Fiddling with Gonski while Shanghai learns

How sad that Australia's quest to be the 'clever country' is being scuppered by the re-politicisation of education, while competitor nations surge ahead.

Paul Keating's sometimes embarrassingly self-serving account of his years as treasurer and prime minister, broadcast on the ABC over the past four weeks, nonetheless yields a few gems.

In the final of the series, Keating said he "despised" Neville Wran's view that a politician can't get too far ahead of the punters. Keating, by contrast, said it was up to the leader to "paint a new horizon".

He doesn't mind revisiting the old horizons, of course – particularly the time he prevented the John Howard-led Coalition winning the 1987 election by forcing Howard to admit publicly that he'd got his "sums wrong" on the Coaliton's tax proposals. (There was also the thorn in Howard's side known as Joh Bjelke-Petersen, but let's not spoil a good story.)

Love or loathe Keating – and there seem to be very few people who don't swing to one of those polarised positions – he's right about leadership.

As both Howard and Keating proved, punters can be moved forwards in leaps and bounds to accept major reforms such as Keating's compulsory super or Howard's GST. Both men wielded the paint brush, and punters got over knee-jerk objections to see the new horizons of long-term benefits.

How sad, then, that Australia's quest to be the 'clever country', as Bob Hawke dubbed it, is being scuppered once again by the re-politicisation of education.

Before the election, Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne were right to be on a ‘unity ticket’ with Labor's school funding reforms – to take on Labor was also to be at odds with two conservative state governments who had embraced the needs-based 'Gonski' model.

The breaking of that promise, and the ongoing attempts to double-backflip and prove to a bemused electorate that it has broken no promises, is unedifying to say the very least.

And it comes at a very bad time. Many national newspapers across OECD nations are today running stories analysing their ranking on the Program for International Student Assessment, or Pisa, league tables.

Once again, Australia is slipping backwards, particularly in maths literacy. If John Howard could get his sums wrong, heaven help future generations of pollies.

Before the election, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) was sounding the alarm that our future, ahem, just doesn't add up. It said in August: "Australian graduation rates in the mathematical sciences run at only half the OECD average for men and one-third for women."

Now it's clearer than ever why that is. Our school kids are slipping, year after year, in skill sets that are vital for innovation, science, engineering, and, well, just getting the federal budget right.

And as those school kids grow, gender issues emerge more strongly. Liberal backbencher Kelly O'Dwyer explained to me last week why she, along with Labor's Amanda Rishworth, had established a parliamentary friendship group to promote women in maths, science and engineering.

Not only are women falling behind at school on the latest Pisa figures, but they face extra hurdles at the tertiary or post-graduate level, according to O'Dwyer. It was one of her constituents – prevented from applying for a top research job because she had childcare commitments – that convinced O'Dwyer to take up the cause.

It's as if half of Australia's brain is misfiring, when the entire brain is also shrinking.

Last week, when I suggested that Treasurer Joe Hockey's decision to tip $8.8 billion into the Reserve Bank’s capital reserves looked excessive when Abbott and Pyne said they could not find the $1.2 billion taken out of the Gonski education reforms by Labor before the election, some readers argued that because Hockey's money would turn a profit (when the Australian dollar fell) it was an 'investment' (Hockey gambles while Pyne welches, November 28).

Strangely enough, education is also seen as an 'investment' by the Shanghai schools that continue to make “mind boggling" progress at the top of Pisa league tables, according to the Pisa study's director, Andreas Schleicher.

Abbott and Pyne have now found that money, and have promised it to the states that did not sign up to the Gonski reforms. However, it is only an investment if it is spent wisely – Pyne is yet to reveal exactly what the hurriedly put together deals with Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland entail. 

The problem for the Coalition is that the Gonski reforms had bi-partisan support, including some true-believer reforming zeal from the Coalition New South Wales government of Barry O'Farrell.

Repoliticising it now is almost a tragedy for the kids whose place in the Pisa leagues tables will almost certainly be lower when the survey is run again in three years' time.

Labor smells blood in the water, and will do its best to turn the issue into a political weapon.

What's missing is a leader – perhaps one like Paul Keating – who can shout all of these people down and put the bipartisan approach to quality education reform back on track. The 'clever country' that Hawke briefly tried to sketch out is rapidly being erased.

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