Coalition best for education
20th August 2010

In the following comment piece published in Education Review I argue why the Coalition is better than Julia Gillard and the ALP when it comes to education.

If there is one issue that best illustrates why a Coalition government would be better than the ALP alternative it is the Building the Education Revolution multi-billion dollar school infrastructure program.

Since its inception the $16.4 billion program has been plagued by mismanagement, waste and inefficiencies with example after example of over costed, off-the-shelf projects imposed on schools by inflexible and unresponsive centralised bureaucracies. Some estimates put the cost of waste at $6 billion.

Through no fault of their own, government schools have been especially affected by the BER fiasco. Unlike Catholic and independent schools that have the autonomy and freedom to ensure infrastructure is delivered economically, efficiently and tailored to best meet the needs of schools, government schools are ruled by head office.

While the Abbott-led Opposition has promised to give government school principals control over the BER program, ensuring that schools actually get what they want, the ALP Government refuses to acknowledge its failures and, despite a recent about face on school autonomy, refuses to give schools the independence and flexibility so urgently needed.

Under a re-elected ALP government, principals will still be denied the freedom to manage BER projects and Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s policy on giving schools greater control over staffing excludes giving principals the power to sack under-performing staff.

The BER program is symptomatic of a much-wider problem with the ALP’s education revolution. Since the Rudd Government was elected in 2007 and Julia Gillard became Minister for Education, schools across Australia have had to suffer a barrage of top-down, centralised and command and control policies and programs.

Whether a national curriculum and assessment regime, NAPLAN testing and the My School website, a national teacher registration and certification system or a national school data and evaluation bank, all roads lead to Canberra and schools are being drowned in a sea of red tape, unrealistic expectations and stifling demands far removed from the realities of the classroom.

The move to hold schools and teachers accountable by publicly releasing test results and other data on the My School website and to allow parents to rank schools in terms of performance, similar to the BER program, illustrates the dangers of denying government schools autonomy and independence.

On one hand schools are expected to raise standards but, the ALP Government denies schools the flexibility to manage their own affairs in areas like staffing and the curriculum. While teacher unions like the NSWs Teachers’ Federation are opposed to freeing government schools, the reality is that unless schools are given the power to hire, fire and reward staff, to manage their own budgets and to tailor a curriculum to best suit their students, they will be incapable of achieving improved results.

When the Coalition Opposition released its policy to make school fees, along with a range of other items, tax deductible the Australian Education Union complained that such a move represented an attempt to “privatise education”.

The Opposition’s policy on student disability payments (a situation where the money follows the child to whatever school attended) is also condemned as signalling a more market driven approach to education.

In its critique of the Howard Government inspired socioeconomic status (SES) funding model, the AEU bitterly complains about Commonwealth funding to Catholic and independent schools leading to a ‘privatised’ system, one characterised by diversity, choice and competition.

The Opposition education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, has endorsed the SES model and promised that an Abbott-led government would ensure that non-government schools are properly funded. The ALP Government’s decision to extend the current SES model for one more year is simply an attempt to bury the issue and represents a cynical example of political pragmatism.

Both Gillard and Minister for Education Simon Crean also refuse to guarantee, under any new funding model, that funding will not be frozen and that payments to non-government schools will keep pace with state schools.

Research suggests that stronger performing education systems are those that have well-resourced, autonomous schools free from unwanted and inflexible government interference. As noted by Gary Marks at the ACER, non-government schools, even after adjusting for students’ socioeconomic background, achieve the strongest results in areas like school completion and tertiary entry.

Caroline Hoxby’s research in the US concludes that a more market-driven approach to education raises standards, especially for disadvantaged students, and that such improvement is not restricted to those schools that have been freed from the system. As the aphorism suggests, a rising tide lifts all boats.

While critics like Angelo Gavrielatos, the AEU president, argue that conservative governments only favour non-government schools and that Catholic and independent schools are awash with funds as a result of the SES model, such is not the case.

Between the years 2003-2007, when John Howard was Prime Minister, government funding to state schools increased in real terms by 1.6 per cent a year, while non-government schools only received an increase of 0.65 per cent.

While each state school student, on average, receives $12,639 in state and Commonwealth government funding, the figure for a non-government school student is only $6,606. It’s also the case that the SES model is needs based with so-called wealthy independent schools only receiving 13.7 per cent of the cost to government of educating a child in a government school.



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Coalition best for education
20th August 2010
In the following comment piece published in Education Review I argue why the Coalition is better than Julia Gillard and the ALP when it comes to education.If there is one issue that best illustrates...

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