Heavy on rhetoric and short on substance, try again Ms Gillard

THE Prime Minister has laid down the gauntlet to the states in a speech on school funding heavy on rhetoric - Australians are supposed to join a ''national crusade'' to eradicate the ''moral wrong'' of a denied education - and low on substance.

Julia Gillard vowed she would not be ''held to ransom'' by states who were not genuinely committed to reform. The states must contribute their ''fair share'', she insisted, there was to be ''no sleight of hand, no fiddling of the books''.

It was, as one wag said on Twitter, as if she was negotiating with terrorists, not the jurisdictions that actually run government schools.

The speech is likely to raise the hackles of Coalition states, particularly given Gillard was - yet again - unprepared to name the sum the federal government was prepared to contribute.

The NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, said any significant increase in schools funding had to be largely funded by the Commonwealth.

He also said the Commonwealth had taken eight months to accept the Gonski report, and a more substantial response was needed than a ''drip-feed of information''.

Gillard is insisting on reforms to improve teacher quality and student performance in exchange for extra funding - areas in which NSW says it is already leading education reform in Australia.

Some of the reforms mentioned by Gillard seem specious. She says that under the government's plan students will need to be at the top of their class to get into teaching at university. However, university entrance rankings are based in part on demand for courses, and while teaching remains a relatively low-paid, low-status profession this seems unlikely.

There were few surprises in the speech. Gillard repeated her ''legislated national goal'' for Australia to be ranked in the top five countries in the world in maths, reading and science by 2025. Four of the top five schooling systems in the world - Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong - are in our region and yet ''we aren't in that coveted top five''.

Gillard wants ''our kids to catch Shanghai's kids'' in PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results, which are effectively a world league table.

This is a never-never goal - it ignores the fact there will be several federal elections before 2025 and the Coalition has already vowed to repeal any legislation if elected next year.

It also overlooks some of the reasons why Asian students excel, such as the Confucian emphasis on education, intense use of coaching schools, the focus on testing and long days including hours of homework.

However, by couching school funding reform in terms of excellence, rather than equity, even if the ''legislated national goal'' seems far-fetched, the federal government probably believes it is less likely to be accused of left-wing ideology.

The story Heavy on rhetoric and short on substance, try again Ms Gillard first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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