The former Labor Leader Mark Latham now looks prophetic in his December 2011 statement: "The Government has put aside $10 billion for so-called 'industry development' … this is the biggest industry slush fund in the history of the nation. The technologies aren't ready, the businesses aren't established to absorb this money in any productive way."

Latham is an echo of growing unrest among the more hard-headed inside the ALP, including those committed to "urgent action on climate change". Kevin Rudd's former economics adviser, Dr Andrew Charlton, referred in his Quarterly Essay 44, to "the wide gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to clean energy … Neither wind nor solar power can currently provide continuous base-load power … these sources deliver nothing to the grid when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining". Charlton's thesis supports public investment over time but warns: "Trying to roll out large-scale renewable energy with current technology would be a terrible waste of money. We would spend billions of dollars installing expensive and inefficient renewable power with technology that will soon be outdated".

The British Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, this week faced a revolt of 101 MPs demanding a dramatic cut to a £400 million subsidy to the "inefficient" onshore wind turbine industry. They were not without a factual basis for their concerns after Verso Economics' March 2011 evaluation of The Economic Impact of Renewable Energy Policy found that: "Policy to promote the renewable electricity sector … is economically damaging. Government should not see this as an economic opportunity, therefore, but should focus debate instead on whether these costs, and the damage done to the environment, are worth the … climate change mitigation".

That finding is supported by Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus Centre, which commissioned five economists to review renewables policy. Their advice? "Cutting carbon is extremely expensive, especially in the short term, because the alternatives to fossil fuels are few and costly."

The only source of large-scale, storable, renewable energy is recharge-pumping hydro-electricity. But the Greens believe climate change has permanently reduced rainfall and were founded in Tasmania on a commitment to stop the construction of dams. In a Brown/Gillard government, the taxpayer can look forward to massive, well-intentioned but poorly targeted spending on immature technologies that will deliver little enduring benefit.


Anti-obesity propaganda blamed for new eating disorder among children

DOCTORS have started treating a new type of eating disorder, warning aggressive anti-obesity campaigns are driving healthy children to starvation.

The phenomenon has been seen by Victoria's three leading paediatric services, with doctors hospitalising children who have lost up to a third of their body weight over a few months in an irrational desire to stay thin.

Royal Children's Hospital chair of adolescent health Susan Sawyer said this eating disorder, affecting children at the upper end of the healthy weight range, was only starting to be documented.

"When you're older and overweight it's a very simple message that weight loss is good for you," Prof Sawyer said. "The difficulty with young people is that even if they are moderately overweight, they are still growing height-wise and are at risk of over-interpreting public health messages of 'low fat is good' to suggest that 'no fat is better'.

"For all intents and purposes, these adolescents have anorexia nervosa in terms of how unwell they are, the distorted body image and the amount of weight loss, but they are at a normal weight. "This is very new."

Austin Hospital's medical director of mental health, Richard Newton, said he believed some of the nine and 10-year-olds being treated were becoming ill from "the panic" created by anti-obesity campaigns. "We need to be giving healthy weight messages that don't vilify fatness, but actually encourage health," Associate Prof Newton explained. "Some of the health messages we give create panic.

"We have to reassure young people that if they do have a weight problem, it doesn't mean that makes them a bad person. "We need to encourage people to not just consider physical health, but emotional wellbeing as well."

Monash Children's head of adolescent medicine Jacinta Coleman said children developing this type of eating disorder could become sick quickly. "The kids we're seeing are at the upper end of their healthy weight range, not necessarily obese but on the more overweight side, and there is so much pressure on kids to lose weight," Dr Coleman said.

"They need to understand that you can be healthy even at a heavier weight, as long as you're active, eating nutritious food. "I think that's where the message is getting misinterpreted."


‘Building a new economy’ – really, Prime Minister?

Robert Carling

Throughout economic history, people have fretted about where the jobs will come from to replace those lost in declining firms and industries. We never seem to learn the lesson that they have always come from somewhere, as long as the private economy was allowed to get on with doing what it does best.

At times, concerns about declining industries are heightened by the general economic climate or the high profile of the firms or industries in decline. Australia is going through one such episode of heightened public concern as a result of the pressure that the strong Australian dollar is putting on industries such as motor vehicle manufacturing.

At its peak in the 1960s, Australian manufacturing – sheltering behind a high tariff wall – employed upwards of 1.35 million people, or more than one in every four in the workforce.
If someone in authority had announced in 1970 that manufacturing was destined to shed 400,000 of those jobs over the next 40 years, there would have been panic. How could the labour market replace 400,000 jobs and absorb the normal growth of the labour force?

Yet that is exactly what happened. Since 1984, for example, manufacturing shed 150,000 jobs (and agriculture another 70,000), while ‘health care and social assistance’ generated 800,000 more jobs; ‘professional, scientific and technical’ 600,000; construction another 600,000; retail trade 500,000; education and training 400,000; and so on.

The structure of the economy is always changing. This reality makes nonsense of the recent discovery by politicians of a ‘multi-speed economy’ – as if it has ever been anything else – and of Julia Gillard’s speech last week about ‘building a new economy’ – as if the one we’ve got is in ruins. What we are witnessing is structural change around the edges, albeit at an accelerated pace due to the high exchange rate, the high terms of trade, and the mining boom. To describe it as ‘building a new economy’ is just self-serving hype from a government that wants to be seen as thinking big and firmly in charge.

If there ever really was a need to build a new economy, God help us if we had to rely on government to do it. The only contribution government should make is to apply consistent macroeconomic, trade, competition and regulatory policies that give the private sector the best shot at maintaining high employment at high levels of productivity and low levels of inflation. This framework has no room for policies that shelter declining industries. Resources must be allowed to move to their most productive uses, and failing firms must be allowed to fail. But those employed in declining industries should not just be thrown on the labour market scrapheap. There is a case for structural adjustment assistance so that a 50-year-old car industry worker, for example, can be retrained and work happily and productively for another 15 or 20 years rather than spend the rest of his life as a dependant of the state.


Amnesty on truth

Despite its pretensions, Amnesty has been a far-Leftist organization for a long time -- JR

Sara Hudson

I’m ashamed to admit I was a member of Amnesty International in high school. Back then I proudly wore an Amnesty badge on a black beret. Now I cringe at the memory of my naive self lapping up their hyperbole.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that Amnesty International is urging a parliamentary human rights watchdog to investigate the federal government’s plan to crack down on school truancy by linking welfare payments to school attendance. The article claimed that a recent evaluation of SEAM (Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure) found that suspending welfare payments did not improve school attendance.

However, that is not what the evaluation actually found. According to the report, attendance rates improved in the two communities where SEAM was trialled – from 74.4% to 79.9% in the Northern Territory and from 84.7% to 88.7% in Queensland.

Where an enrolment notice was sent, 82% of families in the Northern Territory and 84% in Queensland provided enrolment details without the need for a welfare suspension. Of the 4,688 parents in the SEAM communities, only 85 had their welfare payments suspended under the enrolment component and seven under the attendance component.

When critics complain about government’s actions to improve remote Indigenous school attendance, what is it that they expect government to do? Let parents get away with not sending their children to school?

Quarantining people’s welfare because their kids don’t attend school may seem heavy handed, but the consequences of not enforcing school attendance are worse. Already there are tens of thousands of young people in remote communities who are unable to read and write. Do we want this cohort to grow exponentially, or do we want to nip it in the bud?

A recent ad campaign by the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) asked the question: ‘If 80% of kids in Sydney couldn’t read would you lend a hand?’ The same question could be asked about school attendance.

Granted, low school attendance is not the only reason for educational failure in remote Indigenous schools. Education departments across the country, with their separate curricula for Indigenous children, are also to blame.

In one Homeland School, an activity book based on a children’s picture book by Mem Fox is used for all the children aged 5 to 18 (or whatever age children decide that school is boring and stop going altogether).

Instead of complaining about government’s efforts to improve Indigenous school attendance, Amnesty should be complaining about what Indigenous children are being taught when they are at school!


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