Federal government to take a back seat in education?

The education issues paper for the federalism white paper says perhaps education is best left up to those closer to it: the states and territories. AAP

Released two days before Christmas, you could be forgiven for missing the issues paper on government roles and responsibilities in education that is part of the process in developing the federalism white paper. This is a pity. Because if you wanted insights into the Commonwealth government’s attitude to federalism in education and potential directions this could take, it’s a good place to start.

Schooling policy best left to the states?

As the paper makes clear, Australian early childhood and schooling policy are complex labyrinths of overlapping funding and policy responsibilities. This reflects the ad hoc way they have developed over the last 150 years and especially last few decades. It recognises that while not all the pressures and challenges in these spheres result from overlapping government roles, they can exacerbate problems, and clarification could lead to improvements.

The paper asks readers and stakeholders to consider a number of key principles when considering the allocation of roles and responsibilities in relation to issues such as accountability, equity, efficiency, the national interest, and fiscal sustainability.

It’s clear where the government stands. Most of the questions in the schooling section about the degree of overlapping government roles or desirability of Commonwealth involvement are at best Dorothy Dixers or leading questions, for which the pre-empted answer is partial or complete Commonwealth retreat from the policy space. For instance, it asks:

What benefits, or costs, would arise from assigning full responsibility for school education to the States and Territories?

It answers below:

In general, the national interest will be best served through subsidiarity [responsibility given to the least centralised authority].

The issues paper repeatedly outlines complexities associated with the different funding arrangements for government and non-government schools and the arguments against Commonwealth involvement in schooling. Instead, it says that:

… states and territories […] arguably ought to have primary carriage of schooling policy for all the schools in their jurisdiction.

Only rarely does it provide a counter argument for retaining or increasing such involvement.

Importantly (and unusually for a document emanating from the prime minister’s department) it explicitly and repeatedly states that the presence of national interest does not necessarily require policy uniformity or Commonwealth leadership.

The paper also hints that the Commonwealth is considering downgrading its role in the national curriculum and assessment body, ACARA and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), which it says duplicate the work of the states and territories.

It says the Commonwealth has already played its role in the creation of these national education agencies and architecture (such as NAPLAN and the national curriculum) and this work could now be maintained by the states and the territories.

What for early childhood?

By contrast, on early childhood the government is much less clear about what it considers the best path forward.

In recent years, the sector has rapidly expanded and undergone dramatic upheavals. This has led to a proliferation of different services and regulatory frameworks that are difficult for parents and service providers to navigate.

The paper recognises the need for early childhood care to involve quality educational programs by qualified staff. The issues paper hints that fees, already increasing almost 8% annually, may have to increase further to meet the growing demand for places and quality programs. This is despite governments increasing their expenditure on childcare and early learning by 80% in real terms since 2007-08.

The paper identifies the disconnect between stand-alone kindergartens (managed and funded by states and local governments), and kindergarten programs in formal daycare settings (which are mostly funded by the Commonwealth through childcare funding). Confusing matters further, both of these early childhood education services operate in two sets of regulatory and curriculum frameworks – state and Commonwealth.

What can we learn from the issues paper?

While major revisions to current roles and responsibilities are possible, the government has ruled out constitutional changes. This is a sensible move, given such changes are unnecessary. Major changes to our federal system occur through political, legal and cultural forces. This is essentially how our political system has transformed so radically since we became a federation 114 years ago.

The paper’s early conclusions are well-supported by research on federalism and education policy. This is but the first step in the process and it will be interesting to see how the government’s thinking evolves in the final report due in early 2016.

The conclusions suggest delivery and regulation of education services by the states and territories, complemented by national collaboration and information sharing, may be the best way to improve learning outcomes, enhance accountability, and ensure greater equity and efficiency.