Commentators often express dismay that debates about policy go missing in action at election time. This time around, the vacuous reigns supreme as the election degenerates into a policy parody – despite longer term policy work by the ALP and some others. But after the starting gun sounded, meaningful debate was cast aside, yet again. Serious issues seem to be off-limits…becoming what the Guardian calls a code of silence. School education has certainly taken a back seat: no issues, no debate, nothing to present – or misrepresent. It seems that we have settled all the big debates of past years. If only.
The biggest problem for school education is that the issues needing attention evolve in an incremental way and few people notice. There aren’t enough crises to excite sustained interest. Moral panics do come and go with such events as the seasonal release of test results – and politicians do shroud the odd initiative in hyperbole. Even that fades away as evidenced by Rudd and Gillard’s education revolution.
But incremental changes are having a devastating impact on the equity and effectiveness of Australia’s schools. And more people are noticing as the regressive outcomes of three decades of neoliberalism become harder to hide. So what is happening in school education that needs a response as substantial as that directed at health or infrastructure? Here are ten consistent and concerning trends revealed in the data that lurks behind the My School website:
1. Inequity and inequality is worsening. The educational outcomes of schools should be created by the things that schools do – but they are increasingly created by the socio-educational characteristics of enrolled students – and their families. This unhappy link between SES and school achievement is increasingly significant. My School data shows that our equity gradient has steepened; it has become a very slippery slope.
2. Regardless of the rhetoric about school choice, enrolments have shifted from low to high SES schools. After all, My School tells families with choice – less than half of Australia’s families – about the schools to avoid. High SES schools, on average around Australia are growing in size (average enrolment 525). The enrolment of most low SES schools is static, stuck on an average of 325.
3. The strugglers amongst our kids are further concentrated in these low SES schools, more so than before – and more so than in most other countries. The challenge and cost of lifting the increasingly marginalised is now much greater. Politicians complain about the cost of education but concentrating disadvantage in smaller schools comes with a bigger price tag.
4. The school social hierarchies, both within and between sectors are deepening. Because choice is apparently such a good idea, public systems offer more of it. Hence the disparities within public systems are now greater. Australian schools are replicating and reinforcing social class – and the measurable results are going nowhere.
5. In socio-economic terms schools are increasingly looking less like their communities. In other words, the SES of schools in low SES areas is actually lower than the local area – those with choice go to school elsewhere. Higher SES schools are becoming even more advantaged than their communities. We’ve always had SES differences between communities, but now the local school is less a part of any solution. Again: big implications, especially for the development of social and cultural capital and communities.
6. Following Gonski, our school funding could have been used to reduce the severity of the above five developments. But despite all the talk, Australia governments have not increased funding to needy schools any more than we have increased it to others. In total funding terms the schools that don’t need it are getting bigger funding increases. In sectoral terms this means private schools which have seen funding increase at double the rate of public schools.
7. Our total investment in schools is poorly targeted. If we assume that money should be given to schools to bring their results up to the standard of similar others, governments are throwing around $3 billion each year to schools that don’t need it. Should governments do this? Parents are throwing another $2bn. If measurable results mean anything, it is a poor investment all round.
8. Student achievement, almost however measured, is diverging between high and low SES schools. International data from almost any source shows that Australia’s school achievement has declined over the bulk of our neoliberal era – the era of competition, choice, privatisation and markets. How is it that policy makers can’t join the dots?
9. Disadvantaged students, especially most Indigenous students, are increasingly found in schools with the least capacity to lift them. Closing the gap is supposed to be more successful in education – until you take a closer look. The downstream social and economic costs of failure are huge.
10. Enrolment preferences and enrolment shifts have increased the ethnic/cultural/religious differences between schools, as evidenced by research soon to be released. The differences that older generations once witnessed within schools, are now played out between them. We increasingly avoid the bridging and linking benefits of schools. Why do others know this and we don’t?
It would be reassuring if the main political parties understood where we are heading and the consequences if we don’t change direction. There isn’t much time. In one sense the ten above trends are like climate change: they are not a sign of things to come, they are a sign of what we have right now.
But the policy statements from the parties appear to come from another planet. Labor’s National Platform manages to devote several pages to schools without once mentioning equity. The Liberal Party goes one worse: its plan for schools is buried in a section entitled Youth, and includes such burning priorities as supporting school choice and school chaplains. Is this as good as it gets?
They could be excused if the readily apparent trends were somehow benign or transient, but this is not the case. They could also be excused if such issues were unknown; this is increasingly not the case. But alas, the current election, like most others, will come to an end without any serious debate. Worse, when it comes to breakthrough policies for school education, the outcome of the election will prove to be largely irrelevant.
Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.