education will be a key battleground, with the perennial tug-of-war over schools funding already reopening old wounds.
Second: the debate will be as divisive as ever, with teaching quality and greater accountability among the central themes.
And third: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will need more than “agility” to convince voters that shifting federal funding responsibility for public schools to the states would do anything other than exacerbate pre-existing inequalities with private schools.
As NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli put it last week, such a thought bubble could end up being “the biggest mistake in education policy – probably ever”.
Turnbull’s proposal was a bizarre thing to raise, even in the context of an income tax showdown with the states. But in fairness to the PM, Piccoli was wrong: the biggest mistake in education policy was arguably made a few years ago, when the Abbott government walked away from the most important schools reform in a generation – a needs-based, sector-blind funding system designed to bridge the gaps between students.
With all the grandstanding around the Gonski funding scheme over the years, it’s easy to forget what was actually at stake. Businessman David Gonski’s landmark review of schools took us back to basics: the notion that every kid should have the chance to reach their full potential, but as a nation, we had failed them. As such, clusters of disadvantaged students had been left struggling in underperforming schools, and even our top students were falling behind their international peers. Fast forward to present day, and little has changed.
But while Turnbull is right to question why performance has declined despite increased investment in real terms, his refusal to recommit to the final two years of the Gonski deal while reigniting the public-versus-private stalemate doesn’t exactly provide a solution, does it? It simply brings the debate back to square one, with students and parents once again sitting in a merry-go-round of political brinkmanship. How very yesterday.
In Victoria, the impact of the Commonwealth’s position was laid bare last week, when the Andrews Government released a long-awaited review that will have profound implications on schools beyond 2017.
Conducted by former premier Steve Bracks, the review found that without the last two years of federal Gonski funding, public schools would be disproportionately worse off, losing $1.1billion that could have otherwise flowed under the agreement struck between the Gillard and Napthine governments.
But here’s the kicker: if Turnbull fails to recommit to those final years – or if Bill Shorten gets elected and reneges on his promise – Daniel Andrews would be forced to completely rethink how schools are resourced in order to negate the impact on disadvantaged students. Bracks’ suggestion? That the state takes control of the distribution of all funding for every school in Victoria: public, Catholic and independent.
“The Review considers that the best option is that the Commonwealth provides the federal contribution to Victoria, and Victoria adds its contribution before allocating funding to all schools in the state on the basis of student need,” the report says. “This would see the State Government take control over the allocation of all public funding to all Victorian schools. It would also encourage more consistent policy decisions and performance and accountability measures across the sectors.”
It’s an ambitious proposal in the context of Turnbull’s musings last week, but unlike the PM’s suggestion (that states fund public schools while the Commonwealth subsidises the private system) it would not involve either tier of government abrogating its responsibility to any sector. Instead, Victoria would have a system that is modelled on Gonski’s needs-based principles, where every student gets a base level of pooled funds, with extra loadings for disadvantage.
But contained within the 246-page report is also a broader philosophy that Turnbull appears to share: that there should be less focus on the quantum of money schools get, and more on how that money could be used as a lever to make teachers, principals and governing councils more accountable for their results.
After all, those results aren’t exactly pretty. The truth is, Victoria performs relatively well compared to the rest of Australia and international benchmarks, but for nearly a decade, education outcomes among its students have not improved overall, and more than 10,000 young people drop out every year. “Without improvement in student outcomes,” the report admits, “greater investment in education is not justified.”
Bracks’ solutions are outlined in 70 recommendations that are now being considered by state education minister James Merlino. There’s a proposal for an independent watchdog to appraise how funding is used by schools. Principal salaries could also be increased as an incentive to work in disadvantage areas. Automatic wage progression for teachers would be reviewed, with the education department required to publish the proportion of automatic pay rises each year. What’s more, schools would be encouraged to collaborate, merge, or even close, in order to drive improvement.
It’s bold and brave stuff, particularly for a government that has just begun a new round of wage negotiations with the powerful teachers’ union. But if most of the reforms are adopted, Victoria’s education system will be profoundly reshaped in the interest of students and parents, and that can only be a good thing.
As Merlino told The Sunday Age: “I want a culture of high expectations in education, alongside a focus on addressing disadvantage.” Now he has a template that paves the way, in the form of most comprehensive inquiry into education funding since the Gonski review itself. The question is whether this government has the political courage to take its advice. The last thing we need is another landmark report consigned to history as a missed opportunity.