A big government lesson in jargon

The snorkel thieves

Waiting for Sydney City Council

An Affair not to remember

Up, up, up – then jump



The moment maths teacher Greg Williams saw the news reports about the findings of the Gonski 2.0 review into Australian academic performance, he emailed a teacher friend: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

What he read was all too reminiscent of a monster he thought he, his friend and colleagues had fought and slain around ten years ago, outcomes-based education.

His friend, fellow teacher Marko Vojkovic, agreed. He replied: “Different emperor, same tailors.”

OBE took over Australian schools for around 15 years, from the early to mid-1990s, in a classic example of Schiller’s: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

It took root in an era when Australia’s federal politicians were increasingly focussed on the link between education and a productive workforce. OBE became the new buzz term, replacing a knowledge-based educational system with a focus on “desirable outcomes”. Instead of knowledge being handed down and explored, putting students on a learning path to places they could never have dreamed of, OBE – in as far as anyone was ever able to penetrate its corporatised jargon – was about achieving a series of set outcomes with an eye to economic growth.

As one American anti-OBE paper pointed out this meant that if the aim of studying literature was to learn how to communicate effectively “then it doesn’t matter if you read Judy Blume or Shakespeare”.

This straitjacket had its own language: “mastery learning”, “authentic assessment”, “co-operative learning”, “interdisciplinary outcomes”, “instructional delivery”.

And here is the Gonski review – full title, Through Growth to Achievement: The Report of The Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools – which is similarly rich in jargon: “growth mindset”, “continuous innovation”, “instructional leadership”, “critical and creative thinking”, “personal and social capability”, “ethical understanding”, “intercultural understanding” and “transferring, brokering and managing knowledge”. (Pray, Mr Gonski, what exactly do you mean by brokering knowledge?)

Gonski’s review promotes the idea that general capabilities – or equipping every child to be “a creative, connected and engaged learner in a rapidly changing world” – is a key priority.

Apart from acknowledging that the basic building blocks of literacy and numeracy must be acquired early, that’s pretty much it in the review for knowledge content and all the wonders and disciplines with which good teachers can fill and train young minds.

Instead, the stress is on students acquiring “a range of skills providing the job resilience required to be able to adapt and respond to fast-shifting education and workforce needs”.

There seems to be no recognition that such skills as creativity, questioning, thinking critically and problem-solving can’t be cherry-picked and taught on their own, just as job-ready qualities can’t be learned in isolation. All of these develop as a student acquires a body of knowledge, understanding and behaviour in various areas.

Astoundingly also, Gonski’s “Review Panel believes it is essential to move from a year-based curriculum to a curriculum expressed as learning progressions independent of year or age”.

Have a think about what that last quote actually means. Every child in Australia would have to be treated as if they were in a private classroom with a sole teacher/tutor just for them, and with each day’s lessons worked out solely on the basis of what that particular child was capable of learning that day.

Hello? Turn that into an official process – instead of leaving it to teachers to monitor and adapt as so many do perfectly well now – and after even six months of this, everyone, teachers, pupils, parents, will be off their heads trying to keep track in the resulting chaos.

Back in 2007, educationist Kevin Donnelly, whose articles criticising the flaws in the Gonski report have now appeared in most major Australian newspapers, wrote that in OBE, “more formal methods of teaching, competitive assessment and placing the disciplines centre stage give way to a situation where teachers ‘facilitate’, students are described as ‘knowledge navigators’ and dispositions and attitudes take priority over received knowledge”.

Vagueness, a ton of jargon, the elimination of the concept of failure, lack of rigour except in the elevation of process, child-centred learning, disapproval of teacher-directed classes, and an increased workload for teachers were all part of the baggage.

The repercussions of OBE, as a 2016 University of WA doctoral thesis by Patricia Dowsett on the history of curricular control in that state, put it, “were immense in Western Australia. In addition to abject confusion, some teachers, parents and students experienced alienation, resentment and exhaustion during the implementation of OBE at the secondary levels … The speed at which OBE was implemented was extreme by curriculum reform standards and reflects how top-down control of education can effect change autocratically and rapidly… OBE was adopted by bureaucrats who entered into the rhetoric of futurism.”

Fierce campaigns – including the one waged in WA by Williams, Vojkovich, using a website, PLATO (People Lobbying Against Teaching Outcomes) – finally put an end to the nightmare.

But Williams, a maths teacher of 48 years experience who now teaches at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Perth, says what he’s read of the Gonski review sounds like OBE re-badged.

Says Williams, “Terms like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘creativity’ … The way they want to get rid of summative assessment … As soon as I saw that, I thought, here we go again.” He later adds: “There appears to be a basic need in humans to experience some summative assessment on tasks they undertake.  Kids love to know whether or not they are below average, above average, or right on.”

Vojkovic agrees. “When they introduced OBE, they tried to get rid of competitive universal individual assessments because then they can get away with bad teaching because there’s no way of actually assessing the veracity of their methods. It’ll be a red flag [in future] if there’s any suggestion of getting rid of the exams at the end of year 12.”

The American credited with bringing OBE to Australia was William Spady who according to educationist Roy Killen, writes Dowsett, claimed that “the outcomes of traditional school curricula were self-limiting and not preparing learners for the complex and dynamic future they faced”.

Sound familiar?

Here is Gonski’s report: “The general capabilities [critical and creative thinking; personal and social capability] need to be more effectively translated from the Australian Curriculum into the classroom, so students acquire the full set of knowledge, skills and capabilities to succeed in the rapidly changing world of work.”

The report had little to say about restoring discipline in schools or reinforcing teacher-directed education (even though these are two key indicators of strong educational performance in countries doing far better than us). Nor was either indicator specifically mentioned in Gonski’s 23 recommendations or the 17 findings.

In spite of that, the review was keen to suggest yet another inquiry – recommendation 9.

Several media reports have commented that Gonski’s 2.0 review has met with approval from leading educationists and bodies.

Well, they would approve, wouldn’t they? Aren’t many of these the same authorities and institutions which have participated in the very decline in Australian education that we are now all so worried about?

“Does a fish know it’s wet?” Williams asks laughing of their submersion in all the obfuscating theory and jargon that has enveloped education for decades.

Indeed, once I started diving into the various education policies and resources to be found online – for a real treat in truisms that never get you anywhere, try the document Australian Guidelines for School Leadership Development – I started to feel some sympathy for Mr Gonski’s brain.

As Williams and I work out on email when to chat voice to voice, I see how he runs his daily teaching schedule. Williams, who turns 70 later this year and now job-shares with his maths teacher wife, works most of the day and tutors at night. “I get to school by 6.30 am, and prepare lessons until 8, then it’s groundhog day all over again.”

At 8am, he goes to the school library to help students with any maths questions they have before class. After school, he’s there tutoring and helping kids again. “They know if they email me at home, I can help them with a maths problem.”

(He loves and thrives on all this by the way.)

In The Australian on Tuesday, May 1, his boss –  Perth PLC principal Kate Hadwen – pointed out that the school already does what Gonski is asking as far as personalised learning goes. But the cost, she said, has added $700,000 to the annual budget of the Peppermint Grove – read, very expensive, very high quality – school.

As Williams says, Perth PLC has plenty of expert teachers and aides. “Do that for every pupil in Australia and it will cost zillions.”

He later emails me a news story from the West Australian which described attacks on two teachers in a south-west country town high school by two teenage pupils.

He wrote, “Last night in the boarding house at PLC I was surrounded by about 30 girls, all waiting patiently for me to answer their questions. This morning, there were another 10 in the library doing the same. If Gonski thinks critical thinking along a multi-disciplinary approach is going to have any effect at all on bridging such gaps, he and his committee are dreaming.  The Busselton scenario is much more prevalent than the PLC one.”

There has to be another way to fix our severe and growing schooling problems – and preferably one that isn’t afraid to use plain English to express its aims. And isn’t afraid of either of these two words: “discipline” and “disciplines”.


Two weeks before last, I misplaced my snorkel. I went to get my swimming kit on a Friday morning and couldn’t find it. Then I realised I had left it on the edge of the pool – the beautiful Boy Charlton in Sydney’s Domain, perched over the harbour and opposite the battle ships at Garden Island – when I had last swum.

It has been just 38 hours earlier, a late Wednesday afternoon, chilly and getting dark. I must have hurried to the changerooms, wet and cold, with my bag and towel and forgotten the snorkel lying there.

Still the pool had only an hour to closing time, hardly any swimmers were in the water given the pool was soon to close for winter, and so it was reasonable to assume the snorkel would be waiting for me in the lost property box.

Hah! No such luck. The nose clips were there but no snorkel.

Let me tell you about snorkels. They’re made of plastic and they cost, hmmmm, maybe $30. The first time you use them they become impregnated with your saliva and sorry, nasal excretions. The mouthpiece probably bears the imprints of your teeth.

So, someone who swims at the Boy Charlton and I would guess that no-one who swims there is short of a buck to buy food, clothes, or even a key to a car, decided to nick my snotty, saliva-drenched, plastic snorkel.


At first, I was absurdly annoyed – read, very very tetchy – until my Friday swim restored sanity and calm. Then I figured why I had over-reacted.

By then, I had been reading two weeks of news reports from the royal commission into banking which had revealed an entitlement and a carelessness towards such notions as taking responsibility, accountability and doing the right thing, that the public – even a public worn down by years of headlines about banking scandals –was finding it hard to believe each day’s headlines.

Are we heading for some kind of massive abandonment of even the most basic ethics? My snorkel for heaven’s sakes. Well, good people have been losing far more, their homes for instance.

“As low as snorkel thieves” may be a good covers-it-all epithet from now on.


The Sydney City Council sent me a letter the other day which was so confounding I rang the council offices the next day to make sure it wasn’t fake, a bit of leg-pulling by a fed-up constituent. No, I was assured, it was serious.

So read the extract below  – the bold italics are mine – and see what you think. The letter was dated April 30, 2018.

“The City of Sydney will soon seek expressions of interest from the private sector to transform our properties at 56-76, 82-106 and 110-122 Oxford Street.

“The expression of interest is expected to open mid-2018 and take several months to complete. The planning, consultation and development stages following this are expected to take several years.

“Revitalising these properties…”

I mean, hello?

I wonder how easy it would be to get on the paid staff list for this obviously very lengthy – and proudly so it seems – process.


When, last year, I told my colleagues at The Australian Financial Review, I had decided to take redundancy, the first thing everyone asked was: what will you do next? As I had already been working longer than most of them had been alive, what I most wanted to say was: nothing. But that’s not why women buy face cream.

Instead, I told the truth, which is that I had decided I’d get a lot of fun going back to writing and I also had a research project I was keen to get on with.

Here’s the disturbing thing. Since I took that redundancy last December, I have been trying to put down a rebellious and newly discovered bit of me which does indeed want to do nothing – nothing more than lie on a large and comfortable bed and read books for the rest of my life.

This rebel got even more encouragement on a recent trip to America which was mostly spent in bookshops (and in California’s brilliantly seductive supermarkets where I was delighted to discover that it is possible to buy not just the kind of civilised takeaway dinner we can only dream of here, but a very passable martini in a can, the perfect accompaniment to reading great American authors).

American bookshops are as hard to resist as martinis and as usual, I ended up having to post my acquisitions back to Australia because they wouldn’t fit in my suitcase.

But one, a paperback, I took on the plane home after buying it at the airport bookshop, and then spent all the trip home waking up my fellow passengers by laughing and snorting out loud.

It’s a collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow, by Katherine Heiny. The stories are about women in love, having affairs, getting through life, looking after children and husbands.

It was so funny, but in such a surprising way, that I thought that last minute book purchase was worth the entire cost of my trip to the United States.

Here’s a sample.

“David fingered his key ring. ‘You know I had another affair,’ he said. ‘I mean, I told you and you said you never wanted to know the details.’

“’I still don’t,’ Nina said quickly.

“’but I feel like I have to tell you,’ he said. ‘Because it was someone you know.’

“Nina stared at him. ‘Who?’

“He hesitated. ‘Bunny Pringle.’

“Nina kept staring. If he had said Bunny, she would have said Bunny PRINGLE? Even though she was certain neither of them knew any other woman named Bunny. Instead, she could only stare horrified.

“’She …‘ Nina began and stopped. Her brain was not cohesive enough for this conversation. She tried again. ‘She has a double chin.’

“She saw that unexpectedly she had scored a point. David looked ashamed.

“’She collects garden gnomes,’ Nina said. ‘You had an affair with someone who collects garden gnomes.’”

You’ll almost certainly have to go online or to your local library to read it. It was published here but has vanished – though you can order it in.

But blessed be, as they say in The Handmaid’s Tale, Heiny now has a novel out, Standard Deviation. Go and buy it now before it disappears off the shelves and you have to fly into LA International to get a copy.


When you wonder what the people way above your level are doing, and why, you can always watch a Monty Python skit (don’t be put off by the first 25 seconds): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hh_shsRfXqk