CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Rudd's threat to close non-performing schools
, September 13, 2008
The bid to lift schools' performance is a test of Kevin Rudd's leadership, and one he must win.Kevin Rudd's bold education plan is arguably his first serious policy initiative since becoming Prime Minister.
It is also unequivocally traditional Labor policy, and good policy at the same time.
But the question remains: does the Prime Minister have the commitment and the courage to follow through on the pledge to lift the failing bottom 20 per cent of Australia's schools?
The first nine months of the Rudd Government have been characterised by frenetic activity, and some grand symbolic gestures (climate change and the apology to Aborigines), accompanied by dozens of reviews, committees and taskforces.
There has been FuelWatch and GroceryWatch, and arms-length monitoring of the behaviour of the banks without any punitive action from the Government.Business fears
Trading in carbon emissions is to be introduced ahead of the world by 2010, but the complex policy is fast becoming bogged down inside the bureaucracy, while running up against genuine business fears that the scheme will cause many companies to go to the wall or overseas.
But very little of substance has emerged and no clear direction on where the Government wants to take the nation.
Hopefully, the first serious move on Mr Rudd's "Education Revolution" may be about to change that.
Mr Rudd wants schools' performances to be transparent, parents to be permitted to know how their schools compare with other schools in the same demographic, and to take decisive action against those schools which continue to fail to make the grade.
"I cannot understand why public institutions such as schools should not be accountable to the community that funds their salaries and running costs," Mr Rudd told the National Press Club.
"Right now, we do not have accurate, comprehensive information to allow rigorous analysis of what schools and students are achieving.
"This must change.... Parents have a right to information to inform their family's decision-making about school enrolment."
Mr Rudd said he is determined to make individual school performance reporting a pre-condition of the new national education funding agreement with the states, which kicks off in January next year.
At stake are the lives of hundreds of thousands of children who have been left behind by a flawed and dysfunctional education system.
Also at stake is Mr Rudd's leadership, because he has staked his prime ministership on being able to make co-operative federalism work at a unique time in Australian history - when all governments, federal, state and territory, are Labor.
Education Minister Julia Gillard recently argued that the education system is failing the bottom 20 per cent of students, leaving around 500,000 young people in a "twilight zone" in which they are neither working nor studying.
And every year another 50,000 school-leavers move into this zone.
The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) also recently reported that Australia was languishing at 23 on the table of nations for completing the equivalent of Year 12 or gaining a trade qualification.
Only 75 per cent of Australians complete Year 12, and Mr Rudd has promised to lift this to 90 per cent by 2020.
During the National Press Club speech, Mr Rudd threw in the following words:
"Where, despite best efforts, these schools are not lifting their performance, the Commonwealth expects education authorities to take serious action such as replacing the school principal, replacing senior staff, reorganising the school or even merging that school with other more effective schools."
It is still not clear whether this threat to close non-performing schools, or sack principals and staff, was an afterthought or whether it was always integral to the policy, but it certainly secured the headlines the following day and ignited a fierce debate.
The Government was immediately at war with one of its strongest supporters - the teacher unions.Furious unions
Ms Gillard was given the job of having to placate the furious unions which had thrown enormous resources into backing Labor at the last election.
Ms Gillard stressed the Rudd Government's threat was part of a much broader package of measures, including the offer to give poor schools an extra $500,000 a year in funding to help them lift their standards.
Nevertheless, Mr Rudd's ultimatum for schools to improve or be closed puts the government at loggerheads with the teachers, and the states which will have to implement the policy.
Mr Rudd has no power of his own to close a school or sack a principal. He can only use coercive powers to force the states into punitive action.
The bid to lift schools' performance is a test of Mr Rudd's leadership, and one he must win if his prime ministership is to be remembered.
It would also be tragic indeed if Mr Rudd's education revolution descended into TeacherWatch, and hundreds of thousands of lives were diminished as a result.