View from The Hill

Education a family affair for the Shortens

Bill Shorten has the challenge of signing up more states to the federal Gonski plan. AAP/Alan Porritt

Bill Shorten didn’t ask for the Education portfolio but when Kevin Rudd added it to his Workplace Relations job it was familiar territory.

Shorten’s mother Ann, who has a PhD in history, is co-author of Education and the Law, about the legal framework in which primary, secondary and tertiary teachers operate.

“My mother was involved in teacher training,” Shorten tells The Conversation. “So I’ve followed the education debate. The issues were discussed around the dinner table.” Not surprisingly, he believes that teaching has been undervalued as a profession.

“It’s a privilege to be able to work in education.”

Right now, it’s a test too, of Shorten and the Rudd government, as a last ditch effort is made to round up more support for the Gonski school funding reforms (like Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd would prefer to get away from the “Gonski” tag, but it has stuck now).

“I can’t predict how we’ll go”, Shorten says, adding, it seems optimistically, “there is no reason why we can’t bridge the gap”.

He has talks today with Victoria, which is demanding more money. With the Labor state of Tasmania still to sign – “there’s still a little more to talk about” - and Queensland and Western Australia particularly difficult, is Victoria the key player now?

“The question is not Victoria or the Commonwealth – what’s crucial is that we don’t disappoint the children. We have to keep our eyes on the prize – better outcomes for schools. We will listen carefully to what Victoria and the others have to say.”

Shorten says the regulations around the new arrangements are emerging as issues in the negotiations – “making sure that everyone is comfortable with everyone’s role”. The states want to avoid undue red tape, he says.

(The states are concerned the federal government would have direct control over schools in relation to their individual improvement plans.)

He plays down the money problem, although Gillard improved the offer in an unsuccessful bid to get WA on board.

“Our money offer is pretty good,” Shorten says.

“I don’t think there are too many sticking points. You have to listen and to reach out.”

He’s not inclined to the idea of further extending the time for negotiations - Rudd a week ago gave a fortnight extra for the talks with the outstanding states and the NT. “People work best with a deadline – let’s see how we go.”

And he firmly rejects any suggestion that the January 1 implementation date should be delayed by a year. “It’s not on my to-do list. I’m not sure who’s saying that. [The opposition is calling for this.] Why should children wait an extra year to get extra resources, better resources?”

With NSW, South Australia and the ACT having already signed deals which are now legislated, it is hard to see how there could be a delay anyway.

There are separate negotiations with the Catholic and independent school sectors (he’s meeting the independent today). Shorten, who went to Catholic schools, finishing at Xavier, stresses he’s “pro choice” and says the package has “lots of wins” for the non-government school sectors, such as the funds for disability.

“Everyone accepts the funding model. They want to talk about implementation. They want to be able to administer the resources.”

Has he been able to read the full Gonski report since taking the job? He’s read the executive summary, but is still going through the fine print. “I’m familiar with the model and I’ve had briefings.”

He says he read the full report when it first was presented.

New Higher Education Minister Kim Carr this week expressed concern about the quality of undergraduates entering university. What does this say about the school system?

“What’s prompted the [Gonski] plan is that from 2000 to now results have slipped in literacy, numeracy and science. We’ve got to arrest that.”

Shorten doesn’t want to be drawn on how education will play out at the election if the states continue to hold out. “Education is an important issue. People want a positive view of the future from both parties.” He wants to bring a “forensic passion” to the subject.