League Tables, Schools and Sneaky Ways of Doing Politics

I watched our federal education minister on a talk show last night, defending the government's plans to introduce 'performance data' reports for parents that will allow them to compare like schools.

Having once worked in schools the idea has always appalled me. The same people who agitate for such things see education in perpetual crisis (I'm not sure it is), and at the same time vote for governments who gleefully cut more and more money out of schools. And then turn around and blame the schools and particularly the teachers when the whole thing starts to smell like dog shit on the bottom of a shoe.

However over time my view on this sort of thing has changed a little. Firstly I think most of the arguments trotted out against this sort of data miss the main point. It's nearly always about the data not properly representing the schools and the teachers in them, allowing simplistic judgements to be made that miss all the rich context of what's going on. But that's what data does. When has data ever captured the scaled up situation in its entirety? It wouldn't be data if it did, it would be the real thing. In fairness many educators do make the argument that the whole issue of education shoudln't really be about data at all, good or bad. But that's unrealistic in a world where data is an essential part of how things are run, and rightly so.

It's also politically clueless as an argument, because you end up looking like you're trying to avoid accountability. That old line spin meisters always use about "if you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to hide".

I have a suspicion, which I hope is correct. The previous government here introduced a scheme that allowed them to shovel truckloads of public money into private schools, even elite and very rich private schools, because to them anything public was two-legs-bad and anything private was four-legs-good. You'd wonder how they got away with it, and the way they did so was very clever indeed. They did it all under the cover of a banal-looking administrative scheme for assessing the privilege of a school, that in its finer calculations actually skewed everything in favour of (often rich) private schools. The clever dicks used the postcode of parents' residence as the main marker of the privilege of a school, knowing full well that most of the privates have many parents living in the country in low socio-economic areas i.e. in rural and remote areas, even though the parents themselves are rich farmers who send the kids to elite private schools.

Anyway, I now wonder if the current government has a similar Trojan horse idea in mind. When they release all of this 'performance data' to the public, all of the elite privates will do very well because they tend to skim much of the intellectual cream off the school-going population. But this will then give the government the opportunity to say "OK, these schools are all doing fabulously, we'll withdraw the government funding and redistribute it to the schools doing badly". All the while keeping everyone thinking it's about performance and merit, which it is, but not at any point attacking private school largesse, so not offending the sensibilities of the large lobby group of parents who increasingly send their kids to such schools.

Data as a political tool. Let's hope I'm right. The old Greek emphasis upon rhetoric as a skill is neglected these days, politicans cop so much flak for being tricky and devious. But that's how politics gets things done, and always has - there is no other way apart from the fascist scientific management states who end up incinerating millions of people.

Most of us can't even agree on what day of the week it is, and then we wonder why politicians have to construct such bizarre schemes to get us to all support some particular thing. They always have had to make all the compromises none of the rest of us are prepared to make. I sat and watched the live web chat this program set up last night after the show, and it was fundamentalist certainty on all sides. Smart people look beyond the dust of the battle to the people who find clever ways of actually getting things done.


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