The Education State

Victoria, The Education State. Sounds nice doesn’t it? I’m sure the newly elected government plans to keep its promise to have the state recognised for the quality of its education and placing that logo on every car number plate will be a constant reminder to reflect on how well they’ve done. Of course Victoria has previously been the The Place to Be, On The Move and The Garden State. These were all quite broad messages. The Education State is different, it’s measurable.

In the post election analysis I’ve found it interesting that the media has paid little attention to the fact that Premier Daniel Andrews made education central to his election campaign and claimed it as the area of greatest policy distinction between the parties. And although TAFE is a priority as well, most people will think of schools when they see that number plate. It will be interesting now to see how Education Minister James Merlino approaches the task of revitalising schools in this state.

During the campaign Merlino told us (as if public schools needed reminding) that Victorian education was “drastically underfunded“. Most often this claim was made in relation to capital funding and Labor has certainly promised a lot in this area. It will face significant demand in growth corridors, needy middle suburbs and will also focus on the regeneration projects stalled under the previous government. Labor’s first priorities will be to honour its election promises, including the establishment of a string of ‘technical schools’.

But it’s recurrent funding where the new government’s greatest challenge lies. Labor has a commitment to the needs based, sector blind funding model proposed by the Gonski panel but the Abbott government promise falls two years short of the original funding agreement between Victoria, most other states and the commonwealth. Without this additional federal funding the Victorian government will struggle to address this issue to the satisfaction of public schools. Merlino will need to be on his toes in cabinet to source at least some of the additional funds needed.

Victorian public schools are certainly underfunded compared to their counterparts in other states, but student achievement in the state remains at high levels. Underneath that veneer, however, there are some concerning signs. The public system is at risk of becoming the residual provider in many parts of the state. Schools are being slowly strangled by ever tightening budgets, a concern exacerbated when many public secondary schools are aware that their neighbouring Catholic school, with a more favourable demographic, receives more recurrent government funding – federal and state combined – than they do. Such is the unusual nature of school funding in Australia.

Inevitably state governments face a choice when seeking to add further financial capacity to public schools. Enterprise bargaining agreements are drawn out affairs and in recent times have focused on increasing teacher salaries. It may be that schools can’t have it all; perhaps it’s more teachers or fewer, albeit higher paid, teachers. I think the former is the most pressing issue for schools. Teachers need more time to plan collaboratively and this means more teachers. The AEU should acknowledge this as the priority in its next claim.

It’s also time to review the funding model for public schools. The current model provides no guaranteed level of staffing and as a consequence high cost schools – with a glut of teachers at the upper end of the salary scale – have to operate with fewer teachers than other schools with the same number of students. There’s no fairness in that; a baseline needs to be restored. The equity loadings need a review and it’s also time to revisit the distribution of funds based on the real costs of delivery at different years levels. The present ideologically driven approach needs to change to better reflect the real costs of delivery in certain settings.

Merlino may find friends in unusual places. NSW has a very different system to Victoria but has embraced the notion of needs based funding. There may also be some joy in a review of the role of the commonwealth in education. And the next federal election is less than two years away, and federal Labor has school funding reform in its DNA.

There are other challenges of course, including restoring the focus of the department on public schools and getting some support back into the regions. Merlino’s predecessor Martin Dixon made a positive start in terms of consultation with principals but became more distant as the term of government progressed. From my limited dealings with him I get the sense the new minister recognises that this level of engagement is both strategically and symbolically important. After all principals, their staff and their school communities will be looking closely at those number plates in four years time and asking themselves how far we’ve come towards the promise they display.

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