Election Time

The Victorian state election is three and a half months away. In a January 1 2014 post I canvassed some of the likely issues in state education and it’s worth revisiting that territory. What have we seen so far and what can we expect?

Just about the only announcements so far have been about new schools and major refurbishments. As I’ve previously predicted  we’ve seen the government turn the infrastructure tap back on in the election year and their spending has basically returned to the level the previous government provided, albeit that there has been just a trickle for the last few years. We could expect Labor to reignite some of the regeneration projects that have stalled. Perhaps some of the long term advocates of new secondary schools in inner suburban areas might have their prayers answered.

Neither side of politics has the heart for school closures. Both are still haunted by the fallout from Kennett’s closures of the mid 90’s, which could be considered unfortunate by anyone considering ways to unlock more funding for all students. Alternative models of provision and governance could release some of the higher levels of funding absorbed by small schools. Labor’s regeneration projects were an attempt to address this question.

The government has stepped up in terms of school maintenance, which had stalled under Labor. A new ‘pipeline’ process has been established to provide schools with greater predictability and government with a clearer indication of where priorities lie. It sounds promising but ultimately it will be subject to the amount of money government is prepared to commit and the propensity of both parties to make political announcements.

The question of teacher contracts has been thrust into the spotlight, notably in a recent Age article by the Australian Education Union. Labor has indicated a desire to reduce the number of teachers on contracts but this is tricky work. It requires changes to the funding model to allow schools more tolerance when enrolments drop or other unexpected changes occur. Or a shift to a model where schools are funded on the basis of teacher numbers, which could lead to concentrations of experienced (and costly) teachers in some schools.

The AEU also focuses on the level of spending per student in Victoria compared to the national average. True it’s lower but Victoria also has geographic advantages (fewer remote schools to service) and a greater percentage of spending makes its way to schools because of the relatively decentralised structure. It’s urgently needed but it would be unwise to bank on a sharp increase in funding.

Instead, expect a revised school funding model which incorporates some of the Gonski money. School budgets for the coming year are released in late September so the government will be able to announce increased funding, however modest, prior to the commencement of the caretaker period. At that point schools will need to cautious counting the extra dollars because existing national partnership funding will have ceased and the federally funded IT support is likely to be wound back.

There are a couple of bubbling issues which are unlikely to surface during the run to the election. The first is the review of school governance, where the inclination of government may be towards more corporate models and the exclusion of teachers from school councils. Changes of this type could be too controversial at this time and might be shelved until after the election. The government might also want to be careful what it wishes for: more corporate government school councils are also likely to be more political.

The second is the composition of principal selection panels, where moves to exclude teachers and introduce a regionally based pre-assessment of applicants are under consideration. This is less controversial and makes sense on a range of levels but it might be seen as too risky at this time.

Another thing that’s unlikely to be on the agenda is the performance management of teachers. The government has taken steps to stiffen this process up and Labor would probably accept that this is overdue.

Rural education is an area ripe for a policy and funding announcement. A recent auditor – general’s report  again highlighted the discrepancies in educational achievement between metropolitan and rural students and the absence of a policy framework to address the problem. Something needs to happen in this area. Which party will jump in first? There are a range of options which I have previously canvassed here.

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) issue continues to attract attention. Australia’s economic interests are not being well served by a decline in the school performance in this area on international tests and the participation rate in higher end Maths and Science has been declining as well. It would be no surprise to see  either side of politics make a policy and funding announcement in this area, perhaps targeting regional Victoria in some way.

Labor has indicated it will provide funding to support the continuation of Local Learning and Employment Networks, which would otherwise be due to wind up around the end of the year. It’s unlikely the government would want to match this.

Vocational education is a contested area. Apart from the continuing war of words over TAFE funding, Labor may choose to focus on the government’s withdrawal of funding for VCAL Coordination. VCAL numbers have continued to grow despite the withdrawal of funding although the growth has occurred outside government schools. It would be no surprise to see Labor make a funding commitment in this area. Other changes to VET are bound up in broader considerations as the commonwealth reviews this area and the state government considers how to ensure funding is achieving its intended purpose.

Another area highlighted by the AEU has been the removal of the five rural based regions of the department. At some stage these are likely to return, either as they were or in some other configuration. It’s unlikely the government would make such a move but it’s possible Labor may. It would also be no surprise to see a change to the way in which support services, such as psychologists and speech pathologists, are provided to schools. The transferral of this responsibility to schools from regions has received very mixed reviews across the state.

Language provision is an ongoing challenge, with student numbers falling and no clear plan in place to boost participation. There is scope for either side of politics to make an announcement in this area but progress is likely to be hazardous given the lack of willingness of government to set priority languages, develop comprehensive F-12 curriculum guidelines and find more teachers. I’ve made a previous blog post on this subject.

Underlying all this is the role of government in relation to non government schools. The government has made clear its intention to govern for all schools. Labor are likely to take a more traditional approach by emphasising that in government they would see the state education department as primarily serving the needs of government schools. Which, ironically, is what the LNP is saying at federal level.

The government has been keen to push the notion of school autonomy and has taken steps to delegate more responsibility to principals and remove red tape. Some of this has been welcomed but there are also concerns that the autonomy agenda allows the government to avoid taking a leading role in school improvement. I expect a Labor government would seek to play a very active role in providing leadership and direction to government schools. To give effect to this they would need to recast the department in some way.

Less than four months to go, watch this space!

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