OPINION | Education, science and evidence-based policy needed


Crispin Hull

Guest Columnist

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The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment tests not mere regurgitation, but capacity for analysis, thinking and evidence-based deductions. In 2019, Australia scored its worst result since the tests began in the early 2000s. At the same time we have a growing incapacity of our political leaders to think, analyse or draw evidence-based conclusions.

They grab at any straw to bolster the ideology of their side irrespective of evidence or logic.

Indeed, Education Minister Dan Tehan did this very thing when looking at what should be done about the PISA results.

He plucked out Estonia’s very good result to draw the asinine conclusion that good education does not depend on money because Estonia spends less per student than Australia – ignoring the obvious fact that in countries with lower GDP (like Estonia) teachers (or indeed anyone) will be paid less for the same work as in countries with a higher GDP.

“Our government is providing record funding of $310.3 billion to schools,” he said. “Money is not the issue because Estonia was the top-performing country in reading and science and they spend half as much money per student as Australia.”

But properly adjusted for GDP and the student percentage of the total population, Estonia spends about the same as Australia.

At least Tehan, probably unintentionally, used the words “funding to schools” rather than “education funding”. The difference is critical. Australia grossly over-funds rich private schools which would continue to do a good job educating its students without the largesse, and who put the over-funding into things which are not core education – swimming pools and high salaries for principals, for example.

The extra misdirected Commonwealth funding has had another perverse effect. State politicians can hide behind the figure of total school funding and therefore reduce the funding they would otherwise have provided to their public schools. In effect reducing the money going to the task of educating the people from lower socio-economic groups. We would get more bang for our bucks if the funds were re-directed.

But successive Federal Coalition Governments have poured more and more money into the schools of its voter base against good policy and the evidence.

Further, parents in Australia have been made to feel guilty if they do not send their children to private schools. As a result, a large amount of private money goes into the Australian system.

If you just look at public funding for education, Australia spends about 15% less than Estonia, which is about 15 per cent below the OECD average. And Australia’s percentage of private money going to schools is the highest in the OECD.

So, where you spend the money is as important as how much you spend. The trouble is that having begun irrational lavish funding for private schools, it is almost impossible to take it back. It invites a scare campaign and costs votes, as Labor’s Mark Latham found to his cost in 2004. It was the same with tax reform in 2019 or any number of sensible reform proposals,

As further evidence that Minister Tehan prefers propaganda and exaggeration to make an ideological point is that he used the figure “providing $310.3 billion to schools”.

Sounds impressive. But it does not say over how many years. To clarify, the 2019 Budget papers say: “The Australian Government will grow its record level of funding with a total investment of $243.5 billion from 2018 to 2027 for schools under the Quality Schools package.” So Tehan is aggregating at east 10 years of projected spending (mostly to rich private schools) to explain why there is not need to change the funding model that has produced the catastrophic results we saw this week.

It seems the Minister for Education is incapable or unwilling to draw the best policy response to this woeful decline in education standards in Australia.

The Commonwealth lavishes wasteful amounts of money on private schools in pursuit of ideology and the applause of its voter base. Pursuing the best education for Australian children is an afterthought. The PISA scores are proof of this.

If we want to improve those scores; catch up with our OECD competitors and give more children the skills they will need to lead better lives we need a massive shift of money to public schools and a radical change to the teaching profession.

For a start, we could demand universities raise their entrance requirements for education courses and we should remove HECS-HELP fees from all education courses that a student passes. And we could increase pay to attract the best, especially in maths and science.

In the long term, this is perhaps one of the nation’s most important policies, if not the most important policy. If we fail our students on the sorts of things the PISA tests assess and more – critical thinking, the scientific method, statistics, drawing conclusions from evidence – our democracy will become more vulnerable.

These days, people are exposed to almost infinite amounts of information on the internet and they must have the skills to sort the credible from the rubbish; the reliable from the fake; and the scientific and evidence-based from received wisdom and the faith-based.

In 1994, at the dawn of the internet-information age, the High Court held that the free flow of information between voters was an essential element to our constitutional democracy. Quite right. But if voters do not have the capacity to assess that information, which is now so easily spread, they can be duped.

All of the propaganda techniques of the tobacco industry have been honed and made easier to deliver in the internet age. Fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, sugar and other industries will use denial, misinformation, diversion, use of third-party allies, indeed anything to keep corporate profits flowing whatever the public cost.

And there is the further threat from authoritarian regimes to undermine our democracy with internet-delivered misinformation.

Education is one of the best antidotes. A well-educated population in a democracy will not let their own or other governments or corporations dupe them.

Without a well-educated population it will become almost impossible to deal successfully with the critical issues of our time, like global heating, water use, terrorism, health, and preventative health, taxation, and so on because without it, simple, cheap, fear-mongering campaigns by those who profit from bad policy are so easy.

Thoughts and prayers do not cut the mustard. We need education, science and evidence-based policy.

Crispin Hull is a current columnist and former Editor of the Canberra Times

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