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Education revolution needs to devolve to evolve

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Thursday, 24 March 2011

Based on the assumption that the Liberal/National Coalition wins government and that Barry O'Farrell is the next Premier and Adrian Piccoli the next Minister for Education, it's clear that education is one policy area where the election will have a significant and beneficial impact both in NSW and across Australia.

The Rudd/Gillard education revolution is highly statist, bureaucratic and centralised in its approach. Since the start of 2008 all state and territory schools, and education departments, have been made to implement Canberra's dictates or lose funding.

Whether the national curriculum, national testing and accountability (via NAPLAN and My School), teacher registration and certification or implementing ALP social policy in areas like disadvantage, all roads lead to Canberra.


It's also the case that the NSW Education Department, compared to Victoria and Western Australia, embodies a command and control model of educational delivery and schools lack the same degree of autonomy as those experienced by schools interstate.

The Building the Education Revolution (BER) program offers a clear example of the waste and mismanagement that occurs when local decision making is ignored in favour of head office taking control and schools being denied the right to manage their own affairs.

If elected, the Liberal/National Coalition promises to give schools the power to manage any BER projects that have yet to commence. The Coalition has also promised to invest $60 million in maintenance funding and, at the same time, promised that individual schools will have the autonomy and flexibility to decide how the money will be spent.

While representing initial, first steps, the move to free up schools mirrors Tony Abbot's comments in Battlelines where the Leader of the Opposition argues that school communities, including parents and teachers, need to be given greater responsibility and freedom to decide what best suits their needs and interests.

The move to free up schools, while stridently opposed by the militant and powerful NSW Teachers Federation, also mirrors recent events in Western Australia where the Barnett-led Government has introduced a popular and well supported school autonomy program.

While the BER and school maintenance policies are only two examples, if the policy of school autonomy is further developed, it suggests that an O'Farrell Government will be more sympathetic to giving schools and their communities greater control over decision making.


The proposed national curriculum is another example of where, most likely, a new government will have a strong influence. Barry O'Farrell has made no secret of his dislike for the way, under groups like COAG, power has been centralised in Canberra and states rights have been diminished.

If, as feared by the NSW Board of Studies, the ALP inspired national curriculum represents a lowering of standards then there is a possibility that NSW, along with WA and Victoria (now controlled by right-of-centre governments) will resist moves to weaken locally designed curriculum.

In the case of NSW, such an outcome is more than likely given that its school curriculum, while needing to be strengthened and refined, is far more academic and rigorous than the draft national curriculum frameworks that have been designed to date.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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