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The real agenda behind Gillard’s Gonski response

Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaking at the National Press Club yesterday signalled serious changes to the states’ role in education. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

After the government’s response to the Gonski report on schools funding, it’s worth looking at not only what was in the announcement but what wasn’t.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered no indication about the extent of a Commonwealth contribution yesterday and will presumably defend this silence on the grounds that her negotiating position with the state and territories will be compromised. This may well be right, years of experience across different portfolios have taught her not to trust the states.

But more fundamentally Julia Gillard sees no long-term role for the states and territories in education, beyond sharing their GST. The Gonski review, now with the government’s lacklustre response, points to a bigger story about the governance of Australian education.

A centralised system

If the Prime Minister has her way, all schools in Australia will eventually be self-managing. They will be under greater accountability as a result, and the performance of their teachers will be assessed every year.

To support both their greater autonomy and greater accountability, schools will have complete control over their own budgets, including hiring and firing of staff.

The curriculum will be national, and there will be federal controls over who gets to train as a teacher and what kind of training they receive. Everything will be governed by statutory professional standards.

In this scenario, there are no states and territories. Their role is simply to contribute GST to a national pool, administered (under Gonksi, if not Gillard) by the National Schools Resourcing Body. Nor will there be any distinction between public and private.

Public schools will operate under the same funding, management and accountability regime as private schools. And the more that public schools are aligned to private schools, the more the role of public systems recedes into the past.

Federation fail

Julia Gillard has not yet declared the end of federation, but her education policy is heading in that direction, based on a progressive extinction of state functions, some transferred to the Commonwealth, others internalised in schools.

The states are only too aware of this tendency, but ironically they are working just as hard to accomplish it themselves, or at any rate the Liberal states are. They are devolving management, introducing student-centred funding models, increasing accountability, and cutting back central and regional office staff in favour of a service-driven support role.

Public systems are being dismantled. What the Liberal states have already started (beginning years ago in Victoria), the Gillard government is completing. They have already begun to abandon the State’s Rights that they are so keen to defend against Canberra.

An education devolution

Seen from this angle, the Gonski review clung to an anachronism, indeed two. It saw the states continuing to play a role, including more support for private schools as well. It also saw a future for non-government system authorities.

But in the totally devolved regime being pursued by both Canberra and the Liberal states, there is no role for systems, whatever their colouration. Between ending federation and marketising schools, systems are reduced to providing services of the last resort.

This partly explains why Gillard has said nothing about the National Schools Resourcing Body and the State Planning Authorities that Gonski proposed. What role would planning agencies have in the marketised world of self-managing schools?

And if the states do not take an interest in the growth and quality of public schools as systems — working well everywhere, open to all, under the same rules — why have a national funding body which represents the interests that they have abandoned? A pricing authority is all that is needed.

Is it so surprising, then, that the Prime Minister should have dwelt so much on quality, standards, and accountability? Why quibble over funding details, when the real agenda is governance?

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