From the President: The price of distrust

My July column (“What a difference a little understanding makes”) focused on the value of trust and respect between stakeholders in the education system, especially when demonstrated by the government of the day. What a disappointment then to see the federal government and the Federal Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, demonstrate a little of how bad a bad government can be.

Released with much fanfare, for the third time in six months, the federal government proposal for a phonics and numeracy test for year one students made a splash in the media at the beginning of the September school holidays. It was unsurprising that the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) released a research report that found that the federal government’s planned test would be of benefit to students and teachers. We have come to expect that once a policy position is determined, a government can find evidence to support any position if it looks in the right place.

Just for the record, the UK phonics test used since 2011 is to be the model for the Australian version, even though there is no evidence that the test supported improved student outcomes. Research has shown that students got better at doing the test (23 per cent improvement in outcomes on the test) but, given the test is based on reading nonsense words, it was not a reliable indicator of future reading success. The relevant UK research also demonstrated no improvement in students’ reading comprehension.

What you may have missed in the hullabaloo that followed is that all of the Education Ministers from around Australia had met in Adelaide just two days earlier (the last day of term in Queensland) and heard a report on the proposed phonics test. People who attended that meeting were surprised by the public announcement of an intention to proceed with the test.

Let’s set aside the debate about whether we should subject six year olds to a national phonics test (which we absolutely should not) and instead look at what we can learn from the federal government’s behaviour in the lead up to finalising negotiations for a new national agreement on school funding.

State and territory governments all attended the Education Council meeting. Minister Kate Jones is on the public record stating that the phonics test proposal was unanimously rejected by the assembled ministers. The federal minister chose to ignore the position of the states and territories and push ahead with this proposal.

The QTU has, in concert with the Australian Education Union and other stakeholders in education, made clear our concerns about requiring states and territories to sign up for an interim school funding agreement prior to the disclosure of the terms and conditions attached to federal school funding. These terms and conditions include penalties for failure to comply with the unknown, imposed conditions. The states and territories themselves are very concerned about this and many ministers have made public statements denouncing the federal government’s “command and control” approach and attempts to coerce.

Up until this point in time, major changes to the education system nationally have been achieved through cooperation and consensus among all the ministers (Labor and LNP). This most recent change in behaviour from the federal government means it is little wonder that the level of trust between levels of government has reached a new low point.

So what? Clearly, the consequences for education will be significant whatever the final outcome. The federal government is threatening to withhold all funding if an interim agreement is not signed by the end of the year. The states and territories cannot give in to these demands or they face repeat behaviours in other portfolios. The price of distrust will be a significant deterioration in federal/state relations and a potential double blow for Australian school students who will not get a second chance at their school education.

Kevin Bates                                                                                                                      President

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 122 No 7, 6 October 2017, p7