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Vic Govt Agrees to Support P-TECH Schools

Wednesday June 17, 2015

The recent Senate Estimates hearings revealed that the Victorian Government has agreed to support the establishment of two P-TECH schools in Ballarat and Geelong. A joint announcement by the Federal and Victorian ministers of education is imminent according to Federal Education Department officials.

The P-TECH schools are a pet project of the Prime Minister following his visit to the flagship school in Brooklyn, New York, last year. It was another “captain’s call” by the Prime Minister that has not received adequate public scrutiny. Details of the program are shrouded in secrecy and are being developed and negotiated behind closed doors. The Estimates hearings shed little light on the arrangements.

The Federal Government will provide funding of $500,000 over the next two financial years for the schools. The program will be established within two existing schools. The IT giant IBM will be closely involved in establishing the program. IBM says that it is taking “responsibility” for the Ballarat school and will support the Geelong school.

Under questioning by the Green’s Senator, Penny Wright, officials of the Federal Department of Education admitted that there has been no formal evaluation of the US P-TECH model. They could not provide any evidence on the success of the model.

It is quite amazing that the Federal and Victorian Governments have given the go-ahead for the new schools without any evidence that they are likely to be successful. In fact, the available evidence suggests that it is highly unlikely that they will lead to improvements in school outcomes. The results from the New York Regents exams show that the flagship school in New York continues to be one of the lowest performing schools in the city after four years of operation and its results are well below those of many other schools with a similar demographic composition.

However, the Estimates hearings revealed that the Federal Government is little concerned about evidence to support the model. Senator Scott Ryan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training, said it was not necessary to have evidence before establishing the schools.

If we waited for final assessments of everything without taking key learnings or examples of principles on the way through, we would never do anything.

Senator Wright challenged this. Quite rightly, she suggested that there is usually a requirement that there is an evidence base for something that is being pursued. In contrast, Senator Ryan said that there was sufficient anecdotal evidence to justify the scheme.

The hearings also revealed that the arrangements for the involvement of IBM and other corporate sponsors are yet to be negotiated. In the US, IBM has a central role in determining the curriculum of P-TECH schools and has a direct leadership role in the governance of the schools. One of its employees is placed in the schools to help develop the curriculum, provide leadership on its implementation and organise mentoring and work placements.

The Federal officials assured the Estimates Committee that any new vocational course developed in collaboration with IBM and other sponsors would be required to meet national and state certification requirements. Louise Hanlon, Group Manager for Improving Student Outcomes, said that the skills and capabilities that students will develop will not be specific to one corporation but will be able to be transferable.

The role of IBM and other corporate sponsors in the governance of the schools is yet to be clarified. Tony Cook, Associate Secretary of the Department, said that it would be a matter for each school as to whether corporations would be represented on the school councils. However, there is no provision in the Victorian Education and Training Reform Act for corporate representation on school councils. It is a concern that the role of corporate sponsors may subvert the authority of school councils.

David Hardy, Acting Branch Manager for Improving Student Outcomes, said that each school would have governance arrangements and partnerships to ensure that the corporate sponsors are involved in the schools. He said that the details would be worked out as part of the local arrangements with each school.

The Federal officials assured the Committee that the corporate sponsors would not have access to student records. David Hardy said:

The privacy requirements for students currently in secondary schools, whether it be a partnership arrangement with industry and community partners, would still apply. They would not have access to private and personal information of students or information that would in any way contravene legislation around privacy.

Many questions remain about the P-TECH project. The Federal and Victorian Governments are rushing ahead with P-TECH schools without any evidence of their likely success. Instead, the whole project is being driven by the whim of the Prime Minister. Nor has there been any open discussion of the potential implications of corporate influence over curriculum development and the governance of public schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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