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For a real revolution we need reform

By Jennifer Buckingham - posted Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Now that the federal election is finally over, those of us interested in education are waiting with bated breath for the heralded “education revolution”. The lack of class warfare rhetoric is a welcome departure from ALP tradition, but we are yet to hear anything that can be considered revolutionary.

The central components of the Rudd education revolution include computers, trade centres, national standards, and a focus on the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. These are all necessities but are hardly transformational or visionary.

What would a real education revolution look like? There are three urgent and fundamental areas of reform.


First, turn school funding and governance upside down. This is particularly important for public schools. The funding system for most public schools is based on teacher salaries, not on student need. There are various types of add-on funds that are supposed to provide equity for needy students, but they are often inadequate to deal with the multiple educational and social problems some schools are burdened with.

Public schools should be funded on a per student basis, with all students entitled to a standard grant, with graduated loadings for students who cost more to educate, such as kids with disabilities or from disadvantaged homes. This is known in international education policy circles as Weighted Student Funding, and federal Education Minister Julia Gillard need look no further than her own colleagues for an expert on the subject. Labor’s Craig Emerson advocated such a student-based funding system in his 2006 book Vital Signs, Vibrant Society. Ideally, the same funding system would be extended to non-government schools.

Public schools should have much more latitude in deciding how to manage their resources, especially their human resources. While several states have put into practice the common sense approach of local selection of teachers, a number are clinging to the Soviet Russian model of centralised distribution of labour. This is bad enough, but a New South Wales government policy document explicitly puts merit at the bottom of the list of criteria in making the appointment, privileging seniority instead.

As shadow minister, Stephen Smith promised that Labor would offer more autonomy to state school principals in the hiring of staff but shied away from the power to fire incompetent teachers. It is notoriously difficult to get rid of bad teachers despite the evident damage they can do to the lives of their unfortunate students. A real revolution would take this seriously.

Second, sort out teacher recruitment and training. It has become a cliché to talk about teacher quality but this makes it no less important. Teacher quality rests on two conditions: recruiting good people and training them properly. Yes, we want to then keep them in the classroom for as long as possible, but that is a secondary problem. We have to get them in the classroom first.

Research published by economists Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan proves what many have suspected, that teaching no longer draws most of its recruits from the top of the intellectual heap. This is partly the result of positive social change - clever women now have more career options - but the effect has been negative. Teaching needs to become more attractive to the bright sparks who could have any job they want, and who therefore value a stimulating career over a secure one. More flexible salary schedules, and an emphasis on acquiring high quality candidates in the key disciplines rather than putting bums on seats, would both be crucial in a revolutionary shift in the teaching profession.


There are 102 government reports telling us that teacher training is too variable and is largely unsatisfactory to both teachers and principals. At the moment, new teachers spend four years and thousands of dollars at university being poorly prepared for the classroom. The reviews and inquiries have to stop and a proper audit and evaluation of individual teacher training programs must begin. These evaluations must document the content and format of each course and collect data that shows the quality of teaching it produces among its graduates. Only then will we know what works.

Third, make decisive efforts to improve the disgraceful standard of education achieved by our indigenous students. There is no point squabbling over constitutional responsibility for the situation. Education is a national issue. Australia has signed the Kyoto protocol, now we need a protocol on indigenous education. All levels of government should ratify their commitment to meet targets on attendance and attainment and work together to achieve them. No excuses.

These are not the only areas of education that need attention, of course, but they are arguably the most important and underpin the success of other programs. Curriculum reform and computers will be spectacularly ineffective without enough good teachers and responsive schools and systems. When we have these, then may we well say “Vive la révolution”.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on December 17, 2007.

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About the Author

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow with The Centre for Independent Studies.

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