Australia’s school system: OOPs!

Mar 15, 2024
Group of Australian school students walking together

“The quasi market-based nature of the Australian education system entrenches disadvantage.” The degree of socio-educational stratification among schools makes Australia an anomaly among comparable democracies. Inequity is at a level where an archaeologist delving in to the system might label it as Out-of-Place stuff!

Soon after coming to office, the Albanese Government recognised the need for a better and fairer education system and set up an independent panel to provide advice on reform. The opening quote comes from this panel’s report, Improving Outcomes for All. Even if it was no surprise to the Government, it must have been confronting to read a description of our school system so starkly at odds with Labor’s egalitarian tradition.

There are growing signs that debate about how to deal with this is becoming inevitable.

But this is one debate that governments in Australia try their hardest to avoid. Providing public funding across a hybrid system of public and non-government schools with distinctive secular and religious traditions is politically challenging and has traditionally proven to be politically divisive and, in many instances, toxic.

The integrity of the funding arrangements Labor introduced in 2013 based on the Gonski Review has been corrupted by subsequent political decisions and delays. The hoped-for funding system that would be needs-based and sector-blind has been replaced by a system which is sector-specific and which privileges individual parental choice over meeting student need.

The wisdom of the elders has been ignored. The 1973 Karmel report, Schools in Australia, provided the blueprint for the establishment of the Schools Commission by the Whitlam government. It included the prescient warning that public funding of private schools entailed the risk of diluting the strength and representativeness of the public school sector.

Since that time, this has now contributed to undermining the strength and representativeness of the entire school sector.

But Schools in Australia also had advice on how to deal with such problems in a democracy:

“The operation of democracy requires … an intelligent consideration of alternatives…and an ability to transcend personal interests for the common good.” We owe our children and future generations nothing less than this intelligent and informed consideration.

Preparing for constructive debate. For a start, we should try to avoid blaming those with opposing views and interests from our own for the blight of inequity in the school system. Take the example of charity status for high-fee, high-resource private schools. Very few of us confuse such schools with, say, The Smith Family. But the decision that donations to these schools should attract a tax return was not made by those schools. It was made by governments.

We should also be clear about where the problems lie. The Improving Outcomes for All report acknowledges the strengths of many of the nation’s schools (largely due to the efforts of teachers). It identifies the overall school system as the driver of disadvantage.

Unfortunately, the current complexities of schools funding arrangements in Australia militate against informed and intelligent consideration of alternatives. For the lay person, they may as well be written in code.

In our federal system, the roles and responsibilities of the two layers of government, Commonwealth and state, are poorly defined. This has enabled dysfunctional and asymmetrical arrangements for funding public and private schools. In describing these arrangements, the Commonwealth education department’s website has recourse to anodyne expressions, such as “reflect historical arrangements” and “reflect the established responsibilities for school funding”. In common parlance, “It’s just what we do here…it is what it is”.

And there is no Schools Commission to provide coherent, ongoing analysis of data required for developing options for reform, informed by broad consultation and awareness of the vastly different circumstances in which teachers and students are working in schools across the country.

Instead, we have special interest groups surfing the various published data sources: selecting here a median, there an average, there the figures from whichever years best suit their purposes; and brazenly comparing apples and pears.

The causes of inequity in the Australian school system cannot all be attributed to education policy, but many can. And they cannot all be attributed to the funding arrangements for the private school sector, but many can. And they cannot all be attributed to the Howard Government policies, but many can.

The Howard Government placed more emphasis on schooling as a private and positional good than as a public good, and drove public funding of private schools to the point where it outstrips Commonwealth funding to universities. It adopted a business model for significant and ongoing expansion of private schooling that entails large public investment, but without the planning and regulatory framework necessary to protect the public interest…or the interests of students in schools that are ‘weak’ in the market.

It was the Howard Government’s changes to the Commonwealth’s scheme for funding private schools which did most to unleash the market forces that have led to the situation reported by the OECD where 34 per cent of students enrolled in a disadvantaged school in Australia lack sufficient teaching staff, compared to 3 per cent in an advantaged school.

The same government then made misleading claims about the legal basis for their preference for private schools, even arguing that this had a Constitutional basis.

On the contrary, the current situation in which both levels of government are under-funding public schools and over-funding private schools against the agreed Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) is a result of political choices and not a Constitutional imperative.

Accepting the realities. Constructive debate based on agreed premises requires us to take account of some deep-seated and persistent features of human society. These go beyond facts and figures, important as those are.

Take the tendency of human beings to form hierarchies. Much like many other species. Based on decades working in the school system in various roles and at local, state and national levels – and leaving aside places where there is only one school – our experience has been that it is hard to find a city, suburb or country town without some kind of pecking order among the schools.

This does not, however, justify a system that removes the ladder of opportunity from growing proportions of students and their schools.

In matters concerning children, the UN has declared that “the primary consideration shall be the best interests of the child”. For the past few decades, the focus of our school system has shifted towards parents as consumers.

There are differing tendencies among parents when it comes to schools. Many parents have no option but to rely on their local public schools for their children’s chances of an enjoyable and rewarding education. Then there are those parents who judge it to be in their own child’s best educational interests to attend a school which is open to all the children in their district, irrespective of parents’ income or beliefs. And there are other parents who feel a sense of pride in paying the entry fee to a school that is not freely open to all, as a means of conferring some form of special benefit on their child.

In these circumstances, it is the role of democratic governments to provide a school system with conditions for the planning, funding and regulation of schools that foster co-operation among schools, that enable the fair distribution of students’ access to quality teaching, and that curb forms of competition which damage the most vulnerable.

Another reality is that there is a limit to what governments can afford to invest in schooling. Children need support from government for other entitlements in addition to high quality schooling – housing, health and safety, a sustainable environment.

For too long, governments have been funding games of “no losers” and “finders-keepers”, which inflate the costs of schooling for political reasons and for no net benefit to school participation or achievement levels.

What we have now is a school system where public and private schools operate in parallel universes; with public money used for contradictory purposes both to reduce and to entrench inequality. It includes a mishmash of mechanisms and devices for distributing public funding within and between the sectors. It is a system in which the two levels of government have agreed on a Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), but where the level of public funding for private schools, when added to their private income from fees and other sources, takes many of these schools above that standard, while other schools (largely in the public sector) languish below it.

It is a system in which most schools receive some private funding.

In public schools, financial contributions by parents and guardians is voluntary and is not a condition for student admission to the school. Public schools may also receive private funding, largely from parent associations. We are talking here of around 5 per cent of their recurrent income.

In the non-government school sector, student admission fees are set by the school authorities at the level they judge to be appropriate to their target market. Governments are not involved in setting these admission fees or in how fees are structured and administered. Private schools may also receive private funding from trusts and foundations, endowments, and philanthropy.

It is not, in our view, the role of government in a democratic society to limit the level of their private income parents decide to spend on the education of their own children. But it is the responsibility of government to ensure that public funding is not contributing to the entrenchment of resource gaps for which there is no educational justification.

It is encouraging to see the current Commonwealth Minister, Justin Clare, acknowledging the need to stem the growing tide of inequity and inequality in our school system. Since much of the problem stems from the directions of Commonwealth policy over decades, it is appropriate that the Commonwealth now play a leading role in working with states and territories to chart new directions; as well as clarifying the distinctive role of the Commonwealth.

Priority must be given to raising all schools to their current SRS. And it would be wise for future options to include co-operation by governments to increase the supply and quality of teaching and the fair distribution of teachers among schools.

The political heat of attempting to reign in the market forces which have now been unleashed will present a challenge. But ignoring the needs of schools with concentrations of those students destined to leave prematurely will damage the future of this nation socially, politically and economically.

Even in school systems that score high on measures of quality, the existence of inequality is like a cancer. It not only puts students at risk, it entails risk to the wider society through planting the seeds of social division. This risk is now being magnified by the growing teacher shortage. Public funding must not be used to enable schools that are ‘strong’ in the market to further damage the opportunities for teaching and learning in those schools that are ‘weak’.


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