Australia/March 01, 2021/By: Jordan Baker/Source: https://www.theage.com.au/
A year ago, Mark Latham released his education manifesto. Technically it was a report from the parliamentary committee he chairs, but the One Nation MP broke with convention to write it himself and included his personal views on the school system’s problems and how they should be fixed.
Several of his key recommendations have since found their way into government policy. This has left many in the sector wondering about the extent of his influence. In the words of one, “which Mark is running public schools?” Mark Scott, the secretary of the NSW Department of Education, or Mark Latham?
Some say Mr Latham’s combative style, support from the tabloid media and willingness to target bureaucrats personally in parliament and on social media has spooked education officials, causing them to devote too much attention to an upper house MP with a single vote.
“If [a policy is] grabbed by Latham, it draws the sympathies and attention of the right wing of the Liberal party, and it then becomes a huge issue for [Premier Gladys] Berejiklian and the minister,” said one insider who did not want to be named.
An educator, also on the condition of anonymity, said Mr Latham’s potential reaction to policies or reforms was now openly canvassed by senior education department staff. “It’s the mark, now, by which NSW education is operated,” they said.
Another said they had heard Mr Scott – who will be questioned by Mr Latham at budget estimates on Wednesday – talk about running potential decisions through the “Latham test”; what would Latham say? This was put to the department, but was not addressed in its response.
However, experienced bureaucrats – again, wanting anonymity – say canvassing potential reactions of critics is a sensible way to check for holes in policy or communications strategies.
The concerns have prompted a stinging response from the NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell.
“The policy reforms that I am leading are evidence based,” she said. “Given the weight of evidence behind these reforms, it is unsurprising that many of them have support from across the political spectrum. No cross-bench or opposition member has any more influence over policy than any other.
“I expect all bureaucrats at the department to back the secretary and the executive team, and focus on doing their jobs. They must stop hiding behind ideology as a reason to oppose change, and recognise that these policy reforms are about students and student outcomes. Get on board – or get out of the way.”
But there is also a view that Mr Latham has hit a nerve; that he has highlighted weaknesses in the education system that have been glossed over or ignored for years, and is forcing the sector to face some uncomfortable truths.
Late last year, Mr Latham claimed policy victories on Twitter. “Mandatory year 1 phonics check – done,” he wrote. “Clean out [NSW Education Standards Authority’s] 42,000 professional development courses – done. Earned autonomy replaces [Local Schools Local Decisions] – done. Introduction of Teach for Australia – done.”
He now adds the recent announcement of ambassador schools to that list. “That was similar to our best practice schools initiative [in the education committee report],” Mr Latham told the Herald, “to get the best schools to mentor others”.
Publicly, the government brushed off the tweet. Privately, it was said to be furious.
But many believed Ms Berejiklian to be sympathetic to Mr Latham’s views, and that he had a direct line to her office. He says any such access was cut off abruptly when he raised information about her personal relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire in parliament.
Few in education – which is heavily dominated by people from the political and social left – would dream of publicly admitting Mr Latham has raised legitimate questions on some issues because they disagree so deeply with his views on others.
But some will do it anonymously. “Most of them have a kernel of reasonableness, but they’re just over-stated,” said one. “Sometimes he puts pressure on to deliver the undeliverable. But some of it is good pressure.” Over the years, the Teachers’ Federation has played this role too, they said.
Mr Latham might ask blunt questions about what the department is doing to improve academic outcomes, but no-one else had been asking those questions. “There was a vacuum. Latham fills that vacuum,” the insider said. “The issue is the mix of cutting through what is traditional lethargy by the department, versus sorting out and putting aside the way he demands things are done that are genuinely unreasonable.”
Some within the government admit it could have been better handled, but argue it would have been absurdly resource-intensive to comb through 42,000 courses. There was also a fear the area would be a gold mine for Mr Latham, and needed to be shut down.
Mr Latham applauded the government’s action. “Nobody knew what was in [those courses],” he said. “I exposed the folly of that, and the misuse of it. We won’t end up with a porridge bowl of 42,000 unchecked, unverifiable courses.”
The NSW Teachers Federation argues Mr Latham should be ignored, saying his party attracted only 6.9 per cent of the vote. “The views expressed by One Nation are extreme, fringe political views at times antithetical to evidenced-based educational theory and practice that inform the profession,” said president Angelo Gavrielatos.
“No Government should ever allow political interference in our curriculum.”
Mr Latham says he has always been interested in education, and was alarmed upon returning to NSW politics many years after his federal career that MPs no longer took on subject specialties. “Just about every MP has become a generalist.”
He decided to focus on education. “I don’t feel like I’ve come in with an ideological or even political agenda,” he said. “[I’m asking] basic questions about what would lift results, the pressure points for improved outcomes.
“There had been a policy vacuum and the report 12 months ago helped fill that in some part. Perhaps I’ve given the department leadership a clearer and superior policy focus. I hope that’s the case. That’s why I got into the state parliament in the first place.”
One issue that has caused deep consternation within education circles is the decision last year from the NSW Education Standards Authority to disendorse almost all of the 40,000-plus private sector teacher training courses after Mr Latham questioned the legitimacy of a few of them.
He attacked, for example, a NESA-accredited NSW Teachers Federation course on how to be a union organiser. Soon after, NESA announced that almost all accreditation had been withdrawn and providers would have to re-apply.
“He put the wind up the minister or the government or NESA, and they pulled the plug on all professional learning,” said Denis Mootz, the president of the NSW Professional Teachers Council. Its members are among those that will have to seek re-accreditation.
“All endorsements, all accreditation, thousands and thousands of them, just because they were criticised by a politician. If there was something wrong with it, fine. Overhaul it. Don’t shut them down and then start again.”
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.