Friday, 29 November 2013

Phony Tony, Christopher Whine and the Gone-ski Reforms

Earlier this week, the newly elected Australian government announced that it would renege on its pre-election commitment to retain Labor's landmark Gonski reforms. Rejecting the Gonski reforms is the consequence of a policy deficient Liberal-National coalition that has found itself stranded in government with little more in its arsenal than to attack Labor, and our Asian neighbours as well it appears. Though not a surprise, this policy back-flip is one that should worry all Australians.

Talk of education in the media often evokes very general and sweeping statements about its importance. Indeed, it seems an informal responsibility of an education minister and the Prime Minister to constantly remind the public of the power of education. Internationally, education is viewed as the powerful combatant of inequality and as a fundamental human right.

Politicians in Australia have a long history of reflecting on the importance of education in front of television cameras. They talk of "doing things for the kids", "giving people a better future" and "building a smarter Australia". Sadly, all of this is just lazy rhetoric that operates to mask the unwillingness of governments to practise what they preach. This week's policy back flip is strong evidence of this.

The so-called Gonski reforms, whilst not perfect, represented a huge step towards a stronger and fairer education system in Australia. Christopher Pyne's announcement this week that he will be renegotiating the Gonski reforms with the states is little more than an acknowledgement that the Abbott government plans to retain the current funding arrangements and inject more money into education. Whilst the latter is good news for educators and students alike, the former is indeed very grave.

Retaining the status quo is the continue funding private and catholic school students above public school students. This method of funding education preferentially advantages students who are already the most advantaged. The effect of this is no surprise: it is to widen the gap between the socio-economic classes. Another issue with the status quo is that loadings for disadvantage, a key feature of the Gonski reforms, only apply to students attending schools in the private system and thus miss the very, very large majority of students who are genuinely disadvantaged. Jane Caro explains this quite nicely.

Howard's system of funding education is therefore discriminatory to certain sectors of education and does not achieve its aims. It is grossly unfair and Julia Gillard's government was both right and brave to change it. Furthermore, Howard's system misses the point of privatising government services. The cornerstone of privitisation is to make the government pay less, something that his funding system clearly fails to achieve.

Labor's Better Schools package, the one that Christopher Pyne is turfing, had two goals: to raise the quality of education for Australian students and to address the ballooning in equality in the school system. These are essential to Australia's future, and movements by Christopher Pyne to ignore them are concerning. No student should be inherently disadvantaged because of their school and sadly, this is something that Abbott government is supporting.

Australia should be embarrassed that it relies on a private system to deliver quality education, rather than ensuring that it is the only to do so. Labor made a bold step towards a fairer system with the Better Schools package. They also managed to do so in a politically viable manor, by ensuring, by and large, that extra support for disadvantaged students would not come out of private school's pockets.

Christopher Pyne's moves to dump the Better Schools package and to throw money at an old and broken system highlight his deficiencies as education minister. Pyne is so incapable as an education minister that he fails to separate education from business and directs his policy platform to reflect this. He also fails to appreciate the power of education in creating an equal society, wherein those with talent have the greatest advantage, not those with wealth.

Scrapping Better Schools was a shameful step backwards for Australia. It will ensure that a child's future is determined by their parents' wealth, rather than by their will, creativity and intellect. This is something for all to be sad about.

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