The Federal Government has given a strong indication that education policy and delivery will remain the responsibility of the states and territories in its issues paper titled Roles and Responsibilities in Education.
Released on the 23rd December last year, the paper summarises the progression of both Commonwealth and state and territory involvement in Australia’s education arrangements, along with analysis of the current education system, and forms part of the white paper on the Reform of the Federation, due for release early 2016.
Although the paper acknowledges that not all the pressures on the education system stem from the complexity of coinciding government roles and responsibilities, it says that improving the allocation of roles and responsibilities could make it easier for governments to identify what the problems are, who is responsible for fixing them, and empower teachers, parents and the wider community to hold the appropriate level of government to account for taking the action necessary to improve outcomes.
Bronwyn Hinz, researcher and teacher of public policy and Australian politics at the University of Melbourne who is currently completing a PhD on school funding and federalism, has taken a keen interest in the Federal Government’s white paper.
Hinz believes Australia’s education system does benefit from federalism, referring to the country’s two levels of government, in that it benefits from being primarily a state government responsibility as that is the perfect level to keep the system fair and suggested that the Federal Government may be trying to warm the nation up to its intention to step back from its current level of involvement in education.
“By having education at a state level rather than only at a national level means that you can experiment more with what works best,” she said. “So you could have some states starting school with children at five years of age, versus 6 years of age, you could organise schools in one particular way or have different needs-based funding models in place and if the policy is a success the other states can copy it, however if the copy is a flop the damage is contained and it’s easier to work out what to do next because they have other successful models in place.”
Hinz said she would like to see the Federal Government give greater power to the states and territories they have a better understanding of what is needed in their schools.
“I think the Federal Government could respect the expertise and experience of the states and territories when it comes to education, as they’re the ones that actually run the schools, employ the teachers and they have been developing the curriculum,” she said. “The Federal Government has a lot of great ideas, most of which it has actually taken from state and territory governments, and then they try to introduce those ideas across the network which is not always the best fit for state school systems.
“Unnecessary or unhelpful involvement by higher levels of government makes it more difficult for states and school principals to be able to get on with what they do best.”
The education issues paper also hints that the Federal Government could reduce its role in the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) believing it had played its part through establishing a national curriculum and creating NAPLAN, and that these could be maintained by the states and territories.
“I would like to see ACARA and AISTL continue and I would like to see the state governments’ role in them to increase, I just don’t want it to be done with the halving of their funding,” Hinz added. “The Federal Government gives a lot of financial support to ACARA and AISTL, I don’t want to see their operating budgets decrease dramatically because it would be hard for them then to do a good job.
“NAPLAN is a good thing but it’s early days and there’s a lot of improvement needed in how they fine tune the testing and in communicating its purpose – it’s not about ranking schools or school students – it’s about learning where schools and school systems should allocate their own resources.
“We need to have better use of NAPLAN and better communication so schools and parents don’t get scared by it and I worry that a big decrease in budget for ACARA and so forth will might mean that we can’t actually benefit from what it’s supposed to do.
“Principals and teachers just want to make sure the education system is as good as it can be and I think that we can get closer to that with the Commonwealth taking some steps back and handing the reins to the states and territories because the they have the track record and the relationships that make them in a better position to improve education for the students.”