Until Federal Labor’s education campaign began, school education had a low profile in the party’s public statements. They may have been content to let the Coalition stumble from one empty gesture to another, or they may have been afraid of “scaring the horses” by raising the spectre of Latham’s “hit list” of private schools. But there was also a practical reason - from colonial times school education has been primarily the role of the State Governments.
It is in the Australian States that the expertise, energy and creativity have operated and in which the knowledge of what works and does not work resides. As Barry McGaw pointed out in his presentation (PDF 707KB) at the Fabian Education Conference in August last year our results on international comparisons show that these systems have put us among the world’s best, but serious problems about equity are developing that need to be addressed, which I will come back to.
Maybe the biggest failing of the Coalition Government was not to realise that they knew practically nothing about the nuts and bolts of education. For them, ignorance was truly bliss.
The federal government does not run one school or employ one teacher. Of course in the 21st century the federal government does have the financial power to attempt to bully states, and this is what the Howard government did so disastrously, engaging in symbolic gestures that had little real effect on student learning - flagpoles, a minimalist simplistic view of reporting to parents, chaplains - instead of directing money and energy into what was actually working.
There was of course a more malevolent message not so subtly delivered - the denigration of public education at the expense of private education. Where the Coalition was, in my opinion, on the right track - moving towards a national curriculum and rewarding quality teachers - what could have been a pragmatic co-operative approach was replaced by an ideologically driven heavy handedness. It is interesting that the two former ministers, under whose watch this happened are, at present at least, the opposition leader and deputy leader.
What has Labor promised so far? The proposals put forward provide only a small part of what could be done to make what is essentially a good system into a world class one. They also have the advantage of not interfering significantly in what are basically state matters. These are the promises:
an emphasis on trades courses where there is a current shortage: but who knows what occupations are going to exist in 20 years time? Our Asian competitors are learning that the most important attribute is the ability to adapt creatively to a changing world;
fast broadband and access to computers for less privileged students will help, but in the end it is only another tool; and
policies to make pre-school education more available and to address Indigenous disadvantage will help, but these will take time to develop. Just as much energy should be put into primary schools where an inspirational teacher, who has a class for the whole year can have a profound effect on a child’s future development.
What further then does the Labor Government need to do?
Any Labor government must focus on equity, and education is easily the most significant factor in providing equality of opportunity for all Australians. The question of the equitable funding of all schools was kept hidden during the campaign but this is one area where, if it wanted to do, the Federal government could, after good economic modelling, act decisively. To me, whether it does so will be a key factor in evaluating Kevin Rudd’s integrity as a Labor leader - but the signs at present are not positive.
It must also focus on having the brightest and the best as teachers. We all know that there are many wonderful teachers, but there are many more “ordinary” teachers (while recognising being an “ordinary” teacher in today’s world is still a very worthwhile achievement). Anyone who is honest knows you can distinguish the outstanding teachers.
The Quality Teachers Award which has been operating in New South Wales for six years has demonstrated that, with carefully determined criteria, referees reports and workplace visits, valid judgments on teacher quality can be made: yet after just ten years working as teachers the pay of these outstanding teachers plateaus. The only way they can get financial recognition is to leave the classroom and take up administrative positions.
A teacher should be able to remain in the classroom and be financially rewarded for doing so, and should be able to act as a mentor and inspiration for other teachers. The Federal Government has the financial resources to provide this bonus.
Ian Keese has degrees in Science and the Arts. He has been a secondary school history teacher and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators. He lives in Melbourne and writes on history and education or anything else in which he becomes interested. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org