By most accounts not the best way to run an education system

You have to feel sorry for young Andrew Barr. A newcomer to government, he has been thrust into the midst of what looks to be a protracted fight about the future of 39 schools (and pre-schools) in Canberra.

Ultimately, fewer than 39 schools will close. Indeed it looks as though the government went deliberately for over-kill, calculating that, after the dust has settled, the community will be so grateful for the schools that have been spared, they will forget the rest.

Communities that fight the hardest will no doubt be those that keep their schools. Whether this makes sense from a rational point of view is, of course, another matter. It will, for example, be difficult for defenders of many public pre-schools to make their point. Yet these undertakings may be just as significant, in the broader scheme of things, as some schools that will survive.

Whatever the final outcome, though, there is general agreement that this is not the best way to run a public education system, particularly one that has been losing students to the private sector at a greater rate than any other system in Australia. Surely a Labor Government, particularly one that regards itself as a custodian of the public system, should be doing a little better than this?

We pay governments (that is, politicians and public servants) to manage public assets well. We also expect them, in discharging this function, to have some regard to the needs and aspirations of the community. The two objectives are far from being mutually exclusive. But it does require a degree of planning, foresight and professionalism to have regard to both. Much depends on finding productive ways of consulting with the community.

Consultation under the gun of budgetary duress increases conflict and maximises pain. So why did the government wait until it had no choice, before talking to the community? Why did it not implement a process of long-term planning for ACT public education when it first came to office in 2001?

Despite its then minority status, the first Stanhope government was keen to develop new models for the Territory’s future. Unfortunately, the government was too busy being strategic to worry about the detail. By 2004 it had proudly produced plans for Canberra’s economy, for its spatial development, and for its social future. And as part of the process, there had been consultation all round. I remember at one point being part of a group that was consulted about the future of education. I don’t recall that school closures were even on the agenda.

The prevailing zeitgeist was about equality of opportunity through education – a noble and important objective. But noble and important objectives need resources to carry them through. And they cannot be formulated in isolation from a practical assessment of existing problems. The situation puts me in mind of other strategic planning processes I have been involved with. They are full of the grandest of

intentions, but are then, inevitably, mugged by reality. And that reality is always about money.

So, what should the government have done? To some extent, the budgetary woes of the ACT government were self-inflicted. Like all governments, it finds it difficult to make tough decisions about groups from which it draws support. So the government’s decision to pay teachers more, without asking anything from them in return, and its decision to put more money into the system to reduce the size of Kindergarten classes, were more about politics than management.

At the same time, the policy agenda in education remained largely static. Katie Gallagher, the Minister for Education, seemed unaware that the once-innovative ACT public system had grown tired and in need of reform. Instead of being preoccupied by the social equity agenda that many in her party and her supporters in ACTCOSS, the Australian Education Union and Parents and Citizens organisations were urging upon her, Ms Gallagher should have realised that the future health of the public system depended upon her taking a more inclusive view of public education, breaking the iron grip of the educational bureaucracy, and giving her best principals the tools and the autonomy they needed to get on with the job.

The 2020 plan, belatedly introduced in the 2006-07 Budget, might then have been the basis for a detailed discussion with interest groups and with the community about the future shape of the school system. A pipe dream? Perhaps. But until a sensible degree of cross-party consensus about our prized city-state is produced, and the public policy community (as I have long argued) overcomes its obsession with the federal government and takes a stronger interest in the Territory’s future, we will continue to stagger from one crisis to the next.

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