Education policy and the Leaders' Debate

Last night the federal political leaders - Prime Minister Malcolm Turbull from the Coalition, the Bill Shorten from the Labor Party, debated each other and responded to questions from political journalists, in what has become a hallmark of election campaigns.  Here's a rundown of the discussion around education policy. This run-down was originally published by the Conversation.

The debate clearly demonstrated the relative importance of education policy to the Coalition and to Labor, as well as their conceptualisation of what it encompasses.

Malcolm Turnbull didn’t mention it in his opening address, speaking instead on innovation, jobs and growth.

By contrast, Bill Shorten mentioned education within the first minute or so of his opening address, arguing that investment in high-quality education – specifically with well-funded public schools – was one of three key elements of Labor’s “Positive Plan for the Future” and a foundation of their plan for economic growth.

Shorten frequently returned to schools, and education and fairness more generally. He argued “you can trust Labor to stand up for education and training”; “we will properly fund all schools, government schools, according to their needs” and that they’ll make sure “all kids get a decent crack at getting to university”.

It is highly significant and encouraging that Shorten mentioned “childcare” as a key element of Labor’s “positive plan for education”. Reams of research show high-quality early childhood education (preschool and the early learning that precedes it) is increasingly recognised to be at least as important as schooling.

While Australia has made huge advances in both participation rates and service quality in early learning in recent years, we are still playing catch-up with other advanced nations. One-third of young children do no attend preschool for the hours needed to make a difference, and children in disadvantaged areas have fewer high-quality early education and care services available to them. Research shows greater investment in this space is one of the most significant investments in education and productivity that governments can make.

Turnbull proclaimed his belief in “the transformative effect of education”. He said that “of course we believe that government funding must be allocated on the basis of need” while quickly reminding viewers that educational outcomes have been worsening over time despite total school education expenditure by governments increasing.

This is true. And the reason it is true is because much of this increased expenditure hasn’t been targeted to where educational needs have been greatest.

Independent schools serving very affluent communities and charging tens of thousands of dollars each year in fees still reap thousands in government funding, while public schools serving the down-and-out struggle to make ends meet on half to one-third of that amount. Disadvantage is increasingly concentrated in government (public) schools, yet funding to non-government (Catholic and independent schools) has historically increased much faster, largely due to Commonwealth government largesse.

I was surprised that neither Shorten nor Turnbull said the word “Gonski”. Instead they spoke more about fair or needs-based schools funding. I was also surprised that neither went into the details of their policies, both of which were announced some time ago, and both of which encompass much more than funding quantums. 

Labor’s policies are mapped out in two key documents: Growing Together: Labor’s Agenda for Tackling Inequality and Your Child, Our Future: Innovation through Education, and discussed in this Conversation piece.  The Coalition’s discussed here by Education Minister Simon Birmingham, with additional – important- fine print on funding in this departmental document.

I encourage you to read them both, and also to read my analysis of them in earlier blog posts below.