Can Australia’s schooling be reformed?

By Dean Ashenden

Leading Education Series #4


The historian Manning Clark believed that Australian political leaders fell into one of two groups; they were either “straighteners” and prohibitors or they were enlargers of life. So too ways of thinking about schools; this short book is an argument for an enlarging spirit in schooling and against the demand for compliance before all else.

That is not what I had in mind; the initial idea was to pull together some threads of thinking developed over a decade or so. Certainly I began with a set against what governments of all persuasions had been saying and doing about schools since the Howard years, an approach driven with utter conviction by the Rudd/Gillard governments in their “education revolution” (with the sole but compelling exception of Gonski). But as I dug out and for the first time really focused on a mass of evidence about how things had been going, I got more than I’d bargained for.

I was not shocked, exactly, but taken aback by the consistency of the picture over a wide field and across many years: Australian schooling has been on the slide for two decades, is still on the slide and is showing no signs of turning around.

Overview & Preview

3 Chapters

158 Pages

Schools are livelier and more humane places than they
were a generation or two ago. But many things are going
badly in the basics of school life — in behaviour,
discipline, school refusal, bullying, engagement, mental
health, wellbeing — as well as in learning. Too many start
behind, stay behind, and then leave early, unhappy and
ill-equipped. The standing and morale of teachers are at a
low ebb.

Repeated attempts at reform large and small, local and
national, haven’t worked. The “education revolution” of
the Rudd–Gillard years failed. And yet thinking and policy
continue to be dominated by its language of
“performance” and “accountability,” its tests, MySchool,
“national approach” and “school reform agreements” and
its stunted view of what schools can be.

Unbeaching the Whale offers a more generous way of
thinking about schools. It insists that they can and should
deliver twelve safe, happy and worthwhile years for
everyone. It argues compellingly for a di!erent kind of
reform — of governance, of the sector system, and above
all of the daily work of students and teachers.

"Pungent, sober, inspiring, urgent, Unbeaching the Whale isthat rare thing, a book about schooling that is lucid, jargon-free, challenging and gripping.."

About the author.


Dean Ashenden has worked in and around schools as a teacher, academic and consultant, and in journalism. He has
contributed to all major print outlets and to many professional, academic and social affairs journals. His previous book, Telling Tennant’s Story, was inaugural winner of the Australian Political Book of the Year Award. He is a Senior Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Praise for

Unbeaching the Whale

"Dean Ashenden compels us to reconsider the very basis of education policy in Australia."

– Carmen Lawrence AO

Gonski panel member and former premier of Western Australia

“The most penetrating analysis of the causes of the failure of Australian schooling so far. If the stranded whale is ever to be unbeached, this book will hold the key. Undoubtedly it will reignite a much-needed debate.”

– Ken Boston AO

Gonski panel member and former director-general of education in NSW and South Australia

"Takes us from powerful critique to compelling agenda"

– Anthony Mackay AM

CEO of the Centre for Strategic Education, co-chair of Learning Creates Australia and former chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

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