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Howard's games with boys' education

Carmen Lawrence is the MP for Freemantle, the ALP's federal president and a Webdiary columnist. My report on Howard's attempt to allow sex discrimination in teacher training is at Howard's affirmative action for men. The Polly Bush analysis is at Teaching sex discrimination. Carmen Lawrence's SMH Webdiary archive is here and here.

Federal Parliament was asked this week to debate a Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act so that scholarships for teachers could be offered selectively to men. In rushing the Bill into the House, the government claimed their objective was to “redress gender imbalance in teaching”, a move they claimed would remedy the under-achievement of boys in school.

I found it hard to take the legislation seriously, not least because the Prime Minister clearly doesn’t, but also because it’s not actually about improving the performance of boys in schools. And it’s certainly not about increasing the number of male teachers in the school system. The only thing that’s certain is that it will achieve neither objective.

Nor is it about good public policy based on thorough and careful analysis of the problem and the interventions most likely to be effective.

It’s not that such analysis hasn’t been done. It has - at the request of the government and at considerable expense to the taxpayer.

At the instigation of the Minister for Education Brendan Nelson, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training (chaired at the time by Nelson himself), undertook a comprehensive inquiry into the education of boys. The Committee received 178 submissions, conducted numerous public hearings and submitted a unanimous report in October 2002.

In addition, generously funded conferences on the issue of boys’ education have been held and research commissioned. A brief inspection of the Education Department's web site turns up a veritable goldmine of relevant research, most of it focused on the policy responses needed to improve children’s performance at school.

And what that meticulous and extensive research shows is that the measure contained in the Bill, to overturn long established principles protecting citizens against discrimination, will do nothing to improve children’s learning. The government knows what strategies will work and has, so far, done little or nothing to implement them.

The legislation is not about crafting good policy for the betterment of Australian children; it is about crude partisan advantage. It’s a classic Howard tactic based on strategies that he’s been employing since the day he was elected.

The problem for the government is that they’ve employed such tactics so often and so transparently that people are awake to their cynical ploys, their partisan purpose. The tactics are familiar- and have inevitably bred contempt. Like everything else about this government they’re tired and predictable.

Australians know, after watching him as Prime Minister for nearly eight years, that John Howard is the quintessential politician, the sort of politician that gives politicians a bad name. His passion is with the game, in winning at all costs.

As Mungo MacCallum pointed out in a recent essay , with Howard, “It’s not a question of the end justifying the means; the means has in fact become the end”. Howard does not see politics as a way of creating a better world, but as a world in its own right. The only reason he appears to want political power is for political power itself.

Why else is he hanging on? He has no agenda and his government is doing very little that is worthwhile.

The legislation, like many of the Howard initiatives, is a calculated political tactic aimed at using a potentially divisive social issue to political advantage. It has already used such tactics on all the usual suspects – the people the Howard government has encouraged us to think of as “not one of us” - Indigenous Australians, refugees, single mothers, the unemployed, homosexuals.

Commentators have labelled such tactics “wedge politics” and treated the phenomenon as novel. It’s not; Menzies used such tactics to great advantage with his “reds under the beds” scares, tainting the entire labour movement with the communist influence and splitting off the conservative, Catholic wing.

As Shaun Wilson writes , wedge politics “involves a political party stirring up populist feeling about an issue or a minority group and then tagging its political opponent with support for the unpopular cause or group.”

The object of wedge politics is to divide your political opponent’s support base and split away identifiable groups of voters. The goal is to win political ascendancy and control the political agenda. Such political tactics are usually based on careful opinion polling to reveal the issues and groups which attract resentment or antipathy in the wider electorate. The strategists then work out the best way of creating resentment among a large group against a smaller one, preying on fear and prejudice.

Howard’s entire 1996 election campaign was based on depicting the Keating Government as a captive of minority interests. Howard caricatured Labor’s commitment to equality and reducing disadvantage as giving special, undeserved treatment to minority groups (about whom he knew resentment could be cultivated). The Coalition victory gave the green light to such resentment and bigotry.

That’s what this government up to again – although this time, the tactic has backfired. They’ve picked the wrong issue and the wrong target. I think the Government hoped they could set disaffected men who are feeling dislocated by the economic and social changes of the last twenty years against the “politically correct” feminists who, in the eyes of many conservatives, are the cause of the problems in the first place.

Women campaigning for equality have often been saddled with the responsibility for all the ills of contemporary society and specifically, for ruining men’s lives. They make easy scapegoats. If boys are not doing as well at school as they used to, then it must be the fault of some woman – single mothers, their female teachers, the women who campaigned for better educational opportunities for girls.

What better way then to get at the new Labor leader, a leader who has genuinely recognised the problems that many, particularly working class, men and boys are having in modern society and who, at the same time, leads a party which has pioneered measures to remove discrimination against women and improve their status.

The trouble for the government is that it’s all too obvious and the players aren’t playing. 

The Catholic Education Office, in whose interest the Bill was allegedly crafted, doesn’t want the amendment; they’ve reached agreement with the Coalition appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward, a friend of Howard's who who co-wrote his biography. She, in turn, has taken umbrage at being saddled with the PC label which the Minister tried to attach to her.

Introducing the Bill with an air of urgency was presumably meant to engender a sense of alarm that men were being prevented from becoming teachers by the nasty feminist legislation. All it signalled was a government in panic about their declining political fortunes.

The Government’s sudden introduction of the Bill begs two questions: Why now? And why this measure?

The answer to the first question is obvious. But why this measure, when all the evidence shows that it will be totally useless?

Every teacher in the country knows that the reason there are fewer male than female teachers is not because of any discrimination against men. Indeed the disproportionate number of men in promotional positions suggests that it is women who suffer discrimination.

The difference exists because men choose not to enter the profession and women do; because most men and boys with the ability seek better paid work and in areas seen as more “masculine”. It is a symptom of the high degree of occupation segregation which still exists in Australia.

To make teaching a more attractive career option for men would actually require the government to get serious about pay and conditions which many women tolerate because they like working with children; because the structure of the working day and year makes it easier for them to balance their work and family commitments and because women still do most of the caring in our society.

The parliamentary committee on educating boys specifically recommended that government “urgently address the remuneration of teachers, with the payment of substantial additional allowances for skilled and experienced teachers as an inducement for them to remain in teaching and to attract new teachers by offering more attractive career paths”.

The government knows that amending the Sex Discrimination Act is not likely to increase the number of male teachers in classrooms.

In any case, it’s not clear that getting more male teachers, even if this were achieved, would necessarily improve boys’ retention at school or their educational performance. It was not among the recommendations made by the parliamentary committee because there’s no strong evidence that having more male teachers actually improves boys’ performance or behaviour at school.

In fact, one investigation found that male teachers are less likely to implement gender-inclusive strategies and are less attentive to the needs of ‘at risk” boys. Sound curriculum development and good teaching, which caters for a variety of learning styles, are much more likely to make a difference.

School achievement or underachievement depends on a range of factors including ability and learning style, peer influences, family practices and relationships, community attitudes to learning, the curriculum and assessment procedures and student-teacher interactions.

What happens outside the classroom may be just as important in promoting literacy as the organised curriculum. Boys are less likely than girls to read and take part in music and the arts. More of their time is spent in competitive sports and watching TV. And all too often, boys are only rewarded for how well they do at sport rather than for anything else they do.

It is sometimes claimed that boys in sole parent families are more likely to do poorly at school, but recent research suggests that children in sole parent families do as well as in two parent families and, indeed, boys may perform better with their mothers who are more likely to participate in homework and encourage reading.

And the problem may be miscast in the first place. There has been a lot written about sex differences in school retention and achievement, and the underachievement of males is real. But the differences pale into insignificance when compared to socio-economic differences. In fact one of the major longitudinal studies on tertiary entrance performance concludes, “gender differences in tertiary performance are small compared to differences according to socioeconomic background and school sector”.

While boys are less likely to stay on at school and to have a wider range of academic results than girls, the differences in performance are not as marked as the popular press would sometimes have us believe. Indeed, in some states there are no differences between the average university entrance scores of boys and girls and high achievers of both genders perform about equally well. The evidence is that some boys are failing to achieve the results of which they are capable. And these boys are more likely to be from working class families. As one boy, interviewed as part of a research project on boys’ underachievement put it, “why bother studying? Older men are losing their jobs”.

Australian research shows that socioeconomic status - parents’ income, occupation and educational level - makes a larger difference than gender to year 12 performance, even in English, where girls generally do better than boys.

Socioeconomic status is associated with the biggest differences in educational participation, particularly for boys. Poverty is the major indicator of low participation and performance for both girls and boys and these effects are even more marked for rural and remote areas and for indigenous students.

As I pointed out in A fair go education system: the advantages for all of us, there are bigger gaps now between the best and the worst performers in Australia than in other developed countries and it’s a family’s position on the SES scale which is most likely to predict a child’s performance.

We should all be concerned at the failure to close the socio-economic gap in performance and retention, especially for males. The gap may, indeed, be widening. And what is this government doing about this glaring inequality. Exactly nothing.

No – I’m wrong, they’re actually exacerbating the problem.

They’re placing a growing proportion of funds into already well funded schools, where the parents are increasingly drawn from higher income groups. In fact, recent ABS data show that, particularly in the secondary school sector, there is an increasing concentration of high income families in non-government schools and a decline in the proportion of those from low-income families. Conversely, government schools have greater proportions from low income families and fewer from high income backgrounds.

Howard has mounted the diversionary tactic on changing the Sex Discrimination Act and waffling on about “values” in schools, because neither he nor Nelson have been able to mount a convincing argument – because there isn’t one- for cutting government schools’ share of Commonwealth funding or for dramatically increasing funds to non-government schools.

Neither can they defend the results of their policies - that according to the most conservative estimates, by 2005 spending on state school students will be $2000 a year per head less than for non-government school students. Howard knows that even the best spin merchants could not make it seem fair that the wealthiest, most exclusive schools now operate with 200% of the resources available to government schools look fair.

And the exclusive schools do exclude the costly and difficult students and send them off to the government system. These schools now receive massive taxpayer support, yet they exclude difficult or underachieving students or prevent them from sitting university entrance exams altogether if they think such students will pull down the average. Most of these students end up in the government school system which actually plans for an influx at the end of the first semester.

Too many “exclusive” schools keep up their “standards” by washing their hands of those who often really need help. And education support for severely disabled children is almost entirely the responsibility of the government system.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to require all schools who receive taxpayers funds to be fully accountable for those funds; to provide programs for all students, no matter what their ability; to allow students to choose whether or not to sit university entrance exams, and to retain all students who are enrolled until the end of their schooling, developing appropriate programs as government schools do for managing those with severe social and emotional problems.

And funds should flow to schools on the basis of need. Then performance tables and comparisons might mean something.

I have no doubt that the Howard government’s polling is showing that people are starting to nominate education funding as one of the issues which are weighing on their minds and which might cause them to change their votes at the next election.

That’s why we’re having a phoney debate about scholarships for male teachers and values in schools.

The government knows that parents on modest incomes who send their children to government schools are starting to notice that their children are being treated unfairly in the carve up of resources. They know this will disadvantage their kids’ employment prospects and income earning capacity.

Over the last 50 years, Australia has had a strong commitment to a high quality public education system. Under this government, that commitment is being undermined.

Now that’s a value we should talk about!

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