Watch federal schools minister Peter Garrett and his shadow Christopher Pyne on last night’s Q&A and despair.
Labor came into office with schools at the top of its playlist. There would be an “education revolution”. In its sixth year the government can reel off a series of impressive-sounding achievements: MySchool and its detailed information on the performance, resourcing and circumstances of every school; money for school IT and other infrastructure upgrades; a national curriculum; targeted funding for literacy, numeracy and teacher ed; and, of course, Gonski.
Gonski is by far the most ambitious and consequential of Labor’s programs. Gonski never was a silver bullet. But its promise of “sector-blind” funding geared to the difficulty of the educational job each school is asked to do was essential to tackling several of schooling’s big tasks: reducing zero-sum competition between sectors for money, students and esteem; stemming the flow of funds toward the already well-off and away from the most needy; and restoring some sense of hope to the public sector, which contains around 80% of the schools doing the hardest yards.
Gonski’s new money might also have permitted a shift away from the fixation on lower maximum class sizes toward spending on more cost-effective strategies.
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That was the big and necessary idea. Not surprisingly, Garrett dwelt on the idea rather than the sad reality: Gonski is very nearly gone, even if the next federal government were to implement what’s left. Gonski has been gutted by his riding instructions (no school will be worse off), by the Prime Minister’s subsequent upgrade (every independent school will be better off), by the states’ refusal to wear the proposed “national schools funding body”, by the Catholics’ insistence that money for “need” should be spread across half of all schools, not Gonski’s quarter, and by the government’s very own idea of phasing it all in by 2019 (which by one calculation will cause funding to fall below the growth trend-line).
Still more depressing is the likely Coalition government scenario, for which Christopher Pyne is responsible. Pyne hedged his bets on Q&A as elsewhere, but his language and body language suggest the opposition is going to the election with the funding status quo so scathingly condemned by Gonski.
Pyne was pressed on the question by the heaviest hitter of Australian schooling, Ken Boston. Boston headed up the South Australian and the New South Wales school systems, became a prominent figure in school reform in the UK, and was a member of Gonski’s panel.
Do you realise, Boston asked Pyne, that if you extend the current funding system you will actually decrease per student funding to government schools and increase it for non-government schools? Pyne obfuscated. Boston came back at him, clearly angry. This is urgent, said Boston. No answer.
“The elephant in the Q&A studio was that the Australian school ‘system’ is dysfunctional.”
Teachers were warmly applauded on all sides, of course. Everyone says that teachers are wonderful and deserve our heartfelt thanks, but the same people, including Garrett and Pyne, also want to lift “teacher quality”. On this there was a rare display of bipartisanship, marred only by a little sniping about whose idea it was.
Garrett paraded plans announced earlier in the day for fixing pre-service teacher education by improving methods of selection into teacher education courses, testing student teachers’ literacy and numeracy, and setting standards for pre-service courses, and particularly their practical components.
Consider just the first of these. The problem isn’t in the selecting, it’s in the pool from which selections are made. Bright school-leavers and others rarely apply for teacher ed courses because they understand well enough something that eludes both the schools minister and his shadow: the pay sucks.
The incontrovertible fact is that 50 years of effort to improve teaching’s rewards, status and standards of entry have failed completely. What Garrett and Pyne actually agree on is not how to fix teacher ed, but that they don’t have the money to tackle the root of the problem, or the nerve to talk about shifting resources from one area (eg class sizes) to another (eg teacher salaries).
The elephant in the Q&A studio was that the Australian school “system” is dysfunctional. Its mix of private and public money, state and federal money, has no parallel anywhere in the OECD. It breeds resentment in each sector of the others, and a culture of permanent demand and dissatisfaction. Authority is divided between three school sectors in each of eight states and territories, and subject to the close attentions of nine governments with their endless electoral cycles and annual budgetary games.
Garrett and Pyne both talked as though they were (or soon would be) responsible for Australian schooling in all its many aspects, from methods of teaching reading to teacher training to how schools should be funded and controlled. They are not. No one is. And since the states squashed Gonski’s “national schools resourcing body” we are further away than ever from being able to sheet home responsibilities, hopes and blame.
*Dean Ashenden has been a consultant to many state and national education agencies