Alan Tudge as Federal Education Minister: what does he mean for our school system?

Feb 3, 2021

Given Tudge’s concerns that the Gonski reforms would require Catholic and independent schools to take “certain cohorts” of students, amounting to “an incredible intrusion” , it seems he will sit comfortably with the pantheon of previous Coalition ministers.

In a speech to Parliament in 2011, Alan Tudge said he was concerned that Labor’s Gonski reforms to improve equity in schools funding could “compel non-government schools to take certain cohorts of students (my emphasis) or lose school funding”.

Alan Tudge is now the federal Minister for Education, with responsibility for allocating Commonwealth funding across all schools in the interests of all the students they serve and  the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of our school system overall.

The expression used by Alan Tudge to describe some of these school-age Australian children could have been a slip of the tongue but for the fact that he expanded upon them. “Catholic and independent schools may for the first time be required to take these “certain cohorts”, which would amount to “an incredible intrusion”.

His short speech had connotations of the Howard mantra that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

Tudge’s words suggest he will sit comfortably among previous federal Coalition education ministers. Since the 1970s, the priority for the Coalition in relation to schooling has been to use public funds to defend and expand the kinds of schools that are free to decide, in their own self-interest, which students come to them and the circumstances in which they come.

If we have learned anything about the damage wrought on democracy by Donald Trump it is that words matter. And as Ross Gittins recently noted, Trump is “more a symptom than a cause” of America’s economic and social decay, which has undermined the lives of those on the wrong side of the education divide; and that the effects of the pandemic will divide along the same education fault line.

To the best of my recall, there has been neither word nor deed from federal Coalition leaders in government or opposition from the time of Malcolm Fraser onwards that would suggest they cared profoundly about public schools, the children who attend them, and the importance of both for the fabric of a democratic society. What began as indifference to public schools turned into hostility with the advent of the Howard government.

Where Labor has generally placed an emphasis on equity and on needs-based funding for schools, the Coalition has focused on increasing the proportion of entitlement-based funding that is provided to schools, irrespective of need.

David Kemp, architect of the Howard government’s SES-based scheme, turbo-charged the privatisation of schooling in line with neo-liberal political philosophy. This scheme has been a significant contributing factor to Australia now being one of the OECD’s most socio-economically stratified school systems.

Between them, the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have subverted Labor’s original Gonski framework to reflect Coalition values. With its amendments to the Australian Education Act, the Coalition has placed a solid floor under the level of Commonwealth funding for non-government schools and an equally solid cap on its funding for public schools.

The Gonski principle of a funding scheme that was based on student need and was sector-blind has been transformed into one that is sector-specific, under the marketing slogan: “students with the same need within the same sector will attract the same support from the Commonwealth”.

The Hansard record suggests strongly that, like most of his predecessors, Tudge will not be interested in taking a broad, holistic view of our national school system nor to concern himself unduly with public schools.

Tudge will certainly be unlikely to emulate one of his Coalition predecessors, Simon Birmingham, who was replaced by Dan Tehan after having the temerity to point out that some non-government schools were being over-funded. A minister who defends the integrity of government policy rather than engaging in special deals for political advantage would expect to be respected, but not in a country where there is no level of income from private sources that can render a private school ineligible for public funding from both levels of government.

But what of the ‘certain cohorts’? In general use, the word has come to mean a group of people with a shared characteristic. In education, it is typically used to describe students at a common grade or age level.

Tudge chose not to elaborate on the nature of the shared characteristics of the groups of students he considered to be unwanted intruders in his preferred schools.

Rather than naming them in Parliament, he resorted to innuendo. It is unlikely he was casting a slur on all Year 9 students. It is more likely that, by referring to these cohorts as intruders into private schools, Tudge had in mind those groups who were and who remain under-represented in these schools. Was he referring to those students, who through no fault of their own, require more than average support to learn effectively and who are therefore more costly to educate?

Was he advocating that the heavy lifting continue to be borne by the public schools sector? Or was he trying to send a signal to private schools that he could be relied upon to uphold existing forms of exemption from anti-discrimination legislation? Or all of the above?

To say the least, it would be disturbing to have decisions about the level and allocation of Commonwealth funding to schools led by a person who divides Australia’s school students into those who are the chosen and those who are the intruders, or who has a generally divisive us-and-them mentality. We can only hope his earlier words to Parliament are not a portent.

In appointing his new Minister, our PM gave him “a clear brief of improving education outcomes and, in particular, helping younger Australians navigate challenges in a rapidly changing world”. The question now is whether, in appointing Alan Tudge as Education Minister, the PM was referring to helping all younger Australians.

A high quality school system contributes to a strong democracy by building the capacity of all its citizens to think rationally about their world and to engage in informed debate, including about the kind of school system that mirrors and shapes a just, moral and equitable society.

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