The Australian Education Act — enshrining reforms from David Gonski’s review — goes before Parliament today. But it won’t address the really big questions around education.
It’s Gonski, yet again, and not for the last time.
The federal government introduces into Parliament this morning what the Prime Minister calls “the most important bill of 2012”.
The draft Australian Education Act is certainly large in sentiment and objectives. It enshrines Gonski’s now-familiar proposal that federal and state governments collaborate to fund schools according to the difficulty of the educational job they do rather then the sector they belong to. It includes also the government’s add-ons, the target of being one of the OECD’s top five school systems by 2025, a “national plan” for school improvement and a requirement that all schools “engage with Asia”.
The government says it will add to the act as negotiations with the states and others proceed, so it may or may not turn out to be the most important legislation of 2012. But it certainly is nothing like that at the moment.
It isn’t even legislation at all in the usual sense; there are no funds allocated, no new agency, no new requirements or regulations. In fact the consultation draft even says this is legislation that doesn’t legislate anything. “This act,” says the draft, “does not create rights or duties that are legally enforceable in judicial or other proceedings.”
Putting the bill to Parliament is in fact just another play in a long-running game — or two games really, one national, the other federal. Both were kicked off in 2010 when then-education minister Julia Gillard announced a major review of schools funding to be chaired by prominent businessman David Gonski. Both will run until the federal election toward the end of next year.
The most obvious of these games is the one in Canberrra. There’s no doubt Gillard and Labor generally see Gonski as core Labor business, a matter of important principle, but that doesn’t stop them seeing it also as core political business, an unmissable opportunity to occupy the high moral ground.
Gonski is like the National Disability Insurance Scheme in being one of those rare proposals that just about everyone thinks is worthwhile. Yet Coalition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has attacked Gonski from its release earlier this year, even promising to repeal any legislation giving effect to Gonski.
Despite subsequently hedging that particular bet Pyne has kept up a strident attack on the interminable consultations and negotiations around Gonski. “All foam and no beer,” he likes to say, unfunded, and unfundable. Pyne’s alternative offer is to keep things pretty much as they are, which he sells as giving schools and parents “certainty”. But that can easily be decoded as backing for non-government schools against the govvies, privilege over fairness.
Perhaps Pyne can make it stick, but the probability is Abbott and the Coalition will be seen as spoilers and nay-sayers, captive to sectional interests. That leaves Gillard looking like a doer and guardian of the national interest, which is, of course, what Gillard intends.
“Gonski was never a silver bullet. The haggling with the states and Gillard’s political opportunism have made it even less so.”
The same battle is being fought on a second front, in relations between the federal government and the states. Since the states run the government school systems as well as contribute to funding the non-government schools, there has to be a federal deal over Gonski. Gillard is trying to use it to put the Coalition-dominated states in a cleft stick.
If they are seen to be blocking Gonski rather than helping to shape it, the states can be tarred with the Abbott brush, as spoilers and blockers. That can be a very uncomfortable position, as the conservative premiers discovered when they refused — briefly — to go along with Gillard’s NDIS proposals. But if they do cave in and sign up to Gonski they in effect disown Abbott and Pyne, and make Gillard look like an achiever to boot.
The states’ problems are substantive as well as political. Schools are perhaps the biggest single justification for their existence. Every time Canberra is seen to be telling them how to run the schools their raison d’etre is eroded.
Another and more immediate problem is money. All except WA are strapped. All want the extra federal money Gonski is supposed to deliver, but Gillard insists they can’t have it unless they come up with new money of their own. And therein lies the $6.5 billion question: where will it come from?
Each side is holding out for a commitment from the other. Pyne has been consistently scornful, pointing to spending projections that begin after the next election and stretch into a hazy future. That is not so different from what Treasury head Martin Parkinson has been saying, albeit in less direct language: spending commitments exceed income.
But Pyne and Abbott have spending problems of their own. They have promised to maintain a funding system that usually delivers a 6% annual increase, compounding. Since Abbott has also promised to reduce both overall spending and the tax take, Pyne is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy as well as defending an indefensible status quo.
Gonski was never a silver bullet. The haggling with the states and Gillard’s political opportunism have made it even less so. The states have so far forced Gillard to drop Gonski’s important proposal for a national schools funding authority and to agree to spread any new money more thinly than Gonski wanted. That comes on top of Gillard’s “every independent school will be better off” promise. The national school improvement plan is an afterthought. Words about schools and the Asian century are not even that.
The games continue when COAG meets on December 9. The odds are that COAG will agree to agree. If Gonski does eventually get up in any recognisable form, and if Labor is returned to office, and if Gillard is still its leader, she may confront the most troubling question of all: will it work? Even systems that run schools find it hard to make schools change. What can be done by a government that doesn’t even run systems, let alone schools?
Not nearly enough to crack the top five by 2025, more’s the pity.
*Dean Ashenden has written on a range of education issues in academic, professional, and the mass media. He was a ministerial consultant to former federal education minister Susan Ryan.