CHRIS BONNOR. A trans-Tasman story out of school

Feb 17, 2017

The Gonski recommendations were our best chance to create something better, but it didn’t happen in the way the review envisaged. As one of the Gonski architects puts it, instead we are just on a path to nowhere.  

A couple of weeks ago Canberra teacher and writer Tom Greenwell wrote a fascinating account of the divergent paths taken by Australian and New Zealand schools. To cut a long story short, cash-strapped Catholic schools in both countries asked for public money. The NZ government gave them all they needed to run their schools – on strict conditions. The Australian governments (plural, and that’s been a problem) gave them some funding, but almost without any conditions at all.

Fast forward to today and Catholic schools in both countries get, in broad terms, the same level of funding. But the NZ schools can’t charge fees and must not discriminate in who they enrol. They operate just like secular state schools. The funding to the Australian Catholic schools increased over time, but the schools still charged fees – and, by definition, enrolled any families who could afford to pay.

The end result is that Catholic schools form one of the layers in an unusual socio-economic hierarchy of Australian schools, with Independent schools at the top, followed by Catholic schools – with government schools a distant third. Such a hierarchy is found in many countries but in our ‘egalitarian’ country is substantial, breeds inequity and white-ants our national level of student achievement – all with the combined blessing of Australian governments.

But people are beginning to notice. As Bernie Shepherd and I explain in The vanishing private school, the public funding of private schools in Australia is now close to the level of government schools enrolling similar students. In some places, especially Victoria, the private schools get more. But their operation and obligations remain essentially … private. In effect the Catholic schools especially, in the words of that famous quiz, got the money AND the box.

They still charge fees, something which could be justified in the earlier years when the extra money was needed. But the fees now represent icing on the publicly-funded cake. It is an unsustainable mess: in the words of the current head of the NZ teachers’ union, “We wouldn’t want to be where you guys are, that’s for sure.”

So the big question is what do we do? After all, the integration path taken by the New Zealanders is similar to that in the UK, Canada and most of Europe. You can visit a secular, Catholic and Anglican school in Britain and they are all ‘state’ schools and look much the same. But if you want to find countries doing what we have done you’ll have to look hard. Chile wandered off down that path in the Pinochet years and is currently in retreat.

But the question “what do we do” just won’t go away. As more of our ‘private’ schools become public in funding terms the obvious question is why two publicly-funded systems should be allowed to operate as if they are on separate planets – especially when it comes to things like enrolment and employment, reporting, student wellbeing and more. One school must be available to all, another to just some. Even little things matter: one school can enforce dress codes, another can’t.

What we have isn’t sustainable and has to change. It is a nonsense to have similar, often adjacent, schools receiving similar levels of taxpayer support yet operating under different obligations to the public that pays for them.

In his otherwise excellent article, Tom Greenwell suggests that, based on the NZ experience, the integration pathway is arguably the preferred option. But while integration seemed to avoid or solve the public/private divide, integrating fully-funded private schools into public systems is problematic. It might have slowed, but certainly has not stopped, the social separation between school communities in England. Subsequent meddling has created new school hierarchies. It is also clear that even in integrated systems the rules can be bent, as evidenced by the re-emergence of what amounts to school fees in New Zealand Catholic schools.

The creation of such an integrated school system in Australia wouldn’t cost that much in recurrent funding terms, but it is about much more than money. It is highly unlikely, for different reasons, that public education bodies and private school authorities would entertain the idea. Secular schooling is a core of public education, even though it has been diminished in a number of ways. And it would be hard to believe that non-government schools would give up their capacity to discriminate, even if this is mainly carried on in passive ways through the charging of fees.

In Uneven playing field and again in The vanishing private school Bernie Shepherd and I suggest that we could create a much stronger alignment between the level of public funding of schools and the ‘publicness’ of their obligations and operation. This could be done through the idea of a public charter.

The purpose of such a charter (itself a dirty word in some contexts) would be to express the public purpose of government in providing public funding for education in operational terms. In accepting public funding, a school would agree to act as an agent for the government in terms of delivering its public purpose in education and agree to operate the school in a manner consistent with legislation and regulations applying to government schools. Such a charter might address matters such as enrolment and employment practices, right of access and related costs, student welfare and more.

Will any of this happen? Probably not. Instead we’ll come up with some argument to explain and justify the absurdity of what we currently have. Let’s face it we’ve always come up with a narrative to justify the unusual and inexplicable in the way we fund schools. The Gonski recommendations were our best chance to create something better, but it didn’t happen in the way the review envisaged. As one of the Gonski architects puts it, instead we are just on a path to nowhere.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development  

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