The AITSL is fast becoming irrelevant

Maurie Mulheron

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is a public company funded by the Australian Government with the Federal Minister for Education and Training as the sole member of the company. Currently, that person is Christopher Pyne.

AITSL was established in 2010 following failed attempts to develop a national body capable of engaging the profession in the work of creating national teaching standards. From the beginning, the work of AITSL was overseen and managed by a representative board. In the space of three to four years it was able to develop national standards with massive buy-in from the profession, schools systems and state jurisdictions.

But it is now no longer such an institution.

Pyne has used his role as the ‘sole member’ of the company to sack the representative board and stack the new board with political allies, private school lobbyists, education crackpots and bureaucratic ‘has-beens’. The only member representing public education is NSW Department of Education Secretary, Dr Michele Bruniges, who must be asking what she has done in a previous life to deserve such an appointment.

The removal of the Australian Education Union (AEU), with a membership of 189,000 education professionals, from the new board means that teachers and principals are no longer represented on the AITSL board. The profession has been deliberately disenfranchised. The people most affected by AITSL decisions have been excluded from any role.

We can all recall the decision by Pyne to appoint Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire to head the National Review into Curriculum. The choice of Donnelly was lampooned and criticised across the country and throughout the profession. In the end, because of Pyne’s overreach, the resulting curriculum review was largely ignored by teachers. During the review, Ken Wiltshire sought to distance himself from his more extreme co-reviewer. This is because the most precious commodity of an academic is his or her reputation. Given Pyne’s recent appointments to the AITSL board, the chair, John Hattie, must be worried.

A worrying development has been the recent comments of Professor Hattie in the Sydney Morning Herald (June 16) where he argues that smaller class sizes and greater resources have minimal effect on improving student outcomes. ‘‘Parents like smaller classes because they think their kids get more individual attention,’’ Professor Hattie said. ‘‘But the problem is teachers don’t change how they teach …”.

Sweeping generalisations like this must reassure Pyne who has been seeking an academic justification for his assertions that smaller class sizes are irrelevant and that additional Gonski funding is unnecessary, arguing, instead, that the real issue is the quality of teachers.

Pyne has also appointed an academic from the Australian Catholic University (ACU) as the board member responsible for initial teacher education. This must surely be a conflict of interest given that the ACU has the lowest entry scores for teaching courses and the AITSL board is moving to assess teacher training courses in Australian universities.

It is a moot point as to whether the federal minister has been influenced by neo-liberal management theories, which have become the orthodoxy in so many university business schools, that contend that the composition of boards should be made up of ‘experts’ rather than ‘representatives’. If this were the case, the new board fails even on that criterion, with Dr Bruniges being one exception.

AITSL has now had its links to actual schooling systems and the organised teaching profession seriously weakened. It harks back to the years of 2005–2010 when the highly politicised predecessor of AITSL, Teaching Australia, produced nothing of any substance and was largely ignored by the teaching profession.

Recently, the chair of AITSL has let it be known that the composition of the working committees of AITSL, which currently have teacher union representation on them, will also change and will cease to be a representative model.

The reality is that Pyne has always been keen on politics and weak on policy. These moves are deliberate and provocative. Few would doubt his motives.