As the election campaign heats up, it is almost impossible to get an accurate reading on the Coalition’s agenda for Australian schools.
The recent release of its “Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes” policy is yet another curious twist in a series of contradictory policy positions that have emerged since education minister Simon Birmingham replaced Christopher Pyne in September last year.
Since then the government has floated everything from a radical retreat from federal involvement in schooling, through to its current position of increasing federal funding for schools and putting new conditions on what states and territories can do with the money.
These mixed messages are not only confusing, but also raise deeper questions about whether the Coalition has a firm position on schooling, or whether it is simply floating ideas on the seas of political opportunism.
Federal “flip-flopping” on the governance of Australian schools
In 2014, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott signalled a new approach to federalism, commissioning a Reform of the Federation white paper.
The white paper promised to “clarify roles and responsibilities” among federal, state and territory governments by ensuring, “as far as possible, the states and territories are sovereign in their own sphere”.
The review signalled a clear motivation to roll back the federal footprint, which had expanded significantly under the previous Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull replaced Abbott, echoes of the ongoing white paper process continued to infuse the government’s position, especially on the vexed issue of school funding.
Turnbull and Birmingham spent their first six months arguing vigorously for a retreat from the Gonski school funding reforms established under Labor.
This agenda was deepened in the lead up to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in March, when Turnbull floated the idea of letting states raise a share of income taxes to enable the federal government to walk away from funding public schools entirely.
In spruiking the tax reform, both Turnbull and Birmingham argued passionately that states and territories are best placed to manage schools and take responsibility for funding.
The plan sparked a backlash from many state premiers and the idea was dead within a few days.
Also dead was the white paper, which the government announced would no longer be released.
A bizarre policy turn-around
Shortly after the COAG meeting, the Coalition completely reversed its position on school funding and signalled its intention to increase the federal footprint in schools.
The turn-around emerged days before the federal budget, with the release of the “Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes” policy and the announcement of a $1.2 billion increase in school funding between 2018-20.
The policy itself has some strong elements to it, as (in most cases) it promotes evidence-based reforms in areas such as curriculum, teaching and school leadership.
The bizarre aspect of it is the complex range of new conditions the federal government has decided to impose on states and territories in exchange for the $1.2 billion increase.
These conditions include standardised literacy and numeracy testing for students in year one, linking the salaries of teachers to the national teaching standards, and a long list of other measures that clearly stray into areas of state and territory responsibility.
Indeed, the policy announcement gives the impression that it’s the federal government that runs Australia’s schools and sets the agenda.
A new era of federal overreach?
If Turnbull wins the election, it will be interesting to see if the Coalition holds tight to its new approach to schools or changes its mind once again.
If the past six months are anything to go by, anything could happen.
For now, it appears the Coalition is intent on pursuing a new era of federal overreach, delivered under the guise of accountability and transparency, by seeking to micro manage what goes on in schools.
This is a dangerous move because it further blurs lines of responsibility and drives a culture of mistrust between governments.
Even if the Coalition sticks to its guns, it will have a tough road ahead trying to convince states and territories to accept $1.2 billion with new conditions. Labor’s position, in contrast, is fewer conditions and $4.5 billion between 2018-19 as part of the Gonski reform model.
States like New South Wales and Victoria are already angry about the Gonski money being pulled and will likely go to war over the Coalition’s “less cash, more caveats” funding plan.
The need for greater clarity and consistency
The Australian public deserves more clarity and consistency from the federal government in relation to its agenda for schools.
The education of young people not only needs stable and evidence-based policies, but states and territories also need clarity from the federal government in order to ensure sound future planning and continuity.
Rather than flipping recklessly between polarised positions, the federal government needs seriously to consider what it is well placed to do in schooling, and which areas it should leave to states and territories.
The Coalition has the right idea in seeking to ensure that big ticket policy areas like school funding are linked to evidence-based practices.
But there needs to be some resolution about whether the federal government or the states and territories decide which evidence is used and how money should be spent.