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Issue #1581      February 13, 2013

COAG sharpens clash over schools funding

The Australian Education Union (AEU) placed ads in the major dailies last week carrying an open letter to the Prime Minister, state premiers and territory chief ministers. Crunch time is looming; decisions will have to be made about the future of schools funding and the deadline appears to be the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in April. Of course, while the AEU represents teachers in public schools where funding problems are the most acute, it is not the only body pressing for major change in the way state and federal education dollars are spent.

The AEU open letter was signed by a host of prominent Australians – former Australian premiers and former PM Bill Hayden, former Greens leader Bob Brown, Professor Mick Dodson, Mandawuy Yunupingu, World Vision’s Tim Costello and many others. The campaign to secure the extra $6.5 billion for struggling schools recommended in the Gonski Review of schools funding has been taken up a notch. The AEU has been arguing the case for the funding boost since the Review’s release in February last year. Most Australians agree with the union about the need for a dramatic turnaround from current arrangements that favour private schools including elite institutions for the children of the very wealthy.

“If there is no agreement between state and territory governments and the Commonwealth on Gonski, not only will schools miss out on the additional funding that is urgently required, they will be hit by massive cuts,” AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said recently. The union predicts public schools will lose up to $5.4 billion in funding over the next five years if current arrangements are maintained.

“Cuts of this magnitude would mean the loss of thousands of teaching jobs, larger class sizes and severe cutbacks in education programs,” Mr Gavrielatos said.

The federal government has paid lip service to the Gonski Review’s recommendation but has hinted heavily that the $6.5 billion figure is too lavish. It has not come clean about its pursuit of the neo-liberal agenda to blur the lines between public and private education to the advantage of the private sector. The ultimate aim is for public education to become simply a “safety-net” for those unable to pay to choose from the options available on the education “market”. The Coalition doesn’t even pretend it will increase funding to public education.

The Gillard government and the Opposition sing from the same song sheet about the need to measure and rate teachers’ performance and in other ways blame them for the worrying decline in educational outcomes over the past decade. They both want more “autonomy” for schools in spending matters, including the hiring and firing of teachers. They both see an increased role for corporate “partnerships” with schools and the tailoring of curricula to the needs of various industries. Both would like to see more education dollars flowing to public education from philanthropic sources (see Education and “philanthropy” in last week’s Guardian).

Columns are appearing in the press supporting the argument that the problems besetting our schools won’t be fixed by “throwing dollars” at them. Jennifer Hewett argued in The Australian Financial Review last week that teaching methods are the key issue and that the current, parlous situation won’t change until governments stop making “... discredited policy choices because they are backed by the teachers’ unions.”

TAFE isn’t spared, either. Claire Field is the chief executive of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training. She started a column in a recent issue of The Age suggesting that TAFE has a bright future doing what it does alongside what she claims are the smaller, more flexible, industry-sensitive private providers. It goes on to question what state governments are doing by providing skills training at all when the private sector could do it better, according to the author. After all, we don’t miss the role played by government when it owned Qantas, Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank, do we? Maybe, just maybe, there’s a role for TAFE in “..remote locations or specialist industries where it is uneconomic for independent providers to operate”.

Actually, Australians do miss having a sizable sector of the economy carried on by public enterprise. Utility bills are a stinging, quarterly reminder of what has been lost. The recent decades of privatisation and whiteanting of what’s left of the public sector have witnessed soaring charges and declining standards. Education is a glaring example. The community must get behind public school and TAFE teachers and insist that government stop making “discredited policy choices” that are banged on the table by big business.   

Next article – Hospira takes union’s medicine

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