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The election crusade? Schools will come second to politics in 2013

The PM has zoned in on education policy this election year, but maybe education needs less political attention, not more. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Today, as part of an Australian Education Union (AEU) campaign, academics, business and political leaders have signed a letter urging state and federal governments to move on the Gonski reforms to school funding.

But despite high expectations in this election year and repeated calls of this kind, education seems doomed to be the political football of the 2013 election.

Prime minister Julia Gillard’s rhetoric in particular has raised expectations for action. At her national press club address last week, she spoke of her determination to give every child the opportunities that can only come with a world class education.

Of course, it is a core responsibility of any government to provide a high quality primary and secondary school education for all, but this, she said, would be her “moral cause”, a “crusade” linked to our future prosperity.

Meanwhile the debate about how to increase educational outcomes continues.

In an ideal world, this debate should be driven by improving the quality of teaching, the relevance of curriculum and the performance of students, schools and systems.

But instead, the debate is too often marred by politics. When governments look at choosing the best levers for improvement, it is increasingly guided by ideology.

On 15 April 2010, Gillard first announced her intention to review arrangements for school funding in Australia, and shortly after announced David Gonski would lead a panel of experts in undertaking this work.

Close to three years later, we are yet to see meaningful legislation or any substantial increase in funding flowing to schools, and the deadline of April’s Council of Australian Government’s (COAG) meeting is fast approaching.

This extended period of inaction has increased anxiety both within and between key stakeholder groups. When Gonski’s recommendations were first released early last year there was a general spirit of positivity and openness to a new model of resourcing.

However over time this seems to have dissipated, and has become subject to broad scepticism around where the funds may come from in such a difficult economic climate.

Furthermore, it is clear that any additional Commonwealth investment will be tied to controversial federal government initiatives such as teacher performance pay.

While it’s impossible to deny our current model of funding schools is deeply flawed and inexcusably inconsistent, the amount of time spent lobbying, campaigning and protecting interest groups is a distraction from the core business of supporting and empowering schools.

It’s absurd that in 2013 we require campaigns and television advertisements calling for adequate resources to ensure every student has the support required to read proficiently – like the ad recently launched by the AEU as part of the “I Give a Gonski” campaign.

But clearly we do.


There are very few examples in government where we see the level of political intervention that we see in school education.

In Australia, we have a national architecture of independent expert agencies to provide support to teachers and school leaders, develop curriculum and methods for reporting, and provide resources and services to enhance teaching and learning.

Arguably such agencies need to be given the platform to lead, resource and inspire schools based on evidence and rigour. Instead it’s increasingly clear that power and influence has moved from the realm of education to the realm of politics.

At a time when both sides of politics broadly support greater school autonomy and empowerment, it is difficult to justify the increasing political influence and quest for external control.

Improving the quality of school education in Australia requires a re-examination of the relationship between school and state. While there should always be debate around the impact and effectiveness of public funds, ultimately decisions about how to get the best from our students and teachers needs to rest with educators and not politicians.

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