Gillard's take on Gonski is finally out for all to see. And it is a chacteristic Gillard take: all neatly wrapped up in her familiar populist rant and a carrots and sticks package. Look at it from her point of view: if she can get it over the line by giving those recalcitrant schools a serve, then she has a win – especially if she can minimize use of the 'e' (equity) word. Sure, the Gonski review saw inequity as the central concern – but no sense in scaring the horses from the bigger end of town.
In the process she may generate more than a little consternation in the ranks of an Opposition which is apparently committed not to having a bar of Gonski. Amidst all the current focus on Gillard and Gonski it is worth speculating on what education policy options are currently being contemplated by Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne.
They'll have a job on their hands to oppose or wind back forthcoming Gonski legislation. Within 12 hours of Gillard's announcement Fiona Nash, Deputy Nationals Leader in the Senate, was very favourably disposed towards Gonski in her comments on ABC Q&A. She certainly won't be the only one on her side of politics who will be aware of the weight of evidence and commentary supporting a change in the way we fund schools.
To broaden the appeal of her National Plan for School Improvement Gillard is including much of her tried and true school reform initiatives relating to teacher quality, school autonomy and transparency. The Gonski panel didn't get wildly excited about much of this – possibly because the benefits of autonomy and transparency are usually over hyped. And the whole package will also have an urgency to match the moral panic about us slipping down the international league table. By 2025 Shanghai and the rest of them will apparently queue up behind us.
The immediate purpose and effect will be to force Abbott and Pyne to oppose many things which have a natural fit in their own policy corner. Gillard can and will wedge the Opposition and be able to pitch its antagonism to Gonski as akin to disbelief in parenthood. The longer term problem for the Opposition is that, to change the (far distant) Gonski future, it will have to repeal legislation which will include many of its own preferred goodies.
It is a problem largely of Abbott and Pyne's making but one which isn't always characteristic of conservative parties. On education policy the Conservative Opposition in England frequently outflanked the Brown Labour Government by arming itself with positions usually promoted by the Left. In NSW Barry O'Farrell and Adrian Piccoli arguably did the same, in the process even cosying up to the NSW Teachers Federation. In both cases their form was somewhat reversed on achieving the government benches, far moreso in Britain than in NSW where Adrian Piccoli still warms the hearts of educators, potentially at his own risk in joint party rooms.
Not so the team of Abbott and Pyne who have matched Gillard and Garrett with similar policies built around populism, timidity as well as being relatively useless and deliberately distractive. In this competition the Government has always been on the front foot; where does a full-blooded take-no-prisoners conservative Opposition go?
The Opposition policy at the 2010 election provides some insight. The Opposition proposed fifteen policies about schools. Half of these (including rewarding teachers, school building, technology, chaplaincy, education tax rebates, My School) fall into the 'do it tougher or different' category. A couple (bullying, languages) represented sounded good. The only thing that was possibly new was an education card (did anyone say "voucher"?) for students with disabilities. Pyne recycled this one on the same day as Gillard's recent Gonski launch.
What else can they do? They can always attack management stumbles, matters of trivia and raise the inevitable cry of 'where is the money coming from'. Hence "school halls" are forever in the same sentence as "pink batts", the politics of distraction get a work-out, coupled with competing claims about the relative size of one's own surplus.
But they'll have to come up with a better policy if they want to combat the compelling narrative generated by the whole Gonski review process. Perhaps there are other policy options in any true-blue's kitbag. The Opposition's commitment to school autonomy can easily morph into charter schools, shortly about to be launched across the Tasman in New Zealand. The education card is a voucher by another name and targeted vouchers are a useful Trojan horse for bigger things to come. Tax rebates and/or tax deductibility can easily be extended to encompass portion or whole of school fees. And there is no end to headline announcements which characterize "school reform" in places such as England, where education policy has been portrayed by one writer as three announcements before breakfast.
The problem with the policies in the conservative kit bag is that few of them really seem to work without worsening equity problems. By itself that shouldn't stop them: the school reform bandwagon, regardless of who is holding the reins, is loaded with policy failures. Tax deductibility is regressive and will worsen our equity divides. Time and time again research shows insignificant differences between charter and other public schools. And we already have a de facto voucher system in the sense that money follows enrolments. The beneficial impacts of school autonomy are not significant while the downside equity risk has already been felt, even in Australia.
And the Opposition has other problems. Conservatives in Australia are running out of bogey-men. The Government is gripped by timidity, evidenced by the Prime Minister's fawn-fest before the Independent Schools Council of Australia conference a few weeks back. No dredging of her more radical statements from yesteryear seem to dent her image as a friend of private schools. In backing the Gonski recommendations the public school teacher unions have made themselves a very small target. Even the Greens fall well short of where public school advocates might like them to be.
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