Education in Victoria

1. Doom and Gloom
Education has often suffered from a climate of doom. Victoria had a particularly awful government between 1992 and 1999.

It seemed the darkness would last forever.  But it didn’t.  Some teachers caved in and accepted that government’s destructive agenda - to their own personal benefit.  But most resisted, and in time that government lost office and the replacement government got on with rebuilding the system - only itself to lose office in 2010 to the party that did the original damage, which itself lost office after only one term, something that had not happened for 60 years.  To understand this period, you need to know something of Victorian government and politics as the lessons are not simply transferable to other societies.

Australia is a federation.  Thus, education is a state, not a federal, responsibility, though the federal government, which has most of the money, uses its constitutional power to make grants to the states to push them around to get what it wants in various fields, including education.  Even so, the states remain the most significant agent in education.

The major political parties in Victorian post-war history have been the Australian Labor party, the Democratic Labor Party, the Democrats, the Greens, the Liberal Party (formerly known as the Liberal and Country Party) and the National Party (formerly known as the Country Party).  The ALP did not win government in its own right until 1952.  It then split over communism in 1955, which led to the formation of the DLP, and remained out of office until 1982.

Victoria, like the other states apart from Queensland, has a bicameral Parliament – the Legislative Assembly, the house of government, and the Legislative Council, the house of review.  When the ALP was in government in from 1952 to 1955, it did not control the Legislative Council.  When it was again in government, from 1982 to 1992 it did not control the Legislative Council (apart from a few weeks in 1985).  When it was in government again, from 1999 to 2010, it did not control the Legislative Council from 1999 to 2002 and from 2006 to 2010.  When it returned to government in 2014, it still did not control the Legislative Council and had to rely on a combination of five Greens and five micro-party MLCs for the passage of legislation.  In summary, by the time of the next election in 2018, Labor will have controlled both Houses in only four of the previous 66 years.  Labor’s commitment to democracy was so great that it reformed the voting system for the Legislative Council in 2002 to introduce proportional representation, meaning that it would probably never again have a majority.  It even went so far as to entrench eight five-member seats in the Victorian Constitution so that they cannot be changed except by a referendum of the people, thus protecting that reform from any future government tempted to act in its own self-interest.  By contrast, the Liberal Party (and later the Coalition of the Liberals and the Nationals) almost always controlled the Legislative Council when it was in government or had to get the agreement of the Country Party, which, while federally in Coalition, was not in Coalition in Victoria before 1992.  Thus, the Liberals were far freer to do what they wanted when in government, while Labor was limited by being in the minority in the Legislative Council until 2002 and after 2006.

2. Victoria’s Recent Political History

The Liberal Party governed Victoria from 1955 to 1982, during which time it actually built up the education system, partly because of substantial pressure from the teaching profession, which was highly unionised and, in the high and technical sectors, fairly militant, and partly because it was not like the current parties of “the right”: it actually believed in the public sector.  However, there was considerable dissatisfaction with its running of education and it had never really been that popular in its own right.  While it kept winning government, it polled less than 40 per cent of the vote in every election from 1955 to 1970.  Only DLP preferences got it over the line.  The combined Labor (ALP and DLP) vote was actually higher than the Liberal vote in every election from 1955 to 1973.  The DLP lost votes over the long term and disbanded in 1978, clearing the way for the ALP to win government again, and the DLP unions re-affiliated with the ALP in 1986.

The ALP governed Victoria from 1982 to 1992.  In that time, it made a substantial investment in primary education, made the first conditions agreements with the teacher unions and produced some worthwhile reforms.  However, while painted as being controlled by teacher unions, it actually presided over a substantial drop in teacher pay and almost no improvement in secondary school staffing.  More significantly, by the early 1990s, Victoria was in recession and facing high government debt.

By this time, the Liberals had gone into coalition with the Nationals and together they governed Victoria from 1992 to 1999.  The Coalition followed a hard right agenda, formed by the Institute of Public Affairs.  In education, this meant massive cuts to staffing, the closure of schools, the end of the conditions agreements, the effective dismantling of the education system as such and its replacement by 1,600 competing fiefdoms run by newly empowered principals.  Of course, it went too far, and the backlash came soon enough.

Labor won power in 1999, as a minority government, backed by three independents.  It was returned in 2002 and again in 2006 in landslides.  It spent its time in government rebuilding the education system, employing additional teachers, re-instating industrial agreements, putting a massive capital investment into schools and putting the “system” back into the education system.

In 2010, Labor lost office to the Coalition, with the numbers in the Legislative Assembly being 45-43 and with the Coalition controlling the Legislative Council.  Education did not figure much in the campaign.  The Coalition effectively conceded that Labor had done a good job by not campaigning on the issue.  In fact, its own education policies were very thin indeed, being such things as open a new school here and a new school there, but no overall set of policies.  That does not mean there was a vacuum, because the good old Institute of Public Affairs had produced another booklet telling the Coalition what to do, just as it did in 1992.

The Coalition government did very little for its first two years and dissatisfaction within became so great that it replaced its leader, Ted Baillieu, with Dennis Napthine.  This was not sufficient for it to win the 2014 election.  Labor came back to power with a small majority in the Legislative Assembly and 14 of the 40 Legislative Council seats, the others being 16 Coalition, 5 Greens, 1 new DLP, one Vote 1 Local Jobs, 1 Sex Party and 2 Shooters and Fishers.  While many see the ALP and the Greens as natural allies, the ALP itself does not and preferenced against them and for micro-parties in every LC region.  The very first vote in the Legislative Council saw the Greens vote against the Labor government and the micro-parties with it.  The government cannot pass any legislation without the support of either the Coalition or at least two of the micro-party MLCs, meaning that any education reform agenda needs to be negotiated with a diverse range of parties.

3. Some Facts and Figures

The primary pupil teacher ratio has been:
1974 – 22.6:1
1981 – 18.1:1
1992¬ – 15.8:1 (Report of the Victorian Commission of Audit)
1999 – 17.2:1 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2010)
2010 – 15.6:1 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2014))
2014 – 15.3:1 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, July, 2015)
2015 – 15.3:1  (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2016)

Average primary class sizes over the last few decades have been:
1982 – 26.5 (Report of the Victorian Commission of Audit)
1992 – 23.5 (Report of the Victorian Commission of Audit)
1999 – 25.4 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2010)
2010 – 22.0 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2014)
(In line with then government policy, the average for prep to year 2 classes went from 24.3 in 1999 to 20.5 in 2009.)
2014 – 22.2 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2015)
2015 – 22.3 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2016)

The secondary pupil teacher ratio has been:
1974 – 14.1:1
1981 – 10.9:1
1992 – 10.8:1(Report of the Victorian Commission of Audit)
1999 – 12.6:1 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2010)
2010 – 11.8:1 Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2014)
2014 – 12.5:1 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, July, 2015)
2015 – 12.6:1 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2016)

Average secondary class sizes over the last few decades have been:
1982 – 23.0 (Report of the Victorian Commission of Audit)
1992 – 20.0 (Report of the Victorian Commission of Audit)
1999 – 22.7 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2010)
2010 – 21.3 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2014)
2014 – 21.4 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2015)
2015 – 21.3 (Summary statistics for Victorian Schools, March, 2016)

(1974 marks 40 years from the start of the current government’s term of office.  1981 is the last full year of the Thompson Liberal government, the last on that side of politics that cared about education.  1992 is the last year of the Cain/Kirner Labor government.  1999 is the last year of the Kennett Coalition government.  2010 is the last year of the Bracks/Brumby Labor government.  2014 is the last year of the Baillieu/Napthine Coalition government.  2015 is the most recent year for which statistics are available.)

PTRs include all teaching staff, whether or not they have regular timetabled classes (e.g., principals, librarians, SWCs, careers teachers, etc) but do not include non-teaching staff (e.g., integration aides, library assistants, cleaners, etc.)  As you can see, the Labor government improved primary class sizes beyond even their 1992 level, but secondary classes, while better than they were under the last lot of Liberals, were still worse than they had been in 1992.

4. The Attack on the Teaching Profession

When the Coalition was elected in 1992, it faced a difficult budgetary position, which it blamed on the previous Labor government, though it had used its Legislative Council majority to stop Labor dealing with the problem by raising some taxes.   It was also under the influence of the Institute of Public Affairs, which is an advocate of small government and low taxation and which still puts out material advocating rhe same line, often by using dodgy statistics and very carefully chosen comparisons, for a detailed discussion of which you can see Newspoll: 57-43 to Labor in Victoria.

While the Victorian government was in a difficult financial position in 1992, the reasoning the Coalition gave at the time for its attack on teachers was not state finances.  If it had been, there would have been apologies and promises of temporary belt-tightening.  Rather, we had the following teacher-bashing rubbish:

‘…teacher unions have “captured” the operation of education services in regard to staffing and working conditions so that the education system has become unduly teacher-driven.’ (Institute of Public Affairs, Schooling Victorians, 1992)

‘There is extensive over-staffing of teachers, inefficient work practices and “union” capture of education expenditure.’  (IPA, Schooling Victorians, 1992)

‘The schools are simply a racket and a rort for teachers who use it as a fully salaried system of outdoor relief.’ (Peter Ryan, “Teachers fail to get the point”, The Age, 1/8/1992)

‘Socialist Left ideology…is nicely entrenched throughout the state education administrative system, thanks to a continuing infiltration of the faithful throughout the Cain/Kirner years.’ (Michael Barnard, ‘Labor could not learn”, The Age, 28/8/1992)

‘The perks and privileges of this cosseted profession were absolutely sacrosanct.” (“A lesson in anarchy”, Herald Sun (editorial), 19/11/1992)

‘Schools…appear to be run more for the benefit and convenience of their employees than for their users.’ (Claude Forell, “A reckoning unions had to have”, The Age, 25/11/1992)

‘The Kennett Government is pledged to a course that promises to break the debilitating union stranglehold…” (Michael Barnard, “Teachers in a state of intellectual undress”, The Age, 27/11/1992)

‘A strong moral case for the present Government unilaterally renouncing all agreements entered into by the previous Government with its employees can be made on the grounds that they were not arms-length agreements.’ (Professor Ross Parish, “Let the Public Service pay towards cutting the ranks”, The Age, 11/12/1992)

‘Mr Kennett…set out to break the power of the education unions which had been running then system…’ (“A hundred high speed days” (editorial), Herald Sun, 11/1/1993)

‘The present system has allowed education to become captive of its bureaucracies and powerful lobbies.’ (“A testing year in education” (editorial), The Age, 25/1/1993)

‘Money for schools was channelled into creating more jobs and better conditions for teachers.’ (“School lessons in economic necessity” (editorial), The Age, 27/1/1993)

‘The emergency teacher system…had not existed before 1980…’ (Don Hayward, quoted in Denis Muller, “Schools already feel bite of education cuts”, The Age, 1/3/1993) [As a school daily organiser, I knew this was untrue because I had employed emergency teachers without restriction in 1978.]

‘Money which could have been saved by reduced teacher numbers has been used to improve teachers’ working conditions…the education budget has been allowed to become unnecessarily bloated…Throwing more money at a problem, by itself, can never be guaranteed to achieve the desired result.’ (Kevin Donnelly, “Why we’re inefficient”, Herald Sun, 3/5/1993)

‘That structure is prone to “capture” at the centre and the extremities by organised interest groups such as teacher unions…(page 9, Vo. 2, Report of the Victorian Commission of Audit, 1993)

‘The powerful public sector unions were permitted by default to run…education…’ (“Jim Kennan scratches”, Herald Sun (editorial), 29/6/1993)

‘…during the 1980s, the union movement “captured” the operation of the public sector.  This led to considerable over-staffing and restrictive work practices…’ (Des Moore, “Why government needs to be rolled back”, The Age, 5/7/1993)

‘…cosy deals with teacher unions…wasteful school work practices.…It is understandable that some union officials who rode the Labor gravy train are resistant to reform.’ (Alan Stockdale, “Education’s future depends on savings”, The Age, 22/9/1993)

 ‘Unions have focused on industrial relations to build up a cosy bracket of work practices rather than concentrate on professional standards.’ (Don Hayward, quoted in Felicity Dargan, “100 schools to go”, Herald Sun, 30/9/1993)

The most amazing feature of this period was the freedom with which the Coalition got away with its claims and the ready endorsement it received from credulous journalists and commentators.  A bizarre example occurred when a journalist, Claire Heaney, reported (Herald-Sun, 16/2/1994) that that the government was considering a proposal for "STOPPING the alignment of the first-term holidays with Easter because it makes the first term too short".  First-term holidays had not been aligned with Easter since 1989.

5. What the Coalition Did

Between1992 and 1998, the Coalition removed 6,787 full-time equivalent teachers from our schools, despite promising before the election that it would do no such thing.  After the election, it ignored the better staffing ratios in South Australian schools and used the poorer staffing ratios in NSW and Queensland schools to justify its cuts to teacher numbers (though it now uses the better police to population ratios in other states to argue the opposite in the case of policing).  It also adopted the agenda of the IPA in the way it “organised” education.

Below is a list of some of the very damaging things done to education by the Coalition between 1992 and 1999:
 Under-funding of school maintenance,
 Running a campaign of denigration against the teaching profession,
 Dismantling the teacher registration boards and replacing them with nothing,
 Using retrospective legislation to get out of legally enforceable contracts with the teaching profession,
 Dumping almost 9,000 needed teachers,
 Reducing the number of full-time teaching positions by 6,787,
 Worsening the primary PTR from 15.8:1 in 1992 to 17.2:1 in 1999,
 Worsening the secondary PTR from 10.8:1 in 1992 to 12.6:1 in 1999,
 Increasing class sizes,
 Increasing teaching loads,
 Abolishing the time allowance pool (deductions from class teaching loads for leadership responsibilities),
 Reducing elective choice,
 Closing almost 400 schools,
(So bizarre was this period in our history that, at the end of 1992 as I drove to school, I heard the education Minister, Don Hayward, on the radio denying that the government was closing any schools.  When I went into our morning briefing, I heard the principal read out the list of schools in the Northern Metropolitan Region that the government was closing.)
 Officially introducing outcomes-based education – not bad in itself, but very bad in the view of some who spent the next decade blaming Labor for it,
 Clogging reports with jargon of “beginning”, “consolidating” and “established”,
 Reducing the number of marks required to get an A in VCE English tasks between 1994 and 1996,
 Putting large numbers of teachers on short-term contracts,
 Putting principals on contracts to facilitate their supporting the Liberal attack on their colleagues in the classroom,
 Abolishing history and geography in favour of the mess of Studies of Society and the Environment,
 Removing teacher input from principal selection,
 Changing principal section panels so that it was no longer required that the majority of members be local or that the majority have educational qualifications,
 Increasing the power of principals to bully and victimise their staffs,
 Introducing limited tenure promotion positions and bonuses for sycophants as command and control devices,
 Introducing performance plans, annual reviews and all the mad jargon of the business world,
 Bogging schools down in charters, triennial reviews, data-fests and the like,
 Discriminating against teachers and other department employees on School Councils,
 Destroying the advantages of economies of scale inherent in a system by making schools spend thousands of person-hours creating their own versions of key selection criteria, etc.,
 Producing a ministerial order (140) purporting to ban teachers from speaking out about education.

There was no cleaning up – none.  Even on academic standards, which many believed the Coalition were serious about as it had been banging on about them for years, it did nothing, except make the marking for the Victorian Certificate of Education more precise.
There is a discussion of some of the figures showing the unreasonableness of the Coalition’s attack on teachers

In recent years, this period in history has been rewritten; e.g., the claim is made that the Coalition did not get rid of actual classroom teachers, but mostly teachers on leave (“School truths”, The Age, 14/11/2006).  The figures show this claim is completely false.

I was acting vice principal of Whittlesea College when the Coalition was elected in 1992.  We had 71.4 teachers for 881 students (a PTR of 12.3:1).  They were real teachers on duty in the school, not ones on leave.  By 1995, the Coalition had cut the number of teachers to 61.9, while the number of students had increased to 888 (a PTR of 14.3:1).  Consequently, class sizes and teaching loads were increased, despite a once legally enforceable agreement that had protected both, and subject choice was reduced.  Student numbers went up; teacher numbers got slashed; agreements were torn up: that’s what the Coalition did, but trying to get that information into the public domain at the time and even afterwards was close to impossible.

The cuts at that college were reflective of changes to the staffing formula for schools.

Staffing for secondary schools had three main components - a base factor, an enrolment factor and a special needs factor.  In 1992, there were 4,205 base teachers, 13,921 enrolment teachers and 2,138 special needs teachers, making a total of 20,264 teachers (FTUV Briefing Notes, 7/2/1994).  Primary staffing was more complicated.

Prior to 1992, the secondary school staffing formula provided for a base allocation, an enrolment-linked factor and a special needs factor. A school of 800 was entitled to a base staff of 11.3 and an enrolment factor of 48, giving a total staff of 59.3 before special needs.

Under the post-1992 formula, the base for all schools was cut to four staff members. A school of 800 was entitled to a base of four and an enrolment factor of 50, giving a total staff of 54. Staffing provisions for special needs were also cut. That meant a staff cut of at least 5.3 teachers. Naturally class sizes and teaching loads had to rise as the teachers left in the school took on the workload of those who had been removed.  The changes to the base, entitlement and special needs factors cut 3,648 teaching positions from secondary schools (FTUV Briefing Notes, 7/2/1994).

Under the law, one party to a contract cannot unilaterally tear it up. With governments, this is the principle of sovereign risk: if the king who has signed an agreement dies, the new king is bound by the word of the old. The same principle applies to elected governments.  If, whenever a new party came to power, it could tear up the contracts of the previous party, there would be no certainty in financial affairs and governments would become too risky to deal with.

The government elected in 1992 was legally bound by agreements with the teaching profession. The high schools agreement specified a teaching load of 22 periods per week (and 21 periods in 1993) within an 18-hour maximum, classes of no more than 25 students and a time allowance pool for organisational duties of at least 90 minutes per teacher per week. This agreement was legally and morally binding on the government, whichever party was in power. An ordinary business would have no choice but to abide by it, no matter what change of ownership or management.

A government, however, has something a normal business does not – legislative power. It passed the Public Sector Management Act. This act included a specific provision to exempt the government from the law of contract. It then tore up the agreement with teachers, got rid of almost 9,000 of them, increased teaching loads, increased class sizes, abolished the time allowance pool and tore up the legally-binding commercial contract between the government and the teacher unions for the collection of union membership fees. This was a deliberate attempt to destroy the teacher unions, which it knew would resist its attacks on the profession.

The government then imposed a 20-hour maximum in place of the previous 18-hour maximum.  However, when the teacher unions sought to have this figure put in a federal award, the government opposed it, indicating that it was just a holding position.  In the end, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission ruled in favour of the 20-hour limit, and the High Court ruled, in response to a government appeal, that the AIRC had the power under the Australian Constitution to make an award that bound a state government.

The AIRC had something to say about the government’s campaign of denigration against the teaching profession.  In its decision on teacher workload on 24 February, 1995, it  recognised that teachers were overworked, consequently took away the Victorian government's right to unilaterally damage teaching conditions in the state and said:
"One observation which must be made relates to an assertion made earlier in procedings before the Commision about allegedly favoured or special treatment afforded to teachers in Victoria by a previous State government.  There is no foundation in fact for such an assertion..."

6. Fightback

While the Coalition had the almost total support of the press, the commentators, the think tanks and those with power and money, it met considerable opposition from those on the front line who actually knew what its was doing and from the teachers unions.  There were large numbers of teachers who simply fell into line, who signed the unprofessional Professional Recognition Program, who took bonuses, who relished the chance to push their colleagues around.  Principals made a show of opposition very early on, but the government gave them bonuses and a complicated exemption from the cuts to the superannuation scheme that their teacher colleagues would suffer and, with a few honourable exceptions, they soon fell into line.  But there were thousands of teachers who resisted, who took industrial action, who wrote to the press, who refused to hand out government propaganda for children to take home to their parents, who spoke up on talkback radio, who defied the ministerial order banning public debate.  The Labor Opposition also attacked the government, but it made very few promises to actually reverse anything.

The campaign needed some intellectual rigour to counter the attacks from the government, which was saying that small classes did not matter.  The value of small classes has been conclusively demonstrated. Professor John Hattie, of New Zealand, has done a comprehensive study (EARLI Presentation by John Hattie for Web.ppt) of all the factors that lead to improved student achievement.  He concludes that smaller class sizes are not as significant as other factors, but nonetheless he rates them as giving a nine-month improvement in student achievement.  The Tennessee STAR study (available at also showed that smaller classes result in improved student learning.

The usual supporters of the Coalition replied:
‘Money which could have been saved by reduced teacher numbers has been used to improve teachers’ working conditions…the education budget has been allowed to become unnecessarily bloated…Throwing more money at a problem, by itself, can never be guaranteed to achieve the desired result.’ (Kevin Donnelly, “Why we’re inefficient”, Herald Sun, 3/5/1993

Years later, when Labor was back in government and had substantially increased education spending, these words were forgotten, and money mattered again: “…the fact that state governments are under-resourcing schools…” (Kevin Donnelly, “Gloves off for the rumble in the blackboard jungle”, 30-31/12/2006).  Before the end of its period in office, Labor had increased education spending from $5,205 million in 1998-99 to $10,551 million in 2008-09 (a huge increase even after inflation and the inclusion of early childhood education in the education department).

The industrial action lasted for seven years.  It included state-wide stoppages, regional stoppages and individual school stoppages.  In the last, union members would stop work when the union conditions were breached; e.g., if a union member was asked to take a class over 25 students.  Despite the cuts to staffing, many schools managed to keep almost all their classes to 25 students, usually by letting the time allowance pool take a hit, teaching loads go up and elective choice go down.  The industrial action was supported by state advertising and individual school leafleting.  In the 1996 election, the Coalition lost a few seats, but not many.

In 1999, the campaign bore fruit.  The Coalition lost government when the three independents, who held the balance of power, decided to support the Labor Party, and the work of rebuilding education began.

7. Victory – of sorts

The Labor Party had gone into the 1999 election with a substantial plan to rebuild education, which was its number one priority.  Once in government, it acted to substantially improve the situation after the truly dreadful years of 1992-99:
 Employing an extra 3,779 teachers between 1999 and 2009 (though the all-party Parliamentary Public Accounts and Estimates Committee gives a total employment figure that says the improvement was 5,193 teachers - a discrepancy yet to be explained),
Improving the primary PTR from 17.2:1 in 1999 to 15.7:1 in 2009,
 Staffing primary schools to allow a maximum class size of 21 pupils in prep to grade 2,
 Cutting the average primary school class from 25.4 to 22.0 (2010),
 Cutting the average prep class from 23.2 to 19.2 (2010),
 Cutting the number of primary classes with more than 30 students by 96 percentage points, from 4.6 per cent of all classes to 0.2 per cent,
 Improving the secondary PTR from 12.6:1 in 1999 to 11.8:1 in 2009,
 Generally limiting high school classes to 25 students,
 Cutting the average secondary English class from 22.7 to 21.5 (2010),
 Cutting the average year 12 class from 21.0 to 19.6 (2010),
 Reducing secondary teaching loads (marginally),
 Setting up the Victorian Institute of Teaching, for a longer discussion of which you can see The GTC to be Scrapped!),
 Restoring teacher representation to principal selection panels,
 Ensuring that principal selection panels once again have a majority of members with educational qualifications on them,
Providing the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning as an alternative to Victorian Certificate of Education,
Dumping SOSE and restoring history and geography as traditional disciplines within the humanities,
 Lifting the ban on teachers speaking out on education,
 Instituting a high-standard reporting system across the state that provides parents with specific information on how much their children have progressed each year and where they are in relation to the expected standard,
 Investing more than $3 billion in capital spending on schools, as part of a program to rebuild or refurbish every school in the state over a ten-year period,
 Making Victorian graduate teachers at those at the top of the scale the best paid in the country in order to attract and retain talent (though no state ever stays at the top for long),
 Moving away from the previous government’s failed marketisation of education to an understanding that education is better run as a system in which the government takes responsibility for all schools and does not leave some to fade and die, an attitude which shows a disgraceful disregard for the children in them.

Labor restored all the missing primary teachers but only one third of the missing secondary ones, which came back to bite it in 2010.  After all, how could a Labor government justify staffing secondary schools with 10 per cent fewer teachers than the Liberals had done 30 years earlier?

Labor’s period in office was not all good.  A group of left-over hippies seemed to get control of the building program and recycled the failed 1970s fad of the open classroom, which is still dumping hundreds of working class children in the one so-called flexible “learning” space to be “facilitated” in projects by “teams” of conscripted teachers without due regard to their subject expertise.  The teachers had to be conscripted because those with experience would not volunteer for this nonsense.

Paradoxically, the economic rationalists had control of spending concepts and managed to use the concept of “efficiency” to create mega-factories of 2,000-plus students, contrary to all good educational practice. The says that smaller schools are not only more effective than larger schools but also more efficient than larger schools once you take account of the cost per successful student rather than the cost per student.  The push for huge schools in Victoria was just another copy of failed overseas policy, which is already being reversed in New York.  It is possible to gain the advantages of wider subject choice without having huge schools.

Labor also pioneered Teach for Australia, both a blight on and an indictment of the teaching profession, under which unqualified people get to be in sole charge of classes after a six-week summer course.  Even worse, this program is restricted to disadvantaged schools. The middle classes are still guaranteed proper teachers.

Labor also commenced two performance pay trials – one that would pay individual teachers more and one that would pay schools more.  In Victorian Labor’s defence, it was a federal initiative, though the failure of performance pay here in the 1890s and again in the 1990s should have been enough to stop it getting another go.

In summary, while there are blemishes on Labor’s record, overall it was streets ahead of the government that it replaced, whose record in education was simply abysmal.

8. Public Reaction

You would think that such a record would lead to increased support for the government, and it did:  Labor won record victories in 2002 and 2006.  However, the facts never silenced the critics, who again and again, in total defiance of reality that I could see when walking the dog past the brand new school, brand new CFA station and brand new police station in my own town and of the reality that I experienced in a school with decent teaching conditions again and new classrooms and new science labs, told us that Labor had done “nothing”.  The “Newspoll: 57-43 to Labor in Victoria” link above provides some examples.

In the lead-up and even after the 2010 election, critic after critic was published, asserting generalisations for which there was no evidence and against which there was highly specific evidence.  Replies quoting the specific evidence were routinely not published.  There are examples at 2011: episode one.  It seemed that critics had freedom of speech but to defend the government, even with facts, was regarded as propaganda, which of course gave an immense advantage to the critics.

Of course, the usual lines were trotted out in order to defeat the Labor government:

Victoria's public service has experienced the largest growth of any state bureaucracy, growing in headcount by 37 per cent between 2000 and 2008, according to the Institute of Public Affairs.

While some of this growth has no doubt been necessary to service Victoria's growing population, much of the growth has not been in frontline roles such as police, nurses and teachers.

(Wayne Kayler-Thomson, Knives need sharpening to shave off government fat, The Age, November 13, 2010)

He omitted the precise increase due to population growth (about 12 per cent of the total), the actual numbers of extra nurses (11,000), teachers and other school staff (10,000), doctors (3,000) and police officers (2,000) employed on the front line and, most tellingly of all, the very damaging cuts that had occurred just before the chosen starting year of 2000 and that Labor had been elected to reverse.  This is the standard technique.

"The southern state is living large off the reform bounty arising out of Liberal premier Jeff Kennett's seven-year assault on public finances, unions, state enterprises and a lazy way of working….

Reform has stalled in Victoria because politicians and the public perceive the need for reform has passed," says John Roskam, executive director of Melbourne's Institute of Public Affairs. "Victoria has always compared itself to NSW. Because NSW is a basket-case, Victorians have tended to relax. After the Kennett years [1992 to 1999] Victorians needed time to recuperate from the radical changes and believed that all the hard work had been done."

The former senior adviser to the Howard and Kennett governments argues former Labor premier Steve Bracks (1999 to 2007) and Brumby have coasted on the revolutionary work of Kennett and his treasurer, Alan Stockdale.

"To get reform in the key areas of health and education Bracks and Brumby would have had to confront the public sector unions, which they were reluctant to do," Roskam says. "The Kennett era ended more than a decade ago, so it's pathetic that not much has been done since he left."

It's not that there isn't more to do. "There has been some reform fatigue in the absence of any crisis in Victoria," says Allan Fels, a prime mover over two decades in unleashing market forces across the nation, as a thinker, teacher, consumer activist and competition regulator. "At federal and state level the low-hanging fruit of reform has been picked. In every state there is still immense scope for microeconomic reform. The biggest issues are in education, health, the provision of public services, planning processes, infrastructure and some matters of the national reform agenda."

Now dean of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, Melbourne-based Fels is disappointed by the lack of competing reform agendas from the main parties. He see enormous scope for greater efficiency by putting more emphasis on consumer choice and competition, without discarding services quality.

Although it would be politically difficult, Fels names congestion charging as the best measure to improve efficiency. As well, there's scope to reduce occupational restrictions in trades, to improve entry of new players in areas such as pharmacies and taxis, to reform water charging and to remove restrictive work practices in health and education. "Neither side appears to be very interested in substantial, fast microeconomic reform," he says. "Yet in the medium term this would be the best single contribution to improving welfare in Victoria." Southern leaders lose urge for reform, Tom Dusevic, The Weekend Australian,  November 13, 2010)

9. 2010

Labor’s record in education was so good that the Coalition hardly campaigned on the issue, preferring to focus on problems in transport and health.  It did promise an extra 100 primary teachers, even though primary schools were already the best staffed they had been in the state’s history and secondary schools, while better staffed than they had been under the Coalition the last time it was in office, were worse staffed than they had been 30 years earlier.   It also promised to increase principals’ disciplinary power, but it presented no overall education policy.

Labor promised to fund an initiative of camps for all year nine students, such as private schools extol in their marketing.  This initiative would have returned another 400 of the teachers stolen from our secondary schools by the Coalition when last in office.  That was infinity per cent more than the Coalition promised.  Labor was condemned because it hadn’t done it eleven years earlier (Your Say, J. Morrissey, Herald Sun, 20/11/2010).  My letter in response was not published:

 J. Morrissey’s claim that Labor offers too little too late (Your Say, November 20) is all too typical of Liberal supporters, who seem to think that we have all forgotten the last 18 years.

Labor is the party that has now put $3 billion in capital expenditure into rebuilding schools, the party which has made our primary schools the best staffed they have ever been and the party which has returned proper academic disciplines like history and geography to the curriculum.

It is now promising to fund a wonderful initiative of camps for all year nine students, such as private schools extol in their marketing, and it gets condemned because it didn’t do it eleven years ago.

This initiative will return another 400 of the teachers stolen from our secondary schools by the Liberals when last in office.  That is 400 more than Ted Baillieu has promised.

Labor has spent eleven years rebuilding the state, yet Liberal supporters pretend their party was not the one that dismantled community services and fail to even notice the new schools, hospitals, trains, roads, teachers, nurses, doctors and police that Labor has provided all around them.

 Yours sincerely,
Chris Curtis

 Emailed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
As Look around and see!

However, while Labor retained its lead in opinion polls on which party would handle education the best, education was not the main issue, and Labor lost, winning 43 seats to the Coalition’s 45.  The Coalition moved into office very quietly, completely avoiding the high drama of the previous time, but there were some straws in the wind.  The IPA had published a paper (Victoria looking ahead: policy proposals for the Victorian government) telling it what to do.  The agenda was sadly familiar.  All hope was not lost as the new education minister, Martin Dixon, was a former Catholic school principal, and the new minister for the teaching profession, Peter Hall, was a former VSTA member.  As it turned out, they did not have any clout against the hard right in the party and the IPA.

Labor reviewed its loss and its policies as one day it would be back in power and have to undo some of the damage that education would suffer.  Little did it or anyone else now that that day was only four years away.

10. Lessons

Each side gets a turn.  Thus, when the outs become the ins, they change things.  But one day, the new outs will be the ins again.

Some changes, however radical they may be, however opposed they may be at the time, end up being accepted by the other side, and everyone seems to be stuck with them.

There are periods of high drama, and there are periods of quiet change.

There are always people who don’t know what is happening, people who spread lies, people who are easily fooled, people with their own agendas.

Equally, there are always people who are informed, clever, honest and trustworthy.

When a group is under attack, some members of that group will desert and some will go over to the enemy.

The masses will believe in their own powerlessness and spend a lot of time whinging, but some individuals will be resolved to do something.

Fighting back has to be intelligent, planned and long-term.

No matter how bad things get, some people do not give up. As Winston Churchill allegedly said in a speech to the boys of Eton, “I am going to give you the nine most important words you will ever hear: Never give in! Never give in! Never give in!”

11. Labor’s return

A typical opinion poll had Labor ahead 52:48 on a two-party preferred basis, which would have given it a majority of around 12 seats in the Legislative Assembly. That result was consistent with three years of polling, but only a fool would say that the result would be the same on Election Day, 29 November.  If the Coalition lost, that would be the first time in 60 years that the state had had a one-term government.

The Victorian ALP’s platform for the coming election was posted on the website at 2014 Victorian Labor Platform. The education chapter was “Skills and Knowledge”.

Labor won the Victorian election.  This was the first time since 1955 that a Victorian government had lost office after only one term. The lesson is if you are dissatisfied with the state of affairs, do something.

Labor also won the Queensland election, beating a government in its first term, with a swing of around 11 per cent.  This is the most remarkable victory in Australian political history as Labor had been reduced to seven seats in an 89-seat parliament at the previous election, and nobody thought it could come back so soon.

Meanwhile, in Victoria, Labor got on with implementing its education policies.  The new education minister gave an interview on the topic:
‘James Merlino is confronting a big challenge: To resuscitate Victoria's run-down education system, its 1526 public schools and the state's embattled TAFE institutes.

‘This system collectively suffered budget cuts of more than $2 billion during the previous Coalition government's four-year term. Now the new Labor government has promised to inject $1.3 billion back into school operations in its first term and give parents, teachers and principals new hope for the future….

‘Mr Merlino shows a keen understanding of the problems facing state school principals and teachers, and a strong determination to tackle them….

‘"If we are going to be the education state, we have to do more than that. I'm not here just to clean up the mess left by the Baillieu and Napthine governments; it's about what more we can do. Making Victoria the education state means we need to address the plateauing of student performance over the past decade. So it's about addressing the quality of teaching in our schools, it's about tackling disadvantage.

‘"I don't shy away from raising expectations or demanding excellence, we should all do that when we talk about the education of our children. Outside of being a husband and a father, I think being the Minister for Education will be the most important thing I will ever do. This is about having a clear sense of direction, about improving educational outcomes for our kids by providing real pathways, real opportunities."’ Victoria's Minister for Education tackles education malaise, “Merlino tackles ailing system” – print title, The Age, 2/2/2015

Geoff Maslen said Labor had ‘90 detailed plans for schools and TAFE that would lift the spirits of anyone involved with state education’.

Vicrtorians didn’t just dispense with the grading system – they dispensed with the government that brought it in, and the new Labor government set about rebuilding education in the state (something it had to do in its 1999-2010 term too):

‘The Victorian government has scrapped a controversial rating scale for teacher performance reviews and confirmed its opposition to performance pay.

‘In a letter sent to schools, Education Minister James Merlino said the change to the teacher review system would begin immediately….

‘The Coalition] had wanted to introduce a rating system for teachers. It also clashed with teachers about a proposed scheme in which principals were expected to knock back up to 40 per cent of state school teachers eligible to move up the pay scale….

‘Mr Merlino said the Labor government had made a commitment not to introduce performance pay "because we know it doesn't work".

‘He said the changes were intended to "restore professional judgement" to the performance and development process. Victorian scraps rating scale for teachers, “Labor scraps rating scale for teachers” - print title, The Age, 26/2/2015

The new government continued to set a cracking pace throughout 2015 as it reconfigured the entire education system in the state.

Chris Curtis