Education bureaucrats fear Education Minister Adrian Piccoli will be moved on. Photo: John Veage There may be more than one road to making life better in NSW. Photo: Illustration: Simon Letch
What does Mike Baird really believe in? Sometimes it’s not always clear. His sometimes mangled syntax and tendency to hew to political boilerplate can shroud his conviction.
At the last state election, the new Premier, flush with cash and hundreds of funding announcements, described a zoo upgrade and conservation program as “a great opportunity for gorillas”.
But there was one moment when Baird spoke with perfect passion.
Addressing a handful of party faithful at the Parramatta RSL, Baird relayed a chat with a western Sydney tradesman who, thanks to one of the government’s innumerable road upgrades, arrived home 30 minutes sooner and in time to see his baby daughter before bed.
This is why we’re here, Baird said, pounding the lectern and flooding the room with energy.
Just about every state leader claims to be an infrastructure premier, but Baird’s fervour for building projects is unique.
This week the state government announced it was sitting on a mammoth $4 billion surplus that, along with its infrastructure program, has been held up as proof of its managerial competence.
But could other policy areas do with a greater share of NSW’s prosperity?
Since the Coalition took power, the proportion of its recurrent budget spent on transport is up more than a third to about 12.5 per cent.
The figures reflect, of course, heavy spending in an area the government considers neglect and a budget beefed up by asset sales and stamp duty.
But as the Baird government considers to what use it could put future surpluses – an affordable housing policy response is widely tipped – it’s worth asking whether spending on schools should be boosted, too.
Peter Goss, the school education program director at the Grattan Institute, says that governments on both sides of politics were caught on the hop after two decades of relatively stable student numbers by an increase driven by a baby boom and immigration growth dating back to 2006.
“It’s clear that an increase in school capital spending needs to become the new normal,” he said.
Goss heaps praise on Education Minister Adrian Piccoli as a conspicuous advocate for funding schools on the basis of need and says the state has been heading in the right direction under his watch.
But NSW remains somewhat below a national average for funding need in government schools that has been skewed by large investments in states such as Western Australia.
Some senior education bureaucrats privately believe a greater proportion of the state’s booming finances needs to be directed toward a building drive for the state’s growing population of pupils: a Westconnex for schools.
School funding is growing. But as a proportion of the state’s total growing expenditure Baird’s latest budget devotes slightly more than 21 per cent of recurrent funding to education, down from nearly 26 per cent in 2003, according to the Parliament’s library. The federal government has previously asserted that states have spent less on schools as it has spent more over the past decade.
Compared to the average for the final three years of the Fahey government, last year’s capital budget for schools is half as much when expressed as a proportion of total expenditure.
Education bureaucrats worry about the future if Piccoli, a National, leaves the education portfolio in a coming reshuffle, as has been speculated.
Speculation has education being returned to the Liberals and replacements being canvassed include Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, a creative and energetic privatisation advocate who likely chills the blood of the Teacher’s Federation.
The Baird cabinet convened earlier this year to consider a report warning of an $11-billion shortfall school building over the next 20 years, an amount that seriously dwarfs the feared shortfall in federal Gonski funding.
Population growth combined with a growing preference among affluent parents for public education has left many state schools bursting at the seams, the department found.
Baird asked his bureaucrats to recheck their sums and, according to one witness, wanted them to consider if there was a role for the private sector to solve the shortfall.
The Baird government’s June budget did allocate a boost of nearly a billion dollars in school classroom infrastructure alone.
But that won’t meet the department’s projections. Labor is fond of saying it will take the government 40 years to build what is needed over 15.
(It’s unlikely Labor, which had the fortune to preside over a decade of stable student numbers, will be able to fill the chasm either).
It’s also contested whether extra education funding necessarily produces results. Federal Minister Simon Birmingham is fond of pointing out that funding growth does not reliably produce the same lift in test scores.
But news this week that half of all Year 9 students are falling behind minimum standards in literacy and numeracy ought to give a premier sitting on billions of dollars in potential pause for thought.
Another topic on which Baird’s speaks with unusual clarity and conviction is the importance of using prosperity to improve the lot of the disadvantaged.
Public education has historically been the strongest motor for social mobility in Australia. There may be more than one road to making life better in NSW.
James Robertson is state political reporter.
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