Article by Miranda Devine - Gonski illusion

03 Apr 2013 Article

Original article in The Daily Telegraph by Miranda Devine.

THE most despicable thing about the “I give a Gonski” ads on TV is their dishonest use of a young boy struggling to read. This struggle is a tragedy going on in our classrooms every day.

As many as 30 per cent of Australian children leave school functionally illiterate. Children of normal intelligence can’t read because their teachers have not been taught the most effective way to teach them – which is systematic, explicit phonics instruction, linking the letters in our alphabet to sounds.

If these children are unlucky enough to come from a home where their parents can’t overcome the schooling deficit, they are doomed to illiteracy and consigned to the margins.

The militant left-wing Australian Education Union that pays for the ads offers a self-serving lie for a solution. It pretends that more money will magically fix the problems.

“If public schools don’t get urgent funding more of our kids will get left behind,” intones the narrator, exhorting parents to “give a gonski”.

The noun in that catchphrase refers to businessman David Gonski, whose report into school funding has become a magic wand of mythical proportions. It recommended the federal government spend $6.5 billion a year extra on smaller classes and more specialist teachers.

Julia Gillard, who wants to be known as the “education prime minister”, will finalise funding with the states on April 19, at the Council of Australian Governments meeting, trying to create the illusion of Gonski billions, despite the fact the government is broke.

But the fact is that more money does not equal better education. It’s how you spend the money that counts.

Australia increased spending on schools by more than 40 per cent last decade and the results are a disgrace. The reading skills of our Year 4 students are the worst of every English-speaking country tested in the first Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) last year of 325,000 students. One quarter of our students couldn’t even manage to read at the basic minimum standard for their age group.

These are children whose entire school life has been under the Labor government, which promised an education revolution and instead provided some overpriced school halls and laptop computers.

The revolution needed is not in bricks and silicon chips. What’s needed is the destruction of the progressive education ideology that has held sway at teacher training institutions for more than 40 years.

The man who you might genetically design for that brutal job is Christopher Pyne, who is likely to become the federal minister for education after the next election, if the polls are any indication. Unlike most of his predecessors, Pyne is unlikely to be bullied or hoodwinked by the education establishment into accepting its most destructive intellectual fads.

For Pyne, 45, the reading wars – between phonics advocates and whole language devotees – is deeply personal.

His father, Dr Remington Pyne, was an eye surgeon who took a special interest in dyslexia when Christopher’s oldest brother was diagnosed with reading problems – and helped found SPELD, a non-profit group to help people with learning difficulties.

Pyne also has four children of his own at school in Adelaide, from kindergarten to Year 7. His 12-year-old twins, Eleanor and Barnaby, are dyslexic , and he says his life experience has “given me a particular insight into education”.

He says Gonski has been a “distraction from the real debate which is the quality of education (which is) determined by the quality of teachers, parental engagement, a robust curriculum and decisions being made as locally as possible by principals and leadership teams”.

On teacher quality he says: “We need to recognise that teacher training in the last 10 or 20 years not been what the market tells us we need… There’s been a battle in education departments and universities since the 1970s about the direction of education, and one side has been winning.”

That winner is, “the progressive side that rejects traditional teaching methods and a traditional curriculum. Student-centred learning is part of that and an acceptance of lowest common denominator outcomes, a specific rejection of excellence and a view schools are not about knowledge but about skills, which I think is poisonous. Students have to be about knowledge first and skills second”.

“This is a very hard row to hoe in Australia because most educators today have been trained in this progressive approach to education and nobody wants to disagree.”

As a model for the rest of the country, he points to Western Australia, where the Barnett government has given schools the option to take control of their budgets. Principals now have the power to choose the best teachers and spend their money the way that suits students.

“This is anathema to anyone who wants central control of education … my intention, should I be fortunate enough to become education minister, will be to radically alter the way we think about education in Australia, to place competition, the individual and self-reliance at the centre of our education system,” he says.

To do any good, Pyne will have to nuke the progressive education establishment. But if anyone has the courage and cunning to win that war, it’s him.

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