Gillard’s school autonomy proposal smacks of political opportunism
Dr Kevin Donnelly
Prime Minister Julia Gillard might describe herself as an atheist.
But Monday’s speech arguing that principals and parents should be given the freedom to manage their own schools represents a road-to-Damascus experience when it comes to empowering school communities.
While the Prime Minister’s statement that a re-elected ALP government will work “to ensure that core decisions that make the most difference to student outcomes are devolved to schools” is commendable, Gillard’s record as minister for education proves that her epiphany is more about political opportunism than conviction.
It also smacks of catch-up politics when the ALP releases a policy giving principals power over their schools just weeks after the Tony Abbott-led opposition promised to give school leaders control over school infrastructure spending – a policy condemned by federal Education Minister Simon Crean. During Gillard’s time in charge of education, even though schools are a state’s responsibility and the commonwealth government neither employs teachers nor manages schools, all roads led to Canberra and, as a result, classrooms have been paralysed by a command-and-control model of education.
During her nearly three years in charge of education, Gillard championed a raft of centrally inspired programs involving a national curriculum and assessment regime, national literacy and numeracy testing and a national approach to teacher registration and certification.
It’s widely accepted that the Rudd-Gillard education revolution is inflexible and statist in its approach. Not surprisingly, the eminent educationalist Brian Caldwell from the University of Melbourne, gives the education revolution 2/10 for school autonomy and 1/10 for introducing models of innovative school governance. Across Australia, primary as well as secondary principal professional organisations have bemoaned the educational straitjacket being imposed by the ALP’s education revolution and called for increased school autonomy.
One cannot but conclude that any Gillard-inspired school autonomy program, not starting until 2012 and only with a sample of schools, will be a Clayton’s one. The promise to give school principals and parents freedom and flexibility at the local level amounts to nothing if schools are constrained and shackled by the type of government directives and demands exemplified by the ALP’s education revolution.
Best illustrated by the fate of government schools under the Building the Education Revolution fiasco, the result of Gillard’s approach is that state schools are denied the power to manage their affairs and tailor programs and initiatives to best suit their needs.
Whereas Catholic and independent schools, given the freedom and flexibility they have, are able to deliver school infrastructure efficiently and economically, government schools have been plagued by dodgy deals, cost over-runs and white elephants.
Yesterday’s admission by Gillard that “without control over decision-making, principals are limited in their ability to respond to problems and are impeded in attempts to improve educational outcomes for their students” makes a good deal of sense.
Unfortunately, it comes too late for government schools shackled with useless infrastructure, and cannot absolve her of the failure to give state schools the power to properly implement the BER program over the past two years. Doubts about yesterday’s conversion to school autonomy in the middle of an election campaign, three weeks before judgment day, are reinforced by Gillard’s inaction on the issue during her term as minister for education. Under the Howard government a report was commissioned into school leadership and principal autonomy, undertaken by Educational Transformations and completed in December 2007. The report, based on national and international research, concluded that school autonomy was critical for raising standards, and that Australian principals are concerned about the adverse effect of the centralising of control over education.
Not only did Gillard, while she was minister for education, bury the report for nearly two years, finally releasing it in November 2009, but the Labor government has failed to adopt any of the report’s recommendations.
At the 2007 election, the then Rudd opposition promised to give every senior school student a computer and to build a trade centre in every secondary school; neither promise has been fully implemented.
There must also be doubts whether the promise on school autonomy will ever be delivered. As the NSW ALP-led government learned a couple of years ago when it attempted to allow principals to hire and reward staff, the Australian Education Union is vehemently opposed to giving state schools control over their own destiny.
It’s no secret that the AEU regularly campaigns in support of the ALP, injecting millions into marginal seats campaigns and funding anti-Coalition advertising. If the ALP is re-elected, it should not be a surprise if the promise to deliver school autonomy is put on the back burner and that it disappears into the byzantine bureaucracy represented by bodies such as the Council of Australian Governments.
Kevin Donnelly is the director of Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute. He taught for 18 years in Melbourne government and non-government schools and is the author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars and Dumbing Down : outcomes based and politically correct – the impact of the Culture Wars on our schools.