In the first instalment in an occasional series on federal-state relations, Associate Professor Tony Taylor , author of the original history curriculum draft commissioned by the former Howard government, looks at the impact “new federalism” could have on education:

During the latter years of the Howard government, state/territory relations with Canberra about education policy were blighted by the guiding principle of “new federalism”. As outlined by then Education Minister Julie Bishop, the argument was that, with Canberra putting in large amounts of cash to local programs ($8 billion each year) the government wanted bang for bucks.

From John Howard’s office in Kirribilli, the states and territories were seen as grasping, incompetent and ideologically-driven partners (he wasn’t ideological, of course) who needed booting into line. The view from the state and territory capitals was that Howard was a remorseless neo-conservative interventionist, with Julie Bishop as his smooth(ish) operator. Howard and Bishop were up for a classic stick and carrot game.

However, in April 2007, Bishop’s stick and carrot plan for performance-based pay for teachers was rebuffed at the Darwin ministerial council meeting. You can bet that the state premiers and their education ministers then started praying on their knees for a change of federal government before any other centralist precedents were set in a renewed offensive by Howard and Bishop, precedents that, once in place, might cheerfully be used by a successor ALP government.

To pre-empt any such moves and to give an ALP or Coalition federal government a briefing on how to share and care, the state premiers put down their collective marker in the “federalist” (i.e. we want to be asked, please) document The Future of Schooling in Australia. It was unexpectedly launched in April 2007, just after Darwin, then revised and re-launched later in the same year, just before the election period. It put a strong spin on local achievements, its authors seemed to be in love with Finland as the idealised overseas benchmark and the document wanted a more cooperative federalist approach from Canberra.

Meanwhile, back in January, Rudd had already launched his misty, consultation-based “Education Revolution” policy statement, linking education to a productive economy. Undiverted by these ALP love-ins Howard pressed on with his plan to impose a NSW-style history syllabus on the nation’s students and teachers, whether they liked it or not. This was to be the first cab off the national curriculum rank. English was slated for the next push: lots of grammar, Shakespeare and heaps of Les Murray, probably.

What we had then, towards the end of 2007 were three models, Howard’s topdown “managed curriculum” model which conservatively saw educational change merely in terms of syllabus reconstruction. Next was Rudd’s (slightly oxymoronic) “consultative” Education Revolution model focussing on productivity, not just education for jobs. Finally we had the states/territories “let’s get our feet back under the table” federalist approach which said “we’re doing very nicely, thank you and keep giving us more money. And we really, really like Finland. Great place. Must go there sometime”.

Then, along came Bennelong and in came Rudd and Gillard. So, where now with federal-state relations?

To begin with, the states and territories will be happy with the laptop-for-every-senior-student program if only because it reduces their overheads. Grumpy teachers may well question where the extended support is going to come from and how can schools cope with access when the Australian system is in the broadband Dark Ages, but the needs-based federal laptop program takes a load off localised IT expenditure.

The states and territories won’t be too happy with the teacher supply problem though, dire in WA, big in Victoria and not too good elsewhere. There’ll be some pressure for the Feds to support a recruitment drive in subject shortage areas, which leads us back to performance-based pay.

It may have been on the nose with Labor and unions last year but, suddenly, it’s now smelling of roses. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen since professions tend to recruit on status as well as pay – and teaching is a mass, rather than an elite, profession, with concomitant low status. Not only that, but many youngsters today are averse to teaching’s job-for-life culture, preferring sequential and varied work challenges.

The other major concern will be the national curriculum where Rudd and Gillard have a much broader view than did Howard and Bishop. The ALP national curriculum is envisaged as a cradle-to-grave formulation — from early childhood to school then on to tertiary education and finally on to work and lifelong learning. The school sector in the new curriculum will have four core subjects, English, maths, science and history.

It makes sense but it will need a massive amount of coordination, flexibility of operation and lots of funding for resources (for example, where are they going to get all those shake-and-bake history teachers?). States and territories will remain wary of a move towards a centralised curriculum. It was tried once in the 1990s (NSW opted out) and failed; tried again in 2006-7 and failed — and now, well, perhaps it’s third time lucky.

The other problem is that the different jurisdictions have such varied approaches to schooling, so much so that they might as well be different nations. For example, in NSW, there are serious public examinations at Years 10 and 12, unlike in other states and territories. And the Feds tend to tiptoe around the hard-nosed pollies in NSW so whatever comes out will probably not interfere with their public examinations. NSW contrasts with Queensland where there are no public examinations at all. And, having been liberated from Joh’s tyranny, Queensland education has no desire to buckle under to Canberra’s direction: anything that comes from south of the Tweed is generally regarded with flinty-eyed suspicion.

Not only that, but several states/territories have just revised their own frameworks, for example, ACT for first time in 16 years, Tasmania, after a botched and incomprehensible blending of two US curriculum frameworks and WA after a long, populist campaign against outcomes-based education. More changes at this time would not be welcome. Mind you, if there’s big money in it…

So, when the next ministerial council meeting is convened, there’ll be the customary small items on the well-prepared agenda (no ambushes please), there’ll be the usual posturing beforehand (just give us the money without twisting our arms) but this time, there may be, just may be, an all-smiles, coordinated approach to a productivity-geared national curriculum, led by a (high status, lots of clout) deputy prime minister.

My guess is that the new National Curriculum Board will go for a national set of K-10 standards (student attainment levels) and Year 12 assessment comparability (rather than uniform syllabuses), to be implemented locally and assessed nationally. This is a package that is a good deal more specific than the current waffly national statements but nowhere near as prescriptive as the former Howard strategy.

Timeline? Working parties to be convened in mid 2008, consultation, models and trialling to be in place by mid-2009 and full implementation to begin in 2010, or 2011 latest. Done deal. And if they get it wrong? Look forward to recriminations and years of unravelling the consequences.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey