Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

States spoil Australia’s school scorecard

Glenn Fahey

14 April 2021 | Financial Review

Arresting Australia’s educational decline calls for national leadership. And federal Education Minister Alan Tudge, has in his first few months, already set an ambitious tone for a much-needed schooling turnaround.

While some have urged him to be collaborator-in-chief to marshal support from the states in the “team sport” of education reform, the fact is the federal government has been doing all the rowing, while the states have done little more than throw out the anchor and complain the ship isn’t moving fast enough.

The states have largely been responsible for the problems, not the solutions, to Australia’s education challenges. They’ve too easily folded under the thumb of vested interests, been unwilling to tackle old barnacles within the education system, and too readily exploited the tired old federalism blame game.

While the states do the heavy lifting and implementation on schooling, it’s increasingly been Canberra driving consequential reform. After all, it’s been successive federal governments, of both colours, that have delivered – and constructively seek to further improve – NAPLAN, the MySchool website, consistent resourcing arrangements, a national curriculum, and improvements to teaching quality.

But demonstrating national leadership needn’t require a federal coup over schooling. Canberra is rarely well-suited to solve complex service delivery challenges. Tudge need only look to Canberra’s vaccine rollout as a cautionary tale of overextension.

Instead, if education reform truly is a ‘team sport’, then Tudge must be both captain and coach. That means being the adult in the room, unapologetically holding laggard states to account, and calling on his state counterparts to pull their weight.

Like it or not, all states have agreed to participate in NAPLAN, but they’re not doing so in good faith; propping up resistance, rather than reinforcement, of the national assessment. While Canberra is busy fine-tuning NAPLAN to make it as effective as possible, the states – especially Queensland and Victoria – have enthusiastically fanned the flames of anti-accountability unions.

Despite being the single largest funder of schools, the piper – the federal government – calls little of the educational tune.

Just last year, the eastern states commissioned their own ‘rebel’ review into NAPLAN, despite the protestations of the then federal minister, Dan Tehan.

Meanwhile, the administration of NAPLAN tests – which the states are responsible for carrying out – has been shambolic. The transition to online testing in 2019 resulted in a third of students unable to connect, despite millions in federal funding support and implementation agreements stretching back to 2014. Victoria remains a holdout, declaring the tests won’t be online in the ‘education state’ until next year at the earliest.

Despite being the single largest funder of schools, the piper – the federal government – calls little of the educational tune.

The states aren’t stamping out poor teaching practices either.

Despite Canberra advancing the voluntary Year 1 phonics check on student reading levels, few states have taken the hint and introduced mandatory screening of their own.

It’s taken the federal government – not the states – to set up an institute to provide teachers with high quality evidence to inform their practice. And the states still routinely award credits for training courses promoting evidence-free, ideological teaching practices.

The feds’ intervention in addressing concerns about initial teacher competency and training hasn’t been reciprocated, despite the states being solely responsible for teacher accreditation.

Innovative efforts to address teacher workforce challenges – such as Teach for Australia – have been supported by successive federal governments for more than a decade. But some states and territories continue to drag the chain on scaling it up. Again, it’s Canberra that’s now being called upon to lead national teacher workforce planning, even though the states hire, regulate and register the teachers.

Far from the feds taking on more responsibility, national leadership requires Tudge to nudge the states into meeting their own responsibilities, not recklessly fudging them. Perhaps fortuitously, he may just have the platform to correct the intergovernmental mess his predecessors have long tolerated.

The unruly Education Council – the meeting of federal and state education ministers – was quietly disbanded in December. Its replacement is to “build on the National Cabinet model” and “ongoing national education architecture reforms”.

The needed education turnaround won’t happen unless uncooperative and unaccountable states come to the party as team players.

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