President’s comment, 30 August 2013

It’s the (kind of) autonomy, stupid

The federal Coalition’s policy for schools released this week typifies what we can now expect in election campaigns – a great deal of rhetoric, but very little detail.

The policy maintains the “Gonski-lite” version of funding for only four of the six years on the ALP’s Better Schools plan, therefore delivering one-third of that funding since the full Gonski funding is weighted towards the later years of the arrangement.

School autonomy is presented as the solution to “improved education outcomes”, with a target of 1500 Independent Public Schools. The rhetoric associated with this plan is deeply concerning. For instance, the policy document states:

“Independent schools are accountable to the local community and provide the autonomy needed not only for principals to achieve better education outcomes, but for principals and teachers to be more accountable to students, parents and the community.”

Is that really what autonomy should be about? Surely it should be about freedom from the constraints of chronic underfunding, freedom to deliver the curriculum in ways that suit both teachers and students, and freedom from political interference in how professional educators carry out their work on a daily basis.

Even more, it should be freedom from the endless slurs against teachers’ and principals’ professionalism. Teachers and principals already work closely with their local communities; why is the Coalition suggesting they need to be “more accountable”? Parents don’t want to run schools any more than teachers want to impose their authority on students’ home lives.

Clearly, the Coalition will be imposing its particular world view on what happens in classrooms. The policy states the Coalition “will review the National Curriculum” because: “the curriculum contains two references to trade unions, four references to progressive ideas and associated movements, and the only Prime Minister to be explicitly referenced is John Curtin. There is no explicit mention of the conservative parties in the curriculum.”

This attitude shows a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of the national curriculum, interpreting it as a “teach-by-numbers” process rather than the underpinning of educators’ professional practice, and points to major upheavals and workload impacts on teachers who have been developing learning materials and programs to implement the ongoing rollout of the current curriculum.

It also reminds us of the bad old days under the Howard government, when federal funding was tied to operational flagpoles in the schoolyard and Simpson’s donkey on the walls.

The Gonski schools funding review overcame that kind of ideological nonsense and proposed a fair needs-based funding model.

Australia’s schools need the Gonski funding, over the full six years. Students don’t change overnight, and it will take time for the extra and necessary funding to realise improvements through more individual attention, more student support, and the ability for schools to implement their innovative learning programs across all the years of school education and over students’ full years of formal schooling.

Kevin Bates

Authorised by Graham Moloney, General Secretary, Queensland Teachers' Union,
21 Graham St, Milton Q 4064