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Education Policy in Australia: The fifty years from Whitlam to Morrison

The last fifty years have been years of great activity in the area of education policy, principally as it concerns schools. A substantial concern with access to quality education for all children irrespective of background led the Whitlam Government to establish the Schools Commission chaired by distinguished academic Professor Peter Karmel. The Committee found three major deficiencies in Australian education—lack of human and material resources, gross inequalities in the provision of resources and educational opportunities, and lack of quality in teaching, curriculum and school organisation. The Commission undertook a study which formed the basis of subsequent policy. That policy was based on recognition of disparities between government financial support to non-government and government schools and sought removal of that disparity, albeit with special arrangements concerning Catholic schools. Special support for independent, other than Catholic, schools ceased immediately after acceptance of the Karmel Committee’s recommendations. (Substantial commentary is available on the Whitlam years including books by Whitlam himself and by his biographer Jennifer Hocking.)

The policies of the Whitlam era remained largely unchanged for several years through the early 1990s, through several different governments – of Malcolm Fraser, then of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating until the election of the Howard Government in 1996. The policies maintained special arrangements in respect of Catholic schools. But there were no special funding arrangements for other non-government schools.

The Howard Government, especially from 2001, gave strong support to independent schools and a traditional approach to teaching and schooling. Funding related to socioeconomic demographics of questionable validity. Howard himself had an extraordinarily traditional view of what was important in schooling and education and mostly it was irrelevant. The policy increased a significant exodus of students from public schools to private schools and frequent commentary claimed that public schools were inferior educationally and, according to some, promoted questionable values. The outcomes of the Howard policies were considered by a number of commenters including education researchers such as Lyndsay Connors who condemned the drift of students to independent schools from public schools and the public attitudes encouraged by the government’s policies that parents who sent their children to public schools did not care about their education.

The Howard Government was defeated in 2007 by the Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd on a platform which included a strong policy on schools which again emphasised universal access to education opportunities and associated provisions, a policy which, it was emphasised, had to involve the States. Schools were required to sign up to the reforms.

Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, introduced a number of structural changes including ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) responsible for managing the My School website bringing together data on socioeconomic background of students, financial contributions to the school, the results of NAPLAN (end of year standardised tests administered to all students in alternate years for reach class in each subject) and commissioned an important Inquiry chaired by distinguished businessman David Gonski into school funding. Policies incorporated into legislation in accordance with some of the recommendations of the Inquiry led to agreement with the ACT and some, but not all, of the States or the Northern Territory. Important elements of the policy recommended by the Gonski inquiry were not legislated. The term Gonski became synonymous with funding of public schools in a community driven campaign pursued especially through social media.

From the outset, the recommendations of the Gonski inquiry were opposed in varying, sometimes hyperbolic, language by the Coalition in opposition, which shortly before the election of 2013 in which the Rudd government was defeated, agreed nevertheless to implement the recommendations. That promise did not survive long.

In government the Coalition, with Christopher Pyne and then Simon Birmingham as Education Ministers, gradually moved away from support of universal access to financially favouring non-government schools. Under the Prime Ministership of Scott Morrison in 2018, further special arrangements were made for the funding of Catholic schools and independent schools generally gained Commonwealth financial support well in excess of what had been provided previously; the States were urged to fund public schools to bridge the funding gap.

By the time 2019 entered its early months, the funding of schools resembled that of the early 1970s. In other words, attempts to remove what the Karmel Report called gross inequalities had collapsed. In addition, a substantial number of other considerations critical to effective learning for all, and related structural issues including the organisation of schools and role of teachers and principals, had been marginalised. Serious problems remained as outlined in an earlier accompanying essay.

A second inquiry chaired by David Gonski addressed issues other than funding which had been previously, for the most part, marginalised: the recommendations of the inquiry – on early childhood, on learning assessment, teacher development and the role of principals as well as the important of creativity and innovation – were largely ignored by the government. The government asserted its funding of schools was consistent with the first Gonski inquiry in being sector blind and needs based!

The issues involved in the policy development and changes over these almost 50 years include

In addition, the relationship of educational achievement to funding and, separately to economic growth, was frequently focused on.

These changes within Australia took place against a background of increasing international attention to schools and funding policy and the consequences in terms of learning and school organisation. The OECD, through its program of assessments of learning of 15-year olds PISA, continued across an ever-larger number of countries, OECD members as well as “associated countries”. Comparisons of Australian students’ achievements with those of other countries occupied considerable energy of what passed for analysis by several commentators.

There was a huge increase in scholarly research on education and related matters ranging across every possible aspect from the behaviour of babies in their first weeks of life to the importance of play, from classroom behaviour and approaches to assessment to the involvement of the business community and unions in policy formulation, from opportunities for disadvantaged communities such as people of colour in the United States to the attitudes of parents to their children’s play in Mayan cultures and the relationship of educational achievement to the reduction of poverty.

Much of the research on education and learning has taken place in countries whose governments most strenuously ignored the results of that research. Those countries are ones where policies based on neoclassical or market economics, theories championed by economists such as Milton Friedman and others, have prevailed. Such theories pay scant attention to the results of research on human behaviour and sociology, on research in neurology and brain function, and organisations. Though Adam Smith is frequently co-opted to the cause, in fact his theories do not support the degree of market and commercial business freedom we have seen in the last 50 years especially. Those theories posit a corrupted view of value creation and a distortion of the role of government.

A poem by W B Yeats, “The Second Coming”, stresses the influence of those who speak loudest in challenging times.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The poem was written at the end of the First World War, just before the British Government sent armed forces, referred to as the Black and Tans, to Ireland.

Research shows that lines of the poem were more often quoted at times of substantial political upheaval such as terrorist attacks in France, the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as US President.




The most critical gap in the consideration of policies determining education and learning is the learning experience of children in the early years. The provisions of parental care and the employment arrangements and financial support through government financial policies are critical to this area.[1]

The evidence for the critical role of early childhood intervention, educationally, personally and economically, is overwhelming: it is fair to say that unless adequate attention is given to it, all other interventions are almost certain to be less successful and certainly will be costlier.

That it has been ignored, in Australia to a greater extent than almost any other developed country, is a disgrace of great magnitude with implications extending into decades for individuals and the community. That mothers are required to demonstrate involvement either in work or in further education in order to achieve income support of any kind, which completely overlooks the economic but unpriced contribution women make through parenting and household management, is utterly indefensible and ignorant!

Studies which reinforce the critical nature of early childhood intervention include several longitudinal studies such as the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study in New Zealand (commonly referred to as The Dunedin Study) and The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, “Growing Up in Australia” (and its wonderful films).


Education has been the subject of previous essays on this website, essays drawn largely from the Springer publication of January 2014, Education Reform: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity.

In the following paragraphs I summarise the issues based on the essays written over the last four or so years.

They are intended to provide background to the Gonski inquiries, especially the report of the second inquiry.

Whilst the first Gonski inquiry, concerning funding, was extremely important in its influence on equity, the second inquiry, on effective teaching and schooling is equally important; it drew on substantial research and experience through the numerous submissions.

There is something peculiar, and unproductive if not damaging, about policy debate in Australia. It seems that complicated issues like leadership, organisational behaviour, in fact how decisions get made and how people work together which are the two key issues of every aspect of group behaviour, are just too difficult. Yet those issues are critical to reform and policy formulation from the family to major corporations and government. What seems easier to report on is how much money is involved, how much things cost, who has the money and what are the disagreements. And in respect of the last, not what are the issues and how can differences be resolved but whose involved in the stoush, what do they say, and so on. And who might win.

Recognising that all people, no matter their background, share a desire for their children to be educated and that the advantages that children have in their early years is what most strongly influences their later learning is fundamental to how we approach the whole area of education.

Early Childhood is a world of relationships. Children from the time they are born have capacities to empathise with the emotions of other people and by the time they are 18 months old show signs of altruism. Parental leave and preschool are not addendums to work but critical to every child’s and therefore society’s future!

Relationships of the child with the mother from the earliest hours of life in the outside world are vitally important. Development of relationships and of social and emotional skills for cooperating with others is essential.

Children whose cognitive and behavioural characteristics are poorly developed in their early years have difficulty succeeding in the school system, which can lead to higher levels of anti-social behaviour, delinquency and crime as teenagers and young adults.

The quality and stability of a child’s human relationships in the early years lay the foundation for a wide range of later developmental outcomes such as self-confidence and sound mental health, motivation to learn, achievement in school and later in life, self-control, form social relationships, and ultimately to be a successful parent oneself.

The relationship of the child with the mother in the earliest months of life is critical. Prolonged breastfeeding is associated with a significant reduction in later behaviour problems

Preschool is an essential first step in every child reaching their potential: it closes the gap for children of poorer backgrounds. The home environment is likely significantly more important for children in poorer households and indeed accounts for the majority of variance in mental ability among poor two-year olds: the effect of genetics has been found to be neglible. On the other hand, in children from wealthy families, genetics accounts for about half of the variance in mental ability.

The recalled experience of their own parenting has an important influence on the parenting behaviour of the mother.

And, an important issue for later life is understanding how to learn. Young children given the opportunity to learn by experimenting, through play, performed better at tasks requiring exercise of imagination than children shown how to work the toy. Is there a parallel with children taught music or even philosophy?

Organisational dynamics and Leadership need a great deal more attention in most organisations; the standard of leadership in Australia has hardly advanced of the last 25 or so years. Achieving transformational change while simultaneously building employee morale and commitment, seen often as a contradictory endeavour, is a major challenge and often avoided. Yet it is fundamental to effective leadership in every organisation including schools. Too much of leadership is no more than a pretense of knowledge. Working in teams, members of which are expected to challenge statements, is critical. The work of leadership is an investment. The research shows that in successful schools principals are transformational leaders. They are learning leaders not administrators.

Understanding how successful schools provide educational opportunity is not widely understood. Common perceptions identify class sizes, homework and school uniforms as important but they contribute little or nothing to improvement which means lots of money wasted. The habits of mind which influence beliefs about learning are acquired through socialisation: communities of students, teachers, principals that focus on improving practice are important; children become smart by being treated as intelligent.  A “thinking curriculum” requires instruction that is high in cognitive demand embedded in challenging subject matter. That the opportunity to choose which school children should attend hardly focuses on such issues.

Teaching & Teachers are issues at the core of successful schools but too much of discourse is driven by individuals’ own personal experience. Understanding what actually goes on in the classroom, valuing and trusting teachers (a feature of the Finnish and other systems) and schools building relationships with the community are important contributions. Expert teachers make a greater contribution than experienced teachers according to research by Professor John Hattie

Accountability, Testing and Evaluation are all terms exploited but largely meaningless. Standardised tests, NAPLAN, contribute to stress, distort the teaching, have no impact on educational gain and are subject to gaming and exploitation. Administered every year to every child in alternate years they only relate to literacy and numeracy and are summative thus having no connection with what factors contributed to them; teacher formative evaluation of individual students has been shown to make a significant difference. Arguments about curriculum are largely useless unless the outcome is greater engagement of students rather than reinforcement of orthodoxy. A focus on individual students has been frequently a focus of debate but put aside by policy-makers. Too many people involved in determining policy know less than those who are to experience the result of their deliberations.


The commentary on school reform over the last 50 years is rich. They include some very important discussions of the reforms by Karmel, the Howard Government, the Gillard initiatives and the first Gonski inquiry.

Continue to the First Gonski Report or the Second Gonski Report.


[1]  The economic contribution of mothers through child rearing and home care is unpriced and therefore mostly ignored, especially in government policy in Australia, but not in many European countries. Policies ensuring little or no penalties are applied to women who take parental leave are influential in decisions to take leave and especially to return to work after child-bearing.

In Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and what Women are Worth (University of Toronto Press, 1999) Professor Marilyn Waring isolates the gender bias that exists in the current system of calculating national wealth. In that system women are considered ‘non-producers’ and so cannot expect to gain from the distribution of benefits that flow from production. Inevitably therefore, the value created by half the population is largely ignored.

Amongst the reasons for some governments in some countries do not seek to focus significantly on the early years are that family issues are considered better to not intrude into, except in situations where there is reason to believe that criminal acts are occurring. Secondly, early learning is increasingly recognised as play-based, therefore extremely valuable but disparaged by some. Resurgent traditionalists wish to have pre-school children sit standardised tests. In Finland children do not start school until they are aged 7: the extra years beyond 5 (when children in many other countries start school) are times when play is a common activity, an activity considered important. So what, precisely is the gain from more tests? Teachers in the early years of school are quite capable of reliably assessing where a child is in relation to average performance!