04/06/2008 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: Shake-up needed in state schools

04/06/2008 - 22:00

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Ongoing disputation over government-provided education, including the so-called Outcomes Based Education (OBE) imbroglio, hasn't electorally harmed Premier Alan Carpenter who was, for several years, Labor's education spokesman and then education minister.

Ongoing disputation over government-provided education, including the so-called Outcomes Based Education (OBE) imbroglio, hasn't electorally harmed Premier Alan Carpenter who was, for several years, Labor's education spokesman and then education minister.

Notwithstanding that, the question remains as to whether he has adequately effected reform in the educational sector, something he's had the power to do for nearly a decade.

The most memorable incident during Mr Carpenter's time as opposition education spokesman was his encounter with then Liberal education minister, Colin Barnett, who foolishly lashed out at him with a roll of paper during a face-to-face televised radio interview.

As State Scene recalls it, when Mr Carpenter became education minister in February 2001, he promptly made quite a splash by claiming he intended to ensure that, during his watch, government schools would come to match private ones.

A laudatory remark, one indicating he wanted to put bounce into government schooling, and many hailed this at the time.

Without naming particular schools, the point that should be stressed is that this was most unlikely to happen without quite fundamental changes, which Mr Carpenter never launched.

And the reason these changes were needed is easy to explain.

Those heading up private or non-government schools, from headmasters down, generally possess a finely tuned competitive spirit because they're directly charging parents thousands of dollars annually for their children to attend such schools.

Another reason is the snowball effect.

By this, it's meant that more prestigious non-government schools are so highly rated because they've worked on cultivating and nurturing reputations for decades.

And to help ensure their leading places are maintained, sports and academic scholarships are often given, which means being at the top, academically, is ensured, since they harvest some of the academically best-performing students from across Western Australia, generally at year-10 level, so as to help outperform other schools in the TEE scores.

And even the less-prestigious non-government schools have students whose parents are more focused on their child's performance because they're paying directly.

Government schools, on the other hand, cannot match this because, firstly, they're required to accept all students entering their front gate on day one of each year, and education seems to be free.

Where are we seven years on, with Mr Carpenter no longer education minister, but still having oversight in this area, as premier?

Where does the governmental education sector stand today?

Basically where it stood when he became education minister in 2001.

Little if anything has changed, despite the OBE turmoil.

The good has remained good and the bad has remained bad.

This shouldn't be seen as blanket criticism of government schools, so many of which are doggedly doing as good a job as you'd expect under the circumstances.

State Scene says this, in part, from personal experience, since all my children, like Mr Carpenter's, attended an excellent government primary school and one attended a state high school (she recently completed a science-based honours level year at a university outside WA with plans to go higher).

However, with all that said, is there a way of reforming the gridlocked status quo, the situation where government schools generally take the back seat academically in the TEE stakes (State Scene knows some often give our long-established prestigious private schools a good run for their money).

Of course there is.

Unfortunately, however, our sometimes big-talking politicians aren't brave or adventurous enough to lift the shackles off government schools so they can show what they're capable of.

And there can be no better way of doing precisely that than introducing 'education vouchers' statewide, an idea promoted for many years to weaken the hold on education by those wishing to insulate government schools from competition and consumer demand.

Firstly, therefore, what the Carpenter government should do is calculate what it presently costs to run each school annually.

Another calculation should then be made on the number of students likely to be drawn from each school's catchment area, and all parents living within it should be sent in January of each academic year a booklet containing three - one per term - vouchers of, say, $1,500 each.

The vouchers would basically be government cheques that could only be spent at schools.

If parents decided to send a child to their local school, the voucher would be handed to the principal to cover annual running costs, including teachers' salaries, and enhancement programs.

If, however, a parent decided they'd prefer to send their child to another - academically better performing - school, so be it. Parents may even make their decisions on non-academic criteria, such as discipline.

Clearly, the local or nearby school would miss out on $1,500 per term.

Adopting the vouchers would mean the introduction, at long last, of a degree of competitiveness into government-provided education.

It also means taxpaying parents would have greater choice, and thus a greater say over schooling, via their ability to decide which one their child attended.

Or, in the words of a long-time friend, John Ballantyne, who wrote, way back in 1993, while South Australian secretary of the Council for the National Interest: "Parents would be free to spend their vouchers at any school of their choice, state or private, religious or non-religious.

"Vouchers would tremendously revitalise primary and secondary education.

"In order to get funding, schools would be forced to compete with each other to attract student enrolment.

"Schools would also enjoy far greater autonomy, with school principals or governing boards free to hire or fire staff as they saw fit.

"Good schools would flourish; inferior schools which could not attract applicants would be faced with financial difficulties, possible closure, or taken-over by more efficient management prepared to cater for the preference of parents."

It should be added that local MPs should be required, as part of their parliamentary duties, to monitor performance of government schools across their electorates.

After all, MPs draw salaries of around $120,000 annually, equivalent to that of a university professor.

Schools falling below set benchmarks would be required to call in special educational auditors, who would seek to determine with its governing board what reforms were immediately needed.

Reforming here means possibly firing headmasters and certain teachers if it's shown their performance wasn't up to scratch, just as happens to editors and journalists at newspapers if sales slump.

If, however, it could be shown that schools in question were situated in an area of disadvantage, for example, special purpose programs would be introduced and expertly monitored and refined.

All along the line, parents would be kept informed of such rescue procedures.

Mr Ballantyne continued: "Attractive though the voucher proposal sounds, it has often aroused passionate opposition from bureaucrats, teacher unions and powerful vested interests."

How true.

Among those blocking pursuit of a voucher system are people who prefer to continue rewarding inertia - something Mr Carpenter once seemed to be speaking against - the attitude that, because we've always done it this way, it must be the only way to do it.

When newly appointed as education minister, Mr Carpenter seemed to have gotten off to a fine start, when judged by what he said.

Unfortunately, inertia took over, so today's state education system is as it was in February 2001.

Before he leaves politics he should look back over his big 2001 claims.

And while doing so he should turn his mind to a fundamental reformist shake-up by adopting education vouchers.

You never know, it may be the start of something big - like putting government schools at least on a par, or perhaps ahead of, non-government schools.

It's over to you, Mr Carpenter - scrap political inertia and lethargy.

You've talked the talk - now walk the walk.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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