Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Greetings

Christmas decorations on the Hotel d'Angleterre, Copenhagen's poshest hotel. When Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie stayed there for a week during the 1950s, all calls to the hotel were answered with "The Imperial Ethiopian Palace".

Where Christmas is celebrated, traditions vary from country to country, from group to group. A common theme is peace on earth, goodwill to all. 

Sometimes, that hope seems hard to realise. I hope that to you and yours regardless of faith. 

I went for a long walk today exploring parts of Copenhagen that I had yet to see. Christmas Eve is important to Danes. I was told that the streets would be empty. That was not true where I walked through a beautiful parkland area. There were runners, couples just walking. family groups. 

It was sunny. Well, what passes for sunny at this time of year! It was fun.

To you and your's, season's greetings. To my regular readers, I am looking forward to our conversations in the new year.      

Monday, December 12, 2016

Monday Forum - time to stop immigration to Australia?

This will be the last Monday Forum post for 2016. The next Monday Forum will be on Monday 9 January. So this post provides an opportunity to revisit things that we have talked about, to get new things off your chest.

To start with a photo from Gordon Smith (lookANDSee) of the country that our colleagues from the APVMA (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority) are trying to avoid relocation too. I hope to complete my analysis this week before I leave the country.

Staying with Canberra, the ACT and NSW Governments have negotiated a new MOU that, among other things, progresses discussions on a border shift to accommodate Canberra's growth.

It is hard to believe that when I started work in Canberra the Australian Capital Territory's population was less than 80,000 people. Now it is over 350,000. It's not just the ACT of course, but the population spreads into surrounding areas in NSW. When I moved across the border to live in Queanbeyan, that town's population was about 12,000. It's now around 38,000.

I have always supported an open migration policy. I now wonder.

On the latest population projections, Canberra's population is projected to reach 750,000 people by 2061. That's the ACT. You also have to add the people in the surrounding areas.

Canberra is only 296 k, a bit over 3 hours by road, from Sydney. Sydney is project to reach 8 million people by 2061.With the fast rail that will come, you are going to have an urban block of ten million people that extends from Newcastle to Wollongong, from Sydney to Canberra.

I don't think that's a good thing. The apartment sprawl that's now spreading to Canberra, the multiple new developments bringing metro living to the city,has its advantages but it's creating a totally different lifestyle different from elsewhere in the country. Our metro cities are becoming city states.

I used to think that if we could add extra population more broadly all Australians would benefit. Is that dream possible anymore or have we got to the point that the numbers dwarf anything we might hope to achieve?

You could double the population of the New England Tablelands within the existing infrastructure. But that's only 55,000 people, a blink in current population growth. Even then, the opposition of the move of APVMA to Armidale shows how hard it is.

So I am driven back to this point. If, as seems to be the case, we cannot achieve decentralisation and balanced growth,. let's stop immigration.

I have come to this view reluctantly. However, I just don't want what is happening now to go on. .

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A few Sunday snippets

Just a few snippets today.

Forbes magazine provided a list of Asia's wealthiest families. I was surprised, I shouldn't have been, at how few I knew.

On 7 December, The Monthly carried a list of Australia's most Onion like headlines for 2016.  A few of my favourites:

  • Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce injured by sheep
  • Tony Abbott appointed director of new thinktank to promote western civilization
  • Johnny Depp says Barnaby Joyce ‘inbred with tomato’; Deputy PM hits back with Hannibal Lecter comparison
  • Jacqui Lambie compares SA Senator Cory Bernardi to an ‘angry prostitute’
  • Jacqui Lambie apologises to prostitutes after Cory Bernardi comment
The Daily Mail carried a map showing what countries were number one in what. For example, Pakistan is No1 for gay porn consumption, Australia for data breaches, Lithuania for fast Wi-Fi,  Norway is the best for pizza eaters and Togo is the unhappiness hotspot of the world. Very little meaning, perhaps, but quite entertaining.

Via Ramana, I was fascinated by the story of India's only privately owned railway, the Shakuntala Railways.

The term the great Australian salute is applied to that characteristic hand gesture required to keep blow flies away from the face in many parts of the country. The flies grew in number because they bred in the dung left by the expansion of livestock numbers introduced by the European settlers.

Growing up in sheep country, the flies used to gather in large numbers around the backpacks carried on hikes, attracted by the salt in sweat. Australian introduced dung beetles as a control device. Now there is hope that  the introduction of new French dung beetles will complete the task.

Finally, India has apparently still not worked through the complications created by the sudden decision to withdraw the country's two largest banknotes from circulation as an effort to reduce the size of the black economy. It is still too early to know what the final effects of the move will be,


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - the dark side of the Belle Époque

I have always liked Aubrey Beardsley's art work. This is a 1893 piece, The Climax, based on the story of Salome and John the Baptist. My liking dates from a particular period in my life that has become enshrouded in a certain nostalgia, if with an equal recognition of  just how young we all were!

I mention this now because of a very interesting BBC article by Fisun Güner, The dark side of the Belle Époque. The Belle Époque period of Western European history is usually dated from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the start of World War. The period was named in retrospect, a golden age highlighted by and ended by the slaughter in the trenches.

While it was a golden age, Güner draws out its darker side characterised by some of the art of Fin de siècle, a French term that means the end of the century. There was a feeling of decadence, of despair, of things not right.  For some, things had to be torn down to be rebuilt,.for others, social order had to be preserved. For most, there was the excitement of the new, of progress. All this took place against a background of social Darwinism whose deep poison was working its way through intellectual and political life.

I leave you to read Güner's piece. I hope that you find it interesting.  

Friday, December 09, 2016

Australian education: the leaning tower of PISA

“Today’s PISA report goes further than last week’s Trends in Maths and Science report, this year’s NAPLAN results and the OECD Education at a Glance report in terms of not just showing a plateauing of results in Australia but that it shows a clear decline from year to year in Australia’s education performance,”  Australian Federal Education Simon Birmingham.
The Minister was commenting on the release of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report. You will find details of the Australian country report here. The Minister's remarks were illustrated with this graphic.

Australian performance is also recorded by school system., broken up into independent schools, Catholic schools and the Government sector. Here the independent schools released a very helpful summary of the differences between the sectors. In summary:
  • In reading literacy where Australia ranked equal sixteenth, Australian independent schools ranked first, Australian Catholic schools ranked equal seventh, while the Australian public school system was below the OECD average
  •  In scientific literacy where Australia ranked fourteenth, Australian independent schools ranked second, the Australian Catholic system tenth, while the Australian public school system had fallen below the OECD average
  • In mathematical literacy where Australia seems to have ranked  21st, Australian independent schools ranked equal fifth, Australian Catholic schools equal 17th, while public schools were well below the OECD average. . 
Note the use of the word seemed in the last point. There was a conflict in the data presented that I didn't have time to resolve. In any event, the overall point - relative performance - is not affected. 
The release of the TIMSS 2015 report attracted much media and political attention .... because of the way it suggested that Australia is falling behind in maths and science performance at school. ... Looking at the results, I had real difficulty in understanding just what TIMSS told us and what we might do about it. 
I wrote this on 1 December. A key reason for my difficulty lay in the existence of correlation among the variables measured. The results suggested that there was a positive correlation between academic performance and the social economic status of the families measured by books at home, the educational attainment of parents and access to learning supports. No surprise there.

The results suggested, too, that kids in metropolitan areas were likely to do better than kids in regional areas who in turn do better than kids in remote and very remote areas. Indigenous kids performed less well than non-indigenous kids. No surprises in either case,

Now consider this pattern. Regional areas have fewer higher income families and a smaller proportion of higher educated people. That feeds into lower academic performance. Indigenous people have lower incomes and academic attainments too and are also more likely to live in regional areas. So the measures are interrelated.

The graphic on the right shows the PISA 2015 performance gap for Australia by various measures. The thing that is quite startling is the performance by economic status. The gap between the highest and lowest performance measure in this area is three years, noticeably larger than the performance gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, recognising that these students have a weighting towards lower socioeconomic status. The gap is so large that it suggests that socioeconomic status has become the dominant determinant in determining relative performance.   

On average, students going to private schools come from significantly higher socioeconomic backgrounds, those going to Catholic schools somewhat higher. Increasingly, those going to public schools come from the lowest socioeconomic groups outside those going to selective schools

The partially implemented Gonski reforms were intended in part to address the socioeconmic gap by equalising the resources available to schools, increasing the resources available to poorer schools. However, that was never going to be a complete answer. The problem in the debate actually is answer to what?  
“While our school systems remain above average among developed economies we must acknowledge the reality that our performance is slipping. Given the wealth of our nation and scale of our investment, we should expect to be a clear education leader, not risk becoming a laggard. We must leave the politicking at the door and have a genuine conversation that is based on evidence about what we do from here.  
“Commonwealth funding for schools has increased by 50 per cent since 2003 while our results are going backwards. I’m not suggesting that adequate funding is not important, of course it is vital, but as the OECD notes Australia ranks as spending the fifth highest amount on education in the OECD and once you get to that level there is little value in just increasing spending, the harder task is to invest in the areas that the evidence says makes a difference." Minister Birmingham
This is actually slightly slippery stuff. To begin with, how do we know that our performance is slipping? What do we mean when we say that Australia should expect to be a clear education leader? What, indeed, is the purpose of education?  If we are going to use evidence based approaches, what evidence and for what purposes? There is a real risk that our approaches to education have now become so mechanistic, so based on a narrow range of indicators, 
"While the overall decline in the achievement of Australian students is of concern, there is evidence of a drop in performance across the OECD." Independent Schools PISA summary
"Success in PISA rankings and other global league tables are an important part of the Singapore “brand”. Singaporean academic Christopher Gee calls this the “educational arms race”. Highly competitive schooling is the norm." Professor Amanda Wise, The Conversation 
Australia is not alone in struggling to maintain, let alone improve, PISA rankings. The global competition based around the PISA scores is quite close to a zero sum game in the sense that competition requires more and more effort with limited result. Every dollar spent to achieve better test results is a dollar that could have been spent on something else. There is in fact no evidence that I know of  that shows a clear connection between PISA rankings and economic performance, a central Government concern. 
"Public discussion in Australia around why we are not doing as well as the Singaporeans is largely focused on what goes on in that country’s schools. 
Yet there is one thing missing from the reporting on Singapore’s success: the role of private tuition (private tutors and coaching colleges) and the part it plays in the overall success of students in the tiny city-state." Professor Wise
We have to be very careful in comparing school systems. Professor Wise quotes these school numbers from Singapore::
  • 60% of high school, and 80% of primary school age students receive private tuition.
  • 40% of pre-schoolers receive private tuition.
  • Pre-schoolers, on average, attend two hours private tuition per week, while primary school aged children are attending, on average, at least three hours per week.
As Professor Wise notes, these are remarkable numbers. You will find the same type of pattern in Australia for families competing for entry into selective schools. Do we want to adopt it generally in order to compete in the PISA arms race?  
The Strauss piece is the simplest description of the Finnish system that I have found. If I had to draw a single lesson from it, it's the relative simplicity of the Finnish system, the absence of controls, the grant of autonomy to schools and teachers, the apparent absence of prescriptive measurement, that goes to the heart of performance. 
Finland is another country often used for comparison purposes, something that I explored in Monday Forum - what lessons does the Finnish education system offer? The piece contains a link to the Strauss piece referred to above. Again, Finland is very different from Australia. I should note that Finland has dropped behind a little in the latest PISA scores if still scoring better than Australia.  
Three themes in Australian education: national efficiency, citizenship and social advancement
Looking at the history of education in Australia, three themes have dominated although the weighting has shifted over time. .

The first is education for national efficiency. This became popular in the lead up to the First World War especially in technical education because of the competition between the British and German empires. 

The second is education for citizenship, the idea that a functioning society required an educated population. 

The third is education for social advancement. Education provided a path for an individuals to improve their social position, to advance. 

For much of Australia's history, practical considerations have greatly influence weighting. The challenge was providing primary education for all, then secondary education, then tertiary education. While quality was always important, the real issues lay in ensuring mass delivery. 

Today, national efficiency dominates. The other two themes are there, but are subsumed in the focus on education for  the purposes of economic development, for maximising the country's global competitive position. It is, if you don't mind me saying so, just so 1914!  
I didn't send my daughters to school to achieve a standard
Today we live in a standards based world dominated by education's role as an economic contributor. I didn't send my daughters to school to achieve a standard or help the country achieve a standard. I didn't give a damn about PISA rankings. NAPLAN results were interesting as a rough measure of their comparative academic performance, but were largely irrelevant in a practical sense.

I sent my daughters to school to get an education that I hoped would be as good as the opportunities offered to me, recognising that I was unusually privileged. I wanted an education that would make them rounded, that would allow them to compete in an increasingly competitive environment but, most of all, I wanted an education that would help them to think, to be interested in new things, to enjoy life. 

Did I get that? I think that I did. So don't expect me to be sympathetic to much of the current "education" debate. I am modern enough to be aware of all the current issues, to know how my daughters fared, to know the opportunities offered. I am old fashioned enough to believe in the value of education in its own right. I am both modern and old fashioned enough to believe that equality in educational opportunities, however unachievable, should be central.


This Sydney Morning Herald piece (Falling school standards are taking a toll on Australia's wellbeing) rather captured everything I was complaining about with the misuse of PISA. I quote from the introduction:
The deterioration in the performance of school students has slashed billions from Australia's economic wellbeing. 
The release of data this week showing Australian teenagers are falling behind many of their international peers has cut the value of the Fairfax-Lateral Economics wellbeing index, which puts a dollar figure on our collective welfare. The index uses reading scores from the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to measure Australia's human capital, or collective knowhow. 
The latest PISA result, released on Tuesday, showed Australia's reading score dropped from 512 to 503 between 2012 and 2015. 
"This worsening of the PISA reading scores has negatively impacted the level of economic wellbeing," the index report said. 
That deterioration has sliced $15.2 billion from Australia's wellbeing since 2012.
This is quite simply absurd. Australia's collective wellbeing has not declined by $15.2 million as a consequence.

In an ABC piece cross posted from The Conversation, Stewart Liddle and Bob Lingard argue in part::
 It is unhelpful to use the single country ranking to determine how we are going as there are significant variances between states/territories and school sectors (government, independent, Catholic).
Instead, we need to carefully disaggregate the data and consider the social and economic factors that influence performance across states, between schools, as well as the correlations between gender, Indigeneity, class, race, geographical location, and so on. 
Australia has one of the widest ranges of student achievement, with what can be described as a long tail of underachievement...... 
There are competing tensions in the agenda of social efficiency and social equity, which is evident in how PISA results inform global and local education policy-making. This includes the emphasis on competing within a global knowledge economy. 
It is worth noting how the economic rationalisation for greater educational equity plays out in the global policy field, particularly through testing regimes such as NAPLAN and PISA. 
The challenge for policymakers, schools and teachers is how to respond to increasing pressure to lift test results on PISA, TIMSS and NAPLAN, while also addressing systemic inequality in order to ensure that every Australian student is given access to a meaningful education.
While there are parts of their analysis I would agree with, there is still the same focus on the importance of certain shifts in PISA and other test results, the thing that I am challenging. 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Australia and the spreading threat of the red fire ant

The red fire ant is a particularly nasty invasive species. The photo shows a worker ant.

The ants appears to have first reached Brisbane via a container ship from New York in 2001. Once discovered, a well publicised emergency eradication campaign was launched. The matter then seems to have vanished from main stream media coverage and I assumed that eradication had been successful despite the difficulties involved.

An ABC news report by science reporter Jake Sturmer and the National Reporting Team's Alison Branley shows just how wrong I was.
Just 40 kilometres south of Brisbane, the city of Ipswich is being held to ransom by the South American pest. 
Mayor Paul Pisasale said just two suburbs in the city were now unaffected. "These things are just marching all over the place," he said. 
Council staff have had to be trained in identifying the ants and there are strict measures around soil movement. 
"The worst one was Leslie Park at Goodna. We had to close the park," Cr Pisasale said.
Despite eradication successes, there are now questions as to whether Australia has lost the chance to eradicate the pest, with infestation now just 50 k from the Northern NSW border.

I didn't know much about the ants, but the Wikipedia story on the species shows how well organised they are, how quickly they can breed and spread. You can see why eradication or even control can be difficult.

Speaking personally, if there is the slightest chance of eradicating the ant, then we should go with it. Looking at the distribution of the ants in the US, large slabs of South East Australia would appear to be a suitable habitat, including the major coastal cities. I definitely don't want a fire ant in my backyard!    

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Initial reflections on the EY APVMA cost benefit analysis

I apologise for the delay in posting. I have been slowly working my way through the Ernst and Young report on the proposed move to Armidale of the APVMA. I have now brought the first of two posts on the move up on the New England blog, Evaluating the evaluation - EY, APVMA and the move to Armidale part one.

The report is quite long, 85 pages. I needed to understand the direction they were coming from, the assumptions used. I also needed to look at the commentary and the policy background.

Much of the debate has been framed in narrow terms with people using headline numbers from the EY report for their own purposes . I don't think that it's possible to overcome this. The EY report is not especially good, but it's not a bad report either for its type. It's just limited.

Given the stated regional development policy objective behind the move, I think three questions needed to be addressed:
  • What are the costs and risks associated with the move?
  • What are the gains from a regional development perspective?
  • Do those gains outweigh the identified costs and risks?
The EY analysis concentrates on the first question. The cost-benefit analysis is narrowly defined so that it deals with the NPV of the financial costs of the shift including certain costs to industry. Here the costs of a new building plus redundancy and recruitment costs dominate, costs focused in the first few years that more than offset later property savings. The sensitivity testing suggests a range of NPV costs over twenty years ranging from $9 to $23 million depending on the combination applied.    .

The risk analysis is okay in broad terms, but really goes off the rails when it comes to calculating potential cost of lost production, a much quoted headline number. The assumption chain involved means that the final number really has no validity. The most that can be said is that it provides a worst case number of what might happen if all assumptions were met and no remedial action taken.

The way the REMPLAN input-output model is used to calculate relative impacts on the ACT as compared to the previous Armidale- Dumaresq LGA is misleading. Among other things, it's not comparing like with like.

But accepting the $23 million twenty year NPV cost for the moment, two questions remain:  
  • What are the gains from a regional development perspective?
  • Do those gains outweigh the identified costs and risks?
I will look at these questions in my next post on the New England blog. .


I have still to finish my second post on the move, focusing on the dynamic elements. In the meantime, here is recent press coverage:

The visit to Armidale locked the PM in on the move. I can't say the reduced immediate numbers to Armidale comes as a surprise. That was built in on practical grounds. looking at the regulatory science position, I have formed the strong view that the real recruitment problem is not the shift to Armidale, that may actually help in the longer term, but the inability to get staff to go to Canberra. Neither of the two Canberra universities appear to offer any training in this area, and we already know that university graduates from the metros are reluctant to move to Canberra.


Thursday, December 01, 2016

TIMSS 2015: what does it mean?

The release of the TIMSS 2015 report attracted much media and political attention (examples here, here) because of the way it suggested that Australia is falling behind in maths and science performance at school. The report describes TIMSS in this way:
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an international comparative study of student achievement directed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). TIMSS 2015 represents the sixth such study since TIMSS was first conducted in 1995.  Forty-nine education systems tested at Year 4 level and 39 tested at Year 8 level. In Australia, TIMSS is managed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and is jointly funded by the Australian Government and the state and territory governments.
The goal of TIMSS is to provide comparative information about educational achievement across countries to improve teaching and learning in mathematics and science. It is designed, broadly, to align with the  mathematics and science curricula in the participating education systems and countries, and focuses on assessment at Year 4 and Year 8. It also provides comparative perspectives on trends in achievement in the context of different education systems, school organisational approaches and instructional practices; and to enable this, TIMSS collects a rich array of background data from students, schools and teachers, and also collects data about the education systems themselves.
This report is a first look at the results from TIMSS 2015. Focusing on the achievement results in mathematics and science at Year 4 and Year 8, this report will be followed early in 2017 by the full Australian National Report, which will examine achievement more fully and incorporate descriptive and analytical findings using the background and demographic data.
Looking at the results, I had real difficulty in understanding just what TIMSS told us and what we might do about it. A key reason lies in the existence of correlation among the variables measured

The results suggest that there is a positive correlation between academic performance and the social economic status of the families measured by books at home, the educational attainment of parents and access to learning supports. No surprise there.

The results suggest that kids in metropolitan areas are likely to do better than kids in regional areas who in turn do better than kids in remote and very remote areas. Indigenous kids perform less well than non-indigenous kids. No surprises in either case,

Now consider this pattern. Regional areas have fewer higher income families and a smaller proportion of higher educated people. That feeds into lower academic performance. Indigenous people have lower incomes and academic attainments too and are also more likely to live in regional areas. So the measures are interrelated.

This simple point goes to the way the statistics are used and the conclusions drawn from them. Much commentary has really dealt with the aggregate results. Here I quote Stefanie Balogh in The Australian (link above):
The alarming results from the four-yearly Trends in Internat­ional Mathematics and Science Study last night sparked calls for Australia to “wake up’’, reject short-term fixes, raise the effectiveness of teaching, and improve retention and training of qualified maths and science teachers.
I suppose that we could call this an education focused response. Here are a few more examples from the same story:
Education Minister Simon Birmingham said despite increased funding Australia was not achieving sufficient improvements. “The fascination of some policymakers and special interest groups with how much money is being spent on schools has been to the detriment of the real questions we should have been asking that would turn around these declining trends — ‘how should the money be best distributed?’ and ‘what are the initiatives in schools that are proven to lift results that we should be backing?’ ’’ 
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said high-­quality maths and science education was a “key part of making Victoria the education state’’ and the state had set a target to increase the numbers of students excelling in scientific literacy by 33 per cent and maths by 25 per cent over the next 10 years. 
Federal Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said the results underlined why needs-based funding was vital and “poor kids in poor schools need extra help to get better results’’. “Only around 7 per cent of the six years of Gonski needs-based funding had flowed in 2014,’’ she said, insisting it would be “completely wrong’’ to draw links between the results and funding. The ACT outperformed other states and territories, except for Victoria, on a state-by-state breakdown in Year 4 maths. The ACT and Victoria again performed well in Year 8 maths, while the ACT was ahead in Year 4 science and Year 8 science. Results in NSW for both science and maths declined.
I go back to what I said. I'm not sure what the statistics mean, what conclusions to draw from them.

Starting with some very general points. What is the purpose of education? How much weight should be placed on one set of measures in one area? Does a focus on simple specific measures actively disadvantage students whose strengths lie elsewhere? Are so called STEM courses in fact the be all and end all?

Continuing. To what degree do the results simply reflect social and economic change, including the hollowing out of the middle class especially in regional Australia and the rise of socially disadvantaged communities? To what degree can we expect education to solve problems that are not educational at their base? How do we tailor education to meet local needs instead of statistical aggregates?

Focusing on the last question. In writing my biography of my grandfather, a long serving NSW Minister for Education, I had to research the history of education. especially but not only in NSW, over one hundred years.

Oh dear, I am feeling jaundiced. The modern debate on education has become so boring, so standardised, so based on universal standards, that's it's hard to identify a single new idea. Please correct me. Surely I'm not right? In responding, it would help if you could identify ideas and initiatives that link actions to the needs of local or regional communities.