At Stake in Our Schools

Everyone around the Council of Australian Governments table in Canberra tomorrow needs to put parents and pupils before politics and parochialism.

Jim’s article was first published by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on 18 April 2013.

There’ll be a lot of people at the elegant, oval-shaped table in the pink-walled cabinet room in Canberra tomorrow.  But when  the Prime Minister sits down there with premiers and chief ministers the people with the biggest stake in the National Plan for School Improvement’s success will be absent.  That’s the kids, their parents and teachers.  Of course, that’s understandable.  But in the case of Campbell Newman and Colin Barnett the kids won’t be in their minds or even worse, their hearts.  That’s unforgivable.

The young girl with a learning difficulty in Caboolture, north of Brisbane, or the young indigenous boy from Woodridge, to the south.  The student struggling with English as a second language in Blacktown or Campbelltown, or throughout the sprawling suburbs of greater Sydney.  None of them will understand all this political argy-bargy over schools funding is or even what “COAG” – the Council of Australian Governments – stands for.

If it is explained to them they’ll still fail to grasp, then, why some of the premiers don’t want hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in new funding to give them and their classmates the same sort of shot at success in life that more advantaged kids get.  They won’t understand what kind of crazy political parochialism sees that kind of money subjected to a destructive brand of partisanship that relegates the needs of kids to a secondary concern.

Watching the debate unfold over the week leading up to the COAG meeting I must admit I’m at a bit of a loss to explain it myself.  I’ve become accustomed to the politics of the permanent backlash but this is politics gone mad.  But I do know what the policy is and what it is designed to achieve, the system it seeks to replace, and why it matters so much to the future of this country, its people and its economy.

At the moment, the federal Government is already providing some targeted investment into Australian schools via what’s called a “National Partnership” agreement, to do things like improve teacher quality, boost core skills, attack disadvantage, and more.  They have been crucial in lifting results, but they are piecemeal and they don’t benefit every school.  They are working, but they have an end date.

So the key with the new Plan is to have a comprehensive, ongoing needs-based funding model that makes permanent the loadings for disadvantage that are the most inspiring part of the vision.  These loadings are what boost the funding to ensure kids who are falling behind or at risk of falling behind get the extra help and resources they need.  This will take the form of things like better teaching, more specialists and aides, better equipment, smarter behaviours management, and a greater say for parents in the direction of school communities, informed by MySchool and NAPLAN results.

These benefits are starting to get out there into the public and that helps explain the groundswell of support for the Plan.  Yet what is not sufficiently understood is that the National Plan for School Improvement will replace the old National Partnerships.  This means that any state that doesn’t sign up to the new arrangements will see the old funding time out.  There’s more than $5 billion at stake there for schools and students.

Worse, in states where no agreement is reached, those same kids will also miss out on the benefits of the new Plan. Things like the reading blitz for kids in the first four grades, personalised learning plans, the science boost, and more.

Each school in each state that doesn’t sign up will lose around $1.5 million in new funding each, on average, over six years.  Think about what that means for your own kids’ school, or the one just down the road from you like Slacks Creek Primary, just down the road from me.  I’m told that kind of money pays for a couple of experienced literacy coaches, or four teacher aides.  Then think about their absence from every school in each recalcitrant state.

When you think of it like that you understand just how much is at stake when the Prime Minister eyeballs her state counterparts over the cabinet table in Canberra.  And you’ll grasp the absurdity of the one-in, all-in position propagated by Christopher Pyne, that says even if only one state refuses then all states should miss out.

The logical corollary of that argument is that Barnett and Newman should determine the fate of schools in New South Wales, an absurd proposition that must worry the socks off the parents of the kids in Western Sydney.  Alas this is characteristic of the politics that bedevils policy reform in Australia, even one like this with demonstrable benefits, community support, and some traces of bipartisanship from the biggest state.

It’s not too much to ask everyone involved in the Council of Australian Governments to put parents and pupils ahead of politics and parochialism, so that we can implement this vision for schools and give every kid the decent chance they deserve.

About Jim Chalmers

Jim Chalmers

Jim Chalmers MP is Shadow Minister for Finance, and the federal Labor Member for Rankin. Prior to his election he was the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and, before that, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. He has a PhD in political science and international relations and a first class honours degree in public policy. His book Glory Daze was published in July 2013 and he tweets as @JEChalmers .

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