36 Education policy

Jen Jackson

Key terms/names

Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration; Australian Curriculum; Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA); Child Care Subsidy; competency-based training; early childhood education and care (ECEC); Early Years Learning Framework; higher education; human capital; learning stories; National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN); National Quality Standard; national training packages; neoliberal; New Public Management; Program for International Student Achievement (PISA); school/schooling; social justice; regulation; vocational education and training (VET)

Education is one of the most powerful tools a government has at its disposal for shaping the future.[1] The institution of compulsory schooling is also one of the most significant universal interventions that a government makes in the lives of its citizens. In Australia, children and young people are required to attend school from age six, and to remain in school until completion of Year 10. Since 2010, young people are also required to be in education, training or employment until age 17.[2] More than four out of five young Australians remain in school for the full 12 years of full-time schooling.[3]

The sheer size and reach of the school system mean that ‘education policy’ and ‘schools policy’ are often used interchangeably. However, education policy also covers the learning that occurs before school, in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector; and after school, in the higher education and vocational education and training (VET) sectors. These sectors are seldom analysed together in policy, leading to criticism that the education system ‘fails to operate as a cohesive whole’.[4] The four sectors are discussed together in this chapter in relation to common themes, to help highlight the similarities and disconnects between them.

Even in schooling, Australia does not have one education system, but rather ‘a complex web of interrelated actors, organisations and priorities’,[5] held together with national agreements negotiated between state and territory education ministers, and a growing number of national agencies. The ECEC and VET sectors are also held together with national agreements, and a complex division of responsibilities between federal and state governments for different components of policy, funding, and regulation. Higher education has perhaps the clearest division of responsibilities, as the federal government largely funds and regulates universities, although states also contribute.

Education itself is an intensely political activity. The task of educating young citizens is intrinsically informed by some conception of what good citizens need to know and do, which itself reflects a political stance (either explicit or implicit). For this reason, politics permeates all facets of education, from policy making through to practice. Every classroom is to some extent a microcosm of society, and every teacher negotiates complex power dynamics as they organise and instruct their students.

This chapter examines three political fault lines that education policy makers must navigate: the why; the what; and the how. The why addresses the rationale for government to play a role in education, and shows the contested foundations of education policy. The what of education involves setting objectives for what the system will deliver, and monitoring whether they are achieved. The how of education involves delivering services (either directly, or by funding others to do so), and ensuring their quality. In Australia, deep divides exist along all of these fault lines, as will be shown.

This chapter does not examine the global trends by which Australian education policy has been influenced.[6] In the past two decades, the growth in international standardised tests, such as the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA), have had a major impact on education policy by enabling inter-country comparisons of student results.[7] Media alarmism over Australia ‘tumbling down global rankings’ in the latest PISA results portray a system in crisis,[8] and drive an ongoing push to improve results. ‘Policy borrowing’ in post-school education has also been driven by narratives of the global economy.[9]

The why: the rationale for government involvement in education

The purpose of education has been widely theorised and contested over many centuries. From ancient philosophers to modern social reformers, education has been charged with achieving a dizzying array of social, economic and development goals.[10] This chapter concerns the purpose of education policy (distinct from education itself) as a sphere of government activity.

The rationale for education policy is driven by social, political and economic values, as much as by any clear evidence base of which policies are likely to be most effective. As Mitchell and Mitchell observe, ‘agreement about whether available scientific evidence endorses or challenges a specific policy is generally reached only where there is a broad consensus regarding the social values and purposes the policy is intended to support’.[11] The values and purposes driving Australian education policy can be broadly grouped into two trends: human capital, and social justice.

Human capital theory is the dominant narrative for education policy in Australia. It sees education as a generator of increased productivity, based on an economistic view of ‘human beings and their skills as capital’.[12] Developed by the influential Chicago School of Economics,[13] human capital theory aligns with the economic rationalism prominent in Australian policy more broadly, in which economic value has become the defining goal of policy.[14] Government expenditure on education is justified as Australia reaps the economic benefits of a more educated workforce. Education is also seen as a kind of inoculation for citizens against a range of social ills, which would cost governments more to remediate than it would to prevent them.

Human capital theory has significant limitations as a conceptual tool for education policy. Human capital theory has been criticised for its inattention to social class, and the role of education in reproducing social and economic inequality.[15] Social reproduction theories of education challenge the assumption that education is a level playing field through which anyone may increase their wealth, and call attention to the limits that education places on social mobility by prioritising the knowledge of the dominant class.[16] For Marginson, human capital can be best challenged on empirical rather than theoretical terms, in the abundant evidence that economic advantage depends on more than just education alone.[17]

In contrast, theories of social justice emphasise collective good over competition, and the need for education to foster a sense of mutual responsibility. They see equity as a social as well as an economic concern,[18] noting that ‘justice does not only refer to material equality, but also to respect and recognition’.[19] Social justice theories argue for pedagogy that is shaped by the norms and values of marginalised groups, rather than the dominant class.[20] Education is seen as serving democratic rather than economic goals, consciously reproducing a more socially just society.[21] From a social justice point of view, the role of government is to actively redress injustice, and empower marginalised groups.

First Nations perspectives are especially important to education in Australia, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners are frequently characterised as ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘failing’ in the dominant discourses of Australian education policy. While many policy reports have proposed strategies for ‘closing the gap’, some argue that nothing short of a ‘revolution’ in the education system will be necessary to honour principles of First Nations self-determination.[22] The Uluru Statement from the Heart frames self-determination as the foundation for lifting child outcomes:

When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

More Aboriginal communities are delivering successful ‘two-way’ education.[23] In this case, the role of government may be to ‘get out of the way’.[24]

Many more characterisations of governments’ role in education arise from different theories of political economy. Social investment theories chart a middle ground between human capital and social justice, ‘linking justice and efficiency’ by incorporating human rights into economic policy.[25] A moral view of the state’s role casts education as a vehicle for instilling morality, as signalled in Australia’s policy fervour for ‘values education’ from the mid-2000s.[26] Conversely, advocates of small government critique ‘nanny state’ policies that intervene in the lives of children and families, especially in ECEC.[27]

While humans are continuously learning – within families, workplaces and communities, as well as in formal institutions – the state has a role in ensuring that the learning that occurs is both valuable and available to all. For the purposes of this chapter, governments’ role in education is therefore summarised as ensuring all citizens have adequate opportunities to acquire valuable knowledge. Yet neither ‘valuable knowledge’ nor ‘adequate opportunities’ are easily defined, as explored below.

The what: defining valuable knowledge

The goals of education policy are continually evolving, and often hotly contested. For Australian schools, national goals for education have been set out in a series of declarations, each spanning a ten-year period. The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration (2019) replaced the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008), which in turn replaced the Adelaide Declaration (1999) and Hobart Declaration (1989). Broadly, each commits to equipping all students with knowledge and skills in designated curriculum areas, to developing general capabilities for success in life and work, and to pursuing equity and excellence.

Designating the curriculum – what students learn – is a central concern for education policy. Few would question the importance of literacy and numeracy, but even the knowledge children need to become literate and numerate remains the subject of fierce debate.[28] It falls to government to mediate between conflicting views and decide what Australians should be learning.

Australian states and territories demonstrate a wide range of interpretations of ‘curriculum’ for schooling, from prescriptive to more flexible approaches.[29] The development of the Australian Curriculum has been a major recent national education policy project, with subjects developed since 2010 by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Each jurisdiction retains its own curriculum, incorporating aspects of the Australian Curriculum.

One point of variation between jurisdictions has been their relative emphasis on ‘back-to-basics’ curriculum approaches, and contemporary approaches that emphasise general capabilities. The state of Queensland’s New Basics curriculum trial, from 2000–2004, is perhaps the most significant attempt at curriculum innovation in Australia, but was discontinued due to implementation and political challenges.[30] Curriculum change is intensely demanding for teachers, and typically requires long lead times, and substantial investment in teacher professional learning.

Another ongoing tension in school curriculum is the inclusion of diverse perspectives. The ‘history wars’,[31] concerning how Australian school students are taught about colonisation and its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, both reflect and contribute to a national process of reconciliation that is far from resolved or complete. In 2021, ACARA tabled proposed changes to incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives across a range of curriculum areas, not only in history but also in science and the arts.[32]

Since 2012, a national curriculum framework has also existed for ECEC services. Unlike the school curriculum, this sets out five holistic outcomes for young children to develop, and principles and practices to support them.[33] This broad framework is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the diversity of ECEC services responsible for its implementation, and upholds the ECEC sector’s emphasis on play-based learning. It also accommodates diverse perspectives more easily, beginning from the child and family.

Curriculum for higher education is designed by individual universities, although governments still use funding and other levers to influence what is taught. Recent reductions in government subsidies for humanities, relative to science and other so-called ‘useful’ subjects, reflect a longstanding tension between governments and universities about what knowledge is valued.[34] In VET, National Training Packages have been the government’s most decisive intervention in what is taught (although not strictly ‘curriculum’), as part of a shift to the controversial ‘competency-based training’ model, which continues to be actively resisted by many in the VET sector.[35] Governments also create incentives to run some VET courses over others, in allocations of funding.

Debates around what is taught at all levels of learning are bound up in the why of education, discussed above. Economistic views of the role of the state will privilege curriculum with a clear connection to employment and productivity. Social justice perspectives value diversity:

Socially just curriculum will draw extensively on indigenous knowledge, working-class experience, women’s experience, immigrant cultures, multiple languages, and so on; aiming for richness rather than testability.[36]

Curriculum has also been implicated in the unequal distribution of educational opportunity in Australia, as certain subjects sift more privileged students into prestigious post-school pathways.[37] By determining which knowledge is valued, curriculum defines who is most likely to win in the education game – shaping social and economic dynamics for the next generation.

Monitoring outcomes

As well as defining the outcomes of education, governments in Australia have taken an increasing interest in monitoring whether they are delivered. Accountability is one of the hallmarks of New Public Management, and has been embraced in Australia by both sides of politics, despite robust criticism from the academic community of neoliberal accountability regimes.[38] Use of data for accountability purposes has been pursued by many OECD countries to render education more ‘“legible” for governing’.[39] While government funding is not directly conditional on outcomes in Australian policy (in the way that school funding has been conditional on test results in the USA), outcomes are used to inform policy and funding decisions. This reflects a global shift from spending more on education, to investing in better results.[40]

The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is a significant example of education system monitoring in Australia, introduced alongside ACARA as part of a suite of national reforms. NAPLAN is a standardised test of literacy and numeracy skills administered to all students (except for those whose families opt out) in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. NAPLAN results have been widely used at all levels of government to monitor education system performance, and have been instrumental in demonstrating the wide equity gaps in Australian schooling.[41]

NAPLAN was followed by the MySchool website, an online tool for the public to compare schools’ performance. Results are reported for all NAPLAN domains, and compared to ‘like’ schools, to make fairer comparisons between schools with students from similar backgrounds. MySchool raised the stakes of NAPLAN, placing pressure on teachers to lift school performance by ‘teaching to the test’.[42] Meanwhile, more families relied on word of mouth than MySchool in selecting a school,[43] arguably confounding its policy basis in public choice theory.

Standardised tests also attract criticism for a reductive view of the goals of education. The focus on NAPLAN to monitor school education policy contrasts with the more holistic outcomes in the Early Years Learning Framework. Many early childhood educators use ‘learning stories’ to assess children’s learning and development, which are qualitative descriptions of play-based learning.[44] While this method helps to make holistic learning visible, including for families, it cannot be readily aggregated for the purposes of system governance. Some states have more formal tests of children’s learning in the years before school, and a new national ECEC measure is currently under discussion.

VET is another site of tension between reductive and holistic assessment. Competency-based training is widely criticised for focusing on narrow tasks and roles, rather than situating learning in context.[45] Even completion of a qualification itself is seen as too reductive a measure by which to monitor the performance of the sector, as students may achieve positive outcomes from VET without completing a full credential.[46] At the time of writing, outcomes frameworks for VET are under development in some Australian jurisdictions. Debates about assessment in VET also affect student transitions from VET to higher education, which favours academic over practical assessment. Universities also participate in government surveys on student labour market outcomes (including employer satisfaction), and student satisfaction with learning, as part of system monitoring.

At all levels of learning, then, the outcomes of education policy are notoriously difficult to monitor and measure. This is even before the distinctive priorities of particular cohorts are taken into account. First Nations children may have strengths that are not reflected in assessments designed from a non-Indigenous perspective.[47] The outcomes achieved by learners with disability at all levels of education may also not be well captured in government data. Monitoring the outcomes of education is a delicate balance between what gets measured, and what matters.

The how: providing adequate opportunities

The role of government in education extends beyond system design, and into service delivery. Public schooling began in colonial Australia in the late 1800s, driven by a nation-building zeal that has since attracted significant criticism, both for its exclusionary effects on First Nations Australians, and its focus on building a labour workforce, without widening access to professional careers.[48] The role of government in education service provision in Australia continues to evolve, ranging from direct provision of services by governments themselves, through to stewardship of sectors and markets in which services are owned and operated by non-government providers.[49] Whether providing services directly, or shaping education sectors and markets, funding and regulation are the two key levers for governments to influence how education is provided.

Of course, it is teachers and educators themselves who are at the frontline of service provision (or ‘chalkface’, as it is often called in schools), and governments depend on the education workforce to deliver on their policy ambitions. The relationship between governments and the education workforce is often fraught, as governments are direct employers of teachers in government schools, as well as primary funders and regulators of the work of teachers and educators in most other education settings (excluding services such as non-accredited training). While governments have widely celebrated the importance of skilled teachers and educators,[50] this has translated to increased pressure to perform,[51] as part of the wider policy focus on accountability.

While families also play an essential role in children’s learning, education policy in Australia has focused much more on their role as consumers of education services than as providers. In the early years, some policy efforts have been made to help families to support their children’s learning, and ECEC services are expected to assist families in their parenting role. Schools are also expected to work in partnership with families and communities, but this is most often understood as families supporting the educative role of the school, rather than schools supporting the educative role of families. Yet differences in the home learning environment contribute heavily to the equity gaps in Australian education, and create an uneven landscape of education provision.


Besides health, education is one of the largest areas of government investment, accounting for almost 30 per cent of total reported expenditure on government services. School education accounts for around 80 per cent of the total reported investment, with early childhood and VET accounting for 13 and 7.5 per cent respectively. Investment in higher education is reported separately, but estimated at around half of what is spent on schools.[52]

In economic terms, education is both a public and private good. Free-market advocates claim that the private benefits of education will motivate individuals to act rationally in an education market, so government intervention is required only when individuals lack the means to do so.[53] Levin argued instead for a ‘public-choice’ approach, whereby choice is permitted within a system in which government still protects a base level of public benefit.[54] The Australian school system is strongly influenced by this theory, with ‘school choice’ within a mixed government and private market being an influential policy paradigm.[55]

The relative proportions of government and private expenditure vary across levels of education. Private contributions are highest in post-secondary education and training (higher education and higher-level VET), and lowest in primary school and preschool. Secondary schooling and non-preschool ECEC also attract significant private investment, through fees or contributions made by families. For schools, preschools and VET providers, state and territory governments provide the bulk of government funding; whereas the Commonwealth is the major funder of universities and non-preschool ECEC, by supporting service users to meet the cost of fees.[56] The mixed investment profile in education generates some confusion about where benefits and responsibilities lie, both between levels of government, and between individuals and the state.

The fierce debates about school funding in Australian education policy exemplify these tensions. In 2020, around two-thirds of Australian school students attended government schools (65.6 per cent), which are free to attend (though may request parent contributions), and owned and operated by state and territory governments. The remainder of students attended fee-paying Catholic schools (19.4 per cent) or independent schools (15 per cent).[57]

There is longstanding support for a strong publicly funded school sector in Australia, which delivers universal free education.[58] At the opposite ideological pole, non-government schooling advocates promote the benefits of school choice, and the money governments save by educating students at lower public cost.[59] This debate centres around the role that private schools play in social segregation in Australian schooling,[60] by attracting wealthier families who can pay higher fees. This causes ‘residualisation’ in public schools, which educate a higher concentration of students with fewer educational and economic resources.[61] Social segregation has also emerged in the public school system, with desirable schools attracting higher ‘voluntary’ fees from more affluent families.[62] The level of public investment in elite private schools has also been questioned on the basis of efficiency, as many return ample financial surpluses, despite being not-for-profit.[63]

The Gonski Review of school funding, commenced in 2010 and led by businessman David Gonski, was a watershed in school funding policy, which has enjoyed some level of bi-partisan support. It resulted in a Schooling Resource Standard being legislated as the base per-student level of funding, which could then be modified by needs-based adjustments according to the socio-economic and other background factors of the students enrolled in the school. However, implementation of the review’s recommendations has so far fallen short of expectations, in part due to a controversial Australian government commitment that ‘no school loses a dollar’.[64] The ‘two steps forward, one step back’ implementation[65] reflects the complexity of school funding issues, and the realpolitik in which school sector and political interests are intertwined.

VET funding offers a contrasting example, where ideologically driven policy was implemented with insufficient caution about private interests in the sector. In the mid-2010s, the Commonwealth extended income-contingent loans to all VET students; at the same time as the state of Victoria made VET funding contestable and open to the private market. This created a ‘perfect storm’ of unscrupulous private providers enticing students into low-quality courses,[66] leaving them heavily in debt with little learning to show for it. Other states also suffered damage to VET during this period, as they embraced their own versions of Victoria’s market-based reforms.

The Australian VET sector has not yet fully recovered from this policy disaster, which has been compounded by decreased VET spending by most states and territories.[67] The sector has also been subject to constant reform, with an estimated 465 reforms over 21 years (one every two and a half weeks) causing widespread ‘change fatigue’ among VET providers.[68] A recent independent Victorian review argued for a more collaborative relationship between the government and VET providers (public and private), to ensure that policies and funding models are better informed by insights into provider, student and community needs.[69]

Government investment in the early childhood sector varies by service type. The vast majority of government funding goes to approved ECEC services (long day care, family day care and school age care) through the Child Care Subsidy paid to parents.[70] Preschools receive funding direct from state governments, including Commonwealth investment through national funding agreements. Preschool is often delivered as part of long day care programs, meaning that a four-year-old child in Australia may receive multiple streams of government funding through different mechanisms during the same day, even if they remain in the same classroom. Governments also fund additional services that contribute to early learning, such as early childhood intervention initiatives for children with disabilities, such as the Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centres.

Unlike schools, most ECEC services are not delivered directly by government (the exception is jurisdictions where preschool is delivered as part of the school system). Private ECEC providers constitute not-for-profit and for-profit services. The existence of for-profit services is a point of policy tension, given the amount of public funding flowing into the ECEC sector. A defining moment for ECEC policy in Australia was the financial collapse of major for-profit provider ABC Learning in 2008, which threatened to leave thousands of children and families without service provision. With government support, a new not-for-profit provider, Goodstart, took over many of the ABC Learning centres, shifting the balance of provision.[71] Yet rising fees across the sector mean that government investment continues to be a major site of policy concern.

Higher education funding in Australia is also complex. Most funding comes from Commonwealth grants for teaching, which cover a large proportion of the cost of teaching students who gain a Commonwealth Supported Place. Additional funding comes through research grants, and funds that universities raise through investments or contracts.[72] Fees from international students have become a significant component of university funding in recent decades, which has been severely compromised by travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.[73] Recovery from the pandemic may require new funding approaches.

Even before the pandemic struck, university budgets were under pressure. Contributing factors have included the rising importance of international research rankings, rising costs of educating domestic students, and a shift away from general ‘block grants’ towards more targeted, competitive research funding. In 2017, the Commonwealth also re-introduced caps on the amount of funding it would provide for Commonwealth Supported Places, replacing the demand-driven funding model whereby universities could enrol and receive funding for as many students as they chose.[74] The demand-driven system had been introduced following the influential 2008 Bradley Review, which argued that it would be a way to improve equity in higher education.

As with all government services, education funding decisions are informed by considerations of the relative public and private good that they provide. Free government schooling reflects the public good that education delivers; yet co-investment models at other levels of education (especially tertiary education) reflect that learning also accrues substantial benefits to individuals. These debates represent one of the key ideological battlegrounds in Australian education policy, and a source of disruption for education providers, students and families, as public funding ebbs and flows.


Even when governments do not provide education services directly, they actively regulate what is provided. ‘Regulation’ here is taken in its broadest possible sense, and a variety of regulatory methods are evident in Australia at different levels of education. Professional standards and frameworks regulate the practice of teachers and educators, with school teachers (and increasingly, early childhood teachers and educators) being required to meet these standards as condition of professional registration. Teachers and educators are also required to hold minimum qualifications, which vary across levels of education, and by the age of the children attending the service, in the case of ECEC. Regulators hold providers accountable for having adequately qualified staff.

Performance monitoring is another component of regulation. Schools, VET and universities are largely regulated based on the collection of performance data, with proportional responses implemented where underperformance (however defined) is observed. ECEC involves direct regulation of practice, through a detailed assessment and rating process first implemented in 2012. As the ECEC sector does not produce outcomes data (see ‘Monitoring outcomes’), this enables regulators to observe whether practices are fostering children’s learning and development.

Regulation in education has broadly followed wider trends in regulatory practice in Australia. In ECEC, the introduction of a new National Quality Standard in 2012 reflected a shift from a narrow focus on compliance, to a broader focus on quality practice to improve children’s outcomes that can be demonstrated in diverse ways.[75] Regulation of higher education and VET is also pursuing more contemporary approaches, although the higher education regulator (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority) is arguably ahead of the VET regulator (Australian Skills Quality Authority), in pursuing proportionate regulatory responses that reward high-performing providers, and in working in partnership with providers to improve practice.[76]

To critically consider the role of government in regulating education, it is instructive to examine the frontiers of Australian governments’ current regulatory reach. Home schooling is one site of tension, in balancing families’ right to choose with a child’s right to quality education.[77] Informal vocational learning is another area where the role of government is uncertain, especially in the burgeoning number of courses and micro-credentials available online. In ECEC, further questions arise about the extent to which governments should provide guidance or oversight to families, to ensure that children’s early learning in the home are as beneficial as possible.

All regulation requires governments to make assumptions about what quality education looks like. These may be at odds with the values and priorities of practitioners, learners or their communities, which can relate to specific educational practices, as well as content. The notion of quality in early childhood education and care has been hotly contested,[78] and governments’ definition of quality schooling has arguably been too focused on the delivery of designated outcomes, rather than the interests of the learner.[79] For First Nations learners, quality education may also involve strong connections to community and culture.[80] Like curriculum, quality education provision is open to interpretation.

Conclusion: top-down or bottom-up?

Given the contested nature of what is valued in education, and how it is delivered, it is inevitable that ‘education policy is messy, fuzzy, and rarely linear in its execution’.[81] Despite this, some significant recent milestones have been achieved in Australian education policy, particularly in establishing national architecture to bring together fragmented systems in ECEC and schooling. The presence of national curriculum frameworks, standards and mechanisms to monitor them gives greater coherence to the nation’s guarantee to provide quality education for all children.

Yet the increasing strength of the national education policy architecture contrasts with a system in which educational experiences are often unequal, and one of the most socially segregated school systems in the world.[82] The benefit of increasing coherence across jurisdictions may be limited, when differences between students from high-income and low-income communities are a far greater impediment to the national goal of quality education for all. Inequalities in educational outcomes are evident before children reach school, and are continued as students are sifted into more or less privileged post-school education and training options.[83]

Finding a way forward will require governments to be responsive to education practitioners and communities, and make space for innovation, diversity and local solutions within a universal system. This is equally true for the research that informs the education policy agenda, to reject broad-brush ‘what works’ narratives in favour of more nuanced evidence that attends to the messiness of different contexts.[84] Engaging with this complexity will require policy makers to be creative, and attuned to the direct experience of those affected by reform.[85]

The tensions in education policy are strongly felt in the day-to-day lives of teachers and educators, who must reconcile the expectations of government with the complexity of their students’ needs. This is true for all polices applied to education: whether in setting out what is valued, designing the system or delivering it. As policy in every area of Australian education continues to shift with political tides, one school principal succinctly captured the balancing act required from practitioners:

Given we lack the maturity as a nation to adopt a completely bipartisan approach to education, the least teachers and school leaders can do going forward is to accept that we are riding two wild horses and make the most of both experiences.[86]

It may be that the policy shifts wrought by COVID-19 offer new hope for a more collaborative approach, which rejects false binaries (the ‘two wild horses’ that educators must ride) and situates education policy within broader social determinants of learning.[87] Achieving this will require governments to move beyond policy ‘tweaks’ to a coherent view of lifelong learning. It will also involve ongoing work to reconcile the policy urge towards making education ‘strong, secure and predictable’[88] with the wonderful unruliness of practical realities.


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About the author

Jen Jackson has worked in a range of research and policy roles, across all levels of the education system. She has been a researcher at the Parliament of Victoria, the University of Melbourne, Victoria University and the Australian Council for Educational Research, and a policy leader at the Victorian Department of Education and Training, and Centre for Policy Development. Jen has a particular interest in early childhood education and care, and completed her PhD on developing the early childhood workforce. Jen is committed to improving equity in Australian education through evidence-based approaches.

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