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May 1, 2001.

By Des Moore

The likely re-election of Prime Minister Tony Blair on June 19 highlights the important innovations he recently announced in UK public education policy. These innovations assume added relevance given they are similar to the Kennett Government policy. Indeed, the whisper is the UK Minister for Education had researched the Kennett Government reforms.

Prime Minister Blair’s new policy includes, importantly, the pursuit of greater diversity through the conversion over five years of about half the UK comprehensive secondary schools into specialist schools; more government support for "faith" schools (ie church schools) "where there is clear local demand from parents and communities"; the introduction of a new category of advanced specialist schools for "high-performing" schools; and a "new model which would enable a private or voluntary sector to take responsibility for a weak or failing school against a fixed term contract, with renewal subject to performance".

Mr Blair particularly emphasised the need to increase school autonomy. Thus, "all schools are receiving payments made direct to the head teacher"… "all heads (are) having more control over their budgets than ever before", and successful schools will have "greater freedom over the National Curriculum and teachers’ pay and conditions". There is also emphasis on building pupils’ individual talents, including through the establishment of a National Centre for Gifted and Talented Youth and the setting of targets for children to attain. League tables for schools and performance standards for children, long opposed in Australia, will continue to be published.

While Tony Blair claimed "there is no question of a two tier system" under this new policy, the education unions have loudly complained that "there will be different tiers of education" and the gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged may widen. This gap obsession was also a major criticism of the Kennett Government’ self-governing schools policy and remains an obstacle to further reform of government education. Put in simple terms, the belief is that some children’s education will suffer in lower quality schools.

But there is no substance to the two-tier argument. Where schools have children with lower educable capacities that should be handled by providing the required additional resources (including higher skilled - and paid - teachers). Indeed, the Blair policy makes specific provision for special pupil learning credits for schools in more disadvantaged areas. In any event, our many government subsidized private schools means that Australia already has a two-tier system: indeed, the diversity amongst private schools alone now provides many tiers of school education.

Unsurprisingly, the UK Conservative Party Shadow Minister welcomed "the language and rhetoric of many of the (Blair) proposals — at least those that have been cut and pasted from the Conservative party web site". Here in Australia the new Blair policy provides an opportunity for all State governments to at least third-way government schooling and help slow the continuing shift away. It also provides an opportunity to show that education unions should not be allowed to determine policy and that government schools should not be exempt from take-over by the private sector, subject to performance.

The Victorian Opposition should be taking the lead here and promoting the need to extend self-government well beyond what the Kennett Government did. The failure of Shadow Minister Honeywood to support Premier Bracks’ stand against the Education Union’s strike threat is surprising. He should be promoting the idea of giving the maximum freedom for individual schools to make their own decisions, particularly over staffing and curricula. The establishment of independent or autonomous government schools would create a competitive market in the operation of such schools and, over time, improve the quality of education.