I've always admired people who can successfully multitask, and Julia Gillard certainly fits that category. With a job title longer than my CV, Ms Gillard has made a splash across her two portfolios, plus the odd stint as relieving prime minister. She is one of those people who I can't resist urging on to bigger and better things.
But if education policy is any guide she seems increasingly unable or unwilling to get her mind around some of the complexities of this huge portfolio. Despite a tribe of Victorians near her office and despite (or because?) hanging on to the best of DEST she has managed to manoeuvre herself into a number of conflicting or at best highly debatable policy positions - while being unwilling to tackle some difficult issues that just won't go away.
This was illustrated by her recent speech to the Association of Independent Schools (New South Wales), which was widely and variously reported in the national media - in some cases so variously one wonders if it was the same speech.
From the outset no one should blame a minister of the crown for wanting to please a large and partisan audience of people with an intense interest in her policies. But what emerged from this speech was an eagerness to please, combined with statements which would not only raised the eyebrows of public educators but will almost certainly leave the most balanced commentators scratching their heads.
In her speech she voiced concern about equity, but was quick to set her audience at ease about funding. "Let me spell it out", she said, "We will maintain the funding levels, including indexation, of non-government schools".
If you are new to this issue let me try to explain. The Howard government initiated the SES system to fund private schools on need - sort of. When told that better-off schools would lose money they fiddled the system so that funding could only go up. Catholic schools were given an exemption so that their funding could also go up.
Over the years and despite (or because of) Mark Latham the funding of private schools certainly did go up. Some of them lost enrolments but their funding still went ... up. A secret Howard government report timidly claimed that all this “going up” was not really a good thing. The Rudd Government ignored the report because they had exorcised “down” from their own policy language.
Julia Gillard has little choice - the funding of some schools will go down. What she has managed to do is turn a potential “down” into an “up”. New SES figures show that more schools' funding should go down - but the schools can wait until their new SES score reaches the level of their current funding.
It is a sort of a cushioned “down” - a fiscal detoxification for those private schools hooked on public funding. But in the meantime their total funding (wait for it) ... goes UP by $1.3 billion over the next four years. Not a problem for Julia: the actual going down bit may take so long that it will be someone else's problem.
In keeping with a Rudd Government theme she again stressed "it's time we got beyond the public versus private divide that has blighted our education debates for so long". This is a time-honoured way of denying difference and debate, ranking up there with “politics of envy” and variations of “mission accomplished”.
The problems she won't deal with are obvious. It is the very way that public and private providers operate in this country, with different rules, funding sources and sets of obligations, that creates the same problems of access and equity about which she professes to be concerned. It isn't enough to declare such concerns off-limits in the hope that the mounting problems of our public-private framework will just go away.
Where Julia Gillard makes serious errors is in trying to blur the current distinctions that do exist between public and private schools, in particular by claiming that it is impossible to say that one is rich and the other poor. This isn't supported by data: as Barbara Preston shows, 40 per cent of government school students are in low income families. The figure for Catholic schools is 25 per cent and for other private schools is 22 per cent (source: The social make-up of schools (PDF 253KB)).
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