The political attention education issues are getting in the lead-up to the federal election may be an opportunity to demand politicians focus on issues that matter to schools and their communities.
Education has recently been characterised as a “political football”. The Coalition (LNP) government has focused on the impacts of gender and sexuality legislation on religious schools and nationalistic history as part of the Australian Curriculum. The Labor Party, should it win office, plans to require students to get a “digital licence” to protect them from online dangers.
Local school experiences, teachers’ expertise and the educational research that should inform Australian schooling will tell you these issues are all framed too simply. Some have called on the media to be more responsible in reporting education issues.
So why do politicians focus on issues like these?
The reason for building a political platform on moral panic is that politics today is tapping into a general fear of either change or being left behind. This is a solid strategy, especially when anxiety is on the rise.
The LNP’s issues of choice are typically conservative. They offer voters a romanticised view of school before rapid change swept the world.
The issue chosen by the ALP is typically progressive. It presents education as a process of catching up to overcome an uncertain future. But the ALP is also trying to play a romantic game by linking outdated, non-inclusive understandings of internet safety to outdated, non-inclusive “pen licences”.
“The Pen Licence for the digital age.”
— Ryan Liddell (@rynoliddell) February 6, 2022
Understanding why politicians frame education in the ways they do can help teachers and parents make sense of the issues raised by the major parties. And if they understand what is happening, voters can apply localised pressure to the parties in the election campaign.
Why moral panics?
Politicians are no longer connected to localised issues. The diversity and complexity of these issues, coupled with the ubiquity of information on the internet, present a problem for politicians trying to understand the “typical Australian”. So much information is available that it is difficult to know what policy promises to make.
To solve this problem, governments and political parties have drawn on a new class of knowledge brokers to decipher the information and make recommendations. Federal politicians use their partisan knowledge brokers, often employed at think tanks, to look for issues that appeal to their interpretation of the average Australian. These think tanks work as a buffer between politics and the public.
We are researching the effects that buffer organisations, like think tanks, have on education policy development and the politics that goes along with education reform.
We have concentrated our research at this stage on the partisan organisations. But even if they claim to be non-partisan, their work often reveals gaps in their knowledge about education issues.
For example, a recent analysis of teachers’ workloads recommended creating materials for teachers to use, so they could concentrate on how to teach, rather than what to teach.
What this recommendation failed to note was that such a scheme has been running in Queensland for nearly a decade. The Curriculum into the Classroom (or C2C) project has been highly problematic. It has even reportedly increased teacher workloads.
What can voters do about it?
The election presents an opportunity for the public to demand courageous education policy. With more and more independent candidates standing in their local electorates, voters don’t need to engage with moral panic. Independents present an opportunity for schools and their communities to pitch the local education issues of most concern to them.
Ultimately, local candidates represent local issues, but party candidates will always have to balance local concerns with the party platform. Truly independent candidates can be more receptive to issues locals regard as important. Local issues raised with these candidates are more likely to be reflected in their platforms.
The major parties are increasingly fearful of being outflanked by independent candidates. As a result, these parties could feel the need to adopt aspects of the independents’ policies, or pay more attention to the concerns they raise.
What sort of issues are we talking about?
At a symposium in June 2020, Keith Heggart and Steven Kolber asked teachers, principals, politicians, journalists, education researchers, parents, public intellectuals and community members to discuss democratic issues faced by Australian schools. The two authors have compiled a soon-to-be-published edited collection based on the symposium. They summarise key issues as:
- teachers’ rapidly increasing workload
- lack of trust in teachers and their professional judgment
- lack of scrutiny of the expensive adoption of new technology
- the quality of research used for so-called evidence-based policy.
Suggested approaches for tackling these issues include:
- more effective and personalised professional learning for teachers
- more parental and community involvement in schools
- more targeted support for early-career teachers by linking them to professional networks and teaching communities
- a revitalisation of teacher unions, including a return to grassroots work with members, but also through expanding connections with the broader education community, including parents, professional associations and think tanks.
Underpinning all of these issues was a central theme: teachers must have the flexibility, trust and quality of research essential for education that serves local needs.