The Kevin Donnelly Myth

Somebody really needs to keep Kevin Donnelly away from mainstream media outlets.

His most recent spray of thinly-veiled political invective was delivered via the ABC’s The Drum website, maintaining his incomprehensible stance that Socio-Economic Status does not predict academic achievement.

This simply isn’t the case.

In a paper titled ‘Teachers Make a Difference’ from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), written by respected education Professor John Hattie, it is explained that up to 50% of variance in student achievement can be attributed to the student him or herself. Much of this variance can be attributed to the Cultural Capital of the home: a child from a higher SES family is more likely to be exposed to quality learning opportunities at an early age than a child from a family that is less able to afford them.

Citing a study by National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), Donnelly argues that cultural factors (smoking, risky behaviour) have a greater impact on Year 12 completion rates than family SES background. Of course he doesn’t pay much attention to the fact that “family income [has] a positive impact on year 12 completion” (small though the study says it might be), or that the scope of this study is around completion rates, and not academic achievement.

Or the bigger picture: just how does family Cultural Capital influence a child’s exposure to these behaviours that affect their learning?

Of course Mr Donnelly would refer to my point of view as being that of a ‘myopic leftist’, since it is clearly outrageous to suggest that having less access to learning experiences creates an educational disadvantage.

What is most frustrating about Mr Donnelly’s writing is not his asinine approach to research and education policy, but the fact that it is all couched in terms of ideological warfare:

“Hence, the cultural left’s belief that non-government school students don’t deserve funding as they come from privileged families, and that any new funding model, post-2014, must prioritise low SES students, concentrated in government schools.”


Low SES students are concentrated in government schools, this is a fact well documented prior to the release of the Gonski report and available 24 hours a day for your convenience at the mySchools website. Furthermore, it is the remit of the state education system to provide a free education for all Australians, regardless of cultural background (Left or otherwise). Providing equal opportunity for these students, a case argued convincingly in the Gonski Report, is not some form of class warfare: all students in Australia are able to attend these schools. You don’t have to be rich.

Using ‘social mobility’ as the crutch to support his limping argument, Mr Donnelly seems to want to apply the brakes to educational spending — we’re sitting alright in the OECD, let’s just stop here.

Well that isn’t the case. We are declining in some PISA rankings, and this decline is parallel to the rise of standardised testing, the diverting of funds into private education and the relentless beating of the neoliberal drum. Social Mobility is not the only measure of the success of our schooling system, just as proficiency in Numeracy and Literacy are not (a reality that mySchools does not reflect).

Education is not a commodity that can be made subject to the logic of market. It’s an organic, human, holistic process — we should remember that when devising policy, and when testing for ‘success’. Something as individual and varied as learning cannot be measured with a single ruler: we need a variety of measures for a very wide spectrum of strengths.

Mr Donnelly’s suggestion that the ‘cultural Left’ is opposed to government assistance to the private schooling sector begs the obvious question: who exactly is he attacking here? It couldn’t possibly be Julia Gillard’s Labor party, since Schools Minister Peter Garrett announced before the release of Gonski that ‘no school would lose a dollar of funding’ when the recommendations are finally adopted.

This is how Kevin Donnelly argues his indefensible position: by branding anyone who disagrees with him a Left-wing ideologue.

For too many years Australia has avoided having a significant, dynamic and broad debate about the role of education in our society. The release of the Gonski Report is an absolute blessing since, despite all the silly distractions in our national polity, education policy has become a focal issue. It’s unfortunate, then, that Mr Donnelly has decided to swoop in and coarsen the discussion with patently silly distortions such as “supposedly, having educated parents in high status occupations guarantees success, while students with uneducated parents in low status jobs are destined to failure”.

Nobody is saying that. But denying educational disadvantage is simply false.

Equality may be a myth, a desirable one, but equity most certainly isn’t. Providing an equitable playing field for all learners, creating a fair and engaging environment in which students can explore and develop their unique individual talents, should be the primary goal of a modern education system. It’s something we can do, right now.

The fact that Kevin Donnelly thinks otherwise and would rather entrench disadvantage into the system on the basis of the supposed ideological agenda of the Australian Education Union (heaven forbid they put the wellbeing of students before Capital!), only makes the case for reform that much stronger.

After all, anything Kevin Donnelly says, we really should do the opposite.


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