Literacy — Why I reject Kevin Donnelly’s educational analysis

I used to have a page on Geocities called Inside Dr Nelson’s Brain, which in turn began as a series of rants on my old Diary-X blog as a review and critique of Kevin Donnelly’s Why our schools are failing (Sydney, Duffy and Snellgrove 2004). At the time I described Donnelly’s book as “probably the worst, the most stupid, book on education that I have read.” I have not changed my mind. That page was rather well visited, but really needed to be redone to moderate its original rant status.

UPDATE: See My, my, my… (18 August 2007). November 2007: corrected archival links to point them to WordPress instead of Blogspot.


I did Dip Ed at Sydney University way back in 1965. So I have been around education for a very long time. Kevin Donnelly’s Why our schools are failing (sic) is probably the worst, the most stupid, book on education that I have read in all that time. To call it reactionary would be to flatter it. Even Malcolm Turnbull is so embarrassed that he is constrained to say in his foreword: “Dr Donnelly’s views are his own and not those of the Menzies Research Centre.” Malcolm Turnbull may be many things, but stupid is not one of them.

What you have in this book is a cherry-picking exercise that would disgrace an undergraduate. Armed with a stock of cliches and prejudices, and with quite a few windmills to tilt at, Donnelly lays about the past forty years with an acute lack of discrimination, quite often plainly not understanding what he is criticising.

Want to know the right way to learn History? Simple, learn off a few dates… I do not jest. Everything since about 1960 seems to have been a left-wing plot or galloping political correctness. Objectivity is not Donnelly’s long suit, nor is analysis, or fair treatment of the evidence.

Typically Donnelly is his quoting Richard Tarnas on postmodernism (evil.) Now I happen to rather like Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind: very readable and often challenging. Donnelly cherry-picks the part that suits him, but since he regards environmental education (along with just about everything else that has happened since 1960) as deplorable political correctness, he neglects to cherry-pick such things as this:

Scott London: You point out that a widespread sense of urgency is tangible on many levels today, as if one historical era is coming to an end and another is about to begin.

Richard Tarnas: Yes, there is a real awareness that things have to change. People are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that the ecological situation is critical and that we cannot continue to live according to the same assumptions with which we have lived blithely for the past several hundred years. There are also social, economic, and political dimensions to the crisis. There is the unprecedented plurality of perspectives and worldviews and religious and philosophical and political perspectives that are in the air. And, when it comes down to it, there is a spiritual crisis that pervades our world.

I think it affects everybody, but the more informed and thoughtful a person is, the more aware they are of the reality of the spiritual crisis. We live in a world in which mainstream, conventional modern science has essentially voided the cosmos of all intrinsic meaning and purpose. There is no spiritual dimension to it from its point of view. The intellectual power of mainstream modern science has effectively defined what kind of cosmos we live in. And yet human beings aspire for spiritual significance in the life that they lead and in the world that they live in. It is only, I think, though going through a profound inner transformation, and also an intellectual transformation, that one can see beyond that crisis and come into a world of a different kind.

The fact that Tarnas is “Director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies” seems to pass Donnelly by, who is, whatever he means by this, a stickler for the old “disciplines”. But Tarnas lives in the 21st century, after all.

A Nation At Risk: Falling Standards?

Donnelly wrote:

  • Bruce Wilson, the CEO of Australia’s national curriculum body (Curriculum Corporation), freely admits that Australia’s approach to designing curriculum is inherently flawed and represents an ‘unsatisfactory political and intellectual compromise’,
  • a commonwealth government commissioned survey concluded that almost half of the academics interviewed agreed that the standards of first year students had declined over time,
  • the 1996 national literacy tests showed that approximately 27% of year 3 students and 30% of year 5 primary school students were illiterate,
  • as outlined by the Australian educationalist, Ken Gannicott, the 1975 Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) found that 28% of students failed the literacy test; by 1995 the figure had risen to 30%,
  • politicians, such as NSW Premier Bob Carr, applauding the favourable results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (2000) test, even though students were not corrected for spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes (if students had been corrected, many would have failed), and
  • the rise in remedial courses to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills at our tertiary institutions.

My responses

  • You may see what Bruce Wilson is on about in this conference handout from 2003. It is a fair part of the ongoing debate, and is addressed in the NSW Department’s Quality teaching in NSW public schools, which provides an excellent and do-able framework for improving teaching practice. And yes, curriculum is always a compromise between competing interest groups.
  • The survey Donnelly refers to was by Professors Don Anderson and Richard Johnson, who are Visiting Fellows at The Centre for Education Development and Academic Methods at ANU, and Dr Larry Saha, from Sociology at ANU. Note how the word “changed” becomes “declined” in Donnelly Land:

Professor Anderson said that “because the context of academic life has changed so much over the last 20 years — for example in the funding per EFTSU, the advent of new electronic technologies, and application of industrial work place agreements — the work environment will have changed considerably. On top of that universities are more entrepreneurial and academics are expected to be active in seeking grants and in encouraging enrolments.

“Students have also changed and this has affected academics’ work. There is now mass participation, whereas in the past getting in to university was much more selective, intellectually and socially. Today the student body is diverse, there are more overseas students, HECS has come and full-fee students are on the rise. There are reports that students are more demanding and that standards have changed.

Interviews with academics, retirees and managers in universities around the country are providing rich accounts of academic work and the way universities are responding. These interviews have define questions for the web-based survey that will provide a quantitative dimension to the account of change. Among other things academics in all areas are reporting a surge in emails from students and administration.

Here is a summary of the report [searching from that link may now be needed]:

This report covers two topics: the ways in which academic life has changed in the last twenty years or so, and the impact on universities of an ageing academic workforce. The first two chapters provide some background to these studies. Part 2 deals with changes in academic life. Part 3 deals with issues of ageing.

Academic life has been affected by large growth in the number of students without a matching increase in the number of academics, so that the student: staff ratio has risen to unprecedented levels. It has been affected by pressures on universities to raise funds by taking in fee-paying students at undergraduate and graduate levels and by undertaking educational and research work under contracts with industries. It has been affected by the great growth in communications and information technology; by a strong change in management styles from the collegial to the managerial style of businesses; by greatly increased use of casual staff, and the extra pressures this places on the full-time continuing staff; and by a decline in the relative status, salaries, prestige and general attractiveness of employment as an academic.

While some developments have been welcomed — for instance, greater attention to the quality of teaching, the greater access of students to university education, or the ease of modern electronic communications — the overall picture is of frustration and disillusionment, to the point where many respondents to a questionnaire said they would not recommend an academic career to anyone.

The ageing of the academic workforce is a phenomenon of some concern in Britain and in the USA. It is recognised here, but seems to be of less concern to universities. It is more complicated than simply the fact that the average age of academic staff is rising; it affects different departments or sections of a university in different ways. ‘Bunching’, where several members of a department retire at much the same time, can either give an opportunity for renewal or can lead to loss of significant areas of study. In the second case, decisions taken in department after department around the nation can lead to a national loss before anyone is aware of it happening.

Some universities have procedures for gathering data internally and for dealing with ageing according to the university’s own priorities. There seems to be no body to oversee the national interest in the decline or disappearance of areas of study of national importance.

  • If you study the field, you can only laugh at almost everything Donnelly says about literacy. See, just for starters, Review of Literature (on literacy and numeracy) from Nothing Left to Chance: Report on Literacy and Numeracy Outcomes Evaluation in High Achieving Disadvantaged Schools (South Australia 2004). Modestly, I also recommend my own paper on literacy written while studying at UTS in 1998. See that page, on this site, for some more up-to-date links on literacy. At that time I wrote:

My mind and my teaching practice are archaeological sites. Some exploration of those sites seems a good way to focus the development of my present approach to literacy education, primarily but not exclusively in English in secondary schools. So far as this article has a thesis it is this: that, despite the sometimes combative rhetoric of those advocating one model or pedagogy or another (as when Martin [1993:159] pillories whole language approaches as ‘benevolent neglect’), an informed, dynamic eclecticism is a viable stance.

Thirty years have deposited approaches beginning with the very traditional mainstream English teaching of 1966, not much changed from the 1950s.


Throughout these thirty years literacy has apparently been in a state of crisis. In the late 1950s and early 60s certain Science professors at the University of Sydney lamented the ‘illiteracy’ of their students. In the 1970s, even before any rational person could have detected any impact on school leavers of the various ‘progressive’ developments of the early 70s, many commentators (such as Professor Crisp of the Australian National University) discerned a rapid decline in literacy and numeracy between 1970 and 1975 (Watson 1994:1).

Even today successful adman and potboiler writer Bryce Courtney (speaking in a good cause against tax on books) can claim:

This country is facing a serious literacy problem. We could very easily by about 2020 have a country where 55pc of the population is illiterate. (Sun-Herald 23 August 1998.)

Just what Courtney means by literacy and how he arrived at this alarming prognostication is anybody’s guess. Such critics usually have in mind one or more of the following: that phonics and other skill-centred pedagogies constitute ‘real teaching’ as opposed to trendiness or left-wing subversion; that traditional grammar is the same; that spelling is in a parlous state; that our white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage is being systematically white-anted; that teachers are responsible for crime, drugs and youth unemployment; that infinitives are being split–and so on.

Nearer the mark is Mem Fox who observed on Margaret Throsby’s ABC-FM program on August 24 1998 that we think literacy standards are falling because more people’s literacy is exposed; in other words social demands have changed.

Donnelly is honest enough to footnote the 1996 definition of literacy: “the minimum standard of literacy and numeracy without which a student will have difficulty making sufficient progress at school.” That is actually rather a high standard when compared with the usual definition of functional literacy which involves such criteria as “able to read the safety instructions on a household product” or “can sign name.” What the various surveys and studies Donnelly cites show is that 25-30% of our students are not terribly bright, and don’t perform terribly well — this has always been the case, sadly, and probably always will be. It does not help that social expectations on literacy have in fact risen; forty years ago there were far more things to do if you were not a Rhodes scholar, after all. Technology was simpler; life was simpler.

A rise of 28% to 30% (whatever that means, given different measures are being compared) is hardly of great statistical significance, especially over twenty years — twenty years of great social change, differing expectations, and a very different demographic.

The 1996 ABS Survey figures for Australia are supplied here by Radio Print Handicapped. See also World Facts and Figures.

An interesting English study comparing people born in 1958 with people born in 1970 is Professor John Bynner, University of London, “Literacy, Numeracy and Employability.” It demonstrates a subtlety and degree of objectivity that Donnelly seems incapable of reaching.

A literate and numerate population is the goal of any industrialised society. Literacy and numeracy skills carry the means by which children are equipped for the education processes on which their location in the adult world will depend. As a country’s cultural identity is also underpinned by the knowledge and skills transmitted from one generation to the next, basic skills also give access to a country’s cultural heritage and values. Until relatively recently, however, basic skills were desirable attributes, but their absence did not necessarily deny the individual without them the ability to function in the adult world. Large areas of employment depending on unskilled work demanded little in terms of literacy and numeracy. Qualifications also did not count for much in such areas of the labour market and what employees needed to know to do the job was learnt on the job itself.

Through the 1970s and especially the 1980s, the labour market changed. The information technology revolution wiped out, or transformed, whole areas of industry. The fields of traditional male employment, especially unskilled manual work in factories, either disappeared or demanded new levels of education from employees. Young women fared better in this situation because their traditional route to adulthood had typically involved staying on beyond compulsory schooling to learn the secretarial and clerical skills required for white-collar office work. For boys the choice was more stark: stay on in education and get qualifications, or make your way in a depleted labour market, usually gaining entry to it via poor quality training schemes instead…

In this new scenario, basic skills took on a new significance. Without these building blocks of educational competence, young people’s capability for acquiring qualifications was very limited and the opportunities for employment were similarly restricted as well. Moreover the problem was not so much one of lacking these skills altogether. Few young school leavers in advanced industrialised countries were completely illiterate or innumerate; their problem was one of poor capability in using reading, writing and numberwork in everyday situations in the work place and outside. Such young people with poor functional literacy and numeracy tended to be relegated to the margins of the labour market, making do with the limited amount of unskilled, often part-time casual work that still existed there. Young men’s response was often to move into a halfway house of training, interspersed with casual work and unemployment; young women frequently opted out altogether, preferring the alternative route to adulthood of early motherhood instead (Banks et al, 1992; Bynner, Morphy and Parsons, 1997; Bynner, 2001)…

6% of the 1958 cohort was defined as having very low (below foundation) literacy scores, 13% had low (foundation) scores and 81% had average scores. For numeracy the comparable percentages were: 23%, very low; 25% low; 52% average. Notably there were also gender differences in the scores, with women faring particularly badly on the numeracy tests: 27% of women were in the very low category compared with 19% of men. Thus, as exemplified in the individual tasks, 46% of women could not calculate the area of a room in square feet compared with 26% of men; 73% of women could not work out the cost of a 12.5% service charge on a restaurant bill compared with 65% of men. Comparable score distributions, groupings and gender differences were found for the 1970 cohort data (Ekinsmyth and Bynner, 1994).

Peter Wilby puts some common sense into the discussion in this 2001 article in the Times Education Supplement “Literacy figures simply a right-wing fantasy”:

Almost all educational statistics should be treated with suspicion. Their significance depends on what is being measured; and this is never quite what it seems.

The widespread belief that a significant proportion of recently-educated British adults is illiterate (I have seen anything from 15 to 33 per cent quoted) is simply wrong. Illiteracy as most people understand it – you cannot read a word or sign your own name – is almost extinct.

What is meant is that people cannot read tax forms or understand train timetables. But on such criteria, most of us would count as illiterate or innumerate. Who, in Britain, would sensibly answer that a train scheduled to leave at 5pm and to arrive at its destination at 6pm will take one hour? Anybody who answers “Eighty minutes (maybe)” is much smarter than somebody who gives what OECD examiners would doubtless consider the”correct” answer.

Illiteracy is no worse here than in any other Western country. Nor is it significantly worse than it was 50 years ago. The panic is got up by people – adult literacy campaigners, teachers’ unions, secretaries of state for education – who want to get money out of the Treasury. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to spend more on education, and it doesn’t mean that I believe what I write in the papers.

See also Literacy Trust (UK).

In referring to a number of UK sources, I do not invalidate my argument, as the same tired old controversy has raged and continues to rage in the USA, the UK and Australia, with the same old cliches about evil left-wingers, teachers’ unions, and plummeting standards trotted out by boring reactionaries just like Donnelly, with exactly the same white hot ideological fervour and lack of respect for the facts.

Dr Donnelly has a nasty habit of citing work out of context, quite often against the spirit of the work cited. This habit he shares with propagandists generally. A case in point is the use he makes of the Vinson Report into NSW Education where he quotes what suits him, even though the Report as a whole hardly supports his own agenda.

At this point I am more interested in his context-free use of the well-known Boston College International Study Center’s surveys of performance in Mathematics and Science.

Average performance on international tests.

Donnelly writes:

  • Australian students failing to perform amongst the best performing countries in their maths and science tests, TIMMS and TIMMS-R,
  • the fact that successful countries, in TIMMS and TIMMS-R, achieve consistently high standards for all students, unlike Australia where there is a significant gap between the more able and the less able.

My response

The top performing schools are, as Donnelly says, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong,Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The New York Times found even more reason to do a Chicken Little than Donnelly does, as:

Four years after American fourth-grade students scored high on an international test of science and math, their performance declined markedly when they reached the eighth grade, a second survey shows…

The survey was based on the results of tests that 180,000 eighth- graders in 38 nations took last year. It showed American students, over all, performing worse in math and science than students in Singapore, Taiwan, Russia, Canada, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia. They did better than students in some less industrialized nations, including Iran, Jordan, Chile, Indonesia, Macedonia and South Africa…

Funny that. Donnelly fails to mention we actually rank rather well.

It is also fair to say that some education systems have different priorities. In Australia, we have certain values that just might alter the balance of curriculum in favour of such things as critical thinking and creativity. Korea, for example, has been a country obsessed with rote learning and private coaching (kwawoe) — even the Cato Institute (which I am sure Dr Donnelly wets himself over) reports on the strange phenomenon, if with a degree of approval:

The spending frenzy on kwawoe started in the 1970s–during Korea’s economic boom–and immediately led to conflicts between the kwawoe-haves and the kwawoe-have-nots. In 1996, Korean parents spent $25 billion on private education–50 percent more than the government’s education budget. A Korean family today typically spends 15 to 30 percent of its budget on private education.

You can read more on my thoughts on coaching on this site.

Let us consider Singapore. Janet, one of my former Saturday coachees, remembered her early schooling in Singapore as being particularly dreadful. She feels the Australian system is much more balanced and, I would say, much more appropriate to a pluralistic open democratic country like Australia. Singapore resident Au Waipang would agree. On his excellent site, Yawning Bread, Waipang wrote in August 2001

“A thinking nation”. One of the many slogans we have to put up with as we go about our lives in orderly, efficient, well-planned, brook-no-opposition Singapore. If what I saw of a schoolboy’s history exercise is any indication, we’re a long, long way from that.

Last Thursday, I was in a fast food restaurant, nursing an orange juice waiting for a friend to show up. A bunch of schoolboys, about 14 years old, came to occupy the table next to mine. One went to the counter to get drinks for the group. The other three laid out their schoolbooks to do homework (If you don’t live in Singapore, you’ve really got to come see this local phenomenon). A minute or two later, the boy at the counter yelled for help ?something about not having enough money. The boy nearest me then put his exercise book on the bench inches from my hip, and went off to assist his friend.

I glanced at the open book and saw that it had about four printed questions on the page, with space underneath each question for the student to write in his answer. It took me merely 2 or 3 seconds to read the first two questions. It took me another whole minute before I could believe my eyes.

Melaka was known as the centre of Islam. Describe the 4 ways that Islam was spread to other parts of Southeast Asia.

In ancient times, people travelled for different reasons. What are the 3 reasons people travelled?

In those two questions, I could see much that was wrong with our education system! What are they teaching our young?

The questions have been phrased in such a way as to require a regurgitation of the history text. “Describe the 4 ways Islam was spread to other parts.” Why only four ways? Surely, there were innumerable ways by which Islam was propagated to the region; some more important than others. Schoolboys could have been asked to name as many ways as they could discover. They could have been asked to rate how effective some routes of transmission were over others. If the question had been phrased this way, the boys would have been encouraged to think hard and to try to understand the social and technological setting of the historical period in question. They would also be expected to justify their replies accordingly.

But to require that the schoolboys list and describe exactly four ways of transmission is to tell them that the best route to success in school is through memorising some lines of text from the history book and to spade them back as answers.

If a boy could come up with a fifth route of transmission and included it in his reply, would he risk a failing mark? Would he be penalised for thinking an original thought?

As if to prove that such a badly phrased question about the spread of Islam was not a one-off accident, the same fault ran through the second question. It asked what were the three reasons people travelled in ancient times. You mean, people travelled for only three reasons? Does any half-intelligent person believe that?

As I write this, I can think of 20. And I’m sure my list is not nearly exhaustive…

… Now, obviously, I would fail school history. I would be utterly unable to answer the question that called for exactly 3 reasons why people travelled in ancient times. Moreover, the question was not looking for any three reasons. It was looking for “the 3 reasons”. Undoubtedly, the smart strategy for the boy would be to regurgitate whatever the schoolbook said…

We’re not talking about 6-year-old kids here. We’re talking about fourteen-year-olds: teenagers who are perfectly capable of reasoning and discovering, who can very creatively make up excuses for not having done homework, skipping classes, or why they need more pocket money. If they can do that, they can surely take more challenging history questions.

Instead, they are taught to parrot. To look up the prescribed answers. To accept uncritically whatever some authority says, in this case, the textbook. In another case, it could be the preacher, the fashion pundit or the government.

* * * * *

It gets worse yet. When learning is presented as a process of looking up given answers, it leads to the idea that in life, answers are always to be had. And that, to each question, there are always right answers and wrong answers.

Anybody who knows anything about the nature of knowledge will tell you it is nothing like that. Knowledge is a marriage of information and assessment. Look deeply enough and everything is grainy and grey. You have to sift, and you have to weigh. And as more information comes up, you have to reconsider.

Knowledge is potentially infinite, and so learning cannot be but unending. We shouldn’t expect pat answers. We shouldn’t think that once those pat answers have been found, learning is done. It isn’t good preparation for life if that simplistic notion is what we instill.

I definitely could not have put that better myself! Thanks, Au Waipang!

I shared these entries in their original form with the Principal of the “Salt Mine”. On reading what Donnelly had to say about Australia’s performance in TIMMS and TIMMS-R, he said, rightly, “That’s simply not true!” Indeed.

Homework for my readers

Read Jesuit educationalist Christopher Gleeson (former Headmaster of St Ignatius Riverview and Xavier Colleges) on “values in education” as preparation for the next section on the “flight to private education.”

The Flight to Private Education

It has taken me a while to sort out what to say here, as there are interconnected issues involved that could turn this humble entry into a thesis! I will try to keep my focus clear. Whether I will succeed, who knows? In the two years since I first wrote this the trend in favour of private schooling has continued, in my view a combination of good intentions, delusion, fear, and government policy (with a lot of media help) feeding the delusion and fear and exacerbating the conditions in public schooling which give some credence to that delusion and fear.

Flight from government schools.

Donnelly writes:

  • in 1980, 22% of students attended non-government schools, by 2002 the figure had grown to 30%. In states such as Victoria, the percentage of students attending non-government schools increases to 40% at Years 11 and 12,
  • over the last decade, while the number of government schools across Australia has fallen by 6.45%, non-government schools have grown by 6.1%,
  • surveys suggest that parents are choosing the non-government option not because such schools are better resourced but because such schools have higher academic standards, a more disciplined learning environment and school values more in tune with those in the home, and
  • a survey of parents carried out by the (then) National Council of Independent Schools’ Associations concluded that: ‘there was an undercurrent of belief that government schools were under considerable pressure and were finding it increasingly difficult to offer a high quality educational environment.’

My response

Just to update the statistics:


In August 2003 (2005 figures in brackets), there were 9,607 (9,623) schools in Australia, of which 6,930 [72.1%] (6,929 [72.0%]) were government schools and 2,677 [27.9%] (2,694 [28.0%]) were non-government schools.

The number of combined primary/secondary schools has grown from 853 in 1993 to 1,106 in 2003 (an increase of 29.7%), with combined schools now representing 11.5% of all schools. In 2005: 71.5% of all non-special schools were primary only, 15.9% were secondary only and 12.6% were combined primary/secondary schools. In 1995 these proportions were 73.7%, 16.6% and 9.7% respectively. Over the decade this equates to a decrease of 305 in the number of primary or secondary schools, and an increase of 266 in the number of combined primary/secondary schools.


In 2003 there were 3,318,620 (3,348,139 in 2005) full-time school students, 67.9% of whom attended government schools. (2005: The proportion of these students attending government schools was 67.1%, down from 71.0% in 1995.) Over the period 1993 to 2003, the number of full-time students attending government schools grew by 1.2%, while the number attending non-government schools increased by 22.3%. (From 1995 to 2005, the number of full-time students attending government schools grew by 1.7% [from 2,207,853 to 2,246,087], while the number attending non-government schools increased by 22.2% [from 901,484 to 1,102,052].

I just can’t help thinking that Donnelly’s last point actually contradicts the point before it: “not because such schools are better resourced” alongside “an undercurrent or belief that government schools were under considerable pressure and finding it increasingly difficult to offer a high quality educational environment”? Whether or not the perception registered in the last point is entirely true in fact, if it were so that “high quality educational environment” is an issue, surely that must come back to inadequate resources?

There is another factor too: the growth in the number of non-government schools, especially religious ones, under the new conditions provided by the Howard government.

Of course there is a subtext here, and it was captured by the Prime Minister when he made his now infamous remarks about “value-free” state schools. I sounded off about this on my old diary — fortunately archived to Angelfire before Diary-X went into space — on 20 January 2004 and 21 January 2004. It is on that subject, too, that I recommended you read Jesuit educationist Christopher Gleeson.

Recent statements by government leaders accusing their own schools of ‘values neutral’ education demonstrate clearly how out of touch they are with teaching and learning in the nation’s classrooms. ‘Values neutral’ education, if it ever had any support in schools, was a partner of the very deficient and long superseded ‘values clarification’ programs of the 1970s. Most teachers and educators now understand that it is an impossibility…

If they are passionate about their subject discipline, and good teachers are passionate people, they will hold dear what is precious in its content and method. Committed to the value of their own teaching subjects, they will be too discerning about the truth, too constrained by time and the demands of examinable curriculum to promote modish ideologies of the kind raked up in politics recently. A brief reflection on the teachers who shaped our lives will frame people who communicated a love for their subject, who made it clear where their values lay without imposing them, who emphasised that an opinion is only as good as the evidence supporting it, who demonstrated that not every opinion or option is equally valuable, who showed us the difference between the questions ‘is something right?’ and ‘do I feel comfortable with this course of action?’…

Donnelly’s second point, “school values more in tune with those in the home” as a reason for choosing private education, relates also to one of Donnelly’s hobby-horses, one he shares with the Prime Minister and with the PM’s favourite intellectuals, such as David Flint and Keith Windschuttle, that “the culture wars and the political correctness movement” have captured the state school systems, driving parents away. Donnelly devotes over 50 of his 187 pages (excluding appendices) to this. That is what Howard was really attacking when he made his statement about “values.”

Donnelly said as much in The Australian (May 03, 2004):

JUDGING by the hostile and often hysterical reaction to the Prime Minister’s comments earlier this year about why parents choose non-government schools over government schools, one could be forgiven for thinking that it must have been a very scathing attack. In fact, John Howard’s remarks are perfectly justifiable.

On being asked to comment on the reasons for the growth in non-government school enrolments, he suggested that many parents “feel that government schools have become too politically correct and too values-neutral”.

He’s right. Evidence to support his critique is not difficult to find. The sad reality is that Australian schools, especially those controlled by government, have suffered a range of educational fads that have led to a politically correct and dumbed-down education system.

I will have to postpone telling you exactly why this is deeply offensive bullshit… which it is! And I can say that without being either hysterical or even terribly hostile; I think it is a reasonably objective position to take, actually. Hey, and spot the mantras!

OK, I will grant that parental values, especially religious or cultural ones, are one reason for the existence of private schools. Some groups believe that the home is not strong enough to nurture the values the family might be committed to, and hence seek schools that will endorse and reinforce those values. Others, perhaps, feel their kids need some sort of grounding, feel they can’t give it themselves, and hope the Catholics (usually) might make up the gap. I don’t have too much quarrel with that. After all, I have worked in Anglican and Jewish schools as well as State ones.

But I feel there are a few factors Donnelly chooses to ignore.

  • The general drift of Howard government propaganda, the outbreak of books like Donnelly’s and the endless hours of slagging schools (state) and teachers on talk-back radio have had the end result of undermining faith in government schools. I suspect the government actually wants this to happen, and is quite mealy-mouthed when it denies it. I really think the ultimate objective is a winding-back of government involvement in providing education in favour of a “free market” approach.
  • Donnelly also writes, be it noted, for School Choices, an American group with the following agenda:

The historical and modern evidence indicates that free educational markets, in which parents have been able to choose any school for their children and schools have been forced to compete with one another to attract students, have consistently done a better job of serving families and nations than state-run systems such as we have today. The superiority of market school systems has gone beyond immediate benefits to students, extending to communal effects such as increased social harmony and protection of minority rights. As a result,

School Choices recommends:

1) Gradually phasing out government involvement in education, and moving towards a competitive educational marketplace.

2) The creation of a subsidy system to enable low-income families to participate effectively in that marketplace. Tax Credits and private scholarship programs would be among the most promising elements of such a system.

See also my entry for 5 October 2005: “Our Citizens, Governments, and Corporations”, and check all the links there. Then check the links at the foot of my 29 September entry “Welcome to Dr Nelson’s Brain”. See too “Education Unbound – Home”, my 8 July 2005 entry.

  • Our own state governments in NSW (both Labor and Liberal, as this dates from the mid 1980s) have exacerbated the problem by their love affair with selective schooling. (This is the point the Salt Mine principal actually agreed with!) From the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, truly comprehensive schools actually attracted strong support and respect from the communities they were in, and often achieved excellent results, relative to the clientele of course.Comprehensive or local high schools still do excellent things, relative to the clientele they have. I think that is just one lesson you could have taken from that ABC series Our Boys. What happens, though, is that too many parents will choose to send their child to a private school, rather than the local high school, if the child misses out on a place in the selective school. So the local high school gets hit twice: the “best” students are creamed off into the selective system, and very often the “best of the rest” fly away to the Catholics, or wherever, heightening the perception that the local school is for “dregs”. This of course becomes a vicious cycle.
  • The Federal Government (mainly) has facilitated the growth of new private schools, some good, some eccentric, many tiny and uneconomic, and some possibly undesirable. They did this by altering the funding system. John Howard is capable of “weapons-of-mass-destruction” and “children overboard” duplicity on this score, when he says such things as this in Good Onya: the continuing success of our Australian liberalism:

    The Government’s approach to schools, education, has two basic goals. One is to set national benchmarks relating to things such as literacy and numeracy. The other very important goal is to facilitate choice by supporting the right of parents to decide where their children are going to be educated.

    While Government schools educate 68 per cent of our children, Government schools receive 76 per cent of total government funding. Those who suggest that government schools have been disadvantaged don’t understand the facts or don’t wish to.

    In fact Howard has combined state and federal funding to achieve that figure. Read this excellent article in The Bulletin, if it is still available.

  • See also Six Myths About Private Schools in Australia.
  • As to the “political correctness” and “culture wars” stuff, I regularly raise this on my various sites. See for example “INOCULATE YOUR CHILDREN AGAINST POLITICAL CORRECTNESS! (sic)”, my entry for 3 October 2005, and “Po-mo and English teaching revisited”, my entry for 26 September 2005.] You might also do a search of New Lines from a Floating Life on WordPress, and look at PC Revisited there as well.

    I believe that the reaction against “political correctness” in the past decade or so has borne bad fruit:

    1. It has licensed prejudice and ignorance in the name of freedom of speech.

    2. It has muted compassion and tolerance.

    3. It encourages mental laziness and discourages critique of our own assumptions.

    4. It fosters arrogance and uniformity rather than understanding of and acceptance of diversity.

    5. Paradoxically, it creates disharmony in the name of harmony.

    6. It is unjust and from a Christian perspective it is sub-Christian, breaking the golden rule.

    Quieter reflections

    When I wrote this back in 2004 I decided that what follows would be the last entry specifically about Dr Donnelly, but it wouldn’t be the last on the very worrying ideology that he (and people like historian Keith Windschuttle) represent, an ideology that is quite patently endorsed and rewarded by the current Australian government. This has proven only too true.

    Ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was on George Negus Tonight [transcript now online] at that time. In the promos they had a snippet where Fraser says the current leadership is deeply into attempting to stifle discussion, and I could not agree more. This is not a new concern. Indeed, in 1983 I wrote an article called “Construction/Misconstruction”, also extraordinarily difficult to write, which was published as the lead article in The Teaching of English, Journal of the New South Wales English Teachers’ Association. It is probably the most substantial thing I have ever written, and was the first extensive discussion of such issues as literary theory and semiotics in NSW English teaching circles. (Other articles in that issue dealt with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, T S Eliot, Ted Hughes, and the dubious linguistics that underpinned popular English coursebooks at the time.) I set out to defend the old ways and to reject the new, but found myself going in another direction altogether. Much of what I said then remains valid.

    As to my own political position, I find myself warming very much to John Button, former Minister in the Whitlam government — the one that the now quite admirable Malcolm Fraser killed off, as you might recall.

    JOHN BUTTON: … This country is very sort of… placid, intellectually, in a way. Dopey, almost. People don’t say, “Look, that’s wrong.” You don’t hear people screaming when they see something which is manifestly wrong in this country. You don’t hear people saying, “That’s wrong!” What they rather say is, “Well, we don’t want to think about that.”

    GEORGE NEGUS: We’ve got no sense of right and wrong, let alone sense of Left and Right?

    JOHN BUTTON: Oh, Left and Right is gone, I think, George.

    GEORGE NEGUS: That’s interesting, isn’t it? You seriously believe that. So what’s replaced Left and Right?

    JOHN BUTTON: I suppose… compassion and cynicism.

    GEORGE NEGUS: Which side are you on?

    JOHN BUTTON: I hope I’m on the side of compassion, but I do have a fair degree of cynicism as well.

    Yes indeed: as of December 2006 I still stand by that.


9 responses to “Literacy — Why I reject Kevin Donnelly’s educational analysis

  1. Kevin

    June 20, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Hey, I didn’t read this yet because it’s long, but I will. Reject Kevin!?! How dare you! Them’s fightin’ words.

    (It comes up on the sidebar as ‘why i reject kevin’ if you scroll it just right.)


    Also, who’s Kevin Donnelly and why is he using my name?

  2. ninglun

    June 20, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    KD is someone who has had a big influence on the Australian government in recent years.

  3. Lee-Anne

    August 24, 2007 at 12:31 am

    I am wading through a load of high brow readings that I’m finding dead boring, to say the least, for a Uni course on Critical Literacy. I will read all of this word for word when I get a mo, and can tell you I like your way of putting things. What exactly is KevDon trying to say about Critical Literacy, in a nutshell? Your imput would be most helpful, if not expedient…. Thank you in anticipaton of any comment you would like to give. Cheers from A ragged uni student and mother of a toddler! 😉

  4. ninglun

    August 24, 2007 at 12:44 am

    In a nutshell, I think KD regards Critical Literacy as just another version of ultra-left “political correctness.”

  5. Richard

    April 18, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Kevin does not believe in critical literacy. He thinks children should only be reading he classics. Strange man with some very strange thoughts, often uncited and rarely researched. He is a danger to Australia’s education system.

  6. Cassie

    November 13, 2010 at 4:06 pm


    Thank you for writing this!

    For years I have been reading KD’s divisive ‘misinformations’. I understand why Howard’s Liberal government encouraged KD – but I am disgusted that he was ever given a media voice and was published. People like KD have done so much lasting damage to our education system.

    Vale to you for speaking out. Let’s hope it’s not too late – there are plenty like KD, in positions of public authority, who need to be shamed and discredited.

  7. Susan Reibel Moore

    March 7, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Why is all this space given to Kevin Donnelly? It’d be nice if this writer gave some credit to Aussies in public life, working chiefly on literacy, who wrote and published and edited and spoke (on invitation) and consulted all over Australia AND in parts of the UK and the US. I was one such person, responsible for NETWORKING untold numbers of people engaged full-time (as I was) in helping children to spell, read, write, and count. In Reading our focus was first on decoding and then, naturally, comprehension. I was NOT well paid, to put this mildly.
    One of the most internationally active people then and now, Mary Ruth Mendel, a Sydney speech pathologist, is still working in remote Aboriginal communities, helping adults and children to be fully literate. Mary Ruth was linked long ago with the international Spalding Foundation. In the 80s and early-to-mid 90s this foundation had the best research record on literacy gains in the English-speaking world. One of its founders, the late Warren North, a brilliant engineer and the nephew of Romalda Spalding, was in charge of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission that didn’t get off the ground for technical reasons. His widow, Mary, now in her 80s, is still working on literacy for as many hours in the day as she can manage. Mary Ruth and I are well known to Mary North and others in diverse literacy milieus who have done their homework. I mean scholars and critics.
    Shaming and discrediting people with public ‘authority’ is not helpful. Helping influential educators to lift their game at every level of schooling, K-12 and beyond, is a good idea. Goodness knows why my own outstanding record at Harvard, where I did my teacher training, means anything! WHO has heard of Harvard??!!! It’s obviously woop-woop.
    For the record: I have taught all my life, and I’m widely published on intellectual, educational, and civic issues: roughly, 10 books and over 150 articles (including reflections on such movies as Some Like it Hot, Dead Man Walking and The Devil Wears Prada). At the moment I’m awaiting the birth of my 5th grandchild, expected in early October in Christchurch. Since its mother has the same disorder as the Duchess of Cambridge, her pregnancy has not been easy. We don’t yet know whether she is carrying a boy or a girl. She and my son have a 14-month old little girl. They both left school early, since for good reason they detested it. They are largely self-educated. Of course I’ve influenced their reading and thinking. Mostly, however, they have profited from their environment, which emphatically includes the Net: educational sites, not mindless ones!!!

  8. Neil

    March 7, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    I agree. He is a total waste of space! But then the post, written quite a long time ago now, is about the book he published in 2004, the stupidest book on education I had ever read, as I said at the time. Sadly the 2014 Australian government takes him seriously.

  9. lamontmark

    March 25, 2016 at 2:26 am

    Kevin Donnelly is still at it. He continues to cherrypick and mislead. He’s the Cory Bernardi of education. His recent article on Safe Schools is full of misinformation. Fortunately, intuitive, thinking teachers and students ignore his prescriptive, pre-historic curriculum ideas. Schools are about teaching students to think and grow as whole people. That frightens Kevin Donnelly.


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