Any federal government that wants to tackle the future head-on must put schools policy at the centre of its agenda. That’s why it’s so concerning that Tony Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, want to do the exact opposite.

The Abbott government’s true colours were put on fierce display recently, when they released their draft federation green paper, which set out four options for the future of our schools, each aimed at dramatically reducing or eliminating federal involvement. The options included cutting federal school funding altogether; cutting federal funding for public schools; cutting $30 billion from schools; and forcing states to introduce public school fees.

Every one of these options would drag Australia backwards.

The federal government first got involved in schools in 1964 under Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies, who provided grants for science laboratories in secondary schools. This was expanded greatly in 1973 when Labor’s Gough Whitlam responded to the seminal Karmel report — which found Australia’s schools were failing students from poorer backgrounds — by introducing federal funding for all schools.

Now, for the first time in more than 50 years, we have a prime minister who thinks our classrooms should be less — not more — of a priority for our national government.

Federal involvement in our schools has been based on a simple principle of fairness: a child’s educational opportunities should not be determined by where in Australia they live. It also has been based on a clear understanding of the importance of school education to our national economy.

A national curriculum has been adopted by states and territories, along with national professional standards for teachers and principals. Australia-wide assessment and reporting have been put in place, with the MySchool website and National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy providing national insight into our schools. For the first time, Labor’s Gonski reforms provided a road map to a truly national school funding system. A needs-based, sector-blind approach clarified state and federal responsibility, increased accountability and set out specific plans to improve results.

The Gonski reforms were based on evidence about the resources needed to deliver a high-quality education, so every student in every school could get the support they needed to achieve their best.

Despite promising a school funding ‘‘unity ticket’’ before the election, the green paper proves Abbott and Pyne have been busy crafting ways to rid the federal government of its responsibility for schools. While they may rationalise this by imagining short-term budgetary benefits, they have missed the big picture altogether.

The recent OECD report Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain has quantified the national economic benefits of improving overall results and equity in our schools.

If we can equip all Australian high school graduates with the basic skills needed for the global economy by 2030, it would be the equivalent of adding 2.8 per cent to our gross domestic product today. That is the same as a $44 billion expansion in our economy, or almost the total annual economic activity of Tasmania and the Northern Territory combined.

Given federal government expenditure on schools is about 1 per cent of GDP, or $15 billion, this would be an incredible return on investment. And it’s a potent argument against the Abbott government’s massive school cuts. As the OECD puts it: “The quality of schooling in a country is a powerful predictor of the wealth that countries will produce in the long run.”

Our education system is arguably the most powerful long-term economic lever we have, yet despite our rapidly changing economy and future challenges, the Abbott government wants to let go of it altogether. In the ideological pursuit of cutbacks, it is risking a less equal society and a smaller economy.

These aren’t risks federal Labor is prepared to take. It’s why we remain committed to the Gonski principles. It’s why we have announced policies to give students the skills of the future in science, technology, engineering and maths. It’s why we are totally opposed to Abbott’s plans to diminish federal responsibility for schools. And it’s why we will never let the quality of school education become a lottery of state borders.

Now, more than ever, the federal government has an important role to play in our schools. Labor understands education transforms lives, and that our schools can transform Australia’s future.

If Abbott wants to clarify federal-state responsibilities, he doesn’t need a federation white paper. He just needs to remember the Gonski reforms.


This piece first appeared in The Australian on Friday, 10 July 2015.