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Jul 24, 2012

Education and even Gonski is getting out of political reach

The penny is about to drop for the schools lobby, and Christopher Pyne is having a good time giving it a push.

The penny is about to drop for the schools lobby, and Christopher Pyne is having a good time giving it a push.

The contrast on last night’s Q&A between Pyne’s real politic and the wishful thinking of the audience and panellists (with the partial exception of always-sensible Nicola Roxon) was almost painful to watch. The facts they refused to face are as follows.

First, there can be no big pay rises for teachers. There are so many teachers in this large-scale, labour-intensive, government-funded industry that even small across-the-board increases hurt budgets

Second, there will be no big or lasting improvement in the academic standing of new recruits to the profession. Teaching can’t compete with other options, not on pay, not on career structure, and in many schools, not on the job satisfaction either.

Third, there will there be no further reductions in class sizes, and nor should there be. Educational gains from class size-reduction hit the law of diminishing returns long ago. Almost any other way of spending new money would be more productive.

Fourth, there will be very little new money. Most state governments, with the possible exception of WA, are strapped, and the feds are in no position to bail them out.

The hope of the side is Gonski, but it was obvious from the release of his proposals earlier this year that they represent a big political and financial ask.

The weekend’s news was that the financial ask has increased by a billion or so dollars. Today’s news — that NSW is breaking ranks to introduce its own new funding scheme — suggests that Gonski is getting out of political reach as well.

In any event, even a fully implemented Gonski would at best reduce the problems schools are running into, not remove them.

That is what Pyne was saying last night, either directly or by extension, and that is what no one wanted to hear. But where will that take Pyne or one of his colleagues as the new federal minister for education in a year or so?

The overarching fact is that the big reform strategy of the past 50 years and the consensus that supported it are exhausted, but work on a new strategy has scarcely begun, not by Pyne, not by anyone.

Such a strategy would require new sources of money; a levelled-up funding and regulatory playing field; technology-rich work processes for students and teachers; a much greater division of labour in the schools workforce; new kinds of industrial agreements; and a complete rejig of the hugely cumbersome and ineffectual decision-making structures of Australian schooling.

In the absence of any of that, what will Pyne do? My prediction: preside over a continuing acceleration in the unintended consequences of the Whitlam/Karmel reforms of 1973 that see the educationally rich getting steadily richer, and the poor poorer.

*Dean Ashenden has worked as an academic and a political adviser/consultant to many national and state ministers, agencies and organisations. He has been presenter of Radio National’s Education Issues program and has contributed as a commentator and as compiler/publisher of The Good Universities Guides and The Good Schools Guides to many radio and television programs.

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3 thoughts on “Education and even Gonski is getting out of political reach

  1. Gavin Moodie

    Not all changes need be made at once or in 1 leap. Governments could move incrementally towards a goal. I suggest that implementing Gonski would be a good first step. Nonetheless, I agree that Pyne will seek to accelerate the privatisation of education, which will result in greater inequality. To which I add that I expect Pyne will introduce some cultural warrior stuff, but hopefully not as regressive as that proposed by the UK Coalition’s Secretary of State for Education, the conservative Michael Gove.

  2. CML

    Don’t think Gonski is going to happen, Gavin. Seems we have far more
    important things to spend our money on – diesel fuel rebate for rich
    mining companies comes to mind! And no doubt a host of other
    questionable payments made by government.
    I do think Dean is correct – the Whitlam/Karmel reforms have had
    great unintended consequences. What started out as a way to fund
    cash-strapped Catholic schools in 1973 has now turned into a monster.
    How do we stop this over-generous and continually increasing bucket
    of money going to the non-government sector? When someone works
    that out, maybe we can arrive at a more equitable funding arrangement
    for the government schools.
    Aside from all that, what worries me is the kind of society we will end
    up with in a few decades. Schools based on religious or other groups,
    who only cater to their own cohort, do not teach children how to mix
    well with others, how to understand other peoples’ point of view, or how
    to become tolerant of difference. In our multi-cultural society, that
    should not be happening. A recipe for disaster.
    How come our government is the largest funder of private education
    in the OECD? Where is the taxpayer backlash? Something like two-
    thirds of children still attend government schools. What are their
    parents thinking? Things will just get worse under a coalition government.

  3. Lines Brenda

    At least with Labour we have a chance to make meaningful changes to education funding which in turn will lead to, or be part of , the necessary professional changes too. Smaller class size sizes are not at the heart of this at all. Guaranteeing these size limits as they currently are is an issue, especially in Qld where such guarantees are threatened by their removal from the Certified Agreement to the area of policy in the EB deal on the table from the Newman govt. (That’s another story.)
    It is a huge task, and it will take time, to make significant changes to education nationally, like turning the Titanic, but reform has to start somewhere. We cannot continue to allow the discrepancies between the the highest achievers and the ‘long tail’ who struggle with schooling to become even greater, particularly when these gaps are largely due to social and economic disadvantage.
    We MUST find the wherewithall to enact Gonski. At its most basic, Gonski means that teachers can stop having to make the gut wrenching decisions about which kids will miss out on support. Under Gonski everyone gets the fair go we so frequently espouse as the Australian way! Under any conservative govt such changes will be buried for another 40 years. Having to live and work under Newman in Qld, and watching NSW and Vic teachers struggle too, I truly fear for our nation if federal Labor loses the next election. The Joh years may have been repressive, but I strongly suspect that we ain’t seen nothing yet.