The teaching of grammar

August 10, 2006

More talk of ‘failure’ in The Australian today.,20867,20077692-2702,00.htmlThis time the focus of attention falls on the NSW English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA), which students in Year 7 complete. Data from ELLA is reported as indicating students’ knowledge of grammar and spelling is deficient. In the absence of a valid historical comparison showing that these results do not match those achieved by students of the same age in past decades, the suggestion in the headline that students are now ‘failing’ is injudicious. Further, before the idea that NSW Year 7 students are ‘failing’ in their knowledge of grammar is bandied around too much, mention should also be made of the fact that ELLA has a writing component. Student result data that I am aware of suggests that while some students might not be able to correctly name certain parts of speech in a particular test item (such as the untypical use of ‘water’ as a verb quoted in the report), the great majority of Year 7 students are certainly using verbs and adjectives correctly in their writing. If grammatical understanding is tested through the use of language by students, rather than their ability to label parts of speech in a test that is designed to “distract” a certain percentage from the correct answer, then a different picture of students’ knowledge and understanding develops. Consideration should also be given to the fact that extensive research over the last century has been unable to establish a link between formal teaching of traditional English grammar and improved student writing. 

The Australian report on the English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA) in NSW also highlights how changes in language usage within the broader community are certainly having an impact on students. It is hardly surprising that some Year 7 students were unable to correct the sentence, “Then Ron and me had lunch”, when this usage is now commonplace in everyday speech. The fact that more than four out of five students were able to correct this mistake suggests that standards in schools in fact remain high.

The issue really comes down to this: if the formal teaching of grammar does not improve students’ writing, then what place does it have in the curriculum?
Wayne Sawyer, writing about such matters in Only Connect (published by The Australian Association for the Teaching of English),

cites Green, Hodgens and Luke (1994, Vol. I), whose work he suggests shows that literacy crises in this country consistently appear to act out social fears about wider moral and social values. Sawyer describes how these authors demonstrate that ‘literacy’ has become a code word for many things, including: allegiance to the Crown and Commonwealth; Protestant religious values; discipline and obedience to authority; mastery of British ‘proper speech’; innate intellectual gifts; monocultural Anglo/Australian nationalism; scientific and technological competitiveness; mental and physical health and employability and job competence. Teaching grammar through drilling, then, might be understood as a process of disciplining students (in mind and body) rather than helping them to become better writers.

Ken Watson, an English educator of international repute, reflected on the place of grammar in the English curriculum at last year’s English Teachers’ Association (NSW) Annual Conference. Here’s part of what he had to say.

The study of rhetoric, the art of effective speaking and writing, was a central part of education from classical times, and in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the study of rhetoric was part of the trivium (rhetoric, grammar and logic). The grammar studied was, of course, Latin grammar. Centuries later, as Latin gave way to English as a key subject in the curriculum, rhetoric could easily have become the central part of the new subject, but unfortunately grammar won out, and the focus in language study became the sentence rather than extended passages of prose and poetry. Even worse, the prescriptive grammarians having been at work in the interim, English was analysed in terms of Latin, though it is hard to think of two languages farther apart, since English, an analytic language, is based on word order, and Latin, a synthetic language, on inflection. ‘Homo mordet canem`means the same thing in whatever order you place the words; the meaning of `Man bites dog`, on the other hand, changes dramatically if one changes the word order. This reliance on Latin grammar has distorted language teaching ever since: recently I was surprised to hear a former English teacher turned author speak of the importance of avoiding split infinitives (a bogey forced on generations of kids on the basis that in Latin the infinitive is a single word and therefore can’t be split).

 At this point I offer you my reply to those who, at parties and in pubs, tell me that it impossible to write well unless one has a sound knowledge of traditional grammar. Yes, I say, one really has to feel sorry for such writers as Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Herodotus, Plato. If only they had been lucky enough to be born after Dionysius Thrax wrote the first Greek grammar (c.100 BC), how much better would have been their chances of immortality.  If this fails, I fall back on the well-known analogy that one does not need a thorough knowledge of the mechanics of a car in order to drive well. 


The uses and abuses of educational research

August 8, 2006

What follows is the complete discussion of the spelling research by Bissaker and Westwood quoted in The Australian last week. Given the seeming determination of this august journal of record to create a sense of ‘crisis’ in education in Australia, it will come as no surprise that the measured language in which the authors of this study discuss their findings does little to support the interpretation provided by the journalist concerned. The first sentence of the researchers’ Discussion is particularly telling.    A reference is: Westwood, P. & Bissaker, K. (2005). Trends in spelling standards, 1978-2004. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 22, 65-78. 

 Discussion  The results from this study suggest that we should not be unduly concerned at this time about the overall standard of spelling exhibited by students in South Australian schools. As the graph (Figure 1) indicates, there are no indications that spelling standards have declined significantly since the previous testing in 1993; and there are even signs that spelling performance in the early and middle primary school years is somewhat better now than in 1993. While standards in the primary years have not quite returned to the level of 1978, they are moving closer to that level. 

The reason for the slight improvement in the primary years is not immediately clear. One is tempted to point out that by the mid 1990s most countries using whole language methods were swinging back gradually toward a more balanced approach to literacy teaching. A ‘balanced’ approach includes the best features of whole language practice together with some explicit teaching of phonics, spelling and comprehension skills (e.g. Freppon & Dahl 1998; Hoffman & McCarthey 2000; Pressley 1998; Reutzel 1999). The extent to which teachers in South Australia followed this trend to a more systematic teaching of spelling in the past seven or eight years is not known at this time. The introduction of the School Entry Assessment and the Literacy and Numeracy Assessments (LAN), together with additional professional development options on literacy in the early years, may have supported some teachers in their understanding of essential links between early language and literacy development and success in spelling. Within some of the in-service training workshops for teachers in South Australia over that period there has been greater emphasis placed on the value of teaching young children phonic strategies for reading and spelling ― for example, through the intensive training sessions introduced for teachers using the phonics-based THRASS program (Davies & Ritchie 1996). If there has been a return to more direct teaching of spelling skills in primary classrooms, the test results from the lower primary years obtained in 2004 would give some support to the value of such an approach.  

In the secondary school years spelling standards have remained remarkably consistent over the period 1978 to 2004. However, it is important also to point out that this finding may, in part, be a feature of the test material. While spelling ability grows quite rapidly during the primary years from age 6 to 12 years, by age 13 years most students have acquired their ‘basic’ spelling skills and their core spelling vocabulary (Westwood 1999). From that age students are usually simply adding to their vocabulary the new terms arising in specific school subject areas, from world news, and so forth. In other words, for the average student, spelling growth tends to plateau at about 13+ years, and it is difficult to construct spelling tests that will provide adequate differentiation and separation at each successive age level. This difficulty in test design is immediately evident if one studies the norm tables for students in the age range 13.5 years to 16 years.  Where some small deviations from the general curve of spelling growth have occurred in 2004 (Figure 2), it is likely that they reflect slightly biased sub-samples of students at these particular age levels. It is possible, by chance, for students of higher or lower ability to be over represented in a particular sample. Although schools were asked to provide data from all age and ability levels there is no way for the researchers to ensure that results from any particular age group are a true representation of the normal distribution of ability. To deal with these very slight deviations from the curve in Figure 2, the line has been smoothed manually when developing the norm tables for the full age range 6 to 16 years. For this reason, a few of the mean scores shown in Table 2 above may not be identical with the figures provided in the norm tables.  

Finally, it is important to remark that at each age level there were students who were remarkably competent spellers. For example, we found a female student of age 11 years 6 months and a male student of age 11 years 8 months who both scored 70 words correct out of 70 in SAST Form B. There were several students in secondary school age range who scored maximum possible marks in both forms of the test. However, at the other end of the scale there were students across the age range that were struggling to spell even the simplest of words in the tests. These students do require additional instruction and support if they are to improve, and it is hoped that schools will use SAST and other methods of assessment to identify students falling in the bottom 10%.  

There’s more in heaven and earth…when it comes to spelling

August 1, 2006

I submitted the following to The Australian by way of response to the following article on spelling:,20867,19975952-13881,00.html

Justine Ferrari quite rightly highlights the importance of a balanced approach to teaching reading and spelling (Spelling fad costs kids 14pc drop in results, 1/8/06).

However, what has not been established by those who criticise ‘faddish’ approaches such as whole language is whether in fact the explicit teaching of phonics and spelling ever really did disappear from the nation’s classrooms. Certainly, syllabuses in all parts of Australia have for decades emphasised the importance of direct instruction and students developing both graphological and phonological processing skills. 

Labelling as ‘plausible’ the untested hypothesis that ‘whole language’ was universally adopted by teachers in the 1980s and 1990s at the expense of other teaching practices and despite the ‘balanced’ approach laid down in syllabuses is injudicious speculation.

What strikes me as interesting is the way that those who criticise ‘whole language’ never enter into serious consideration of whether in fact this approach ever actually did force other more explicit or ‘traditional’ teaching approaches out of classrooms. Syllabus documents have emphasisied for decades now the importance of a balanced approach, incuding explicit teaching of phonics and a variety of spelling strategies.

It will be interesting to follow up on the data, methodology etc of the paper named in the article. Without wanting to enter into the ‘crisis’ discourse The Australian is running, what I find interesting is that the report, without saying it is doing this directly, focusses on the first two years of schooling. My initial reaction, and personal experience as a father, suggests this is an incredily complex time in schooling, and beyond the type of instruction they receive, students will bring a myriad of other social experiences to their learning which influence their progress.

The pace of social change in recent decades suggests to me that researchers might have to be looking outside of the classroom for causes of variations in students’ ‘test’ scores. I don’t know that change in the classroom has been as marked.

My daughter has just started school this year. She has a very experienced teacher, who must be close to retirement. My daughter is getting a balanced teaching approach, which includes a good deal of explicit instruction. She is making good progress and enjoys reading.

I find it hard to believe that her teacher, Mrs C., has swung back to the ‘tried and true’ after the wilderness years of being a totally unreconstructed ‘whole language’ teacher in the 1980s and 1990s. And I am sure that she is not so different to teachers of Kindergarten and Year One around the nation.

There are more things in heaven and earth, psycholgists, than are dreamt in your ‘science’.

More on Spelling

July 28, 2006

Attacks on Australian English teachers and their teaching of spelling continue unabated in The Australian today.,20867,19941621-13881,00.html,20867,19947228-13881,00.html


Judith Wheeldon, formerly principal at two exclusive Sydney girls’ schools, has rushed into the ‘debate’, implying that teachers are morally negligent because they have failed in their duty of care by not teaching spelling well enough.

Wheeldon cuts to the chase when she says that good spelling is crucial to a child’s life success. No teacher is going to disagree with that. However, Wheeldon is surprisingly reckless in basing her claim that Australian teachers are failing our kids in spelling on the results of the Education Australia Assessment (EAA), which hardly constitutes rigorous educational research.

In fact, the EAA is a ‘competition’ that some students in
Australia and Singapore paid to enter and many did not. It is simply not the case that 9% of Singaporean students achieved above average result compared to 1% of students in NSW. These figures apply only to those students who chose to compete: 110,000 in
Australia and 10 000 in Singapore.

Before labelling Australian teachers as negligent, critics such as Wheeldon and journalists at The Australian might have asked Professor Peter Knapp to explain how representative the cohorts who chose to compete in the EAA were of the entire student populations of each country, and how his data can be said to have any sort of equivalence. In the absence of this sort of information, no valid conclusions about student learning and teaching methods can be made. In particular, Knapp and others certainly should not be promoting the idea that Australian schools are failing. Nor should they be using the competition results to perpetuate misleading ideas about the sort of teaching and learning that is actually taking place in Australian schools.

Australian teachers are well aware of the importance of valid educational research to good teaching practice. It is therefore dismaying that such an eminent educator as Judith Wheeldon has joined with Knapp in criticising Australian teachers on the basis of the unscientific data produced from a writing competition.

Moreover, Wheeldon perpetuates the furphy that the grammar and spelling of people over 55 are inevitably better than that of younger people. This ubiquitous but nostalgic notion has not, to my knowledge, ever been confirmed by research. To the contrary, in the past Australian studies of the relationship between levels of literacy and recency of education have indicated that the more recently an individual went to school, the more likely he or she is to be literate.

Perception cannot be allowed to replace fact in these matters. Knapp and Wheeldon have been put forward by The Australian as ‘experts’, yet each presents a narrow, apparently ill-informed and distorted picture of how spelling is taught in Australian schools. The NSW K-6 English Syllabus, for example, contains all of Wheeldon’s strategies for the effective teaching of spelling and more.

Paul’s response to ‘Wallpaper’ Spelling

July 27, 2006

G’day Paul
from what I have been reading of ‘No Child Left’ behind, bad educational policy obviously eludes easy political characterisation (ie terms such as ‘left’ and ‘right’).

‘Wallpaper’ Spelling

July 27, 2006

The attacks being made on what certain sections of the national media like to derogatorily call ‘progressive’ methods of teaching continue unabated.

Today journalistic attention fell on spelling. In a report headed ‘Singapore kids spell better than Aussies’, The Australian’s education writer breathlessly exclaimed, ‘The “wallpaper method” of teaching spelling by sticking words on the classroom wall for children to absorb is failing in Australia.’,20867,19925378-2702,00.html

Readers of this story on the web might have wondered, ironically enough, whether an alternative headline might have been, ‘
Singapore subs spell better than Aussies’, as the journalist concerned was given the byline ‘ucation writer’. [The Australian’s coverage of educational matters has been so hyperbolic over the last two years that it is hard to credit it with the sort of sense of humour that would have made this a deliberate mistake.] 

The basis of this story was data from an ‘assessment’ run in
Australia by Educational Assessment Australia (EAA), which involved more than 110,000 Australian students and more than 10,000 Singaporeans.EAA director Professor Peter Knapp was quoted as attributing unfavourable differences in the results of Australian and Singaporean students in Years 3 and 5 to the teaching methods used. According to Knapp, a long time critic of the whole language approach to literacy, Australian teachers are negligent in their teaching of spelling, as they place too much emphasis on teaching it in context. According to Knapp, Australian teachers ignore drill and memorisation in favour of “the wallpaper approach”, which requires “children [to] absorb the spelling of words through reading them and saying them or looking at them on a classroom wall.” Today’s piece encapsulates all that is wrong with a good deal of the reporting of educational issues in this country. While Professor Knapp was willing in a follow-up radio interview to acknowledge that this data did not stem from educational research, the education writer for The Australian did not let the intricacies of equivalence, population, sampling and so on get in the way of confirming the ‘hypothesis’ that non-traditional methods of teaching (ie constructivism and whole language) are failing Australian students.Further, Professor Knapp’s overly general comments about Australian syllabuses indicate how decontextualised ‘data’ can be used to create misleading and simplistic understandings of the curriculum and teaching.According to Knapp, there is a lack “of anything explicit [with regards to spelling] in our syllabus documents”. This will be news to NSW teachers, as the English K-6 Syllabus places emphasis on students:

  • developing a range of spelling strategies
  • learning to spell with teacher guidance
  • achieving stated outcomes which explicitly describe what they know and do as they learn to spell
  • developing graphological and phonological processing skills.

What this means in practice can be instructively understood by taking just one element of the direction provided to NSW teachers in the English K-6 Syllabus with regards to the teaching of Spelling. The following relates to writing in Stage 3:WS3.11 Spells most common words accurately and uses a range of strategies to spell unfamiliar words.Spelling• spells needed words correctly with effective strategies for attempting and checking unknown words• uses knowledge of word meanings as a spelling strategy• consistently makes informed attempts at spelling using a multistrategy approach• uses knowledge of word parts, eg prefixes, suffixes, compound words, to spell unknown words• uses knowledge of base words to construct new words• uses visual and phonological strategies such as recognition of common letter patterns and critical features of words• checks own attempts using a dictionary or spell check• recognises most misspelt words in own writing and uses a variety of resources for correction• uses a thesaurus to find synonyms when writing• demonstrates an awareness of the limitations of spell check features in word processing programs The gap between the reality of the NSW Syllabus and the ridiculing of teachers who supposedly adopt a so-called ‘wall paper’ approach – an immersion strategy? the building up of a wordbank? a vocab list? – at the expense of all others, highlights the fact that this report is another bewildering attempt by some in the public arena to create a sense of crisis in Australian education.  

Wayne Sawyer’s chapter, ‘Just Add ‘Progressivism’ and Stir: How We Cook Up Literacy Crises in
Australia’, which appears in the newly-released AATE publication Only Connect, a good deal to say on this topic. (At this point I should declare that I also contributed to this publication.) Sawyer’s extensive bibliography indicates just how soundly based in research his historical perspective is. Sawyer concludes that the current ‘debate’ about standards is actually a ‘smokescreen’ for the leveraging of a shift in control of educational policy away from state governments to the federal government.  

Most tellingly, Sawyer warns that the current focus on appropriate and inappropriate teaching strategies, and talk of a ‘crisis’ in education only serve to draw community attention away from the real area of need in literacy in this country. He identifies this as the need for public policy that addresses inequality. The groups shown consistently to be most disadvantaged in Australian literacy testing are: boys relative to girls; students from low SES backgrounds relative to students from high SES backgrounds; NESB students and Indigenous students relative to the rest of the population. 

Today’s report on spelling highlights another concerning trend in international education: the commercialisation of schooling. 

An interesting element of Professor Knapp being drawn into comment on what is and what isn’t working for Australian students is that EAA is part of a larger commercial enterprise. EAA is a not-for-profit business unit of New South Global, the international education and training consultancy arm of the

University of
New South Wales. EAA obviously has a key PR role in promoting the expertise of New South Global, as well as a ‘community service orientated’ corporate identity. The message that ‘things are crook’ in Australian schools obviously does no harm when EAA ’products’ are marketed to parents and students in a most reassuring way: “a valuable tool that provides a comprehensive diagnostic assessment of each student’s strengths and weaknesses including their comparative performance within the school, state and territory or country. ICAS is the only assessment program in
Australia that can track individual student performance and progress over each year of schooling from Years 3 to 12.” 

The Australian media has to date largely ignored the growing interest of the business sector in the education of our young. Today’s report highlights that there is a US –like trend in this country towards opening the field of educational testing to a range of commercial products and services. The renowned American educator Denny Taylor graphically illustrates the deleterious consequences this has had for teaching, learning and educational research in her homeland in ‘Teaching Reading and the New World Order’, her contribution to the AATE publication English Teachers at Work As our political masters seem intent on taking as down the same rocky path as the US, certain commentators might pay greater heed to the words of Professor Geoff Masters, Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, which were published in The Australian on November 22, 2005: ‘Whatever the motivations of those who claim that education standards are plunging, that our schools are failing… there is no support for these claims in international evidence.’Master’s words stand in stark contrast to the bleak picture of education in the
US painted in the New York Times editorial of July 19, 2006: ‘[this] country should stay focused on the overarching problem: on average, American schoolchildren are performing at mediocre levels in reading, math and science.’  


One small step…

July 23, 2006

I don’t know if I was pushed or whether I willingly jumped into the blogosphere . There was certainly some encouragement, not least the example of others  and the whole feeling that this is a whole mode of communication I know little about. The enthusiasm with which other English teachers have embraced blogging as a means of reflective practice is something I have found inspiring. In particular, the following reference to Freire in a US blog gave me real impetus to think about the role of writing in my own professional life.

Freire on writing
Just came across this passage in Freire‘s First Letter, in Teachers as Cultural Workers:

“If we think about the intimate relationship between reading, writing, and thinking and about our need to intensely experience this relationship, we might accept the suggestion that at least three times a week we should devote ourselves to the task of writing something. That writing could be notes about something read, a commentary about some event reported in the media, a letter to an unknown person – it doesn’t matter what. It is also a good idea to date and keep these writings and, a few months later, to critically analyze them.” (p. 25)

In this spirit I am going to post an extract from my contribution to a panel which launched the new Australian Association for the Teaching of English publication ‘Only Connect’: English teaching, schooling and community.

I hope this will capture something of my intentions with this blog. I want to use it as a site for what Rob Pope calls ‘textual intervention’- a way of critically and creatively working [a (re)reading] with popular discourse about English teaching and education generally in order to (re)write it. 

Much attention has been focussed on the English curriculum in Australian schools in the national media recent times.

With the first five statements quoted below I try to capture a sense of the immediate and broader context of the ‘warp’ (or is that ‘warping’?) of education in Australia. The final three depict something of the current ‘state of play’ in the public arena for teachers of English and literacy in

1. Imagine the World Cup if the education establishment ran it. Details of goals scored and penalties awarded would be censored lest the publicity upset poor players. And we would never know match results, because details of defeat would depress losing nations and turn them into failed soccer states. But these silly statements describe what has long occurred in our schools…..(NSW Premier ) Mr Iemma does not dare face the fact that knowledge is power and parents have a right to know how their children – and their teachers – are doing. The only way to do this is to report school performance on a range of objective measures, such as externally assessed literacy and numeracy results and exit exams, and to rank all schools from top to bottom. Doing this would offend ideologues who think an excellent educational outcome is for everybody to have similar results, especially if nobody knows exactly what they mean. Good. Kids are at school to learn, not to be kicked around by people with foolish theories.
(Editorial, The Australian, 15 / 6 / 06)

2. It is strange that although competition, success and failure are part of the real world, [supporters of outcomes based education argue] failure must be banned and students should not be streamed in terms of ability because, supposedly, given enough resources and time, all students are capable of success.
(Kevin Donnelly, in The Australian 15 / 6 / 06)

3. Many parents…would prefer to know where their child is ranked against classmates and whether they are winners or losers.
(Kevin Donnelly in The Australian, 17 / 6 / 06)

4. One bright child from a poor background might still thrive in any government school but when there are clusters of impoverished students, they tend to drag each other down.
Research prepared for the nation’s education ministers, obtained by The Australian, warns that schools with the poorest students have half as many top performers as schools with the wealthiest students.
(Justine Ferrari, The Australian, 6 / 7 / 06)

5. Much of the education debate in these pages in the past year has focussed on how subjects such as English and history have been dumbed down at the school and tertiary levels. Theory, political correctness, outcomes-based education: take your pick. At the school level, outcomes-based education is attacked as drowning teachers in hundreds of vague and faddish learning outcomes that are impossible to teach and report on to parents. Outcomes-based education’s anti-academic and anti-competitive ethos is also condemned.The impact of theory – ranging from critical theory, where Shakespeare is on the same footing as Australian Idol, to postmodernism, feminism, marxism and constructivism – has also been criticised as ideological and misdirected.
Kevin Donnelly,

6. Well firstly I’d say to …critics, Alan, and I’d also say to the Premier, Bob Carr, just go out to the Exodus Foundation in Sydney, in Sydney’s west near Ashfield, and just spend a little bit of time – just one hour with Reverend Bill Crews. Because when he’s not feeding the poor or keeping drug addicts alive or counselling prostitutes, Alan, out the back of the Church, we’re co-funding with a Macquarie University programme, where Bill’s got a bus going out and picks up kids that have spent five years in Australia’s education system, in New South Wales public schools, who cannot read a single word Alan, not a single word.In fact one child said “I didn’t realise it’s the black stuff you read”. And Alan, within six months they take those children, with a team of volunteers, from nought to reading a piece of poetry they’ve written to an audience when we go to the Graduation. So I say to Bob Carr, just get out of your office, get out there and just spend a bit of time with them and if you think there’s no problem – I think any sensible person will be convinced there is.

(The then federal Minister for Education, Dr Brendan Nelson, interviewed by Alan Jones, 2UE, 1 / 12 / 04)

7. Whereas literature was once read for the joy of reading and for its aesthetic and moral influence, a critical literacy approach asks students to deconstruct texts in terms of power relationships. In the words of a
Queensland curriculum document, education is no longer about accepting received knowledge; instead, students are taught that “knowledge is always tentative” and how to “deconstruct dominant views of society”. (Kevin Donnelly, The Australian, 26/5/05)

8..…the post-modernists who have dominated the teaching of English and the arts in Australia have distorted the curricula across the country to such an extent for the past three decades that students have to regurgitate… nonsense when they sit for exams… Now, to the almost unanimous applause of parents, John Howard has called the bluff of tenured academics and challenged them to explain the merit of the garbage they have been promoting in the guise of education.
(Piers Ackerman, The Sunday Telegraph, 23 / 4 / 06)

These quotes might collectively be said to capture something of a deeply conservative, or neo-liberal ‘voice’ in education in this country, which is presently creating an obvious but nonetheless clever narrative. This narrative is possessed of great psychological power. It is replete with the sort of archetypal themes Christopher Booker (2004) has identified in his recent exhaustive (if not exhausting work), The Seven Basic Plots.We see that the narrative harks back to the epics of ancient civilizations in setting up what Booker calls the ‘Overcoming the monster’ plot. The neo-liberal monster is a nebulous multi-headed beast that at once encompasses tenured left wing educational ideologues [extract 8]; lunatic post-modernists [extracts 5 and 8]; hippy-trippy or new-age teachers, who just want students to feel good about themselves and don’t care if they are illiterate [extracts 1, 2, 5 and 6]; ineffectual educational bureaucrats [extracts 1, 2, 5 and 7], as well as inept teachers (in their failing public schools) [extracts 4 and 6]. In this narrative, fearless individuals (typically educational outsiders) are banding together in a holy ‘culture’ war for the hearts and minds of the country’s children and their parents [extracts 2, 3, 5 and 8], with nothing less than the future of the nation being at stake.The authors of this narrative are taking the moral high ground by emphasising how they are, to use Booker’s phrasing, in ‘conflict with the dark power, and therefore central to the movement from ‘shadow into light’. Their’s is a noble struggle, which is easily understood and recognised by any ‘right thinking’ person as it obeys the familiar rules and disciplines of a major international sport [extract 1], rather than the sinister post-modern, New Age and Marxist gobbledegook of educational bureaucrats [extracts 5 , 7 and 8]. The neo-liberal narrative is written to emotionally appeal to the ‘mums and dads’ of Australia by creating a sense of crisis in order to inculcate fear and mistrust, typically supported by a hyperbolic but very telling anecdote [extract 6] rather than any substantial reference to objective data or the airing of a counter view. This shuts down serious consideration and open discussion of what is really happening in schools. In turn, the neo-liberal narrative is able to draw on what Booker calls notions of ‘Tragedy and Rebirth’. Hubris (in the form of the extremes of progressive education and postmodernist relativism) will be followed by Nemesis (a return to ‘common sense’, and an emphasis on ‘high standards’ and tradition) and hence it is promised that a state of balance will be restored by neo-liberalism, after decades of left wing educational extremism and social engineering.(As an aside, a very particular irony can be identified in all of this. It will not have escaped notice from the quotes I have provided that neo-liberals are very keen to write themselves and their political heroes into their educational narrative in a very post-modern way [extracts 4, 6 and 8]. As authors they make themselves characters, blurring the distinction between creator and created. They– and this is common to politicians, journalists and commentators – portray themselves as crusading figures, the protectors of students and bewildered mums and dads across the nation, who are striking a blow against the extremes of the educational ‘monsters’ who have held the nation in thrall over many decades.)I n a very real sense, then, the neo-liberal narrative of education is a grand-narrative. It appropriates and transforms the Enlightenment narrative of reason freeing the world from superstition and producing a universal knowledge. The neo-liberals position themselves as the inheritors of both the scepticism of received wisdom and the fearless pursuit of the ‘truth’ that characterised the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightenment promised that reason would free the world, we see the neo-liberal educational narrative positing that ‘common sense’ must be used to free parents and children from the stranglehold of rabid educational ideologues and their jargon and ‘fads’ [extracts 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8], as well as corrupted public education systems and institutions which are beyond redemption [extracts 4 and 6]. This will allow traditional and ‘natural’ social hierarchies to once again be clearly delineated and maintained, and those who are ‘winners’ in the game of life to be rightfully acknowledged and rewarded [extracts 1, 2 and 3].

In this neo-liberal educational narrative I see a bleak and unpalatable vision of society.  How has it come to pass, I wonder to myself, that supposed educational experts and informed commentators can be seriously making the  claim that our education system should work from the premise that some students should not – and will not – experience success, and parents (and I am one myself) will accept this, as we want to know whether our child is a ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ [extracts 1 and 2]. (I don’t want my children being labelled and ranked. Nor do I want others’ labelled and ranked. I want rather to know how I can help my children to be happy within themselves and to achieve their own dreams and aspirations.) Why is it now acceptable for a journalist in a national newspaper to suggest that social and economic disadvantage is an indicator of a failure of character, and that HSC test scores somehow prove this [extract 4]? The logic of Donnelly and others writing for The Australian appears to be that the labelling of our children and their schools as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ means that those of us who are parents are then able to determine whether we are winners or losers ourselves, apparently based on the fact that our degree of success in life is best measured by whether or not we have the requisite financial wherewithal and the moral fortitude to make the necessary choice for our children and send them to a prestigious private school.

The imperative of the times is that we all, from the perspective of our own teaching contexts and belief systems, stop to consider the story neo-liberals are currently telling about education in Australia. Individually and collectively we are faced with a stark choice. Each of us must ask: do I stand in opposition to the neo-liberal narrative, or is it one I want to help write? For, the fact of the matter is that none of us has the freedom to remain neutral. As Australian sociologist John Carroll (2001), drawing on the work of Frank Kermode, has stressed, ‘a feature of archetypal story is that it compels those who come under its thrall to bring its logical completion’ (p.15).  And where is the neo-liberal end point and do we want to get there?