Schools go back to the future, again


Some thirteen years ago the Kennett government swept to power in Victoria with a promise of widespread reform of both the economy and the education system. The remedy for education was given the spin of ‘Schools of the Future’ (SOTF). Victoria, they claimed, was in a crisis that required radical surgery.

At this time I vividly recall debating the acknowledged architect of the new system, Professor Brian Caldwell, at a public meeting held at Sunshine Secondary College. Mr Caldwell sought to allay fears that the government would use SOTF as a ruse to slash funding. He reassured all present that the new system would unshackle schools from the burden of bureaucracy and allow teachers to equip this generation of students with the skills needed for the new millennium. The SOTF program was about empowering school communities, not destroying them.

The rest is now history. In the ensuing years, more than 300 schools were forced to close, some 9000 education workers were made redundant and the system was plunged into a spiral of despair. Ironically, the school at which the above-mentioned debate was held would suffer dearly; losing a third of its teaching staff in the months ahead when the first round of budget cuts was delivered.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

The destabilising effects of the Kennett period would only begin to settle with its shock defeat in 1999. The incoming Bracks administration had won by the narrowest of margins, but only after a deal struck with three rural based independents did it assume office. It was rural voters who had borne the brunt of most of the school closures and who had now delivered the telling political blow.

The Bracks government, mindful of the ongoing damage suffered in the school sector, sought to restore some public confidence in the system and to end the government imposed climate of conflict and austerity through modest increases in funding and by providing more cooperative and consultative arrangements for school communities. The State Labor government would claim education to be their foremost priority, as they sought to reinvigorate and reinvest in the public education system.
While their deeds never quite matched the rhetoric, no one I know would have expected the latest turn of events.

The most recent government agreement that promised to improve resourcing levels and salaries is now exposing a nasty side that is sure to be widely felt across the school sector. The expected increases to salary costs through agreed annual increments, has not been factored into school budgets. The department has failed to fund schools for their real costs. Schools like mine are heading for a serious deficit.

We are now in the invidious predicament of considering how to implement cuts to our program or staffing levels due to a funding failure that rests squarely with the department and government. It should be understood that my school has a good mixture of beginning and experienced teachers and cannot be considered an ‘expensive’ staffing profile. I can only begin to imagine the trauma that will face schools that have a very experienced group of teachers. Should they trade off the more ‘costly’ ones for ‘cheaper’ ones or ‘cash in’ their leading teacher positions? Should they ‘let go’ their contract teachers, slash programs and increase class sizes? Are we as teachers now expected to minimise costs rather than maximise student outcomes?

Needless to say, a palpable sense of betrayal pervades my school as it considers a range of deleterious measures. Meanwhile our political masters remain cushioned and comfortable in their offices, well removed from the dirty business that they have created. As a teaching staff we can sit back and cop this odious arrangement or we can fight. I reckon we’ll fight.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.