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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Teachers on free speech about schools: should be a law against it!

The proposed publication of national school performance data now has teachers threatening to boycott  literacy and numeracy tests unless the Government bans the publication of league tables. You have to wonder what the same teachers tell students when it comes to discussion of free speech in the classroom.

In the information age, to argue that taking publicly available data from a Government website ( to be published on My School from 28 January) and breaking it down for comparative purposes in whatever way suits local community, state or other interests, then publishing it in a newspaper or on the internet or in any other way, should be against the law, seems to overlook important points.

Not just that freedom of speech, including discussion and debate of matters of major significance in the community should only give way to other public interests in limited circumstances, and there are no contrary personal privacy, business or government interests to be harmed in this instance; and the strong right to know, transparency and accountability arguments for disclosure of information about what is happening in schools that soak up very large amounts of public money. But  going back to what the Government plans to publish, the evidence in many fields that disclosure of key performance provides ongoing incentive for improvement by the good as well as the not so good, holding out the prospect that publication will have a beneficial effect throughout the school system.

Yet teachers seriously want a law against any playing around with the published data (as already is the case for newspapers and magazines under NSW law) claiming this will lead to shaming kids who attend poor performing schools. Deputy Prime Minister Gillard rightly says league tables aren't the objective, and the experts tell us more needs to be done to educate parents and others in fully understanding what the My School data means. It would help also if some of the media took a deep breath before charging off with sensational headlines on the subject. But Gillard is right to argue that this is about more transparency and better information for all concerned about the education system, and to state the Government has no intention to limit media reporting of publicly available information. I'm with her.

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