Stephen Gniel Falls Upwards to ACARA

Yesterday, ACARA and the Federal Minister for Education announced that Stephen Gniel had been appointed to a three year term as CEO of ACARA. Gniel was selected by the ACARA Board following a “competitive selection process”, noting Gniel “brings to ACARA a wealth of knowledge, expertise and experience in education …”. Neither media release addressed the follow-up question, of whether, with this “wealth” of knowledge and expertise and experience, Gniel had ever failed to screw anything up.

There is quite a bit to say about this appointment, of which the top item is: good riddance. Gniel, of course, was VCAA CEO for the last couple of years and, whatever their reasons for the selection, we Victorians must thank the ACARA Board for removing Gniel from our midst; Macquarie Island was the preferred destination but Canberra will suffice. Not that the basket case-ness of VCAA was fundamentally Gniel’s fault, of course, but if Gniel ever did one concrete thing to make VCAA less of a basket case it has escaped our notice. Gniel appeared to be utterly useless. And then there was Deloitte.

VCAA’s exam review was a deliberate sham, a properly considered attempt from VCAA to conceal its blatant screw ups, and there is little doubt that Gniel was the “mastermind” behind it. The review and the manner of its conduct was unprofessional, unethical and cowardly. The year of this review was also repeatedly offensive to me and Burkard, with constant and clearly deliberate delay and obfuscation, and with the most absurd attempts at gaslighting; the buck for all this rudeness stops with Gniel and it is difficult to believe that the buck didn’t start with him. Gniel was also personally rude to me, exhibiting all the class and manners of a Brisbane bus driver; this is very minor, and I give it so I can take it, but when a high-profile public servant goes out of his way to treat me like dirt I am not going to ignore it and I’m not going to forget it. There also is one further, astonishing aspect of Deloitte, which I will save for a separate post.

What did ACARA’s Board think about all this? Well, it’s ACARA, so “think” is perhaps not the operative word. And it is par for the course that third rate careerist educrats will select their third rate careerist educrat mates. But special mention must go to Board Chair, Derek Scott, who is also CEO/Principal (sic) of the Haileybury empire. There is zero chance that Scott is not very familiar with Gniel and there is zero chance that Scott was not acutely aware of the VCAA exam debacle; by all appearances, Scott simply did not care. Then again, Scott is practised at standing tall while doing nothing. Not So Great Scott was made Board Chair in the midst of the ACARA Curriculum disaster, a disaster which Scott seemingly did nothing to avert and for which we are all now paying, while treating polite and decent and patient mathematicians with utter contempt in the process. Scott and Gniel deserve each other.

Given the “competitive selection process”, one wonders who other than Gniel was competing. Could anybody be worse? Even a step back to David “The Jesuit” de Carvalho would be a step up. But also, perhaps, it doesn’t matter.

It seems clear that Gniel can do significantly less damage at ACARA than at VCAA and he may not be able to do much damage at all. It is years until the next review of the F-10 Curriculum and, although ACARA’s secret pseudo-review of the senior curriculum is underway, there are only of couple of less important States sufficiently stupid to follow that curriculum. Beyond that, ACARA is such a thoroughly incompetent body it is practically impossible for Gniel to make it worse and not even Jesus Christ with a magic wand could make it better. The only remedies are for ACARA to be disbanded or for it to be ignored into oblivion. Given ACARA’s incompetence and our Federal system, the latter is an active possibility.

So, maybe that’s it. Maybe it is ok to have Gniel where he is, in Australia’s educational Macquarie Island. Still, I for one would be happy to chip in a few dollars to send Gniel to the other Macquarie Island, the one with penguins and seals. And no return ferries.

11 Replies to “Stephen Gniel Falls Upwards to ACARA”

  1. It is a fact (substantiated by the Bennett Review) that while CEO of the VCAA, Gniel oversaw numerous errors on exams, denied the existence of the 2022 Specialist Maths exam errors, and covered up those 2022 errors. Hardly the “wealth of knowledge, expertise and experience in education” that inspires confidence. The Senate Estimates hearing on 15 February 2023 was also less than enthusiastic. One might – vainly, it seems – hope that our education leaders are persons of integrity.

    Yes, as CEO of the ACARA for the next 3 years it’s hard to imagine any real damage will be inflicted (*), particularly relative to the damage done at the VCAA. It strikes me as a bit of a nothing position, apart from the fat cat salary. ACARA could be his Elba. It’s certainly an example of water finding its own level. And maybe the real Macquarie Island is on the horizon.

    * There probably won’t be students disadvantaged by missing out on scholarships, Premier’s Awards, or a higher University offer (unlike some 2022 Specialist Maths students). This continues to be covered up by the VCAA.

  2. I saw this in the public service, after a certain point, you fail upwards as you say Marty.

    The other thing to note is that merit has substantially lessened as a criterion in the public service these days. It’s far more about who you know these days than it used to be.

    1. Thanks, JJ. Do you think that applies at all levels, or just for the choosing of our Glorious Leaders?

      1. The fail upwards applies from a very senior level. Merit is pretty much gone everywhere but certainly at senior levels.

        1. Ah yes, the good old days, when we had public servants with intelligence and integrity. Like Jane Halton.

          1. The rot had well and truly set in by the time she got her job.

            Decline of merit is a multi-decade thing. Too many people think that the Liberals are responsible – it’s both parties.

            It’s a systemic issue and the system is broken.

            1. When do you think there was a lack of rot? I knew a CoS of a Minister in the Whitlam government, who I thought was a very intelligent and very principled guy, but I have no idea if he was typical.

              1. As I understand, it the Victorian Public Service switched from a seniority system to a merit one under Cain (broad summary – it’s never been quite that simple of course). At that time the Public Service Board reviewed all appointments in detail and rejected some (and I personally saw a Dept Secretary worry about such a review). Jeff abolished all that (except for Police I believe) – the only time you now could appeal was over a process issue and then you’d get a black mark against your name. You don’t even find out who got the job. (or for that matter whether any particular job was even advertised).

                Over time, merit became less and less important until someone in HR told me in the mid teens that merit was gone. Three months after I left a Dept, I looked at the Exec org chart (most of which is no longer even published!) and barely could recognise the names. There’s so much change these days and it’s about mates – particularly at Exec levels but it filters down. The other major change is that it’s much more political and generalist big 4 types as Execs – content knowledge is very much downplayed (remind you of anything?). So no more doctors in charge of the Health Dept, Principals in the Educ Dept etc etc. The real world is less and less important – appearance is what matters.

                These things are responses to universal drivers – it’s pretty much the same all over the world. A colleague told me the rot began with Cain (which surprised me as I’d worked under that Govt and thought merit made sense). Now that it’s basically patronage again, I do wonder if at least seniority was fairer and more likely to lead better results.

                The public service was never great but it used to fumble through. Like much of our political system, the public service is well and truly broken in so many ways. One needs to be very careful about romanticising the past and especially the public service. Cynicism is the only appropriate light in which to view bureaucracy, but it also used to have another side and the culture was about making a difference.

  3. Interesting discussion. Naively, I tend to associate the merit process with being a big driver of that kind of mediocre generalism. Always think it rewards a “good on paper” candidate who can mouth the right catechisms over one who’s demonstrably done a good job.

    Often find myself almost wishing for a ‘jobs for mates’ regime, where the prin can just appoint someone they know who’ll do a decent job. Seems better than picking the candidate who knows the HITS off by heart.

    Only experienced it at the school level though obviously.

  4. Hi Alex – the issue is the difference between a good and bad Principal (as well as perceptions of fairness – even if the system has fallen apart). Merit is a check on the bad ones and keeps them somewhat in check. Also it’s good even for good Principals to bring others into the selection process.

    As for knowing HITS, I’d hope that the interview questions are a little more sophisticated than that and involved challenging scenarios etc. Having seen the length of applications expected against criteria, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.

    As for the form of merit selection, ideally you’d rather see teachers in action. Of course interviews are not great predictors of success in a job – perhaps like democracy, they are the least worst form in terms of resources etc.

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