15/04/2013 - 16:00

Education move too smart by half

15/04/2013 - 16:00


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With WA having been short-changed in terms of education funding, it’s clear the federal government is focused on shoring up electoral support elsewhere.

THE federal government’s allocation of money for schools based on the recommendations of the Gonski committee has politics written all over it; that is the only conclusion that can be drawn from Western Australia’s treatment under the plan.

Normally when federal spending programs are being assessed, the grants are allocated roughly in proportion to population. So WA would expect to get just over 10 per cent of the recommended spoils.

Not under Canberra’s response to the Gonski proposals, which provides for a $14.5 billion boost to public and private schools over the next six years. If the normal rules applied, WA could expect to get about $1.5 billion extra.

Given the vast area of the state’s jurisdiction and the challenges posed by significant indigenous enrolment in isolated areas, the case for a top-up is very strong indeed.

But WA’s share is just $300 million. That’s less than 3 per cent of the total and represents one of the greatest backhanders delivered by Canberra to the state since federation.

So what’s going on? Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been quick to defend the paltry sum, in the wake of a local reaction that could be reflected at the polls in September.

In essence she said that the quality of education in WA private and state schools was, on average, better than most other states. Therefore, the lion’s share of the money would be redirected to those states where it is needed most to help remedy the problems posed by poorly resourced schools.

The inference is that the quality of WA schools, both state and private, is ahead of the Australian average. So WA misses out on the top-up plan. On paper it’s a great pat on the back for the local system; but can the claims be believed?

Given the ongoing education debate – and the concerns in some areas that the quality of education in Australian schools is failing to keep pace with improvements overseas – the suggestion that WA schools are doing so well is a surprise to say the least.

Two things should be stressed up front about WA schools, however. The first is that the system has expanded rapidly over the past 50 years. The stresses that emerged with the iron ore boom in the 1960s, and which resulted in an explosion in the number of new schools throughout the state, are being replicated today with the latest resources boom. So the school infrastructure is relatively modern, compared with most other states.

The second is the vigorous debate over the school curriculum. The row over the outcomes-based curriculum under the past Labor government focused attention on the syllabus, and many modifications resulted.

In addition, indigenous education has come a long way since an education minister in the 1960s told university graduates they would only have to teach in isolated communities for one or two years before they could return to the comforts of urban schools. The challenges of improving the education levels of Aboriginal children did not seem a high priority at that stage.

What acknowledgment does WA get for, apparently, a job well done? By the look of it, precious little, while the states that have squandered opportunities get extra money in the hope they will lift their game.

So Colin Barnett won’t be the happiest premier when he takes his place with the prime minister and other state and territory leaders at this week’s meeting of the Council of Australian Governments to discuss the education recommendations

Why should he? There appears precious little in this national plan for children in WA.

The other aspect of the recommendations that is glaringly obvious is the political element.

How can the prime minister convince WA voters that they are not being short-changed, that WA schools really are that much better than most other states, when all the anecdotal evidence up to now has not supported that assessment?

Ms Gillard might indeed be right, but tell that to the union that represents teachers. That isn’t what it has been saying.

So Mr Barnett will play this as hard as he can in an attempt to get a better deal for the state. You can almost see him saying that, once again WA’s claims are being pushed aside by Canberra for, in his view, no good reason.

His subtext will be that the issue should not be forgotten at the federal poll, which will be cold comfort for Labor’s three federal MPs in this state. Just maybe their plight is not uppermost in the PM’s mind, especially when western Sydney has as many seats in federal parliament as the whole of WA.

In addition, the 10 per cent discount to encourage the upfront payment of HECS university fees will be abolished to help pay for the schools’ initiatives.

Everything, it seems, in this election year, is on the table.



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