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Thank you for supporting the Whitlam Institute in 2016.

Eric Sidoti

Dear Friends,

We will long remember 2016 as a watershed year. The Brexit Referendum of 23 June and the Trump electoral ascendency of 8 November may dominate the inevitable ‘year that was’ highlight reels yet these are but the most dramatic representations of a troubled world.

As I reflected on the year I was drawn back to Graham Freudenberg’s 2015 Gough Whitlam Commemorative Oration.

In his closing words Graham reminded us of Gough’s unswerving conviction in the primacy of the Parliament and his belief that Parliament remained the “great forum for developing, presenting and explaining policy”. Worth recalling in these uncertain times is Graham’s belief in the Parliament as the “anchor of our national life”. At the same time, he argued, there is a need to draw on all the available resources in the development and implementation of the public polity pointing to a future role for the Whitlam Institute itself as an independent institution: “This was Gough’s own deep hope as he watched the Institute grow during his rich and mellow autumnal years”.

We have always been profoundly aware of our responsibilities here at the Whitlam Institute but I cannot help but think that the importance of this particular national institution is more important today than it was even twelve months ago.

We had already determined that deepening and expanding our public policy research program is a priority over these next few years and during the course of this year we have published more policy research than ever. Our ‘Working Papers’ series is slowly gaining recognition for articulating an intellectual foundation for a 21st century social democracy. We’ve rekindled work on education and school reform, commenced scoping an important new project (but more of that in 2017) and strengthened our international activity and collaborations especially in Denmark, the United States, New Zealand and in a small way China.  We’ve convened a further series of domestic and international policy research workshops. We have extended our series of ‘public conversations’ with more forums in Sydney (CBD, Parramatta but primarily here at the Institute) and forums in Melbourne and Hobart. We’ve broken new ground in getting the word out about our policy activities: Michael Kirby’s presentation on the Marriage Plebiscite, for example, was picked up by over 38,000 people within 24 hours of going online.

This year saw our schools program come to life not only with a record-breaking number of entries in the What Matters? student essay competition but with over 1300 primary aged students involved in a one-day civics program here at the Institute through a partnership with Mission Australia and Liverpool City Council. Well over 5,000 young people were directly engaged with our schools programs over the year.

We’ve also taken another step or two towards ensuring the Whitlam Institute becomes a thriving intellectual and cultural centre. We continue to expand our program here in the Female Orphan School with over 12,000 people coming through our doors (a 50% increase over 2015). One of the highlights this year has been the specially curated Way of the Reformer exhibition in the Margaret Whitlam Galleries marking the centenary of Gough’s birth and we couldn’t be more thrilled with the confirmation that the National Archives of Australia will be showing the exhibition in Canberra next year. We can say that close on 30,000 people were directly engaged our work in one way or another over the course of this year.

There are a few hints below of what lies ahead for us in 2017: it is going to be a very big year for the Institute that much is clear. The one to get in your diary without delay is the 2017 Gough Whitlam Oration to be delivered by Dr Stephen FitzGerald at Riverside Theatres on 16 March. It will be an address for these times!

For the moment though let me simply say thank you.

Thank you to all those who’ve followed our work, attended our seminars, come to see us, made those donations so critical to all we do (including some fascinating gifts to the Prime Ministerial Collection), partnered with us, written for us, volunteered, called us, shared their stories and spread the word.

See you in the New Year!

Eric Sidoti

When it comes to Schooling the Wheel is Turning

Eric Sidoti

Eric Sidoti

It is tempting to think that when it comes to schooling we have simply lost the plot.

There is so much time devoted to debates about education among our politicians, in the media and around dinner tables but you can’t help but feel that it is all so much noise. The same old tunes on constant repeat. Track one: funding. Track two: testing. Track three: world rankings. Track four: standards. Track five: teacher performance (or lack thereof). Track six: disaster stories.

There is so much noise that we forget that Gonski’s “Review of Funding for Schooling” was as much about what lay behind the funding model as the proposed funding model itself. Gonski made an argument that there is much more to schooling than just developing academic skills. There was a reminder throughout the report of the 2008 Melbourne Declaration where all Australian Governments agreed to focus on equity and excellence and on young Australians becoming successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

Addressing the impact of standardised testing, for example, Gonski warned us that an excessive focus on what is testable, measurable and publicly reportable carries the risk of an imbalance in the school curriculum. “Independence, confidence, initiative and teamwork,” he said, “are learned as much through elements of the curriculum that are not readily measured by an external test as through those areas in which outcomes can be readily tested and reported.”

Some five years later it’s pretty hard to find anyone who is really satisfied with how it’s going and till now it’s been well-nigh impossible to find people willing to look beyond the funding disputes to ask just what it is we’re educating our kids for.

However, there’s a whiff of change in the air.

Lucy Clark’s recently released book Beautiful Failures is touching a chord among educators and parents alike. Clark was driven to start asking questions and looking for answers by her own daughter’s struggles. Struggles it quickly emerged that were recognised by many others.

It makes you wonder whether the more we measure, the less we achieve. Taken at face failure the PISA data and NAPLAN results constantly being wheeled out by proponents of standardised testing and the ‘high performing’ road to education, suggest that the new (and still growing) testing regime far from paving the way to higher performance has been accompanied by a steady decline in educational attainment.

If that isn’t sufficient cause for caution, then Clark’s perceptive account of the impact this is all having on Australian children should be. Her conclusion that there is something deeply disturbing going on with our kids resonates with research on the impact of ‘high stakes’ testing commissioned over several years under a Whitlam Institute education project. The final report concluded with Professor Johanna Wynn and her colleagues from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education finding that NAPLAN undermines quality education and is “not in the best interests of Australian children”.

The brunt of our collective failure is borne most directly by children and their families. However, the questions raised go to the heart of what we value and just what sort of society we actually want. 

Clark invokes Plato who argued that education’s primary purpose was to bring out the best in people: “The highest goal of education is the knowledge of Good, to nurture a man [sic] to be a better human being”.

Dr Geoff Masters, Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Centre for Educational Research (ACER), reflects something of the changing mood in a paper he wrote earlier this year asking “Is there another way to think about schooling?”. He leaves no doubt that he thinks the answer is “yes”. He calls on us to think differently about learning: about learners; about curriculum; what it means ‘to teach’; the role of assessment and ‘reporting’. “In short,” he says, “to think differently about schooling itself”.

The truth is it is not all gloom and doom. In Australia we have great examples of what teachers and schools can do for their students - and their communities - and what more schools could do given the chance.

These examples though will remain but glimmers on the horizon if we are not prepared to challenge the prevailing assumptions about what education is really for and open the way to re-fashioning our education system so that it genuinely puts the best interest of our children first.

A first step would be to recognise that education is essentially social in nature and intent. You get that right and the economics benefits will flow. The ‘high performance’ cheer squad have had their chance and been found wanting. It might just be time to change the game.

Read the Whitlam Institute's 2014 report The Experience of Education: the impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families: A Qualitative Study here. 

This study was undertaken for the Whitlam Institute by Professor Johanna Wyn and her colleagues at the Youth Research Centre at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.

City for Sale?

Professor Anna Yeatman

If a city is to grow and develop there must be a process of civic planning where the citizens are invited from the outset to participate in the design and implementation of a new city plan—where everyone understands the exciting opportunity of such a plan to open up the city to new kinds of community building and creative initiative.

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