The Government has thrown down a challenge to education unions and State education bureaucracies by announcing a Coalition-style package of school accountability and performance improvement measures.

At today’s National Press Club address, the Prime Minister announced that as a condition of new Commonwealth funding, the Commonwealth will demand from the States national performance information requirements sufficient for parents to be able to decide whether to move their children to better-performing schools and governments to be able to prioritise resources to under-performing schools.

Mr Rudd also flagged performance pay for teachers, saying that high-performing teachers should be rewarded and retained within the education sector, and that top university graduates should be encouraged to take at least a temporary educational role, with accelerated courses and incentive payments if they do so.

If implemented, the package would amount to the biggest shake-up in education management in decades, and flies directly in the face of teachers’ unions’ campaigns against performance tables and performance pay. The plan to bring in temporary top-flight graduates is also likely to get unions off-side.

The Coalition immediately claimed the package for its own, declaring it was composed of measures it had advanced under the Howard Government. The response of Rudd and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was to argue the Howard Government had carried out 24 educational reviews and not done anything.

On top of the welfare-truancy initiatives, the package will burnish the Government’s credentials with more conservative voters and may further stir the ALP Left, but Rudd’s rhetoric was of the sort that suggested no backdown.

“I cannot understand why public institutions such as schools should not be accountable to the community that funds their salaries and running costs,” Rudd said, anticipating that there would be considerable “argy-bargy” with the States in negotiations. He also strongly backed the principle of parents moving their children to better performing schools, saying that was ultimately the point of performance information.

By linking additional funding for disadvantaged schools to the new framework, Rudd is continuing his COAG tactic of trying to bribe State Governments to sign onto a national approach.

As we saw with water, this approach doesn’t always necessarily produce good outcomes. And with education, State Governments won’t have farmers and irrigators in their ears, they’ll have the considerably more powerful teachers’ unions.

Rudd has all care but no responsibility for this package — he won’t be the one teachers are striking against when State Government seek to introduce performance benchmarks and close underperforming schools. Even so, this’ll garner the right sort of headlines in The Daily Telegraph and The Herald-Sun, and that’s at least part of the point of the Education Revolution.

Peter Fray

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