Remember the newly elected Rudd Government’s 2020 Summit back in 2008? It was a high-profile gathering of a sympathetic audience to address pre-selected policy issues and options. Far from coming up with answers, the education sessions at the Summit managed to avoid the urgent questions – to such an extent that a group of unusual suspects held their own education summit a couple of months later.
During today (Monday 20th November) Labor is holding another summit, this time just for education. Invited guests are gathering together in a carefully structured one-day event to contemplate a series of predictable questions. At one level it is an overdue good idea: in opposition, Labor has said little about broader school policy issues and doesn’t seem to have even reflected on its mismanagement of the recommendations of the first Gonski review. Maybe some direction will emerge today?
Labor’s forum will again tackle school equity and excellence, but this time it has added evidence to the mix of priorities. It might be different: evidence wasn’t prominent in a number of initiatives in the Rudd-Gillard years – and while the first Gonski review was soundly based on research, the evidence didn’t play a great part in much of the implementation.
It is interesting that this Labor event is taking place at the same time that the Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 panel is pitching similar questions. But the questions guiding today’s forum seem more limited and driven by dated assumptions about what school is all about, what it should deliver and how this can best happen. It starts with a vision, moves on to improving learning outcomes and jumps to solutions: raising the status of teachers and improving school leadership.
All very desirable, but is that all there is? We have been doing this for years: asking the same questions and hoping to come up with better answers. The Gonski 2.0 review could have fallen into this trap: the terms of reference were very ordinary – but the panel has created a focus which will open the vision: what should schools be doing, how can we recognize and support success and improve practice, how does this reach all students, what structures are needed and what gets in the way?
Labor’s day includes some of this but there is little to encourage thinking outside the square. It seems that schools should forever remain places with defined outcomes and structure, kept in line by externally created pressures, people and even practice.
Within such a conventional framework the purpose of the Forum seems to be to fuel Federal Labor’s policy options. The end question in each section is “What should be the priorities of the Commonwealth in this area?” At one level there is nothing wrong with this: full marks to Labor for consulting with the profession before an election.
But it reflects another problem. It’s understandable that Federal Labor wants to focus on Commonwealth policy options – but Labor’s own Gonski 1.0 review clearly showed the need for joint Commonwealth-State initiatives, as have other reports on school education policy. In the face of so much previous federal-state feuding (including over Gonski 1.0) why are policy responses being pitched in the context of just one level of government? Coordination is critical: the Coalition has just established Gonski’s National School Resourcing Board. Will Labor support this much-needed coordinating mechanism?
Other questions that the Forum will address are deficient. Yes, the Melbourne Declaration is a good start when it comes to vision. Its first goal says Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence. The problem is that it hasn’t and doesn’t – so why waste time trying to create a new vision when we don’t seriously ask why we didn’t achieve the last one? In the data behind the My School website we have the evidence that tracks our sorry progress since the Melbourne Declaration. Don’t ask if the vision of 2008 remains relevant; ask why it didn’t happen!
The problem is that some questions are just too hard, too confronting and – for a political event – too risky. As Bernie Shepherd and I (among many others) have shown, our whole framework of schools is basically dysfunctional: it is riven by rusted-on inequity which remains intact after the shambolic implementation of Gonski 1.0 – and seems destined to continue. It drags down our national levels of student achievement. The way we provide and resource schools displays little efficiency, effectiveness and equity. It casts today’s agenda well into the shade.
Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development