It was with absolute horror that I read today of a supposed “expert report” recommending that Year 1 students face standardised testing in numeracy and literacy.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham released a report by an expert advisory panel on Monday, led by Jennifer Buckingham, which recommends a national literacy and numeracy check for year 1 students.
Despite never having been a teacher, Ms Buckingham has some very firm views on education and has, during her years working for the right wing think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, written many op-eds and articles on topics as wide-ranging as “school funding and performance, school choice, literacy and numeracy testing and reporting, teacher education, teacher employment, class size, and boys’ education.”
In the lead-up to the 2014 budget from hell, Ms Buckingham produced a policy discussion paper School funding on a budget as part of the think tank’s campaign to get the Australian Government to reduce spending. The paper provided a justification for the government’s failure to implement Gonski and helped push an agenda for further privatisation of Australian schooling.
Bob Lingard at The Australian Association for Research in Education wrote a scathing critique of Ms Buckingham’s work and the influence of the CIS on Coalition policy.
SFoB is an exemplar of the think tank report genre. It is written in plain language, by author Jennifer Buckingham, and purports to be a research report. In the footnotes, there is cross-referencing to other CIS reports and those of other think tanks, the work of a conservative free choice US Foundation that promotes the use of school vouchers, and to the reports of consultancy firms such as Pricewaterhouse Coopers.
SFoB is about agenda setting and ideas for policy in the context of a down-sized state and fast policy making. It sought to use a political moment to drive an agenda that would further entrench inequalities in Australian schooling.
The Abbott government appointed Professor Steven Schwartz, currently an academic advisor for the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), to chair the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority ( ACARA) and Dr Jennifer Buckingham, author of the SFoB paper, to the Board of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership ( AITSL).
I won’t be alone in wondering if CIS will be as influential with the Turnbull government as it was with the Abbott government.
Ms Buckingham has advocated for Education Bursaries for low-income students to use at non-government schools and charging high-income families to attend government schools. She is a fan of charter schools – privately managed public schools – and suggests removing mandatory class size maximums and resistance to further class size reductions.
Another of her ideas, seemingly ignorant of, or oblivious to, the difficulties of staffing schools in remote communities and in very disadvantaged urban communities, is to decentralise staffing. Perhaps Ms Buckingham is unaware that the major criticism proffered by the principals in recent times has been that they are now responsible for everything, without systemic support.
But back to her latest thought bubble.
“We found that there is no systematic early assessment of the essential core early reading and numeracy skills identified,” Buckingham said.
As any teacher will tell you, there is an enormous range in ability level in 5-6 year olds and you don’t need to subject them to standardised testing to work that out – you spend every day with them assessing and addressing that in a myriad of ways that encourage individual improvement.
Early childhood development has some link to parental level of education and socio-economic status. These deficits in emergent literacy for lower SES children can be reduced by high quality preschool childcare or education. There is now ample evidence of the benefits of preschool education for children generally and not just the disadvantaged.
I have spoken with many many teachers about this and I am yet to find one who agrees that standardised testing for tiny tots is necessary, desirable, or helpful in any way.
Think tank wannabes have no idea what works in a classroom. Teaching is a profession that requires personal attributes, skills and experience that cannot be matched by bureaucratic ponderings driven by ideological hypothesising and focus on saving money.
Perhaps Ms Buckingham, with her fixation on phonics, could tell me how I teach a child to read “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”