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Priorities in education

By Jack Keating - posted Friday, 8 February 2008

The three Federal post war Labor Governments have all entered office with education as a priority.

The Whitlam Government had a social vision of a better and more just society and of a stronger sense of an Australian culture and the nation’s place in the world. This was reflected in particular in the work of the Schools Commission and its major initiatives in needs-based programs and in the expansion of a free university system.

The Hawke Government’s priorities for national economic restructuring and infrastructure building influenced its major reforms in vocational education and training and the expansion of higher education.


Both governments invested in other areas - Whitlam in the establishment of the TAFE system, and Hawke in a Participation and Equity program. However, on the whole the landmark initiatives reflected what Gough Whitlam has termed the “contemporary relevance” of the reformist foci of the respective governments.

The Rudd Government has now arrived with an “Education Revolution”. Its list of initiatives is formed under the mantra of human capital. In a sense it’s a clever focus as it allows the convergence of economic priorities and Labor’s traditional equity principles of quality education and a decent work for all. In another, however, it’s nothing new. Most of its key elements constitute increased investments in current elements of the education systems.

This is not necessarily a criticism, as the reversal of the public disinvestment in education over the past decade is welcome. However, it raises the questions of what’s revolutionary about it, is there a need for an education revolution, and if so in what areas?

The “education revolution” inevitably needs to focus largely upon the schools sector. Schooling continues to account for $3 out of every $4 of public spending on education, and the human capital agenda is largely dependent upon a foundation of schooling.

In schooling, apart from the trades wings (which will need some heavy revision) and a laptop for students, the major platform items of the new government are a national curriculum and more open reporting of school results. There are clear echoes of the strategies of New Labour in England in these plans, as well in the emphasis upon teacher quality.

The Blair Government’s efforts in schooling should not be dismissed. The financial reinvestment has been large and the claims of major improvements in standards and outcomes are justified. New Labour also can make some claims of an educational revolution in that it has challenged long established cultures of schooling in England, including a deficit view towards educational failure.


However, New Labour’s educational revolution has its limits. The improvement in results appears to have stalled, with England’s 2006 PISA results being below its 2000 results, and there has been minimal advance in long standing problem of unequal social distributions of educational outcomes.

For the Rudd Government the New Labour approach has another problem in that it is dealing with a very different type of “school system” to that in England. Local education authorities in England and Wales have now been reduced to mostly service delivery agencies with minimal governance roles and the school system has effectively become an educational market, albeit with some minimum guarantees and robust state intervention.

Australian schooling on the other hand is riven with systems. There are eight government school “systems” plus Catholic school systems across the states and territories. There is also an independent school sector. Although this sector is not a system in its governance it is a system in its political behaviour, as Labor experienced at the 2004 elections.

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About the Author

Jack Keating is a professorial fellow in education at the University of Melbourne.

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