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The emails began rolling out late yesterday morning from Labor: $xxx million for yy new trade training centres, they all read, one for each state. They were accompanied by the usual media release verbiage. “This investment is part of our positive plan to ensure all Australian students are given every opportunity to secure high-skill, high-wage jobs beyond the China mining investment boom.” Etc, etc.

The on-the-ground story is more complicated and interesting.

At 1.55pm, I’m at Beverly Hills Girls High School, about 30 seconds off the M5. As a child growing up in the unfashionable southern tip of Sydney’s east, I’d occasionally be taken west to see relatives, and the journey would seem to take days. Now the M5, as long as you’re not foolish enough to use it in peak, gets you there in minutes even with a constant stream of trucks pouring onto it from Port Botany. I’ve been drawn by the Labor promise of a “significant announcement” involving Brendan O’Connor and local member Daryl Melham, who is up against Nine Network exec David Coleman for the Liberals. Melham copped a big swing in 2010 and under Julia Gillard was an almost certain loser.

It’s Melham I spot in the carpark, on the phone, waiting for O’Connor. He’s mildly amazed I’ve shown up. Principal Colin Skene appears and turns out, against all odds, to be a Crikey fan, and happily introduces me to the school captains shyly trailing behind him. Mystified as to who on earth I am, the girls politely shake hands and retreat before I’ve even got time to say “whatever you do, don’t aim for a media career”.

The “significant announcement” is of a trade training centre at the school, and it is indeed significant, for the school and for Melham. Melham, a long-term supporter of the school since entering politics in 1990, is absolutely delighted about it, particularly because it’s not an election commitment, it’s actual funding from the trade training centre program Labor has been running since 2007.

Beverly Hills Girls High is also multiculturalism central. Over 40% of the students are from Islamic backgrounds, Skene says. There are pupils from Asian backgrounds and Pacific Islander backgrounds, as well as Anglos. “Don’t forget, tomorrow, Arabic, 80 minutes,” says one girl as she runs past a friend. We follow Skene into a kitchen classroom adorned with “WRONG SHOES YOU LOSE” signs for the announcement. In the science lab next door, a table of head-scarved girls look out through the door to see what we’re doing. Some year 7 students, the beneficiaries of the centre once it’s working, filter in. Eventually, a photographer from the local press shows up; otherwise I suspect I’m the only media representative there. Some prize-winning pupils in subjects like IT and media studies (I keep my counsel) come in and stand at the back.

“In the real world, among educators in places like Beverly Hills Girls High, it’s hard to see a “unity ticket” between Labor and the Coalition on education funding.”

O’Connor makes the announcement and explains a bit about the program. Skene explains, against the buzz of a busy school, the trade training centre, how the school is getting nearly a million dollars, how the kitchen classroom will be gutted and extended to establish a hospitality training centre, which can even be used on weekends — the school already hosts a wide variety of after-hours activities such as language classes, he explains. Like Melham, he is over the moon about the centre and the opportunities he can see it providing for students. But Melham and O’Connor scrupulously avoid any political remarks; if you didn’t know otherwise, you wouldn’t think there was an election campaign on.

“Not everyone can go to university,” Melham says, echoing his earlier remarks to me that Labor used to be obsessed with getting people to uni, rather than providing them with a greater range of options like trades training. He declines to bag the New South Wales government on education funding, instead telling the group that the states don’t have the sort of money that enables them to make these sort of investments. “There should be partnership between the federal government and the states. For a long period,” he adds, referring indirectly to the Howard government, “we didn’t get a cent here, because this was seen as Keating country.”

After Melham says he intends to celebrate with, pause, an extra strong coffee, he, Skene and O’Connor then disappear off the school grounds for photos, conscious of restrictions on taking photos inside the school.

The Coalition’s response to the announcement, via Christopher Pyne, was to reiterate its long-running, and entirely correct, point that Labor’s original promise was to fund a trade training centre in every school in the country, or combined centres for several schools if they wanted, over 10 years, but only 252 of the roughly 2600 promised have been delivered six years in. Labor counters with the claim that it has announced funding, or already built, “510 Trade Training Centres benefiting more than 1290 secondary schools across Australia”. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion offered by the Coalition, that Labor is on track to significantly underperform on its promise.

However, the problem for the Coalition is, to the extent that we know its education policy — which used to mainly be that it would oppose the Gonski funding reforms tooth-and-nail, until it embraced them — it wants to kill the Trades Training Centre program altogether and go back to the Howard-era model of separate technical colleges, albeit this time without WorkChoices-style contracts to force their staff onto.

In the real world, among educators in places like Beverly Hills Girls High, it’s hard to see a “unity ticket” between Labor and the Coalition on education funding.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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