My Path to Platoqld
The shining light came from Parliament itself – the politicians who we often mock so much – but it was these representatives of The Mums and Dads from BOTH sides of politics who could see what was blindingly obvious to all except those in The Blob.
I first started to become interested in high school education in the late 90’s and early 00’s and an opportunity turned up to become a university representative on the Board of Senior Secondary School Studies (precursor of the QSA and QCAA) science subject advisory committee. Little did I know that planning was well advanced to introduce to Queensland some radically different new syllabi in the sciences and mathematics. The main changes of the new system were
(a) the introduction of an assessment system which did not use numerical marks and simple addition of marks to get the final grade. Instead a system was to be introduced where letter grades were given to individual questions according to a set of criteria. The final grade was decided by an holistic judgement
(b) A large part of the course was to be done as long assignments – the extended experimental investigations and extended response tasks
(c) Large quantities of “content” were t be removed to allow more depth (hopefully) of learning.
(d) Description of the content to be taught was so vague as to be useless. A school could teach anything in any depth (or lack of depth). Complete control of the content was given to the schools and there was likely little commonality between schools.
I found the experience on that committee to be very upsetting because it was clear that very little could be done to influence what was going to happen. It was more or less pointless. My main worries was about making sure that some better guidance was given to teachers about the minimum content that would be useful for entry into university courses. In this respect I failed.
I was completely confused by the non numerical marking system and it was illuminating that there was often hours of debate about how this system was to be applied even amongst the committee members. I took the conscious decision not to worry too much about the marking system , which I frankly found bewildering, at that stage. Big mistake.
I should also put it on record that at that time I fully supported the Qld system of 100% internal assessment. I slowly changed my mind on this point.
I fell off the committee when the QBSSS morphed into the QSA (Queensland Studies Authority). I had mostly learnt that university academics from the disciplines of physics, maths, chemistry and engineering were ignored and that education academics were the gods. I learnt that education people spoke in a language which was unintelligible to a normal person and that they clearly had a different perspective on the universe to most of the rest of the population. I wish I could have had a dollar for every time that I heard how wonderful was the Qld system, how we were leading the world who followed in awe of our innovations. I felt a great relief and sense of freedom after leaving this committee. Shortly afterwards I wrote an article for the Australian newspaper showing how crazy was the proposed new syllabus and compared it unfavourably to the Singapore syllabus. Singapore would stipulate content with excellent detail giving good guidance to teachers. For Queensland there was nothing useful. So started my own battle with the education establishment. I had tried to influence things from the inside. It was now time to work from the outside.
At around this time my own children were going through high school and were amongst the first students to experience the new crazy physics, chemistry and maths syllabi. It was only now that I realised that the situation was much worse than I had feared. The EEI’s were diabolical and the children learnt almost nothing. The load from the constant assignments destroyed family life. Those years were misery – and my children left school ill-prepared for university, like most other students.
As head of the Physics Department at JCU, I decided I would call a public meeting in Townsville of parents and teachers to see if I was the only one who thought that the new system had major problems. With relief I learnt that I had not gone mad – there were lots of teachers and parents who thought the same but there was no way to influence the system. So what to be done? Only by mobilising a significant number of people could we hope to do anything so I called another meeting in Cairns and most importantly at the JCU building in the centre of Brisbane. Surprisingly over 150 teachers turned up mostly seething. What struck me about this group was how impressive they were. Mostly highly experienced teachers and thoughtful experts who loved their subjects as much as they feared for the students for whom they cared.
I then met Dr Matt Dean of UQ and found at last an academic who not only could see that there was a problem, but was prepared to risk his career trying to do something about it. And there were many others who I will not mention in case it causes trouble for them.
We tried to get heard by the then labour government without a great deal of success. The whole education establishment was completely convinced that Qld was leading the world and the only slight opposition came from a few dinosaurs who needed a bit of extra professional development to explain to them how great a system we had and how the whole world admired it for its innovation.
The break came when we started to be noticed by people in the LNP. I should say at this stage that although as I get older I am more likely to vote liberal than labor, at some stage in my life I have voted for all the major parties including the Greens and the Democats. Importantly I do not see this issue as one where there should be any significant difference between the two major political parties and it is notable that the parliamentary inquiry, which we were ultimately able to precipitate, wrote its report unanimously across party lines.
Dr Bruce Flegg the then LNP education shadow minister came to a follow up meeting in Brisbane and there were other things happening within the LNP which we did not know about at that time. With the change of government we were quite hopeful that we would see a full review of the system. Dr JP Langbroek was the new education minister and Matt Dean and I were able to talk to him at a community cabinet meeting in Townsville soon after the election of the LNP government. Even at that stage it seemed obvious that we were going to have some difficulty convincing the minister that there were big problems. There was however a promise of a Parliamentary Inquiry, and this did finally occur in 2013. It was a turning point and although I have been disappointed with the response of JP Langbroek to the findings of the report, he must be given the credit for commissioning it.
The Parliamentary Inquiry is dealt with elsewhere on this site, but it vindicated our concerns.
So what happened next? Mostly nothing. JPL commissioned ACER to do another review, this time on the OP and he ignored resolutions put to the LNP party congress advocating a move to a system more like all the other states in the country including external exams. In addition, JPL closed down the QSA, as recommended, but then replaced it with the QCAA (Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority) where he stacked the board with members who were sympathetic to the old system. The ex-head of the QSA, who had argued that nothing was wrong with the Qld system in the parliamentary inquiry was appointed to the QCAA board and the new QCAA board chairman is also on record for waxing lyrical about the amazing Qld system which was the envy of the whole world.
It seems that JPL had been completely captured by the education bureaucracy as he ignored advice from his party advisors, the state wide party congress, and the parliamentary Inquiry. This is an easy criticism to make but it must be said that to fight the whole education establishment is an unenviable task even when you are the education minister. Anybody who is a fan of the BBC comedy “Yes Minister” would understand the problem. It is a problem that new education minister will also face.
So Platoqld goes on. We are closer to getting an external exam, and we have a new minister in a Labor government. I have met her briefly and am reasonably hopeful that the reforms will continue. I am certain that the old traditional heartland of working class people are disadvantaged by Qld’ s present system where all the assignments, even in maths, play into the hands of the wealthy parents who can pay for tutors to do the assignments. It is also certain that Platoqld has received little support from those in positions of power in the elite Brisbane private schools who want to see the present system continue.
This is a debate which has reflected badly on all sections of our education establishment from Education Qld, Catholic Ed, Independent schools, the unions, the teachers associations, and especially the universities. The shining light came from Parliament itself – the politicians who we often mock so much – but it was these representatives of The Mums and Dads from BOTH sides of politics who could see what was blindingly obvious to all except those in The Blob.