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The education revolution - one year on

By Chris Bonnor - posted Tuesday, 25 November 2008

There is bound to be a cake somewhere to celebrate the Rudd Government’s first birthday. They are surviving, even thriving, in the increasingly tough times - reason enough to bake a cake and have a party?

The education revolution proceeds apace, but like most revolutions there is far more rhetoric, shouting and smoke than serious achievement. If revolutions are supposed to introduce substantial change then Rudd and Gillard need to get back to the barricades and have another go.

First, the credit side.


The COAG (Council of Australian Governments) common framework - trying to fix our federal system - is long overdue. Public schools may get something out of this, including a shake-up of some less than effective practices in areas such as teacher professional development. The national partnership plan for schools in disadvantaged communities also looks good - but we don’t know the who, when and how of the PM’s promise of half a million dollars for each identified school.

Measures to increase retention rates are very important and pay an economic dividend - but to do it properly they have to lift up the bottom achievers, not keep throwing more money to those at the top. To the extent that intentions mean anything, the stated targets for Indigenous students are good. Rudd and Gillard should get also credit for the moves to a national curriculum - if you like that sort of thing.

What about the digital side of the revolution? Not so good - the rollout of computers to schools is probably symbolic of many problems. It has been far more popular than practical - giving away computers didn’t do several state governments any electoral harm. The federal ALP would have been taking notice. It is also overkill in all the wrong areas. Schools don’t need one computer for each student - or anywhere near it. If they really wanted bang for the buck Rudd and Gillard would have been far better off pouring some of this funding into pre-schools.

The digital revolution also continues the Howard government’s tradition of funding all the headline things in schools - but not bothering with the details. The hard yards are left to the states which have to cobble together enough cash to make everything work. On this occasion the states have upped the ante for more funding and at least Canberra is listening.

There are other reasons why the education revolution is looking a bit lightweight. Even if heads don’t roll, the best revolutions usually annoy a fair slice of the population. If you look through Gillard’s list of priorities there is little to upset anyone. As the Howard government discovered, not many people object to attacking the parents of truants or belting up teachers and principals. The only compensation is that they have abandoned Howard’s silly culture wars about values, history and flagpoles.

But in the tradition of good revolutionaries they still fall back onto bread and circuses when the going gets tough. In education there is a host of distracting issues to form a smoke screen. It seems that every time criticism mounts over school funding we get yet another broadside about performance pay, school reporting and ranking, underperforming schools and more of the same.


They also have a weakness for easy but dubious solutions. This week Julia Gillard is importing another guru: Joel Klein, the New York City education chancellor. He is bringing a whole bag of solutions, most of which have simply not delivered the claimed results. It all looks good and is low risk, but Julia Gillard needs to practice what she preaches about evidence-based policy. She needs to look at all the evidence and explain why we are aping the USA rather than the few countries that are doing better than us. Someone should also gently tell this to Rupert Murdoch. He is giving our schools a right serve while so many in his adopted homeland, including in New York City, need to be placed on life support.

In the midst of all this the Rudd Government has shied away from much bigger problems that have been crying out for resolution for years.

The biggest elephant in the playground is the host of problems created by having free and inclusive public schools struggle alongside schools which are publicly funded AND charge fees AND don’t have to enroll all students. That is a sure prescription for advantaging some families and further marginalising the disadvantaged. We were warned about this years ago. Our schools and communities are increasingly divided by income, religion, access to resources, even race in some places. It is not sustainable - it needs to be fixed.

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About the Author

Chris Bonnor is a former principal and is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. His next book with Jane Caro, What makes a good school, will be published in July. He also manages a media monitoring website on education issues

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