Children overboard

Apr 11, 2022
Kincoppal School Sydney
John Howard’s most shameful tactic was his attempts to undermine community confidence in public schools. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Despite accumulated evidence published in this journal and more broadly of gross and growing inequality in Australia’s schools funding arrangements, this did not rate a mention in the Coalition’s Budget nor feature in responses to it from Labor.

Since the 1970s, the net effect of the Commonwealth’s schools funding policies has been to move our national school system from one broadly grounded in the provision of schooling as a common good to one increasingly driven by a view of schooling as primarily a private and a positional good. 

Under the leadership of John Howard, what had been an increasing indifference to public schooling by the conservative side of politics morphed into active hostility. His government’s system of public funding for private schools, corrupted as it was by special deals made on political rather than educational grounds, was to lead to public investment in private schooling becoming the largest financial commitment by the Commonwealth to the nation’s education.

While wrongly accusing desperate boat people of throwing their children overboard, John Howard was himself guilty of throwing children overboard. 

Searching for justifications for this privileging of private schooling, perhaps John Howard’s most shameful tactic was his attempts to undermine community confidence in public schools with unsubstantiated allegations.

It was not therefore surprising, at a recent forum of the national peak organisation for independent schools, that the acting Federal education minister, Stuart Robert, demonstrated the same proclivity.

This acting minister referred in his speech to “the importance of kindness and showing respect to one another…what I would call grace”. He then moved to ingratiate himself with his audience by informing them “that the grace you all show” was one of the reasons many parents choose independent schools. Minister Robert then proceeded to show precisely the opposite of kindness, respect or grace to the students in public schools across the country and to their teachers. 

He used the opportunity of a question-and-answer session to make irresponsible and unsupported claims that the negative trajectory of the Australian school system in terms of both equity and student achievement was the result of “the bottom 10 per cent of dud teachers”; and then claimed that this “bottom 10 per cent of dud teachers” must be located in public schools by dint of his knowledge that no independent school would tolerate a “dud teacher”. 

If this Minister’s performance did not leave me surprised, it still left me shocked and disappointed.

The behavior of Stuart Robert at the national level is precisely what Pat Thomson has described at the local level. In her book, Schooling the Rustbelt Kids, Thomson documents the behaviour of those who seek to position themselves culturally and classwise in relation to particular schools and school sectors. 

Oral ‘grapevines’ proliferate with yarns about what happened to the child two doors away, with retold conversations of people ‘in the know’. …These everyday ‘factual’ oral tendrils work to hold individual schools in their place in the regional hierarchy. They produce long-term patterns of enrolment and expectations that are hard to disrupt“.

At the national level, Stuart Robert used what is hoped to be his brief opportunity as an acting Minister to plant his grapevines and spread their tendrils to do a negative PR job on the whole public school sector.

It would be honest here to admit that I may well be overly sensitive to such oral tendrils as a result of what may be an untypically high exposure to them throughout my adult life.

The fact is that parents’ decisions to spend their own money on sending their children to private schools are made within a policy framework set by government; and I have tried to confine my attention to that public policy framework.

One problem of being known as an advocate of public education, however, has been the number of parents who have opted for private schooling (and their parents as well) and who appear to feel that they owe an explanation.

Like those of their political leaders over the years, these parental explanations have ranged from the ingenious to the inane and have included the specious and the bizarre. They are generally embarrassing to both parties to the conversation. Some parents are eager to point out that sending their children to private schools confirms that they are a better class of parent, whose reasons for exercising this option will be as fascinating to others as to themselves. Others seem apologetic, especially where their decisions seem strangely at odds with their often stridently expressed principles. Others refer to characteristics peculiar to their own children. (“He’s very small for his age”). 

I have had a few friends, acquaintances and even casual contacts who are parents of an only child, aware that I had four children, explaining their decision to me in the following words: “We just have the one and we really want to give her a good education”. Is there any other inference to be drawn from this other than an insult that parents who have been so careless as to produce four offspring are hardly likely to care whether they have a good education either individually or collectively?

What I find the hardest of all to stomach are those politicians and parents whose parting shot in such conversations is to cite serious problems in public schools, even implying that these left them no option but private schooling.

During my time as a senior officer in a state education department, it seemed to me only responsible to take such claims at face value and to ask for more information with a view to investigating them further. In two or three cases, there was a trace of truth in their allegations but it had been magnified and misinterpreted out of all proportion. 

It became my practice also to ask those making such allegations whether or not they had taken the matter up with the appropriate authority at either the local school, regional or departmental level. Invariably they had not.

It is hard to have respect for parents, let alone a minister, even an acting one, whose response to credible evidence of genuine and serious problems in a public school is to send their own children to private schools and to leave to their fate those students for whom this is not an option. It is even harder to have respect for those who decide to spread unfounded rumours in order to convince themselves or others of the wisdom of their decision to go private.

It was a relief to see both the logic and the credibility of Stuart Robert’s claims demolished by those with greater knowledge and understanding of this nation’s school system than his own. Sydney University academic, Rachel Wilson and school educators, researchers and authors Chris Bonnor and Tom Greenwell have demonstrated that there is no available evidence to provide backing for the assertions made by Stuart Robert.

It is not too late for the Prime Minister to ask these kinds of question of his appointee as acting federal Minister for Education.

There is an urgent need, given the global environmental, political, social and economic challenges that will confront this and coming generations of students, to provide all our schools with adequate and appropriate resources in terms of quantity and quality, giving priority to those with the greatest needs.

The Coalition government has perverted the purpose of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) designed to reduce gaps for which there can be no educational justification in order to achieve its own political priority–to further entrench privilege for already advantaged students, primarily in the private sector while short-changing the rest, primarily those in public schools.

To take NSW as an example, the entire public school system sits more than 10 per cent below its minimum SRS funding levels since the adoption of the Gonski needs-based funding model in 2013. In his 2020 analysis of the funding of 343 independent schools, economist Adam Rorris found that 130 of these were overfunded by a total of $120 million.

Short-changing our schools at this time will have negative consequences in both the short and the long term.

In his recent article in this journal, Bruce Haigh referred to the collapse of what used to be the structural and ethical norms of our society and claimed that that ‘the rot began with John Howard’. This is certainly the case in relation to the norms that governed schooling. These included an understanding that the primary obligation of governments here was to maintain a system of strong and socially representative public schools of the highest quality. This was based in the reality that public schools are fundamental to ensuring that all children have access, in their own right, to the quality of curriculum and teaching that provides them with the opportunity to achieve their personal best.

I remain shocked and disappointed that we will be going to a Federal election with a person acting as Minister for Education about whom there is sufficient evidence to raise doubts about his fitness for this office.

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