Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind

Aug 22, 2019

“They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind”, according to the Book of Hosea in the Old Testament. Not in the Australian federal system of government, they shan’t. Not when it comes to education policy.

It was the Commonwealth, under the Howard Coalition Government in 2000, which exposed schools to the winds of ‘consumer choice’ and ‘provider competition’. But the Commonwealth does not operate schools or bear responsibility for managing the fallout from its policies. So it is now the Coalition government in NSW which is reaping the whirlwind as it attempts to deal with an overall expansion as well as the continual shifting of the school population in public schools across the state.

The rhetoric around ‘consumer choice’ has now taken a strange turn in NSW. Parents who are choosing to by-pass the public school in their own designated local area and are sending their children to schools where they are able to enrol as out-of-area enrolments are now finding themselves being described by their state government in rather derogatory terms as being guilty of ‘shopping around’.

This is rather crass, coming from a government in a state where the scope for parental choice in recent decades has been extended from the private school sector to the public through the relaxation of strict geographic zoning policies and by the expansion of schools with particular curriculum emphases and of academically selective schools and streams.

Beyond the scope and influence of education policy, a complex of factors affect the social composition of schools across the system as a whole and produce various forms of stratification. These factors include economic change, patterns of affluence across society, changing real estate values, trends in the birthrate and patterns of immigration and settlement.

In Australia, governments have added to these factors by adopting education policies based on neo-liberal theories about the claimed benefits of stimulating ‘consumer choice’ (by parents) and ‘provider competition’ (among schools). These policies gave been spearheaded by conservative governments – the Howard Government especially – to the present day. Their political opponents have been too spooked by the powerful forces behind private schooling to offer meaningful resistance. This has had the effect of unleashing the underlying market forces that are endemic to schooling itself.

To start with the ‘consumers’, very few parents make an active choice to place their own children in a school with a concentration of students from families and communities beset by hardships. Parents who have the capacity to do so tend to avoid the schools where their children will have to compete with others with higher needs for their share of teacher time and attention. Gifted and talented parents who have the time and the professional skills to produce lengthy submissions on their children’s attainments compete with each other for out-of-area places in the most popular public schools. Although the reasons parents give for their decisions about where to send their children to school are essentially personal, the work of Chris Bonnor, Christina Ho and others reveal that the effects of their decisions are social and highly visible.

As for teachers, many relish the professional challenges and rewards of working in the schools serving less advantaged or relatively isolated communities. But it is schools in those areas where students are best-placed by their out-of-school circumstances to achieve high scores which generally find it easiest to attract teachers.

What of the ‘providers’ – the schools themselves? Successive governments in NSW have turned a blind eye to the covert forms of selection which contravene formal enrolment policies. There are principals who engage in empire-building at the expense of neighbouring schools by flouting the official guidelines on out-of-area enrolments to boost their student numbers, enhance the reputations of their schools by dint of their student intake rather than their own efforts and even to secure themselves higher salaries.

It is not only the NSW treasury which is experiencing the bitter fruits of allowing choice and competition to drive its school system. If my own experience is anything to go by, there are families all over the state with 11 year olds who should be looking forward happily to going to their local high school with their mates. Instead, they are watching their anxious parents trying to decipher NAPLAN results in a hybrid school system so riddled with countervailing policies that it feels to them like quicksand. Through their flawed and highly politicised funding policies, governments have created a school system conducive to gossip and rumour, where troubled parents seek to justify their own choices by denigrating their local schools, especially high schools. In doing so, they are indirectly damaging the education of other people’s children. Inner city, suburban and even country cafes are abuzz with their rantings.

Our school system is wrong for the times. With modern communication technologies, governments are better placed than ever before to bring the full range, depth and quality of curriculum and teaching to every local school site. Instead, they are diverting scarce public funds to subsidise transport away from those local sites for teenagers who are up to their gills in personal high-tech devices…while their parents complain about traffic chaos.

Australia’s regressive schools planning and funding policies have taken it to the point where it ranks high on the OECD list of the world’s most segregated school systems, with the equal largest increase in social segregation in the OECD and the world since 2006. At the same time, conventional measures of school performance both nationally and internationally show a downward slide.

There is an urgent need in our national interest, not to mention our moral obligation to children and young people, to deal with what are now ‘wicked problems’ of our own making.

The NSW Government is to be supported for facing the fact that it needs to use the assets of the public school system – the land, buildings and its teaching force – more efficiently and effectively to produce the best overall results.

But there are real risks to public education and therefore to the school system as a whole if this government’s recently announced policy of dealing with out-of-area enrolments is not informed by an understanding of the political context and of the realities of the school system taken as a whole.

It is surprising that there appears to be little or no information on the websites of the Department or the Minister that would indicate that this policy shift is being made in a transparent and consultative way, in order to minimise the risk of de-stabilising the public school community.

The policy and its implementation must be grounded in principles of equity and social justice that can be translated into a rational and coherent set of objectives and priorities. Simplistic slogans and deals behind closed doors are not going to work in relation to this highly sensitive issue, where the government is asking parents and schools to transcend their immediate preferences for the common good of all those most directly affected, our children and young people.

The context is challenging when, at both state and Commonwealth levels, parental ‘shopping around’ for schools outside the public sector continues to be valorised by both levels of government in the form of a higher rate of increase in their public funding. The skulduggery of the recent Commonwealth/NSW funding agreement will preclude NSW public schools from achieving the full Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) in contrast to private schools. The latter have been provided by the Coalition with a legislated guarantee from the Commonwealth of reaching this standard. As things stand currently and given the odium that faces any political party that attempts to rein in public funding to private schools, numbers of private schools are set to exceed the SRS from public funding alone – to which they can add their private, uncapped fees.

Public trust in governments is low. The citizens of NSW need to be aware that it could well suit a cash-strapped state treasury – on the wrong end of the vertical fiscal imbalance problem in our federal system – to de-stabilise the public school system in ways that could result in a transfer of enrolments to private schools, where the Commonwealth would pick up most of the bill.

We live in a democracy where it would be untenable and, indeed, unlawful for parents to find themselves in circumstances where the only place locally available for their children was in a fee-charging school, religious or other.

It would be a preposterous irony if an attempt to bring about a much-needed improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of resourcing NSW public schools were to result in expanding places in schools outside the public sector. For these are schools where size and location is dictated by their own interests and not those of the wider population.

The Berejiklian Government needs to act decisively to atone for its own sins of omission and those of previous administrations in allowing the costs of choice and competition to be transferred by those consumers and providers who are ‘strong’ in the market to those who are ‘weak’.

NSW is not alone in having allowed a situation to develop inside its public systems where, through no fault of their own, some principals, teachers and students now find themselves working in schools against the odds, where resources are too limited to provide the full range and depth of curriculum that is taken for granted in other schools. To this end, the NSW Government needs to provide parents and the broader public with plans for action to ensure high standards at every school. This plan should include the employment of community development officers to assist high schools to build constructive links with their feeder primary schools to increase parent confidence in their local schools.

It would also be reasonable to provide a guarantee to parents who have children enrolled in their own designated local public school (primary, in particular) that any changes to current priority enrolment zones would not prevent siblings from enrolment in that school as out-of-area enrolments.

In the interests of policy consistency and coherence, the Berejiklian Government should make its funding of non-government schools contingent upon agreed conditions which include planning criteria that take account of where school places are needed from the perspective of overall provision for the school population; and where schools that breached such agreements in ways which have negative effects on neighbouring schools would lose their entitlement to public funding from the state government.

The actions proposed above are necessary, in my view, for the public in NSW to have confidence that its government intends to give priority to protecting and strengthening rather than putting at risk the social representativeness of individual public schools and of the public system as a whole as well as its efficiency and effectiveness.

Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she was the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.


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