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John Passant

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Gillard fails to deliver on education reform

The Gonski review of education was released with much fanfare on February 20 this year writes Heidi Claus in Socialist Alternative. Six-and-a-half months later, with just as much fanfare, Prime Minister Gillard announced the government’s response: “a national crusade to give… children a better education and a better future”.

Gillard fails to deliver on education reform

Gonski found that the current education funding model is cumbersome, bureaucratised, and totally inequitable. The review recommends that every student, regardless of the system of education they are in, should be funded at a base level – the School Resource Standard (SRS) – determined by the average cost of educating a student.

The report says that on top of the base SRS funding, schools should receive a “loading” if they teach students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, Indigenous students, students from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE) and students with special needs and disabilities.

Under Gonski’s plan the vast majority of new education funding should flow to public schools, as these schools teach the majority of students (two-thirds of all enrolments) and the vast majority of students who would attract the extra loadings. For example, 85 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students attended public schools, 77 percent of students from poorer backgrounds, 78 percent of students with a disability, and 79 percent of students from LBOTE.

On the whole, the Gonski review puts forward a road map that could go a long way to reducing inequity in education funding.

The government’s response to the report, however, looks more like an election strategy than a genuine commitment to funding public education.

Labor has been in office for five years, and has for all that time continued the massive handouts to elite private schools. Gillard has now set the goal of having Australian schools ranked in the top 5 in the OECD – but the target is not to be attained until 2025, and the money will only start to trickle in from 2014.

It won’t be until 2020 that any serious money will be flowing. That’s eight years and three federal elections away.  So for all the fanfare, the review will likely never be implemented.

The government says it needs time, and the support of the states. This is disingenuous. If education were a priority, the resources could be mustered immediately to train, hire and retain new teachers. Not to mention fitting out old classrooms and building new schools. Around $30 billion was spent over the 10 years to 2011 on the so-called “war on terror”. Australia’s role in the continuing occupation of Afghanistan cost over $1 billion last year alone.

If the timeline isn’t bad enough, Gillard’s speech made it pretty clear that even the little bit of money being spent from 2014 has some pretty hefty strings attached. She has a “National Plan for School Improvement” that contains much rhetoric about “quality teaching”.  Teachers have come to recognise this as code for “productivity gains”.

Already our conditions are under attack, our pay has been capped, and more and more of us are casual and temporary. (In NSW, for example, out of 5,500 new teachers each year, only 300-500 get permanent employment in the public system.) 

Class sizes are already too big. I teach music to classes of 32 year 8 students in a room with 25 desks, 12 keyboards – and all in one room. There is nowhere for students to go and practice. If we are doing group work with instruments (and it’s sometimes a stretch to call the equipment we have instruments) the decibel level of the class is well above the recommended levels, and the kids start going crazy after a little while, complaining that they can’t hear themselves playing. So how can they create music? Gillard’s plan is to give us some more money if I lift the quality of my teaching. Go figure.

But wait, there’s more.

In order to get this Gonski money, I’m going to have to become a childcare worker as well as a teacher. In order for parents of school age children to be exploited more effectively by their bosses, without the bosses or the government having to provide child care, teachers will be coming to the rescue, providing children with Breakfast Clubs before school starts and more activities after school finishes.

In her speech, Gillard stated that we will all be subject to new requirements, for example, requiring more classroom experience before graduation and higher entry requirements for the teaching profession. But as Monash University lecturer David Zyngier points out, teacher training already involves more than a year in front of a classroom before you qualify, and if there is to be a lift in the quality of teacher training, where is the funding for teacher education programs?

More importantly, Zyngier highlights that the yawning gap in performance between privileged and underprivileged students is not the fault of teachers, but the class divide, something that will not be fixed by Gillard’s ongoing commitment to continue funding elite private schools.

Even academics who are totally committed to the so-called “quality teaching movement” like Stephen Dinham, chair of Teacher Education and Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Melbourne, is disturbed when he hears politicians talking about “quality teaching”.

Dinham argued in The Conversation last week that politicians are hijacking the quality teaching movement. “Quality teaching” was intended to be about supporting teachers, but in government hands the ideas are turned into threats and measures to justify slashing teacher wages and conditions: “The role of professional standards has been twisted to be more about judging and dismissing teachers than developing and recognising them.”

Unfortunately, the Australian Education Union (AEU) and branches like the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) have ignored these warnings.

In her speech, Gillard used the same language that the O’Farrell government in NSW has been using to justify its “Local Schools, Local Decisions” and “Every Student, Every School” policy. Behind the Liberals’ rhetoric are cuts to funding, cuts to workers’ conditions, and a worse deal for the children of NSW public schools.

Gillard has basically said that permanency and any idea of a centralised staffing system should go. Her actual words were about giving “more power for principals, including over budgets and staff selection”. It’s exactly what we’ve been campaigning against from O’Farrell. Instead of being critical of federal Labor’s plans, teacher union leaders want to focus on the Coalition state governments, demanding they agree to “fund Gonski”.

When O’Farrell says “principals should have more power over budgets and staffing”, the union warns that this means principals will have to become accountants with less money to run schools – they will be forced to reduce staff numbers, and will be easily able to get rid of union militants. When Gillard effectively says the same thing? Not a peep. This is not a good sign for teachers.

The Greens’ response to Gillard’s announcement was definitely more critical than that of my own union. The party slammed the rate and timing of the much needed funds for education, and attacked Labor and the Coalition for being “more interested in playing into the hands of non-government schools than they are in establishing a first class public education system”.

The Greens have been vocal in demanding the Gonski recommendations be made policy, but like Labor, are desperate not to be “wedged” on the private school funding issue. The Greens have a strong emphasis in their policy platform on public education.

But in July this year, deputy leader Adam Bandt bowed to the pressure of the Catholic education system, assuring voters that “The federal government and Gonski have said that no sector – including Catholic education – would have its funding cut if the Gonski recommendations were funded and implemented”.

At the end of the day, the situation for teachers and students in the public education sector will not be turned around by bells and whistles announcements from governments who have a track record of promising much but delivering little.

Teachers are the biggest in-school factor impacting the outcomes for our students. But it’s not in the class rooms where we pack the biggest punch. If we want quality public education we need to fight for it.

The biggest factor that can improve the situation is whether or not teachers, learning support officers, teachers’ aides and school support staff are prepared to strike to push back the neoliberal agenda of both major parties. 



Comment from ken morehouse
Time September 11, 2012 at 6:06 am

You are judging the final outcome from what is the position of the federal government at the begining of negotiations. remember the Prime Minister has to get this past the states many who are hostile. any improvement is going to be difficult to achieve in the real world because already many states are reducing spending on education because their priority is money not the best education possible and paying for it. Education is about people who have to be paid not an amount of money withing which few as possible people will be employed. Lets wait until we see the result before we judge. ken.

Comment from JN
Time September 11, 2012 at 8:44 am

When I was young, reform meant making things better slowly; today it means making them worse, fast.
— George Galloway

Understood in sense above, we can be sure that Gillard and Co. will deliver plenty of reform.

Comment from John
Time September 11, 2012 at 11:32 am

Thanks Ken. The point the article makes is that the promises are just one of Gillard’s many never never promises for a far away time and land…