The Guardian 30 January, 2008
Rudd’s education revolution
Parents and teachers across the country will be hoping for an early outbreak of Rudd’s "Education Revolution" as the 2008 school year kicks off at the end of the month. A poll conducted by the Australian Education Union (AEU) has found that two thirds of voters in the recent federal elections believed that governments should make investment in public schools their top priority. Clearly, the running down of state schools and the outrageous favouritism shown to private schools were major factors in Howard’s drubbing in December but teachers are already wondering if Labor’s pre-election pledges will be enough to turn the current crisis in public education around.
At the AEU’S federal conference in Sydney last two weeks ago incoming president Angelo Gavrielatos presented a disturbing outline of the challenges faced by teachers in public primary and secondary schools. In Western Australia alone, schools will be launching into their first term with a shortfall of over 600 teachers. Teacher shortages are a problem across the country and have been for some time. The extent of the problem has been masked by schools reducing the curriculum on offer, increasing class sizes and employing less qualified teachers. Close to half of all secondary school teachers have asked staff to teach outside their areas of expertise.
"We have teachers who are not trained to be language teachers who are teaching junior language classes. These things are not in the interests of high quality education," Mr Gavrielatos said.
The strain of keeping public schools functioning is taking a measurable toll on school principals. Over half are aged at least 51 with only four years to go to the official retirement age. And, it seems, not a lot of current teachers are expected to rush at the high number of vacancies looming in school principal positions. Lead author of a review of public school staffing for the Australian Council for Educational Research, Phillip McKenzie, noted that "Quite a high number of teachers don’t anticipate applying for the job because they don’t think it’s possible to have a good work/life balance."
The AEU has set down six targets for better funding of education — a reduction in class sizes, better teacher salaries, improved school infrastructure, a more extensive early childhood education and an injection of an extra $2.9 billion a year to achieve them. Teachers will have to press hard to get this level of commitment from the Rudd government as it foreshadows a tightening of the public purse-strings while declaring a "national war on inflation". Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has already damped down expectations of the impact of various pre-election commitments, including early delivery of a computer to every school student in years 9 to 12.
"I certainly acknowledge that and if you look across the suite of our education revolution policies, we’ve got action on each front," the Deputy PM said last week.
A major handicap inherited from Howard is the Commonwealth’s lavish support for private or "independent" schools. Rudd’s tactic of staying "small target" on many contentious issues led him to commit to the Coalition’s funding formula for private schools. The mechanism has produced scandalous anomalies — wealthy schools given huge grants from government sources, allowing them to rack up hefty profits while continuing to gouge parents for stiff fees.
NSW Greens education spokesman Dr John Kaye has compiled a list of the wealthier schools in his state and the handouts given to them by the federal and state governments. It turns out the Iemma government also has a soft spot for elite schools. The King’s School in Parramatta got $5.5 million in taxpayers’ money last year — a 32 per cent increase over 2003 levels. Howard used to maintain that Commonwealth support for schools like King’s — with its 15 playing fields, 50-metre swimming pool and indoor rifle range — would make them more accessible to parents wanting to exercise "choice" over where to send young Tristan or Bethany to be educated.
Unfortunately, while government largesse to private schools has skyrocketed, so have fees. King’s will increase fees to a whopping $22,062 for a year 12 student this year — an increase of 5.5 percent. And not all the increases in funding and fees can be put down to increased costs. Cranbrook School in Bellevue Hill has had a 12.5 per cent increase in government funding since 2003. It received $3.1 million in state and federal grants last year and turned a $4.6 million profit — up $500,000 over the previous 12 months.
Howard’s skewed funding mechanism — introduced in 2001 — was tweaked mildly in 2004 as outrage over the generosity to the wealthy in society grew. He was keen, though, that there should be "no losers" and, as a result, over 60 percent of private schools (including a long list of elite establishments) continue to be funded over the level of their entitlements. The AEU is demanding the scrapping of the costly system so greater priority can be given to the struggling public education system. "The funding model is indefensible, it is not sustainable, it is not in the national interest," Mr Gavrielatos said.