Slogans like “those who have a go get a go” are no substitute for rational, coherent policy

Aug 20, 2019

The status of Jean Blackburnas one of the finest contributors to Australia’s education policy is confirmed by the recently released biography by Craig Campbell and Debra Hayes covering her life and work. Above all, Jean Blackburn understood the interrelationship between schools and society. Schools both reflect and shape reflect the nation’s broad political, social and economic character.

Reading this fine account of her life and work was a reminder of times when the public policy process entailed principles that put the educational needs and interests of our children and young people first and provided the basis for rational consideration of evidence and options for action. I found it disturbing to reflect on the extent to which policy directions are now expressed through simple – largely simplistic – catchcries and slogans that lend themselves to a tweet.

The current buzzwords come from the world of prosperity theology where God helpsthose who help themselves or, as translated by the prime minister into its secular equivalent, “those who have a go get a go”.

Certainly there are those who, lacking all empathy, feel that adults who fall on hard times have no one but themselves to blame. They find meaning in the mantra of ‘those who have a go get a go’ and support the neo-conservative brand of political and economic thinking that governments should get out of the way and let markets sort out the winners and losers.

But how does ‘having a go’ work for children?

Rarely, if ever, are children responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves. And surely, if citizenship is to be reduced to being individual entrepreneurs in a society increasingly shaped by market forces, then there is a moral obligation upon any democratic government to ensure that all children are equally well prepared for the future they face.

Along with support for families, the main way in which governments prepare children to ‘have their go’ is through education. Schooling is the formal process by which society passes on to each new generation its best-validated ways of understanding the world. In a true democracy, all children are equally entitled to the necessary support from their schools to achieve their personal best and to

provide them with the opportunity for productive and rewarding lives.

The new biography of Jean Blackburn acknowledges the role of both Peter Karmel and Blackburn herself to the Whitlam Government’s policy of needs-based funding for a dual system of public and private schools. Both shared the view that public policy should advantage most those groups of students whose private resources were least

Certainly the policy framework was corrupted from the start by sectarian politics and the intractable perversities of the Australian federal system. But the intellectually robust ideas on which it was based, reinforced along the way by the Hawke Government, sustained it for over two decades, from the 1970s to the 1990s and until the election of the Howard Government.

It was the Howard government that brought to schools policy the neo-liberal conservative brand of politics of which the centrepiece was a radical funding scheme designed to leave the distribution of educational opportunities to market forces. It was introduced without a government-sponsored, open policy process and with no clear educational rationale. There was neither Schools Commission nor Jean Blackburn to stimulate debate, or to remind the electorate that the essential purpose of schooling was to cultivate the intellect of its children to prepare them for active citizenship as well as for productive private, social and economic futures. The Howard Government’s funding policy was introduced without any public consideration of the costs of consumer choice and provider competition in relation to universal schooling.

The Gonski Review established later by the Rudd Labor government marked a return to open and consultative policy development and was an attempt to restore features of the original Whitlam framework. But with the return of a Coalition government, the Howard model of consumer choice and provider competition not only survived but has been further entrenched by the so-called Gonski 2.0 model. The Coalition exploited Labor’s failure to take more timely action to set up and implement the original Gonski Review and its failure to resolve the dysfunctional split between the Commonwealth and states in relation to their respective funding commitments for public and private schools in a federal system afflicted by the virus of vertical fiscal imbalance.

While the costs of the ‘choice and competition’ policies were not properly researched at the start by governments on either side of politics, they are growing clearer by the day. Australia now has a school system in which consumers (parents) and providers (schools) which are ‘strong’ in the market shift the insidious costs of competition and choice to be borne by those who are ‘weak’ in residualised schools where the odds are stacked against effective teaching and learning.

By global standards, Australia has a good school system; but on conventional measures, both national and international, it has been increasingly losing ground.

Instead of relaxing in retirement, Jean Blackburn found herself continuing to be plagued by hard questions about what kind of society we aspire to be and the implications for planning, funding and regulating our schools. I find myself similarly plagued – and fearful of being an ageing Cassandra – as I recall experiences that have troubled me over years spent in the schools sector. In deciding to share these concerns here, I need to acknowledge that the choices that have been made by individual parents and the actions taken by schools over the past decades have all taken place within regulatory frameworks set by governments, Commonwealth and state….or in the absence of regulations which would normally accompany significant public investment. It is the role of governments in schooling in Australia that needs some urgent scrutiny.

I recall vividly an interview I had when I was a young freelance writer with the headmaster of a local independent boys school. It was the kind of school that regularly describe themselves as ‘leading’ and enjoyed such laudatory coverage in the local newspaper that suggested that its senior editorial staff might all be old boys. Enrolment in the junior school did not guarantee a boy automatic access to its secondary provision, entry to which was subject to some kind of qualifying test. When I inquired as to the nature of this test, the headmaster sensed a suggestion on my part that the school’s results owed more to its selective intake than to superior teaching or leadership. He informed me, in a lordly tone, that “It would be wrong of us to take a boy we could not cater for”. I was impressed at the time, and ever since, by the ease with which he was able to turn this self-serving policy into a moral virtue.

To be fair, I later encountered public school principals who were equally as averse to enrolling students who could be ‘difficult’ to cater for, but their scope for exclusion was often limited by the law and regulations – the ‘red tape’ from which their private counterparts have remained largely free.

The problem with such schools is the risk of mediocrity. Necessity is the mother of invention and it is often the challenges of dealing with students that don’t fit some convenient mould and with the pressures of troubling circumstances that strengthen the professional repertoires of school teachers and leaders; that foster innovation and reform; and that guard against slipping into a self-congratulatory complacency.

What are we to make of a recurring ad from a similar and lavishly resourced school which uses its wealth to offer music scholarships to boys with an outstanding ability in playing an orchestral instrument, with one “where preference will be given to boys with ability in playing the French Horn”? Bereft, it would seem, of the will, effort or teaching know-how to grow the French Horn player it craves from among its large enrolment, this school uses its resources to conduct an annual raid to lure a lad from another school.

In the course of an official review of schooling some years ago, I visited a charming, smallish non-government school where the principal explained to me that his school was not concerned primarily with students’ academic progress and achievement. Rather, its purpose was to serve parents who wanted their children to grow up feeling comfortable in their own particular religious community with its shared beliefs. The thought crossed my mind that we were spending taxpayer funds on what was more of a Sunday school than a regular school. Is it the role of governments to support schools for parents who don’t want their children exposed to children from families or to ideas outside their own belief system? How can we have a democracy in a culturally diverse society if citizens have not learned how to deal rationally with ’others’ or with ideas that are unfamiliar and, on that ground, unwelcome.

Perhaps this was the kind of school that the current Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure, Alan Tudge, had in mind when he was a junior minister at the time of the original Gonski Review of schools funding. He told the Australian parliament that the Review raised fears that Catholic and independent schools may for the first time be required to take ‘certain cohorts’. It remains unclear which Australian students fell, in his view, into these undesirable ‘cohorts’, or what schools he believed they should attend.

Schools reflect society. And, looked at from certain angles, we can see in our system of schooling the reflection of a society in which those who seek refuge are shunted offshore by government in the name of border protection, while the red carpet is rolled out to attract wealthy foreign gamblers to casinos associated with crime and money-laundering. We can see political leaders who make a moral virtue out of denying the existence of national and global problems like climate change; and who neglect the vocational education and training system while importing workers from overseas to fill skills shortages. We see governments that seem confused about whether they are funding schools or luxury resorts, Sunday schools or social status symbols. We see a country that that allows schools to treat ‘other people’s children’ as if they were plastic waste to be shipped elsewhere; and that fails to understand that we can sift and sort our children among schools but we still have to teach them all effectively if we care about the future of our country in a highly competitive world.

If that’s the kind of society we aspire to be then we are currently on track to produce it, with all the available data pointing to a growth in inequality among our schools and a decline in the quality of outcomes. That is the bitter fruit of ill-defined forms of consumer choice and poorly regulated provider competition.

As a young parent I was drawn to the vision articulated in the 1973 Karmel Report, Schools in Australia, produced by the Interim Committee for the Schools Commission led by Karmel and Blackburn. It referred to the operation of democracy as requiring an acceptance of rational authority, an intelligent consideration of alternatives, a willingness to participate, and an ability to transcend personal interest for the common good. “Such qualities are not only the products of knowledge, but also of membership of a community where respect for persons is truly practised. Schools which generate these values cannot be purchased simply with money.”

Fortunately, there are many schools across Australia which reflect this vision of society. These are places where teachers, school leaders and communities work hard to support students, recognising their commonalities and differences, their abilities and their interests. In a just and caring society, governments would be investing more public funds in these schools that do more than their share of the heavy lifting.

These are, after all, the schools that are ‘having a go’. So why aren’t they ‘getting a go’?

Lyndsay Connors AO and Jim McMorrow are authors of the 2015 report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.


TREVOR COBBOLD. The facts about school funding in Australia.

CHRIS BONNOR. Rich school, poor school.

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