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Education and politics: Like oil and water

Jennifer Buckingham | 19 June 2009

If ever there was evidence that politics and education don’t mix, the fiasco of the Building the Education Revolution program is it. How did this policy, which should have been a political slam-dunk, go so spectacularly wrong?

First, it was never about education. According to a June 14 media release from the Minister Gillard’s office, “The Guidelines for the Building the Education Revolution are clear and were developed to ensure that this investment supported as many jobs, in as many communities and as quickly as possible, to cushion the effects of the global recession on the Australian economy.” Nothing there about teaching, learning, student achievement, or anything even remotely scholastic.

To meet the economic stimulus objective, the time frame has been extremely short, and schools have had to accept what would normally be unacceptable in nature and in cost, or risk missing out altogether. But just to confuse matters, in a bid to make the program sound education-friendly, all building works must be mainly for student use, which presents schools with a fairly narrow range of options and not necessarily the most useful ones.

For example, a school in my area already has a new hall/gymnasium and library, so it is using its BER funding to build more new classrooms when it already has several unused ones. What this school really needs is better staff facilities and a building that could be used both in and out-of-school hours to increase parental and community involvement in the school, which is sorely lacking. This does not meet the criteria, however.

On top of all that, the cost of the buildings for public schools is being inflated by the use of state government contractors, substantial project-management costs extracted by state governments, and the price premiums caused by urgency.

Second, by maintaining a sector-neutral approach and offering funding to all schools, the size of the building grants are dependent only on school size. This means that schools which already have every kind of building they could possibly need have been given millions of dollars to build more. Yes, there have been some stuff ups, with a number of terminal schools being given money for new buildings, but rushing out a funding program of this scope will inevitably get it wrong in some cases. However, the broader issue of school need is fundamental and should have been foreseen.

It is hard not to see this as a missed opportunity for education. Granted, it wasn’t really about schools, it was about creating jobs. In this program, the schools were just a politically safe place to dump some money.  Nonetheless, a better program could have served both purposes with a much smaller price tag.

Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at the Centre. She will be speaking at an IQ Squared debate on public funding for private schools in Sydney on next Thursday 25 June.