Julia Gillard’s stirring speech to the National Press Club ramped up Gonski and trimmed it down.

Gonski is now the centre piece of a “national crusade” to be set in scripture by a new Australian Education Act, driven by a national school improvement plan, fuelled by $6.5 billion a year, enacted by a new-look teaching force drawn from the upper ranks of university entrants, and monitored through the government’s My School data sets. But emphasis and direction have been adjusted for comfort, and the day of reckoning pushed into a conveniently hazy future. The money would begin to arrive in 2014 and not be in full flow until 2020 — if ever.

The almost poignant fact is that the government has at last arrived at the point where an “education revolution” might start, but it is probably where it will end.

The first of several hurdles now facing the government is to get the states to join in — not easy at any time, very difficult indeed when the four biggest of them are in non-Labor hands. Even NSW, which has been taking a commendably bi-partisan and sympathetic approach, is saying: show us the money. The crunch is scheduled for the first COAG meeting in 2013. Until then, please don’t ask for detail.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

The next problem would be to win the next election. The federal opposition is of course odds-on favourite, and has promised to repeal any legislation giving effect to Gonski.

The third and perhaps hardest trick of all is to pay for it, should that day ever arrive. As Treasury head Martin Parkinson and many others have been saying, the budget just doesn’t add up any more, and times ahead are looking tougher by the day. Gonski is already expensive, and could prove to be more so if it does meet the true cost of a decent schooling for students with disabilities and pay for a stellar cast of teachers.

In the unlikely event that all three of those dice land the right way up, another cluster of problems comes into view: making it work.

The long-standing “no losers” policy, an expensive diversion of funds, has been compounded by the recent “all winners” promise. Gillard’s speech weakens the plan in another way by switching attention from the gap between the best- and worst-educated Australian kids to the gap between our school system and others, and by moving from a predominantly social rationale to an economic one.

The shift represents a win for the Grattan Institute and its Learning from the best report over Gonski and his priorities. There is one target for the grand plan and one only: to be one of the OECD’s top five school systems by 2025. Given the job is not just to stop going backwards but to accelerate faster than other systems, the target is probably unattainable. It is also inadequate. It should be joined by a second target for much-reduced numbers and proportions of kids in the bottom achievement group, estimated by Gonski at half a million of current students destined to leave school unable to read and write well enough to get through daily life or to get and hold a job.

Gillard ran hard on the line that money achieves nothing except the capacity to drive change. That leaves her new national school improvement plan and the “teacher quality” agenda with an awful lot of work to do. The government has endorsed Gonski’s recommendation that the money should go mainly to schools doing the hardest yards. But, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric notwithstanding, it is not clear that these schools will know how to turn things around, or that they will be allowed to.

There are big structural and industrial obstacles to doing anything other than paying yet-more teachers to put in front of yet-smaller classes, which has not worked and will not work. If the government is looking for a way to get a seriously upgraded teaching force it might note a recent US calculation that an increase of five students per class would fund a pay increase for all teachers of more than 30%.

Flexing up the way money is spent on and in schools is essential to productive educational work — and union-enforced industrial agreements are essential to that — but they have so far gone entirely unmentioned. The Australian Education Union is getting a lot of money in exchange for no concessions at all.

Another problem was built into Gonski’s terms of reference. He was asked to fix up funding to our peculiar three-sector system, not advise on what a better system might look like. But that didn’t stop Gonski from demonstrating how pernicious the current system is. It has given us the most marketised school system in the OECD, which in turn drives “residualisation”, which ends up as gated communities at one end of the educational spectrum, slums at the other.

There is nothing in Gonski’s proposals or the government’s policy to address this problem at its root. There will continue to be chronic competition between sectors for dollars and bums on seats. Parents who pay fees and those who don’t will still have good grounds of complaint about each other. And all sides will continue to misunderstand and misrepresent the problem as lying in the “fairness” or otherwise of funding to their particular sector.

The AEU campaign is a case in point. It has consistently claimed that government schools are being dudded, but Gonski makes it abundantly clear that many govvies are doing very nicely, thank you, while on the other side of the sectoral fence many Catholic systemic schools are doing it as hard as the government school down the road.

In short, the long drawn-out struggle for and against Gonski is really only another battle in this endless and futile war of many fronts — an important battle, but not more.

All that said, what the government proposes looks pretty good when compared with the opposition’s policy. Opposition shadow Christopher Pyne is right when he argues that we need better teachers not more teachers, and more say at the local level about how to use resources. But these policies have big industrial and other implications, about which Pyne has been as silent as the government, and are relatively small components of serious reform anyway. And they won’t work in the absence of new money directed at oiling the wheels of change.

Having collaborated with the independent schools lobby to force the “all winners” guarantee, the opposition now says that it will continue with the very system Gonski found to be incoherent, opaque, unbalanced, unco-ordinated, and riddled with duplication — and top it up by 6% every year for the next four yeas. In other words, it will spend even more to ramp up the system that generates the problems Gonski is trying fix.

As Bernard Keane made clear yesterday, Gillard’s electoral fate may swing on the Gonski play. But perhaps her best hope is for the pleasures of schadenfreude when an Abbott government gets hammered for repealing Gonski, and then discovers that it can’t fund its own retrograde policy.

*Dean Ashenden has been a consultant to many state and national education agencies and ministers, and has written on the structure and funding of Australian school systems since the 1970s