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Shorten’s Letter

There’s been quite a media focus on Bill Shorten’s decision to write to every public school principal in Australia regarding school funding.

In truth this is nothing new. Schools receive correspondence on a regular basis from local members, ministers and political parties explaining what good they are doing or intend to do, particularly leading into an election.

If there’s a difference this time around it’s that education is shaping up as a key federal election issue in 2016. This has been on the cards ever since the LNP ‘unity ticket’ pledge faded into obscurity after the last election. That 2013 promise from Pyne and Abbott was a fairly overt attempt to neutralise education funding as an election issue. This year the Turnbull government seems prepared to stand apart from Labor’s commitment to the needs-based Gonski funding reforms.

What will public schools do with Shorten’s letter? Most likely it will be tabled as correspondence at a school council meeting. Government schools, unlike their non government counterparts, have traditionally been shy about sending information home to parents describing the implications of policies adopted by either side of politics. Predominantly this is because we’re fully government funded and our staff are government employees. This is particularly so for state based elections, where there is an obvious risk of running afoul of a future government.

I sense this may be changing. Politicians seem to be much more active in seeking the engagement of public school principals in their campaigns over issues. There are also many more opportunities for principals to express their personal opinions, through social media in particular. And finally, education performance and funding have become very topical issues – teachers, parents and communities are much more aware of the politics surrounding education than they’ve ever been. The Gonski report drew public attention to all of this.

Public accountability for school performance has also been ramped up significantly in recent years. It’s entirely predictable that public school principals and school councils will want to comment on the factors impacting on the opportunities and performance of their students. Funding is at the top of this list, alongside the increasing stratification of schooling in Australia. Public school communities feel a sense of injustice and that indignation is finding a voice.

So we may find that government school communities take some action in response to Shorten’s letter. It might be as simple as the school council deciding to share the letter, or a school based version of it, with their communities along with some commentary around the level of funding their school will miss out on in the absence of the Gonski funding.

In our case it’s possible we will join with other schools to take some action. Prior to the last federal and state elections the school council presidents and principals of a number of Bendigo schools held an evening where we invited in the candidates from the major political parties, one by one, for a discussion about education. Funding was at the top of the list, but other matters were covered too. It was an interesting exercise. The step the schools didn’t take, but may consider this time around, was reporting the responses of candidates back to our school communities.

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