SINCE the late 1960s, education in Australia has suffered a range of ideological movements and fads associated with child-centred education, a cultural-left Marxist view, a model based on theory and, most recently, one that defines education in terms of its utilitarian and practical value.
All have conspired in their own ways to undermine and weaken the more traditional, conservative view of education associated with a classical, liberal approach.
During her time as education minister, Julia Gillard described herself as the minister for productivity, and a number of strategic policy documents sponsored by the federal government justified the ALP's education revolution by referring to economic and financial benefits, such as an increase in gross domestic product.
The introduction of national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) testing at years 3, 5, 7 and 9, allowing the public to rank schools on the My School website and introducing proposals such as merit-based pay for teachers, are all justified with reference to economic benefits.
Making schools teach so-called generic skills and competencies such as working in teams, collecting and organising information, planning activities and solving problems are also justified by the argument that if students are better prepared for the world of work then the Australian economy will be more productive, efficient and internationally competitive.
Adopting an input-output model of educational delivery, where school and teacher effectiveness are evaluated in terms of what can be quantified and measured, also illustrates the impact economic arguments are having on the nation's classrooms.
The influence of this utilitarian view of education is such that the proposed national curriculum, in addition to schools being forced to teach every subject through a politically correct prism, also need to teach "general capabilities".
These are "the skills, behaviours and attributes that students need to succeed in life and work in the 21st century", and include literacy, numeracy, competence in information and communications technology, critical and creative thinking, ethical behaviour, personal and social competence and intercultural understanding.
While acknowledging the importance of education to the nation's economic growth and future prosperity, an undue emphasis on teaching work-related competencies is misplaced and counterproductive. As argued by US educationalist ED Hirsch Jr, generic skills cannot be taught in a vacuum and education, in its fullest sense, should never be confused with training.
It's also the case that much of what is valued in education is of medium to long-term benefit and might not have any immediate relevance or usefulness.
What's to be done? The ALP's education revolution is highly statist and bureaucratic, and it adopts a command-and-control model of education that denies schools the freedom and flexibility to best meet the needs and aspirations of their communities.
Whether a national curriculum, national testing, national teacher training, registration and certification or national partnership agreements, all roads lead to Canberra and schools are controlled by educational bureaucrats (educrats) far removed from the realities of the classroom.
This is best illustrated by the federal Building the Education Revolution fiasco, where government schools, unlike non-government schools, were forced to adopt off-the-shelf designs from head office and had little, if any, freedom to manage building projects. This statist approach leads to waste, mismanagement and poorly thought-through educational outcomes.
Research here and overseas (including from Ludger Woessmann in Germany and Gary Marks in Australia) concludes that stronger-performing education systems are characterised by autonomy, competition and choice in education.
As proven by the example of Australia's Catholic and independent schools - which outperform government schools even after adjusting for students' socio-economic backgrounds - the most effective way to raise standards is to give all schools, government and non-government, autonomy at the local level.
While a reasonable degree of oversight is acceptable, in areas such as occupational health and safety, financial probity and minimum curriculum standards, schools need to be freed from provider capture. Drawing on the experience of charter schools in the US and free schools being introduced in Sweden and England, Australian schools should be allowed to offer a diverse range of curriculum options. Much like the community and alternative schools of the 1960s and 70s, schools need control over staffing, budgets and curriculum focus.
If their communities agree, schools should have the power to withdraw from national testing such as NAPLAN and implement their own approaches to assessment and accountability. As education is not suited to a one-size-fits-all, straitjacket approach, and not all children have the same ability, motivation or educational interests, schools should also be allowed to offer alternatives to the national curriculum.
While there might be a minimum core curriculum that all schools are required to teach, schools should have the freedom to adopt alternatives to the soon-to-be-compulsory national curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate and the Cambridge International AS and A-level certificate. Given that students in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong consistently outperform Australian students in international mathematics and science tests, schools should also have the freedom to take syllabuses from those countries and adapt them to local circumstances.
As currently occurs with selective high schools in NSW, all schools should be allowed to specialise in particular curriculum areas, such as performing arts, academic studies and more practical and trade-related alternatives.
If desired, schools should be allowed to partner with outside bodies and organisations such as tertiary institutions, businesses, manufacturers and philanthropic and charity groups. Schools with different educational philosophies - such as Steiner, Montessori and the Erasmus school in Melbourne's eastern suburbs - also need the autonomy to manage themselves free of external constraint and intrusive regulations.
Australia already has a de facto voucher system where non-government school students, regardless of the school attended, attract a degree of state and commonwealth funding. The concept of school choice has entrenched itself as one of the defining characteristics of Australian education with about 34 per cent of students attending Catholic and independent schools (at years 11 and 12 the figure rises to more than 40 per cent).
Such is the popularity of non-government schools that, while their enrolments increased by more than 20 per cent during the period 1998-2008, government schools flatlined at a little more than 1 per cent.
Australia should enable more parents to choose where their children go to school by implementing a system of vouchers (tax credits for educational expenses are another alternative worth exploring). Every child would be entitled to a minimum amount of government funding, with additional funds earmarked for students suffering disadvantage or having particular educational needs, and the money would follow the child to whatever school was chosen.
Schools, both government and non-government, would be free to set fees and to raise money locally without being financially penalised and school enrolment zones would be abolished to remedy the situation where only wealthy parents can afford to buy property in the enrolment zones of sought-after government schools.
In relation to the curriculum, we also need to reaffirm and support a classical, liberal view of education. Education should not be confused with training and to be educated, by definition, is to be familiar with the various disciplines, such as mathematics, science, history, literature, music and the arts, that have evolved over thousands of years and can be traced back to the ancient Romans and Greeks. The knowledge, understanding and wisdom associated with a classical, liberal type of education do not happen intuitively or by accident, and teachers have a central role.
While much of contemporary society and culture is characterised by superficiality, immediate gratification and a narcissistic world view, students also need to realise that education requires hard work, concentration and a degree of humility.
Instead of learning being made immediately entertaining and relevant, there is need to refocus on education as a discipline and ensuring that children are made to sit still and learn things that might not be immediately useful.
This more traditional view is inherently moral and rational and based on the assumption that learning involves being introduced to what Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, termed the "best that has been thought and said". English philosopher Michael Oakeshott's idea of education as a conversation across the generations is also a useful metaphor, illustrating what is meant when referring to a classical, liberal view of education.
Such a view of education is also transcendent in nature, best illustrated by Plato's parable of the cave, where what appears to be reality is simply a world of shadows and it is only when moving out of the cave and seeing the sun that reality is revealed.
Whereas Marxists and the cultural Left believe in creating a socialist, politically correct utopia on this earth and are compelled by the misguided belief in the perfectibility of the state, the reality is that human nature is flawed and while power is central to relationships, as noted by George Weigel, equally as vital are spiritual and ethical values that exist independently of the forces of production.
Unlike a postmodern, deconstructed view of education, it is also the case that the more conservative view deals with the grand narrative associated with the rise of Western civilisation.
It is based on the belief that some truths have greater validity when compared with others and that celebrating diversity and difference can not disguise the fact that some cultures and cultural practices are superior.
Closely associated with celebrating Western civilisation is acknowledging the importance of Australia's Judeo-Christian heritage and the place of Christianity in the development and survival of Western, liberal democracies.
The irony is that while the cultural Left disparages and belittles Western civilisation and Judeo-Christian values, the reality is that Western, liberal democracies such as Australia have only survived - and continue to be havens of peace and prosperity - because of the very institutions and cultural heritage critics seek to cast as oppressive and ripe for change.
Much to the chagrin of the cultural Left, which enforces its politically correct and dumbed-down education on all schools, it is also the case that the more conservative view of education is elitist in nature, as not every student has the ability, interest or inclination to pursue such a curriculum.
As previously mentioned, while there might be a core curriculum that all schools and students experience, especially during the primary-school years and the first few years of secondary school, after a certain age the expectation is that students will follow different educational pathways.
As occurs in countries such as Italy, Germany and Singapore, some will follow an academic stream, others a more vocationally oriented one.
Over the past 50 years or so, education and the school curriculum have been radically redefined and reshaped in response to a series of ideological movements and theories. Education, instead of being inherently worthwhile and valued for its own sake, is now a vehicle used to enforce what the cultural Left considers politically correct and what educrats mandate from head office.
At the same time, the state has increasingly sought to take control of schools and shape education to mirror what it defines as worthwhile, useful and relevant. In relation to Australia, the most recent manifestation of this statist approach is the ALP's education revolution, best illustrated by the move to a national curriculum, national testing and national teacher registration and certification.
The alternative is to free schools from provider capture and to embrace an education system based on equity, diversity, autonomy and choice.
At the same time, there needs to be a renewed emphasis on a classical, liberal view of education; one that acknowledges and celebrates the benefits of Western civilisation and Australia's Judeo-Christian heritage and inculcates values such as civility, morality, humility, reciprocity, truth-telling, independence and creativity.
This is an edited extract of an essay from Future Proofing Australia, published by MUP.