Sunday, December 08, 2013

Does PISA mean we should give a Gonski?

The two big education stories this week have been about school funding and student performance.

On Monday, federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced he would honour his pre-election commitment to deliver the first four years of a six-year funding deal offered by the previous Labor government. This package of funding and reforms was based on the recommendations of the Gonski review of school resourcing and governance.

Pyne's version is different to Labor's - he has pledged to give all states and territories the extra funding they are entitled to under the new funding model, whether they have signed an agreement with the Commonwealth or not, and he will remove many of the accountability requirements and regulations.

On Tuesday, the results of the latest Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. PISA has been conducted every three years since 2000, and assesses the reading, maths and science literacy skills of thousands of 15 year old students around the world.

The PISA 2012 report showed that Australia's international ranking had dropped, as it has in every testing cycle since 2000. This was widely interpreted as a sign of a dire decline in Australia's performance, yet there are other factors to consider.

The number of countries participating in PISA has doubled from 32 in 2000 to 65 in 2012, creating substantial changes in the rankings. Many of the countries that have displaced previously high-ranked countries are not countries at all. The 'partner economies' that dominate the top ranks are East Asian cities or city-states, and Liechtenstein, a country with just 36,000 people. No useful policy conclusions can be drawn by making simple comparisons between these disparate countries and cities.

It is more appropriate to look at Australia's progress over time, which does show a statistically significant decrease in reading and maths mean scores over the PISA testing period, and a non-significant decrease in science. The drop in the mean scores is due to an either stable or growing proportion of students in the lowest performance bands and a shrinking proportion of students in the upper performance bands. We should be concerned about these numbers, but the performance of students in Shanghai and Liechtenstein is of limited value for policy solutions.

Inevitably, connections have been drawn between the issues of funding and performance. The Sydney Morning Herald and the author of the Australian PISA report have claimed that the PISA results demonstrate the need for increased funding for disadvantaged schools, and for the 'Gonski' model in particular.

Increased resources to schools can make a difference, but only if spent prudently. This has not been characteristic of funding increases in Australia in the past; hopefully it will be in the future.


Foreign fishing boats stopped off Darwin

TWO foreign fishing boats have been stopped in northern waters in the past week for alleged illegal fishing, Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison says.

A Border Protection Command "asset" intercepted the first alleged illegal foreign fishing vessel last Friday and a second on Wednesday, Mr Morrison said in a statement.

"A significant volume of fresh and stowed catch was discovered on the first vessel including giant clams, live crayfish, hawksbill sea turtles, sea cucumbers, shark and frozen fish. The second vessel was found with an amount of reef fish on board," his statement said.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority is conducting further investigations into the activities of the vessels found off Darwin and considering charges against the crew.

The maximum penalty for illegal foreign fishing can be up to $1.275 million depending on the size of the vessel.


Highest court orders immediate release of serial rapist Robert Fardon, rules new sex laws invalid

REVILED sex predator Robert Fardon is a free man after the State Government last night abandoned an 11th-hour bid to keep him behind bars.

Queensland's highest court yesterday dealt the Government a crushing double blow, ordering the immediate release of the 65-year-old serial rapist.

The Court of Appeal in Brisbane also ruled invalid the Government's new sex offender laws, which allowed Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie to keep sex offenders behind bars in prison despite court orders.

The decision means leaves the new laws are now in tatters. They cannot be applied unless re-drafted or until a High Court application, which would occur only in the rare event the Government is given special leave for the case to be heard.

Mr Bleijie is considering appealing in the High Court.

The Court of Appeal, comprising justices Kate Holmes, John Muir and Hugh Fraser, unanimously dismissed Mr Bleijie's appeal to reverse last month's Supreme Court decision to grant Fardon supervised release.

The court said Mr Bleijie's claim that Fardon remained an unacceptable risk to the community was "opaque" and lacked "supporting evidence".

The court also ruled that sections of the Criminal Law Amendment (Public Interest Declarations) Act 2013 were invalid.

In its written decision, the Court of Appeal said the laws were "repugnant" and eroded the integrity of courts to make decisions and in effect "undermine the authority of orders of the Supreme Court".

"These (legal) amendments are within that exceptional category of legislation which is invalid on the ground that it is repugnant to (the) institutional integrity of the Supreme Court,'' the court said.

Lawyers for Mr Bleijie immediately applied to have the release order stayed pending further legal argument.

But late yesterday that application was withdrawn, paving the way for Fardon's immediate release.

No reason was given for the withdrawal, with Justice Muir adjourning the hearing without submissions being made.

While Fardon is technically free to live anywhere under supervision, it is expected he will for now live in housing outside Wacol Correctional Centre, in Brisbane's west.

The site, dubbed the "dangerous sex offender precinct'', is where Fardon lived when he was first released in 2006.

One of Fardon's victims, Sharon Tomlinson, burst into tears after the announcement. Outside court her tears turned to rage.

"This man will reoffend and someone (innocent) will have to pay the price. (Crime) survivors and the community are no longer safe," she said.

"I hope he's not coming after you or someone you love."

Barrister Dan O'Gorman, for Fardon, said his client would be relieved the Court of Appeal had ruled in his favour.

He said Fardon had great respect for the courts and was committed to abiding by the strict conditions he must obey as part of his supervision order.

Those conditions, imposed by Justice Peter Lyons on September 27, include GPS tracking and a drug and alcohol ban.

Sources last night told The Courier-Mail Mr Bleijie was "nothing short of livid".

Mr Bleijie said the Government would continue to do everything it could to keep people like Fardon in jail. "We want to make sure we protect the women and the children of this state from these vicious, nasty sexual predators,'' he said.

Fardon has waged a 10-year battle for freedom after serving the full sentence he received for the rape, assault and sodomy of a woman in 1988.

The violent assault happened when Fardon was released from jail on parole after serving eight years of a 13-year sentence for the rape and assault of a girl, 12, and wounding of her 15-year-old sister.


Gluttons for government intervention

 The anti-obesity movement, unlike the targets of their attention, moves fast. As soon as they achieve one policy objective, it's on to the next.

Last week, the second annual Obesity Summit was held in Canberra by the not-for-profit health-promotion group Obesity Australia. Among those attending were many of the same activists who in June convinced the Gillard government to sign off on a new 'Health Star Rating' system for food. The government pledged that this anti-junk-food labelling system would become mandatory if, after two years, not enough food producers had signed on voluntarily.

Five months later, the health-mongers have already developed a new policy wish list, including extra taxes on unhealthy food, legal restrictions on food advertising aimed at children, and guidelines for GPs designed to make obesity a topic of every doctor's visit.

John Funder, head of Obesity Australia, says that the proposed GP guidelines would force patients to hop on the scales any time they visit a GP, even if they originally came in 'because they've got a cold or a broken toe.' The idea is to embolden doctors to raise the awkward subject of weight loss, since according to Funder, many GPs now consider mentioning a patient's weight 'an intrusion.'

Considering the intrusiveness of some of the exams these doctors routinely perform, and the various intimate, personal, and gastroenterological questions they ask their paper-gown-clad patients, Funder's proposed salve for their delicate sense of awkwardness may be a solution in search of a problem.

The second main policy push at the summit was a campaign to get the Australian Medical Association (AMA) to label obesity a 'disease.' The American Medical Association officially designated obesity a disease in June, but here in Australia the AMA has been reluctant to follow suit.

Calling obesity a disease sounds like a kind-hearted and non-judgmental way to reassure the overweight that their condition does not necessarily indicate a moral failing. But this policy push has nothing to do with overweight Australians' self-esteem and everything to do with obtaining government subsidies for 'stomach stapling' and other bariatric surgeries.

There are a multitude of weight-loss systems available on the market that are less expensive and less drastic than surgery, from nutritional counselling to personal fitness training to Jenny Craig. If our rule of thumb for government intervention is that the state should step in only when the market fails to provide, weight loss fails the test.

Four days after the Obesity Summit closed, the federal government announced a new Diabetes Task Force to be co-chaired by the doctor who gave the summit's opening lecture, which was titled, somewhat histrionically, 'An Obesity Apocalypse: Can It Be Averted?' That is as far as the government should go in supporting Obesity Australia's misguided policy agenda.


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