The national curriculum; The Abbott Government’s cuts to education


PETER VAN ONSELEN, PRESENTER: We’re joined by the Shadow Education Spokeswoman, Kate Ellis, appreciate your time thanks very much.


VAN ONSELEN: Before we get into education matters, in a take-down or a shirtfront, who do you reckon wins, Tony Abbott or Vladimir Putin?

ELLIS: I hate to even think of the prospect of seeing the two of them together to be honest with you.

VAN ONSELEN: The wrestler versus the boxer, what do you reckon? You got to pick one.

ELLIS: I think if we can just make sure that both of them keep all of their clothes on, then that will be a really good start for everybody involved.

VAN ONSELEN: All right let’s move on, we won’t talk about shirtfront in the playground, and what might happen to a student who did that. Let’s talk about the curriculum, and we’ll move wider than that, no doubt. Do you have broad based support for some of what you’re hearing so far or do you have some concerns?

ELLIS: Look I think most of the recommendations are things that are already underway, and most of it is pretty obvious and there are some positive changes there. There are a few things that are a bit odd.

But on the whole I think that from the outset people said: ‘do we really need a review of the curriculum when the curriculum is still being implemented?’ And any of the things that are being suggested are pretty common sense. Things that would have been picked up, or were already happening, anyway.

VAN ONSELEN: But the reviewers say though that there are problems in the current curriculum, it’s a bit to complicated, there’s too much trying to be done, it’s got to be simplified. Kevin Donnelly in particular is strong on that. There are some disagreements between the two of them, what’s your view on that?

ELLIS: Well the reviewers made overwhelmingly clear that the national curriculum is a good document, and it is working well as it is. So it is good to have that endorsed, and to have all sides of politics supportive of the national curriculum.

But of course, we think that as it’s implemented, we should always have a look at how it can be done better. And there has been feedback from primary school principals and teachers in particular saying they’ve been given so much information that some guidance around what more time should be applied to, and what can fill in the additional hours, would be helpful. And I’m certainly supportive of that. I think we’re all supportive of making sure that when our students leave primary school, that their literacy and numeracy skills are where they need to be, and that’s something that we can all work together towards.

VAN ONSELEN: Now, I suspect that is true and that is what people want, but what about your concerns, if any, about some of the elements that have, over years, have already been asked to be weaved into the program. I’m thinking about Indigenous studies, sustainability and so forth. The reviewers are suggesting that whilst that is not a bad thing that that happened, too much of that might get in the road.. that seems to be what is going on by reading between the lines. Do you have worries about where that might head?

ELLIS: Well, I think what it is that they’re saying is actually what is already occurring, and that they’ve said that we should keep the themes that run throughout our curriculum, but they’ve also said that those themes should only be applied where relevant, and that teachers shouldn’t feel forced to have to apply them to maths or pure sciences where it doesn’t fit. That’s pretty obvious, that’s what already occurs under the national curriculum. I have no problem with them restating that that’s the way it should be.

But I think, all-in-all, we have three hundred pages which is overwhelmingly about what we’re already doing, the direction we’re already going in, and I think it’s quite valid to ask questions about why we’re all talking about tinkering with the curriculum at the same time we’re not talking about the millions of dollars that are being pulled out of school budgets, and are indeed being pulled out of the budget of the very Authority [Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority], that overseas the national curriculum. I think there’s a strong argument that this is a pretty big distraction, and that’s a game that Christopher Pyne is well known for playing.

VAN ONSELEN: You called it millions, but previously Labor and yourself included, has called it billions. The ABC fact checking unit stated quote-un-quote that you were ‘spouting rubbery figures’ by referring to this $30 billion cut figure over a ten year period. It’s not often that the ABC has such a red hot crack at the Labor party is it?

ELLIS: Well the ABC comes up with a range of views – I’m not going to get into a debate about the ABC. But what I will say is that is that it is in black-and-white in Treasurer Joe Hockey’s Budget, that he’s been bragging that over the next 10 years that they will save $80 billion from our schools and hospitals. And in Senate Estimates, it has been confirmed that $50 billion of that is from our hospitals, and $30 billion is from our schools. So we can talk about whatever sources we like, but what we’re actually talking about is the Government’s own words, and there own Budget, which is incredibly serious.

Now that is going to effect every classroom. But even if we don’t want to talk about the broader budget over the next decade, let’s talk about the budget right now. For ACARA, the organisation that oversees our curriculum, now if you go through the recommendations that were released over the weekend, there are recommendations that they should simplify the language, that they should work to create another curriculum that is for parents, that they should work to include special education in the curriculum more. There is recommendation after recommendation about what ACARA should do. This Government in their Budget has cut a quarter of ACARA’s budget already. So surely, any debate about the curriculum shouldn’t just be about what’s being recommended, but how on earth that is going to be implemented, unless the government reverses their funding cuts.

VAN ONSELEN: Are there big differences between the Opposition and the Government over particulars in policy? Or, is the main difference you see, as is your view clearly, that they are under-funding education?

ELLIS: Well, I think the two actually come together. Christopher Pyne says, and I agree with him, that it’s not all about money. Of course its not. But what we do know is that we went through the biggest review of Australian schools in 40 years, it came up with the recommendations of what we actually need to improve our schools, and those things cost money.

So we know that its about professional development of our teachers for example, its about having a strong and robust national curriculum, with the resources to back it up. It’s about making sure that we have strong leadership in our schools. None of these things are free. So what I believe in is that we absolutely shouldn’t be accepting the status quo, that we know that there are real problems in our schools and we should all be striving to ensure that every school in Australia is a great school. That is my view. Unfortunately the Government, whilst once claiming to be on a unity ticket, now seems to be shirking their responsibility, walking away from this, and worse yet, then introducing the biggest funding cut that schools have ever seen in Australia’s history. Robbing money off the states, which we know is going to have a very real impact on every classroom.

VAN ONSELEN: But Ms Ellis, is Labor definitely committed to the full 6 years of Gonski funding? Because today, when Bill Shorten was doing an interview with Sky News he didn’t make that commitment, is that something we can assume is a commitment, but well: ‘we’re just waiting to see how it is funded and we’ll put out details closer to the election’

ELLIS: Look, what we absolutely said, and what Bill Shorten made very clear in his Budget reply speech, is that we know in terms of our policy going forward, it is to reinstate the Gonksi reforms. This is what we work towards. We are incredibly proud of the reforms introduced in Government, and we don’t want to see them just thrown aside. But we also know that we need to do an assessment of the damage that this Government is doing, we can’t actually say how much money is going to be required to fix these reforms and to fix our school systems until we can see how much damage they’ve done and how much rebuilding we have to do. So that’s something that we’re looking at, and obviously we’ll release all of those figures before the next election.

VAN ONSELEN: But can I just use an analogy before we run out of time. The Government says that there is a 5 per cent difference in overall terms of funding between what Labor wants and what it is looking at, at least in the short to medium term. If that is the case, isn’t it all about the design principals rather than the money. Because if I use a car purchase as an analogy here, you can buy yourself a $19,000 car that is imminently better than a $20,000 car, if you put the hard work into the process of finding the right type of car. The same thing goes with curriculum design, incentives for teachers perhaps, independence and autonomy there for school principals. If you get the policy principals right, and 5% cut could just become a valuable saving in the hunt for a budget surplus can’t it?

ELLIS: I thought about continuing your car analogy, but I’m just going to park that to one side. That’s as far as it’s going to go! But what I would say is that I dispute that there is a small difference in funding. We know that the majority of additional funding came in years five and six of the Gonksi agreements, that this Government have walked away from, we’re actually talking about billions of dollars.

It actually works out to $3.2 million on average for every single school across Australia that they will be worse off under this Government. But more so than that, there is a very big difference in policy settings. We’ve talked previously about how this Government brag about having a no-strings attached funding agreements for the states when it comes to schools. That is that there policy is that: ‘we’re going send off blank checks, and not even ask what the states are doing with that funding and not ensure that it is directed to the areas where we know is the biggest improvement’.

There is a huge difference in our views on school funding. We want to see it directed to the students that it makes the biggest difference to, and to the areas within the school community which will lift the entire school. Not just see blank checks sent from Canberra, where states are then free to cut funding if they like, or to direct it to other areas as they see fit.

VAN ONSELEN: Well all right. It’s only going to become a bigger issue as we get closer to the election, and more details get put on the bones of both sides of politics on this one. Kate Ellis, as always, appreciate your time, thanks very much.

ELLIS: Thanks Peter.