State of NSW: Education debate hones in on photocopiers, bank accounts but few ideas

Federal initiatives like the My School website have distracted from the debate. Photo: AAP.
Voters in New South Wales could be forgiven for thinking that education simply isn’t something they should consider when heading to the ballot box on Saturday. It’s a vital issue in many people’s minds, but apparently not for state politicians.

The lack of public transport, the potential failure of electrical supply, the state of public hospitals, even law and order, and the threat from all night drinking, have been the perennial issues re-occurring in the state election. What seems missing is any discussion of educational issues let alone a policy debate.

The only issue of possible political interest was the ethics classes in public schools which the Keneally Labor Government had recently introduced following a trial of the proposed curriculum.

These were an alternative to the weekly religious instruction offered by the Churches and other religious bodies since the 1880 Public Instruction Act. Even the trial had raised the ire of the Anglican and Catholic Archbishops who seemed to be prepared to deny parents a choice in this matter.

Initially, the cautious Barry O’Farrell seemed to indicate that he would consider abandoning the new arrangement, only then to reconsider because he believed he would not command the numbers in the Upper House to allow the passage of legislation on the matter.

Matters of management not policy are now generally the order of the day for both parties.

Adrian Piccoli, the Deputy Leader of the National Party and Opposition spokesman on education, has indicated that the Coalition would give school principals control of bank accounts, photocopiers, and contract building services, as part of a plan to decentralise the educational bureaucracy. This would supposedly give local community control over the maintenance and up grading of schools.

In response, Verity Firth the Minister for Education has suggested that the proposed budget for school maintenance now allows for schools to give priority to local trades people. And when Piccoli indicated the Coalition would consider opening schools 24 hours a day to meet community and parent needs, Firth responded that schools could already vary hours to accommodate parental work commitments, student travel and senior study options.

In the last week of the campaign, the press revealed that the state treasury had commissioned a secret report proposing cuts to the teaching force in public schools and school closures, from the management consultants Boston Consulting. The minister claimed the report had been rejected, the opposition made no comment except to give a general undertaking to public education.

These are hardly issues to capture the electorate’s imagination about the future of education and the future of the State’s children.

Essentially, both State parties are now captives of the political and ideological changes across the nation during the past two decades.

Policy at the state level has been hollowed out while the initiative in satisfying the new mantra of parental choice has passed to the Federal arena.

To understand how this has come about, we need to consider the broader historical contexts.

Education was at the forefront of the Greiner revolution in government and administration in the early 1990s. As the first Liberal Premier in two decades, Nick Greiner was anxious to re-structure public administration along new lines of economic rationalism. He thus sought to decentralise the bureaucracy giving more power to school principals, even introducing the idea of the market into public education by de-zoning public school districts and creating more selective high schools.

Even while his period as Premier was short the legacy of Greiner in New South Wales has been quite profound. It proved impossible to return entirely to the older forms of centralised administration that had marked public education for over a century.

The idea of school choice for parents had been floated and then consolidated by the Howard Government from 1996, increasingly distributing federal money away from public education and towards private schools.

The succeeding Labor Governments in New South Wales inherited this agenda. While protesting about the lack of federal funds for public schools, Labor accepted and even expanded many of the Greiner initiatives.

As the new Labor premier elected in 1995, Bob Carr proclaimed that education and the environment would be his two main priorities. With Carr as Premier for a decade, the Labor Government concentrated on academic standards, introducing senior high schools and selective streams into local comprehensive schools. In part the aim was to stop the increasing drift of students from public to private.

Even with the departure of Carr as Premier there have been few new initiatives in education. Verity Firth is a relative newcomer to the portfolio but even as a member of the Left faction she has presided over few initiatives with the possible exception of the ethics classes.

Essentially state ministers of education are managing a public education system while the federal government constructs new policy directions.

The effect of this change in federal-state relations in the area of education is seen in the three policy areas which have received attention even during the current election campaign.

First, there is an on-going federal review of the original Howard Government provision for chaplains in public schools – a policy now continued under the federal Labor Government.

Second, there is a review of the contentious issue of federal funding arrangements for schools.

Finally, the My School web site has been re-launched providing data which will supposedly influence parental choice.

All of these are federal initiatives which have virtually by-passed state politics. Thus both the Keneally Labor Government and the Coalition opposed the creation of school league tables in the media but this has not prevented the publication in the press of data on the My School web site, providing data on a school’s performance and possible comparisons with schools of a similar social and educational profile.

What this also suggests is that while education remains crucial in the minds of the electorate the parameters of the debate have altered significantly. Until state governments begin once again to control the directions of policy the electoral process will have little effect on schools in New South Wales.