Tony Windsor
Time to get the politics out of education policy

Forgive me the classroom metaphor, but here’s a brief note to Malcolm Turnbull about the Gonski reforms: it’s time to stop sitting next to Tony Abbott, move to the front of the class, show some leadership and invest in our children. Short-term games and personal political futures may be of interest to some on this but, as with climate change and the national broadband network, there will be economic and social consequences long after the opportunists have grown up and left.

Turnbull quite rightly argues that innovation, the use of smart technologies and the need to utilise our greatest natural resource – our people – is where Australia will be judged in a truly global society. As a country, we will also be judged on how a combination of policies brings those experiencing disadvantage, particularly in education, into the future. The days of pick-and-shovel work are essentially over.

Writing in this paper a few weeks ago, Mike Seccombe made the links clear, for all to see, between children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and education outcomes.

The problem Turnbull and many of his ministers have is a simple one – joining the dots between policies so that a real outcome is achieved rather than political one.

The key point many seem to miss while attempting to negotiate the nuances of the political parties is that disadvantage does exist within our education system. And if this issue is not addressed, there will be longer-term impacts to democracy that flow from the social issues surrounding a have and have-not society. One only has to look at the lunacy of the American presidential campaign and the Brexit farce to see living examples of the elite taking the rest for granted.

It is difficult to fully comprehend the Gonski model and, as with all complicated issues, it is easy to find political angles to play. To achieve real progress we need to condense the debate to a basic question: Will it lift the individual?

Most families would have a family member or at least know of people from other families where a little bit of additional assistance at critical stages in their lives could have had life-changing consequences. When adding the social implications of such positive intervention on the individual to the productivity benefits for all, we see the real meaning of Gonski.

If Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s current justification for substantive change to the original Gillard proposal is about improving Gonski rather than killing it, he needs additional skills, because the perception out in the playground at the moment is the motivation is twofold. First, a continuing attempt to eradicate anything Julia Gillard had an association with; and second, a bid to save money at the expense of children who need additional help at school.

Perhaps there is a third motive, which could be the worst of all but one that certainly had some currency in former education minister Christopher Pyne’s mind: the re-creation of the politics of education to drive the wedge back into the system where private, public and religious schools are arguing with each other and very little progress is made.

That old-style divide-and-conquer funding system has greater attraction to some than a solid needs-based arrangement that follows the base level for all students, backed up by additional funding for the disadvantaged.

Reinforcing the view that Birmingham’s riding instructions are more about politics than policy is the very different take at the state level. New South Wales, in particular, has led the way and was the first state to engage with then prime minister Gillard and education minister Peter Garrett in accepting the Gonski model. Then Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell could see the benefits, and NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli deserves great credit for his stance, particularly given he is a regional National Party MP with a very different view of Gonski than his federal colleagues, who are holding solid with the Liberal right wing.

Piccoli makes it very clear that country children are the major beneficiaries of the needs-based approach, as many country schools have high needs for a range of reasons. He would be aware of the way in which Gonski smooths out the flow of funds so children with special needs can maintain a trajectory of improvement.

Piccoli would also know that previously targeted “disadvantaged schools funding” boosted the performance of children who were starting to lag. A new problem arose, however, when the school was removed from special funding because its overall performance had improved. The next cohort of kids who needed help would miss out. This is why the needs-based component of Gonski follows the individual child, not the entire school. Piccoli, as well as other state ministers and educators, actually gets it.

In the electorate of New England one of the state MPs, the Nationals’ Adam Marshall, also gets it and is actively contacting schools to gain vocal support to lobby for the retention of Gonski funding. His federal counterpart, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, is toeing the Liberal line, suggesting money doesn’t necessarily cure all the problems in education, conveniently ignoring the evidence of the previous programs where it obviously does create a difference for disadvantaged kids. Joyce’s approach leads down the pathway of paying for the problem later, the very issue with which his fellow minister, Christian Porter, is trying to deal.

This blind spot for the federal Coalition government in its attempt to achieve budget repair – which is seen by many as the main reason to avoid the fifth and sixth years of Gonski and push Prime Minister Turnbull’s innovation agenda, as well as rein in welfare dependency – is that they don’t seem able to join the dots. Either that, or the silos of various ministers aren’t communicating with each other.

How does Australia become the nation of innovation and productivity in a global community and remove systemic welfare dependency and poverty in many families if you don’t single out disadvantaged children and deal with the issues at school?

Christian Porter, one of the few Turnbull ministers with an interest in policy, is trying to come to grips with some of these issues but is doing so looking into the rear-vision mirror. We need those children who traditionally grow up to become welfare recipients to be part of a productive economy. To achieve that objective we need to deal with it early and remove the likelihood of a bloated welfare system. Gonski does that.

One of the issues the federal education minister has alluded to, which does have some legitimacy, is the legislative restriction that Julia Gillard created with the implementation of Gonski, promising that no school would be a dollar worse off. Clearly this was a condition that gave comfort to the private and religious schools systems, and possibly some parliamentarians in terms of their vote. But it badly distorted Gonski’s model.

Birmingham and others cite this issue as one of inequality counter to the principles of Gonski, thus claiming the need to redevelop the entire policy platform. He has also bravely and rightly suggested that because of this and other factors some schools are receiving more than their fair share. To play the politics, the Labor opposition has suddenly become the private school system’s new best friend .

In my view, this is the point where all the players should come together to remove the inequality and privilege issues. In doing this, they must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Here, Labor must shift its position. State governments and federal crossbenchers must work together to maintain the integrity of the needs-based principles but recognise the financial advantage that some schools have.

It is also the point where the private school system should show some leadership and recognise that some within their ranks have an advantage. They must give way for the greater good.

Utopian it may be, but it is achievable if all those who fought for Gonski dig in and fight for the future of our children, which will directly influence the future of the nation.

Those privileged people such as myself who gained personally from the forward-looking education funding policies of Menzies and Whitlam should not attempt to ring fence themselves and their families from the “others”. History says if you divide a society in terms of opportunity, and wish to maintain a democracy, the have-nots eventually have their say. Trump, Brexit and Hanson are living examples of that neglect. Surely – surely – we are smarter than this.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2016 as "So much to learn".

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