“The reality is people choose their peer group” … Adrian Piccoli.It’s a good thing Adrian Piccoli doesn’t ring the bell for the state’s schools. He bustles in for our lunch appointment already running an hour late for a day only half over. I’m paid to wait for politicians; the Sydney Mint Cafe, just down the road from Parliament House, is not. Minister or not, the salad nicoise with freshly grilled tuna is out for the day and the waitress is not of a mind to beg the kitchen.
”Can they do some kind of salady thingy version?” he asks hopefully, before settling happily enough for the ”tarty thing” – the blue cheese and braised leek souffle with candied walnut and beetroot salad.
Surely, a Nat should go for something that moos louder than that – even in a cafe? What about the wagyu burger or the chipolatas?
But then Piccoli, Griffith-born-and-bred, Nat and NSW Education Minister, doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of the bloke from the bush. Courtesy of his Italian heritage he can order a macchiato without sounding like a poseur and, rather than a barbecue for cooking sides of beef, the feature of his new home in Griffith is a wood-fired pizza oven.
Piccoli cherishes his Italian origins, especially the importance of family and the value placed on food. Just not slow food, I note as the tarty thing disappears, post haste. The water I’ve been using to keep hunger at bay for the past hour sits untouched on the table.
But, while Piccoli eats in a rush, his approach to his ministerial portfolio is different. Remember Terry Metherell, the firebrand Liberal education minister who ignited culture wars on several fronts when he took on the job in 1988 and tried to remake the world in only a few more days than it took in Genesis?
Piccoli says he doesn’t but he does have a reform agenda of his own, albeit one that has taken longer to become apparent and one from which the results may take a decade or more to be revealed.
”I always tell people I’m not bound by any ideology. I’m not bound by a conservative ideology. I sleep well at night no matter the decision if it’s in the best interests of students,” he says.
”I’m not looking for some short-term confected outcome that looks good in a press release. That’s the approach that has in many ways hampered education policy. When you look around the world, the things done to produce big changes [in student performance] have taken at least 10 years before you even start to see the consequences.”
Top of Piccoli’s list is his policy to give school principals greater autonomy. Critics argue it is a precursor to cutting education budgets and putting the blame on principals when they can’t deliver, but Piccoli believes that, in time, greater flexibility will see schools deliver better education. A review of teacher quality and a trial that gives unprecedented authority to 15 principals in struggling indigenous communities will both take years to bear fruit.
Piccoli says he’s happy to wait – even if he’s no longer in the job to see the benefits.
”I don’t want to look back in a year’s time and say ‘what’s the difference?’ What I want to know is in 10 years’ time when I look back that the changes I made are starting to produce a difference,” he says.
What he hasn’t done is give schools more money. He hasn’t got any yet, although like many he is holding out hope that federal reforms to funding may send more NSW’s way.
(In her response this week to the Gonski review of school funding, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said the states and Commonwealth would need to agree on a funding split to contribute between them an extra $6.5 billion a year, and she herself would lead negotiations.)
Reform is still possible without more money, he says, noting dryly that a shit teacher is still a shit teacher even if you double his pay. But if money arrives, it will make a difference, he promises, especially to the most challenged students who reside, overwhelmingly, in the public schools that are his primary – but not exclusive – responsibility.
Despite being both a conservative person and politician, his personal ideology marks him apart from the Liberal agenda being pursued by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and his education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, with their emphatic commitments of support for non-government schools.
”I’m not a Liberal, I’m a Nat, and I think there’s a big difference. We are in coalition and it’s a very strong coalition, but I’m a National Party MP. I think I could say safely – [pauses, chuckles] what’s the safest way to say this? – it’s what’s in the best interest of the student irrespective of where they go to school,” he says.
Piccoli says his views are guided by fairness. ”I have a very strong social justice ideology and that is largely based on my Catholic upbringing. I’m shaped by that, I’m shaped by my mother and father’s experiences, I’m shaped by my electorate and they’ve all shaped me in a very similar way. They’re very strong social justice views.”
That vision guides him to a place somewhere between the two main parties. ”The Labor Party doesn’t appeal to me because of the dominance of unions in whatever happens. It’s less a grassroots political party than an arm of industrial organisations and that just doesn’t mesh with me,” he says.
”And the Liberal Party is the other extreme, with an overemphasis on the power of the individual. Which is great if you’re a powerful individual; it really works well, actually.”
That nagging discomfort with individual liberty conveys itself again in Piccoli’s thoughts on school choice. He went to Catholic schools the whole way through, as did his wife, Sonia, and school choice is on the kitchen table agenda at home.
Parents, to a large degree, he says, are simply choosing the kids their children play with.
”It’s not necessarily a pleasant thing to say, it’s just a fact,” he says. ”The reality is people choose their peer group and not everybody can afford 25 grand or 45 grand to send their children to a particular school.” Of course, they have the right, he says, with a nod to the right. But what about the consequences, he asks, with glance to the left.
”I’ve got to make sure we have the best schools possible for those who don’t have a choice. Or who don’t know they have a choice. There’s a lot of people who send their children to the nearest school, just because it’s the nearest school,” he says.
”One of the really big problems we have in NSW is residualised government high schools. That’s no secret to anybody. I think that’s occurred because of the issues of choice. I’m not saying choice is a bad thing – but that’s a consequence that we do need to deal with. And I don’t know the answer.”
Food long gone, Piccoli, with no urge to glance at the dessert menu, begins to order a macchiato but checks himself. Question time is about to start and he rushes off. There are some classes even the Education Minister can’t be late for.
We meet at the Chrysler Cafe after a quiet hour in the house and Piccoli finally gets his coffee. One problem solved but he doesn’t yet have the answer to where his own son (Finn, aged four) will start school.
”It’s really great having little kids as Minister for Education because I have to think about the same things a couple of hundred thousand other parents have to think about every year,” he says.
With an insider’s perspective, he wants to meet a school principal and hear about the teachers before choosing a school.
”I’d want to know about the teaching,” he says. But if quality teaching is the panacea at a systemic level – and the appropriate guide for parents – it can’t do everything, Piccoli notes. Especially when the kids aren’t there. Don’t feel you’re the only adult who wants to tap kids on the shoulder in the shops at 11 o’clock on a school day and ask them why they’re listening to an iPod rather than their teacher. Even the Education Minister feels the urge.
”You can have the best teachers in the world but if a child doesn’t turn up it is worthless,” he says. ”Schools have kids for six hours a day for 40 weeks a year – the rest of the time they’re with parents or carers, or anywhere else but at school. We often let parents off the hook. Every problem that arises in society is the schools’ responsibility.”
Clearly, the Education Minister believes a little discipline would go a long way. Then, with a wry grin, he confesses the sins of his youth. He may be the man schools now look up to but his own career in class left something to be desired.
”The thing that stands out from my own school experience is that I didn’t work hard enough, particularly when I was in year nine and 10. I had some natural ability and I just relied on that. I swore after year 10 that I’d never let that happen again,” he says. ”Year 9 and year 10 are the dark years of schooling. I think every parent says that. My own memories of it are a bit embarrassing. I’ve had to apologise to a number of teachers who taught me then.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.