It seems Descartes, Locke and co were barking up the wrong tree; the answer is not nature or nurture but the government.
No longer will children have to “choose their parents wisely,” as Bertrand Russell once advised. Under the fully funded Gonski plan, we are told, every child in every school will have the same chance of succeeding.
Much as alchemists once dreamed of turning base metal into gold, so today’s social policy planners are bewitched by the notion that, with enough government money, every child can be made to sparkle.
Federal election 2016: throwing cash at schools is not the answer
Never mind the trail of failed experiments, abandoned fads or prodigious amounts of public money already spent. It wasn’t the frailties of the program that let us down, apparently, but mean-spirited governments blind to the needs of the weary and dispossessed.
The government’s job used to stop with the provision of universal education; what students and parents did with it was entirely up to them. After four decades of progressive social thinking, culminating in the Gonski review, the government’s task has expanded; it must intervene to break the supposed causal link between educational accomplishment and familial, social and economic background.
The Gonski review should have challenged the assumption that schools are cost-effective instruments for fixing the complex ills of society.
The presence of a man like Andrew Leigh on Labor’s frontbench makes it all the more surprising that it has fallen — hook, line and sinker — for the funding fallacy. Leigh was the lead author of a report for Treasury’s Social Policy Division called “How much of the variation in literacy and numeracy can be explained by school performance?”
The answer, Leigh concluded, was about 30 per cent. The other 70 per cent was explained by factors outside the school’s control. A comparison with other studies suggests Leigh may have been over-estimating the influence of schooling — an OECD study for example suggests 20 per cent — but even so, the implications for government are clear.
“The more that children’s academic achievement is determined in the home, the less chance that policies to improve schools’ performance will have a transformative impact on the life chances of disadvantaged students,” wrote Leigh.
“At the extreme, if socio-economic status entirely explains academic performance, it is pointless to think about reforming schools in order to raise educational outcomes.”
In the middle of the election-charged debate about school funding comes a subversive intervention by the ABC that debunks Gonski’s assumption that it is just a question of funding. Last week the public broadcaster launched the first episode of Revolution School, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a state secondary school in a low socio-economic area on the outer fringe of Melbourne that has managed to turn its lacklustre performance around.
It was apparent from the first scene that Kambyra College was well resourced; all children had access to a laptop and the classrooms were in reasonable repair. The teachers seemed motivated, dedicated and intelligent if a little battle-worn from the daily challenge of keeping order. Mr Wallis’ Year 10 English class appeared particularly brutal.
Yet in the course of the 58-minute episode, no one raised the issue of money.
As John Hattie, the expert who supervised Kambyra’s transformation, explained, when it comes to improving education, Australians are arguing about the wrong thing.
Class sizes or the difference between private and public education are largely immaterial.
“If you take students of the same kind of prior ability, the same kind of initial ability, here in Australia it virtually doesn’t matter what school you go to.
“Schools don’t make much difference — it’s the teachers.’’
Labor’s Gonski-inspired plan to pump another $37 billion into schools is looking increasingly reckless, as evidenced not just by Revolution School but the shadow assistant treasurer’s 2008 report.
It is less a rational policy response than an act of fiscal exhibition designed to show that Labor cares. As Leigh’s research demonstrates, schools cannot press the reset button for every kid that enters their gates, no matter how much money we throw at them.
With three episodes still to go, Revolution School is looking like the most uplifting thing the ABC has commissioned since Choir of Hard Knocks. Kambyra’s principal, Michael Muscat, would surely be an early favourite for Australian of the Year, had the process not been so corrupted.
While the teaching unions plaster the country with Gonski banners backing Labor, Muscat and his staff in an undistinguished outer Melbourne suburb are applying themselves to the harder task of changing the world one child at a time.
Nick Cater is executive director of the Menzies Research Centre. Episode two of Revolution School screens tonight on ABC 1 at 8.30pm.