For many weeks, especially for those on twitter, the tale of the Queensland School for Travelling Show Children (search for the hashtag #QSTSC) has been the focus of substantive media attention. For those unfamiliar with the story, see here. Thanks to a number of colleagues in the twitterverse, notably @corisel, @effectsofNAPLAN, @lasic, and for the initial find – @jadeevans1983, a fascinating piece of dialogue in Queensland parliament was brought to my attention (see here). What was most significant about the exchange between the Minister for Education, Training and Employment John Langbroek and the member for Inala, Annastacia Palaszczuk in relation to the QSTSC was the mobilisation of ‘quality’ education as a criteria for judgement of the worth of a school.
Early on in the proceedings, Langbroek declares:
… we have circumstances in Queensland that are different to other states in Australia. We have the most decentralised state of course, and in fact we make sure that students all over the state do get access to that high-quality education, even though on many occasions we have to spend a lot more money to do it.
Key things come to life as the discussion continues however. Closing the QSTSC would save $1.5 million for the Queensland government. In a time of state, national, and global fiscal contraction, financial decisions are always tough and arguably during these times, more frequent than many would like. Where it takes an interesting turn is from the following statement:
… we are committed to providing a quality education for all Queenslanders, when we look at the statistics of the travelling show school they really do not stand up to the scrutiny and analysis that shows that they are getting as quality an education as they might be.
The data mobilised to make this case is attendance, where the QSTSC has a rate of 84% (which Langbroek adds needs to be considered in the light that the school accompanies the children), and NAPLAN results. In the case of NAPLAN results, the argument goes:
Of course we are also very concerned about the NAPLAN results when we look at the statistics of the travelling show school, and we believe we are offering much better outcomes through distance education. We have been committed to working with the people from the travelling show school to make sure that they are given a better alternative.
For those interested in seeing how QSTSC stacks up on the MySchool website, click here. To defend QSTSC in Langbroek’s eyes is to stand up for poor attendance and poor NAPLAN results. The argument is that the decision to close the school is not merely about the bottom-line, rather it is about offering a quality education. The question this raises, and this is an enduring question in relation to education, how does one argue for, and justify what is a ‘quality’ education in the face of criticism?
Theoretically, I see substantial merit in mobilising the work of Luc Boltanski, notably his books On Justification: Economies of Worth with Laurent Thevenot and On Critique. There is something about the dialogue around decisions that warrants a theoretical analysis, and arguably something that goes beyond mapping different situations using Stephen Ball’s arguments around performativity – this is not to diminish Ball’s work, just suggesting the need to think differently in the space. This being said, I feel there is also a much larger question that needs serious attention from educators. That is, if we accept that NAPLAN and attendance data are poor proxies for the value of schools and schooling, on what grounds can educators generate socially acceptable data on the value of schools and schooling?
I do not have a solution, nor do I believe there is a single solution. However, if major education policy decisions are being made on the basis of budget estimates, attendance data and NAPLAN results (those that solely mobilise the language of numbers), now more than ever educators need to produce socially recognisable evidence for the worth of schooling that is beyond the numbers. For me, this explicitly involves educators engaging in intellectual work and speaking back to policy with evidence. It is only by producing such – although I am in no way prescribing any one way to generate such data – that we educators can speak back to policy makers, and more importantly, engage in rigorous and robust discussion regarding the value of schooling. Lets get the conversation going!