Participation and Informed Debate

Lyn Yates

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Who has the right to make judgements about public schools? Who should be consulted by politicians when they draw up new policies? What limits should be placed on the rights of those involved in schooling to speak out about what is happening?

The years of the Kennett Liberal Government in Victoria have replicated some moves made under the Thatcher government in England in redefining who is to count as a voice in schooling policy. In both cases, parents, 'the community', and employers and industry became the new court of appeal. In both cases, teachers were portrayed not as a knowledgeable source of insights about schooling, but as a vested interest group who needed to be controlled. In Victoria, the Liberals made much of the argument that the previous Labor government had been too beholden to teacher interests. One of the first acts of the Kennett government in its first term of office was to demonstrate its preparedness to make drastic cuts in the face of strong, declared teacher opposition. And, it seems, there was considerable electoral support for these actions.

However, in the second term of government, especially over the last year, there have been a number of signs of disquiet about the government's manipulation of any comment or real discussion about its policy directions and effects. A number of school principals (often those near retirement) have spoken critically of a government which responds to any hint that they are not a mere PR arm of the government by punishing them and their school in concrete ways. In an unprecedented move, the Principals Association is refusing to participate in a scheme which offers salary inducements for certain forms of performance and compliance.

In the newspapers, through both letters and articles, a number of parents have made it clear how public criticism is being stifled at school level. Schools often try to have criticisms about what is happening to the school voiced through parents rather than principal or teachers, not only through fear of the possible sanctions but also because parent wishes are often appealed to by the government as the moral basis of new directions - testing is a case in point. But even here, if the parent and School Council voices are critical, principals have been rebuked - for not being more effective in persuading parents of the merits of the government's moves.

The stifling of public critique and debate (an interesting direction for a democracy!) is also apparent in the way in which universities are now being administered. At each level, from Vice-Chancellors in their relations with the federal government, to department heads in their relations with their faculty dean, a critical response to any development is likely to be met with direct financial punishment, and marginalisation of the institution/individual involved. As a result, those at the higher levels have little sense of the real problems and extremely low morale now pervasive among academics and directly affecting students.

A final matter in the consideration of what is happening to informed debate relates to 'experts' and the area of educational research. Education, like most social and public policy issues, is not an area where there is ever a simple consensus about ends or means. Characteristically, both Liberal and Labor governments can be seen to draw particularly on those lines of research and those known 'experts', whose approach to educational matters is in line with the political philosophy of the party at that time. And it is reasonable that they do so. However in the past decade, two things have been changing which are not widely known by those not professionally involved in education, but which should be cause of concern to them.

Historically, there were strong 'Education Departments' which operated semi-autonomously from the political process and were looked to as a source of expertise by the Education Ministers. Politicians played some part in developing education policy, but they did not take responsibility for doing all of it; far less tightly controlling its shape. Now education bureaucracies are largely treated as lackeys of the Minister of the day. In other words, there is a subsequent reduction in the ideas and the concerns being voiced in policy and administration.

Secondly, although one would expect politicians to look to particular 'friendly experts' as their main source of advice on policy directions, in Victoria there seems to have been a massive intensification of the process whereby researchers in universities are rewarded or frozen out of contracts according to their perceived political orientation. In other words, a very large amount of significant funding is being awarded directly, to the same groups of people. And it has been made known that informal blacklists are circulating about those who have dared to voice criticisms of government policy. And all of this has acquired more significance than previously, given the reduction in general research funds to universities, and the imperative on Education faculties to secure a rising proportion of their necessary finance through outside earnings.

To close on a more optimistic note, however, perhaps we will soon be hit by a new swing of the pendulum. In Canada, during its recent budget debates, I found to my astonishment that here the government was actually announcing increases to university research funding as one of its main selling points. It seems a very long time since any government in Australia did not take the scale of its education funding cuts as the issue to boast about!

Lyn Yates, School of Education, La Trobe University.

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