Public Education – a test for the ALP

Oct 14, 2022
School pupils sitting at computers

The ALP has to attend to the shameful state of public education. Attempts to shift the responsibility on to the Coalition may be appealing but the geneses of these conditions lies at the feet of Julia Gillard. There is no doubt Gillard cared about education; you could not doubt her commitment to improving the learning outcomes for all Australian students. However, her reforms have resulted in public schools being reduced to third-world conditions.

Like most leaders in that era, Gillard was captivated by the rationalist approach to all forms of management. She had, and continues to have no concept about her lack of experience in the field of education. She took advice from ‘experts’ who, like her had no educational expertise.

Her principal advisor was Joel Klein the appointed Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education by the conservative Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Together, and in typical ill-informed, conservative fashion they silenced progressive voices who had sought real reform. They introduced restructures prominent in the conservative’s playbook; back to basics, standardised testing, accountability and teacher evaluation.

Gillard, embraced Klein and at a welcoming dinner she declared “the core of his message is one I agree with absolutely: that we must be determined to provide a first-class education for every child in every school and every community. As he said, it requires a focus on three things: equity, excellence and accountability”. In her speech she also quoted another education ‘expert’ from the conservative side of politics – “let me quote Rupert Murdoch, who said last weekend in his fourth Boyer Lecture, ‘Sometimes I think that because we [in Australia] are doing well enough for most people, it’s easier to close our eyes to the tens of thousands of children we are betraying. We have too many people who secretly believe the gap between those who are getting an education and those who are not is something that cannot be changed’”.

Reforms came thick and fast:

  • Gillard embraced the NAPLAN, a form of standardised testing. This test has been condemned by all reputable educationists and teachers as being next to useless but for the Labor party it provided ‘evidence’ to expose ‘poor performing’ schools and teachers.
  • The implementation of the National Professional Standards for teachers increasing demands by mandating targeted, professional training. These ‘standards’ establish a system of registration with the view of ‘improving accountability and for lifting the quality of teaching in classrooms across Australia’. This measure is used to support another red-herring performance-based pay.
  • Increased hours of ‘training’ for teachers, time either taken away from actually teaching or increasing the hours worked. The training mandated followed the latest trends, things like productive pedagogy, quality teaching, goal setting, peers’ reviews and now leadership training. These new demands have increased the amount of work for teachers with significant numbers leaving the profession. An NSW Parliamentary Committee identified a current shortage at 1,657. Compounding this is one in five students who complete their teacher training choose not to sign-up and 60% of employed teachers plan to leave in the next five years.
  • Introduced the My School website ‘for the first time ever, [the webpage] provides consistent, accurate information about the performance and circumstances of every school in the country’. This data on the school included NAPLAN results which she claimed provided an approach that empowered parents, changing the way they think and providing more information about our schools. This allowed parents to choose the school for their children based on ‘data’!

The result has been the growth of private schools while the comprehensive public schools have become residualised enrolling significantly more students with learning difficulties and/or disruptive behaviours. These schools and teachers are demonised in parliament and in the conservative press and morale is at an all-time low.

One constructive reform Gillard did initiate was the Gonski Report and the National Education Agreement. Both promised to address the financial inequalities, acknowledging the financial deficits in public schools.

Their report was excellent and a lift to supporters of public schools. The $42.4 Billion promised over the following four years threatened the private sector particularly the Catholics who attacked; Gillard crumbled, initially surrendering any opportunity to move to equity by guaranteeing no school would be worse off! (A full and concise analysis of the demise of Gonski can be found in Greenwell and Bonnor’s book ‘Waiting for Gonski’ – UNSW Press, 2022).

The period following the fall of the ALP has seen the Liberal/National Coalition completely demolish the Gonski model. They have been so successful the current under-funding and inadequate resourcing of public schools are far below the needs-based targets previously accepted by all governments.

Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools continues to point out these obscene inequities. He points out that by 2029 public schools in all states except the ACT will be funded at 91% or less of their schooling Resource Standard (SRS). In contrast private schools, except in the Northern Territory will be funded at 100% or more of their SRS. The cumulative under-funding of public schools for the years 2022 to 2029 inclusive will amount to about $53 billion while private schools will be over-funded by about $5.3 billion.

With Federal Labor in charge and the almost certain return of the ALP in NSW they should have to face-up to this unjust funding situation. Education policies released prior to the last Federal election made no mention about this issue. Their focus was on vocational education, pre-school and a promise to spend $440 million on better ventilation. Nothing about addressing the short-fall in the funding of public schools.

On Insiders, prior to the election, Plibersek refused to answer the question ‘when will Labor deliver 100% of the needs-based funding for public schools’? Her response “Well, we’re in the middle of an existing funding agreement that the Commonwealth signed with the states” she protested. “That agreement concludes in 2023. We would, if elected, be negotiating with the states and territories about the next funding agreement.”

Public Education is essential for a democracy to thrive and to restore our broken system is a challenge for all Australians however, I fear the ALP’s commitment to address this problem is non-existent. To paraphrase the words of Paul Keating when the ALP thinks about the neglected public schools; ‘they are simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up”.

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