Essay: Labor’s National Plan for School Improvement

More than a century on since the formation of the Labor party, it is now time to fairly fund every school in the Commonwealth.

This is because the skills and capacities of a nation’s citizens determine its prospects more than any other single factor.

Thus the key task of any political party is to improve the common good by ensuring the foundations for harnessing the human resources of the nation are well laid.

The National Plan for School Improvement for better schools stands as one of the most substantial achievements to date of the Labor Government.

It is an achievement that is threatened by the election of a conservative government whose failure to commit the necessary level of support for a needs based funding system for our schools into the future represents a betrayal of the interests of the nation.

More than perhaps any other recent policy reform, the Plan represents modern Labor values in action.
It reflects the important traditions that have repeatedly brought out the best in us right throughout our history:

  • the moral urge to fairness that created Labor 120 years ago;
  • the belief in nation-building that led to post-war reconstruction;
  • the passion for national modernisation, equitable access to services and Australian creativity pursued with such vigor by Gough Whitlam;
  • the wealth creating, economic reform of the Hawke and Keating eras; and
  • the decision to invest in employment and growth in the face of the Global Financial Crisis to prevent recession, including the largest investment in school facilities in the nation’s history.

Today these school reforms allow us to address Labor’s enduring values of equity, fairness and ensuring sustainable national growth, in ways that reflect new economic and social realities.

In the past pursuing equity meant raising income to minimum levels necessary for human dignity; today it involves giving people the equal opportunity of access to quality education to create the platform for their own future success, and in turn equipping the nation to better chart its future course.

It’s often said, but education and training are indisputably Labor’s 21st century light on the hill.

The true value of the National Plan is that it provides a way for us to finally address the concerns about the unfairness and underperformance of Australian schools that have dogged us for so long.

Following the Howard Government’s changes to education funding in the late 1990s onwards, it became obvious that Australia’s current approach to school education was taking our nation in the wrong direction:

  • Our performance fell away – with a steady drop down international measures of student achievement. Since 2000, for instance, in OECD PISA testing Korea has overtaken us in reading and remained above us in maths, and Hong Kong has overtaken us in reading, maths and science. In 2009, Singapore and Shanghai also outperformed us in reading, maths and science. Further, results from reading literacy testing taken in late 2010 showed Australian students were out performed by over 20 education systems and nearly one in four students were at the ‘low or ‘below low’ international reading benchmark.
  • Our schools became less equal – with socio-economic status becoming too strong a predictor of student results. This equity gap is more pronounced in Australia in comparison with similar countries and much of the growing disadvantage found increasingly in the public school system.
  • The public status of our teachers dropped – with the profession in need of a major renewal; and
  • Our curriculum and teaching technologies failed to keep up with the times – with major modernisation and investment sorely needed.

The answer to this couldn’t be viewed through the old and failed argument of redistributing money from non-government to government schools.

Our schools system today is too diverse and the causes of its underperformance too complex to be rectified by a one-dimensional change like the redistribution of funding.

Part of this stems from the uniquely complex nature of Australia’s schools system. Education experts from other countries often told me that it is amongst the most complex in the world. Consider this:

  • we have government and non-government schools, across six states and two territories;
  • our non-government schools are split into Independent and non-Independent;
  • these non-Independent schools are split into Catholic, Christian, Islamic, Steiner, Montessori and community-based;
  • even the Catholic schools are divided into parish and non-parish; and
  • there are schools for children with special needs.

With stark differences in achievement apparent between schools within each system and across each system, this is not a government versus non-government schools issue or a state versus state issue. With around a third of Australian parents now choosing non-government schools, the Labor party, which has been at the core of our democracy and cares deeply about every child’s future, has to be concerned with the quality of every school and respect the educational decisions of every parent.

The politics of this also raised huge challenges. For too long, our political opponents have been able to use the false government versus non-government dichotomy to set system against system and hold back the cause of genuine school reform. This is a reality that we simply had to address as hardheaded democrats and practical reformers. The quality of the National Plan for School Improvement is that it provides a way to remove the unnecessary sectarianism that has prevented reform whilst directly addressing the needs of schools and students.

The heart of the Plan is a guarantee of certainty for all, based on a promise to level up not level down, by means of a truly needs-based funding model. Labor has been working towards the goal of a practical needs-based school funding system for at least a decade and a half, and now we have achieved it.

As we know all too well, public policy reform of any kind is always incredibly difficult. But reform as profound as this, which starts with strong historical roots into the distribution of schools funding, which touches almost every family in the country, and which involves negotiations with long-established representative organisations, at times seems almost impossible. It takes enormous concentration of will, moral effort and patience to get the right model and unite disparate interest groups behind it. It also takes time.

The establishment of this new needs-based funding model therefore needs to be recognised for what it is: a reform achievement of historic dimensions, and every Labor member and supporter should be incredibly proud of it.
Acknowledging that life changing education reform requires more than just a new funding model the National Plan has five major components.

  1. The new funding model, which provides every school with guaranteed minimum funding calculated on need according to a new School Resource Standard, that includes loadings for various forms of socio-economic disadvantage. It will be phased in over six years, totaling around $15 billion in additional funding over 2012 levels.
  2. Improved teaching, targeting the whole career of a teacher from new entrants to the profession being selected from higher calibre applicants who will then benefit from improved approaches to teacher training, through to the certification and recognition of our very best lead teachers.
  3. Improved learning, fully utilising the new Australian Curriculum, with a focus on reading to raise literacy levels in the primary years, science literacy added to the NAPLAN tests, more exposure to Asian languages and more access to vocational subjects.
  4. Better school leadership, with more power for principals to make decisions over the way they run their school, including over budgeting, staffing, resources and other crucial issues.
  5. Greater transparency, with richer information about school performance, resourcing and improvement plans added to the My School website and published in an annual State of Our Schools report to give governments, communities, parents and teachers the information they need to make better decisions.

And all of these measures come on top of the major increases in school recurrent and capital works funding – which have nearly doubled since 2007.

These are the mechanics of change. Equally important is what they enable us to do for our young people and our country.

Quality education for all is one of the noblest ideals any society can pursue. The transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next; the sparking of youthful curiosity; the nurturing of a civic impulse; the development of intellectual capacity, manual dexterity and creativity; the drawing out of the innate abilities of every child – what could be more worthy of our efforts as a nation? What could best sum up the idealism that should animate politics?
The pursuit of knowledge and the encouragement of the life of the mind are of course important ends in their own right, but we all know they offer so much more.

The ultimate point of education is to bring out the latent gifts of our children in whichever field their interests happen to lie. In the 21st century this means moving past relying on an out dated ‘one inspirational teacher can make a difference’ model. It is about improving the quality of teaching in every classroom in every school and it is about the profound transformation of education to an evidence-based endeavour.

This task requires a shift in the classroom but it also requires the creation of an improved education system to support students and teachers in the classroom. It must be a smarter system with the capacity to measure success and failure and direct resources to where they are most needed, hence the importance of basic skills measurement in the areas of literacy and numeracy.

Yes there has been criticism from some quarters that our approach to rectifying the shortcomings of our schools has been too focused on measurement of basic skills at the expense of creativity. Traditionalists claim not enough emphasis had been given to non-vocational subject areas. Others say there has been too much focus on funding and not enough on quality. Those criticisms simply don’t survive serious scrutiny. Let’s examine them.

NAPLAN testing, its critics tell us, promotes a culture of ‘teaching to the test’, taking up time that could be better spent on more interesting types of learning. But this misses the point. We concentrate on the basics not as ends in themselves, but because they are the basis of all else. Before you can become a writer you need to understand the basic structure of the English sentence.

They didn’t call Shakespeare’s school Stratford Grammar for nothing – he had to learn the rules of grammar (in English and Latin) before starting on those sonnets and plays. The same goes for every subject area, with mastery of the basics as the bedrock of creativity and genius. Even the directly creative disciplines like music and dance are built on the patient acquisition of theory and virtuosity through intense study, practise and testing. As any classical pianist or ballerina will tell you, the arts contain some of the most rigorously tested, graded and competitive disciplines in existence, so I always find it amusing that some of the most ferocious criticism of NAPLAN comes from arts educators.

Midnight Oil could never have produced and maintained our connection, both creative and financial, to the music we made, without the musical training we gained when young and the broad understanding of society, the arts and law gained through academic study. With few exceptions, serious artists tend to be expansive readers and thinkers as well as technical masters.

Today we have to make sure that all children have access to the fundamental tools of literacy and numeracy so they can develop their creative capacities to the full, no matter what field they choose. It wasn’t that long ago that less academically inclined boys and girls could exit school safe in the knowledge that a suitable job awaited.

That’s less the case now. Just 30 years ago if the Oils’ four wheel drive broke down in the outback, one of the band members (not me!) could get out the tools and patch her up until a mechanic with grimy blue overalls, who probably left school at fifteen, could finish the job. The complexity of automotive engineering has now changed all that. There are still old- fashioned mechanics around, but today most wear spotless overalls and analyse the engine’s performance using complex computer diagnostics. Their post-school diplomas hang on their whitewashed garage walls, and they need to pass year-12 maths and science to get into those courses. Their qualifications can take them around the world to work for companies like Audi, BMW, Toyota and Ford.

The job of a modern school system – and the aim of the Plan – is to move our schools from preparing people for the world of blue overalls 30 years ago to the world of today, and to help move the nation from the world of the 1980s to the new competitive environment of the Asian Century that requires a high skilled, collaborative and innovative workforce.

The fact is today more careers than ever before require their applicants to be not only literate, and numerate but also well rounded and creative. That’s why the new Australian curriculum is so broad, with subjects ranging from the traditional subjects like English, maths, science, history and geography, to cross-disciplinary matters like Information technology, sustainability, Indigenous culture and engagement with Asia. To those who think that the new curriculum is too contemporary, I simply point out that in my own state of New South Wales this year, students are studying Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell, as well as Australian greats like Judith Wright, Kenneth Slessor and Tim Winton – great minds and eternal brilliance, chosen from Australia and other civilisations of the world. That’s how it will remain.

The other major criticism we faced – that improving schools has nothing to do with funding – is also easily refuted. This is a proposition that horrifies principals, teachers and parents who know exactly what the lack of funding means and what better resourcing can make possible.

Conservatives are often fond of this argument, but I never encountered a principal who asked me to freeze or reduce his or her school’s funding because it isn’t really important. Further, the argument ignores the fact that the Plan is about so much more than money. It is about better curriculum, teaching, leadership, technology and a learning culture. Better quality education through better qualified and better resourced teachers, for example, simply has to be paid for. As every principal knows, quality reform in schools is more than a value statement it is an action that requires resourcing.

The overall justification for a fairer, better-funded and better-quality school system is the broad national interest. The economic arguments for education are generally well understood, but what is not so generally appreciated is how important a better school system is to the quality of our society, our citizenship and our international standing. The children who started school this year will graduate from Year 12 in 2025. So what sort of nation would better schools help us become by then?

A better educated Australia of 2025 would of course be a far wealthier nation. Research by Price Waterhouse Coopers tells us that lifting our schools significantly up the international rankings would generate an additional $3.6 trillion in GDP over the life of a child born today. Simply by increasing Year 12 completion rates to 90 per cent, we could increase workforce participation by 0.6 per cent and productivity by 0.65 per cent per year.

It would also be a nation of more engaged citizens. Our education system is intimately connected to citizenship. True democracy requires equity of opportunity and access, and the proper functioning of democracy requires children to become informed, thoughtful, engaged and creatively-minded citizens, fully equipped to guide our country through the profound challenges ahead such as dangerous climate change.

To successfully tackle this issue we’ll need citizens who are scientifically literate, who understand its full ethical and economic implications, who possess the market understanding of a carbon constrained future. Then we need citizens and leaders with the eloquence and artistic capacity to convey its seriousness to their fellow citizens with the intellectual strength, self-confidence, sense of civic duty and skills to put themselves forward to solve it.

Ultimately, though, a better educated Australia would be a nation able to determine its own arc of endeavour. An Australia of 2025 that is more highly skilled, nimble, creative, innovative, self-confident and cooperative would be able to choose the types of jobs and growth that fit its own culture and physical environment rather than having such decisions imposed upon it by economic necessity.

Our deeper knowledge of the world and its cultures and the broader range of international connections that intellectual exchange would bring, would allow us to expand our respected world role as a middle power that punches above its weight on issues from climate change to human rights and the maintenance of international law. Creating better schools is therefore a patriotic reform that will bring greater economic prosperity and diversity as well as greater respect for Australia’s place in the world.

Importantly, I believe an improved and fairer education system of the kind envisaged by the National Plan for School Improvement will empower Australia to fulfil its historical promise – as a nation of creative and democratically-minded citizens liberated by education from the bonds of birth and circumstance and fully able to leave their marks on the global stage.

The Plan is about creating the schools and the institutional frameworks that make this goal possible. This makes ‘Better Schools’ something truly worth fighting for, and something for Labor, its supporters and the many Australians who have got behind it through groups like ‘I Give a Gonski’, to be both proud of and determined to see in its rightful place.