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End of the education revolution


'End of the education revolution' by Chris Johnston. Open grave with a tombstone that reads 'Gonski Reforms'Prime Minister Gillard's 'education revolution' is limping toward an unhappy end.

The revolution has been long on hype and activity, short on focus. Big promises and money have been spent on technology and physical infrastructure, programs targeting literacy, numeracy and teacher education, the launch of MySchool and its detailed profiles of every school in the country, the resuscitation of a national curriculum, the announcement of the first-ever national target for schools ('top five by '25'), and of course, on Gonski.

On 19 April Gillard goes to COAG (Council of Australian Governments) in search of a deal, any deal on the most important and iconic element of the revolution. She knows that even the most transparent appearance of a deal on Gonski may make the difference between certain political death and the slim hope of political resurrection.

The problem is that she has a desperately weak hand as well as desperate circumstances. In an effort to keep the appearance of Gonski she has already bargained away most of its substance.

Remember what the substance was: Many Australian students leave school without a decent educational grounding or sufficient understanding of words and numbers to cope with the demands of the workplace or ordinary daily life. All public funds, state and federal, should therefore be allocated to schools according to 'need' — i.e. in proportion to the size and difficulty of the educational tasks they face — irrespective of the sector to which they belong.

Any school, independent, Catholic systemic or government, with high proportions of children from poor, Indigenous, or rural/remote families, should get more money on a common scale from a common pool.

The backsliding began before Gonski even got started: his riding instructions from the government were to ensure that 'no school will be worse off'. As Gonski pointed out, that meant in practice that yet more money would go to some of the least needy of schools, making it difficult to get the necessary loadings for the most needy.

Since then one backward step has followed another: the prime minister's promise (at the national conference of independent schools) that every independent school would be better off; buckling to the states' demand that Gonski's 'national schools resourcing body' be ditched; acquiescing to the Catholic systems and spreading the money for need over half of all schools rather than Gonski's recommended quarter; the announcement that the extra funds would be phased in over five years from 2014; and, most recently, what appears to be the surrender of the idea of 'sector-blind' funding and a reversion to different funding 'models' for each of the three sectors.

For all these reasons what Gillard wants from the premiers on 19 April is not Gonski but the appearance of Gonski. She may not get even that. She cannot afford to bribe or be seen to be bribing them. Several of the states have already canvassed their own Gonski-lite schemes, so why give the feds undertakings about how and how much they will spend on schools? And why would the four Coalition-governed states throw Labor an electoral lifeline?

It is a far cry from the revolutionary bravado of Prime Minister Rudd and Education Minister Gillard six years ago. It is also a warning to the next federal government.

Canberra is the Gulliver of Australian schooling. It is the biggest single spender, loudest single voice, and the only government to deal with all the others and with each of the sectors, but it runs no schools, employs no teachers, enrols no students. It is tied down by eight governments, all in semi-permanent election mode, by 24 separate schooling 'jurisdictions', shoals of interest groups, chronic antagonism between the sectors, and educational methods, infrastructure and patterns of spending dominated by obsolete industrial awards and agreements.

Even had the revolution come with clear focus, priorities and educational targets, it would still have lacked headquarters and a chain of command, a fact demonstrated by the long, slow evisceration of Gonski. In other words, Labor's heart ran away with its head. The first task of any 'revolution' was and remains not to fix the schools but to fix the structures and machinery of schooling.

That task has zero appeal for the Abbott government-in-waiting. To the contrary, to the extent that it has revealed its hand it seems determined to hose down expectations of what a federal government can do about schooling and push responsibility back onto the states.

Specifically, it seems set to continue with the present funding system (condemned by the Gonski review as opaque, inefficient, and inequitable), although it may insert a Gonski-like modification or two.

It will probably scale back or abandon Labor's national programs, emphasise the right of states and systems to 'adapt' the national curriculum to their own values and circumstances, drop the 'top five' target (or slot each of the states into the international league table), and run with slogans such as 'not more teachers but better teachers' or 'more autonomy for principals and school communities'. It is likely to keep MySchool, perhaps finding ways to reduce the amount of information about schools' resources.

That will relieve the pressure, but not forever. The current funding regime demands around six per cent more federal money every year, not easy to find in any foreseeable future. And then there are those troublesome international comparisons of student performance and the ongoing bad news they are likely to bring.

It might not be a federal government's fault, but it will be seen as a federal government problem. The pressure for and movement toward a national schooling system comes and goes, but will not go away.

And Labor? No doubt it would be delighted to be saddled with the tattered legacies of its revolution in the case of a miracle election victory come September. It is much more likely, however, that they will have plenty of time to re-think the whole business from the ground up.

Dean Ashenden headshotDean Ashenden was Ministerial Consultant (1983-86) to federal education minister Susan Ryan, and has been a consultant to many state and national education agencies.

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, Education Revolution, Julia Gillard, Gonski



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Existing comments

Gosh the maintream Media (is your News "LIMITED"?) has a lot to answer for in constantly bagging Guillard.

Teacher Val | 08 April 2013  

Whitlam's Karmel committee did away with teaching reading and spelling in a meaningful way. Fraser,as was his form, did bugger all. Hawke's "clever country" converted universities into "organs of social change" under the threat from Susan Ryan to remove their funding if they didn't comply. Keating stated that nobody needed a university education and lashed out at the elitism of universities with vitriol as usual. Howard confused the University Student Unions with trade unions and slashed funding from university based research, the fundamental element of university quality. And now, the Australian Catholic University admits students to study for a "degree" in education and teaching with an admission score of 59.3, when a score of less than 70 effectively means academic failure by a considerable margin in the final year at school - hardly a suitable level for a teacher. And school performance in literacy and numeracy for Australian children has fallen to the late 20 rankings in the world behind a number of countries where the primary language is not English. The education revolution is a mickey mouse smoke screen, with motherhood aspirations and without any easily identifiable educational purpose. The only revolution Gillard will be party to is coming in September.

john frawley | 08 April 2013  

In my view an accurate representation of the situation. Contrary to "Teacher Val", I do not see it as merely bagging Gillard, as both sides are tarred with the same brush. It happens however, that the present government, with the Prime Minister as loudest spokesperson, has made much running and hype over the so-called education revolution, in that case without any real substance. The record on application on application of recommendations of expert committees or consultants is abysmal- have another look at the fate of the Henry review on taxation, the expert panel on asylum seekers and others as well as the Gonski review! The experts generally give a balanced and thoughtful set of recommendations based on expert knowledge and in the public interest, but political parties seek other agenda, resulting so often in a response of "thanks, but no thanks".Certainly at this time the government is hampered by the realities of the hung parliament, but I do not think that is the real problem with this issue. First, the Commonwealth govt lacks not only the resources and expertise in education, but also the constitutional power. hence don't make loud noises about what you cannot do, and don't dress it up to make tinkering at the edges look like the real thing. Instead, devise a genuine inter-governmental co-operative mechanism with real incentives- yes,it is a big, big ask, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

Dennis Green | 08 April 2013  

Because of very poor reporting, most people believe that the Gonski plan is that “All public funds, state and federal, should therefore be allocated to schools according to 'need' — i.e. in proportion to the size and difficulty of the educational tasks they face — irrespective of the sector to which they belong.” But the plan does no such thing. It recommends keeping the Howard government’s flawed socio-economic status model of school funding (relabelled as “parents’ capacity to pay”), a fact reported only once in any newspaper article I have read in the last 13 months. The Howard and Gonksi SES models both support funding schools on the basis of the socio-economic status of the people who live near the students, the difference being that the latter would use a smaller area. Both ignore the school’s own income and are thus very bad for low-fee private schools. Both give more money to high-fee private schools that take well-off students from poor areas than to low-fee private schools that take poor children from well-off areas. The SES model is so irrational that about half of the private schools in the country have to get compensation to be as well off as they were under the previous Labor government’s model, which, despite Coalition propaganda to the contrary, was more generous to low-fee schools. Should we keep the SES model under the label of “parents’ capacity to pay”, we will end up with parents of students in public schools being charged for them on a means-tested basis. We will also end up with an even more socially stratified education system than we have now because the system’s financial incentives and penalties push people of similar incomes together and exclude others. I have presented a submission to the Inquiry into the Australian Education Bill 2012 on the problems with keeping the SES model and suggesting some transition arrangements to a new model. It is No. 46 at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=ee/auseducation/subs.htm).

Chris Curtis | 08 April 2013  

Very insightful article. Gillard is pretty useless (indeed disasterous in so many ways), grossly over-promising and under-delivering. But so is much of the body-politic in Australia. Perhaps the system as much as the people is at fault, but that is not going to change; so only better people could make a positive differnce. The whole Gonski debacle has had one major use: it has shone a penetrating light on the problems of the sector...and indeed an article like this is a good example. Let`s think about the problem before throwing more money at it...and money in plenty has already been thrown...if only money could fix the schooling problems we have then we would not have any! The educational problems are predominanltly in the public system, and it needs radical reform of its workforce and the destructive influence of the teaching unions, its school governance and culture, and more outcomes-based funding models. All this should happen before more money is spent; and the states should have the responsibility to do it but the Feds have huge leverage available to push them along.

Eugene | 08 April 2013  

It is the ALP problem but the libs will change things when they get in power. Their "born to rule" attitude will come through in the first week they are in power.

clem schaper | 08 April 2013  

Great analysis. I would add 2 more failures of the Aust Gov which contribute to this failed revolution; they were obvious from the start. First, the creation of new national architecture (eg ACARA and AITSL) with flawed governance structures which, among other things, pave the way for greater politicisation of education rather than more evidence-based policy/practice. Second, the Government's inability to take the risks involved in any successful revolution in a complex industry sector; by "leading from behind" while resourcing and supporting the public, industry and practitioner leadership AND the transparent, rigorous and inclusive work programs that needed to be initiated and maintained over time. BUT if they didn't really want an education revolution and instead wanted to achieve an unstated "higher-order" Commonwealth policy objective ie they wanted to unsettle public confidence in public education and encourage a drift to (increasing numbers of) low-fee charging providers of schooling in the market place, they may be on the way to success. It is disappointing in particular that, for whatever reasons, the leaders of the profession's various peak bodies appear to have not grasped what was happening here.

Fred | 08 April 2013  

The problem with the contemporary education system in Australia is that our society has developed a culture of apathy and complaceny, which has resulted in lower education standards. The reason for this apathy and complaceny is that we are an affluent society with no poverty plus we have social and political stability. These lower education standards have resulted in 45% of Australian people having poor literacy and numeracy skills and 80% of Australian people being intellectual morons with a poor knowledge and understanding of subjects such as philosophy, history, literature, science, religion, theology, cinema, drama, the visual and decorative arts and other forms of the performing arts. I believe that the reason that Julia Gillard initiated the Gonski inquiry when she was Education minister was that she identified these lower education standards. The problem with implementing Gonski's recommendations is the different priorities of state governments. There is also a huge problem in some state government schools because parents have no interest in the operation of their kid's school and these kids are leaving school at the age of 15 or 16 and are not interested in obtaining a trade or professional qualification.

Mark Doyle | 09 April 2013  

I would like to thank the present Government for the wonderful building program it delivered to the Primary Schools. It is a pleasure to see the preppies working in well resourced and modern classrooms.As for the Gonski report, bring on the education revolution,if schools were equally resourced,children would walk to local schools.Less stress, less traffic and pollution.Negativity is all around us, why don't we say 'yes we can achieve a better education system' and vote for that.

Elizabeth Kosanovic de Vries. | 13 April 2013