Time for a long hard look at the goals and purposes of schooling.

Nov 27, 2018

Schools hold up the mirror to a society as well as shaping its future. There is more to education than schools, but schooling is the formal process by which we assist young people to develop their capacity to learn and to think for themselves in a democratic society. 

What children and young people learn through their schooling affects us all. The sophisticated analysis by ABC News of our national schools funding arrangements raises questions about the relationship between the funding of our schools and their fundamental roles and responsibilities.

The facts revealed by the ABC News analysis the period make a mockery of the rhetoric of the The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Endorsed by all Australian Education Ministers for the ten-year period 2009–18, this coincides with the funding years covered by the ABC News analysis. The first overarching education goal is that “Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence”.

This is a far cry from the system that Australian governments have created. The Preamble to Labor’s 2013 Education Act set out the principle based on the 2012 report of the Gonski Review that the quality of a student’s education should not be limited by where the student lives, the income of his or her family, the school he or she attends, or his or her personal circumstances; or by the school’s location in, say, regional Australia. The Turnbull Government’s 2017 amendments to this Act removed this democratic principle in the course of introducing its own ‘Gonski 2.0’ policy.

The new analysis confirms that funds which should have been directed to the public school system which does most of the ‘heavy lifting’ have gone instead to a private system in which it is now clear that the wolf of social privilege is all too often cloaked in the sheep’s clothing of religion. The ABC News analysis needs to be read alongside the recent articles posted by Trevor Cobbold on this blog (November 10 and 17) on the OECD and UNICEF reports that show the depths to which Australia has reduced its school system, by international standards, in terms of social segregation and inequality. 

If we look into the mirror held up by the ABC News analysis of the effects of our schools funding arrangements, we see a society in which public funds are provided to those with political power and influence to use the school system to maintain and advance their own advantage at the cost of others. There is an eerie relationship between the kinds of school that proclaim “We decide who comes to this school and the circumstances from which they come” and the type of society we have started to become, shutting ourselves off from the realities of a complex world and the obligation to work with others globally for a better life for all on a shared planet. 

Over recent years I have watched closely the education of a young French horn player whom I know well, as he progressed from his beginner stage in primary school through to high school and to an inter-school ensemble. From this perspective, I have been interested to see advertisements over the past several years for scholarships from a well-known private school. With total resources well over double those in the above primary or high school, this school has been attempting to use a scholarship to attract a French horn player. Have they ever thought, I wonder, of teaching one of their own students to learn the instrument? Providing public funding to the kinds of school that use their superior resources to poach accomplished students and teachers from other schools rather than developing their own is just the kind of policy that might be expected of a country that runs down its own public TAFE system and then looks to attract the skilled workers it needs from other countries often less affluent than our own. 

It remains to be seen whether, or how, forthcoming state and federal elections will affect the inequitable distribution of public funds within and between sectors, which now includes another special deal for the already generously-funded Catholic sector.

In the meantime, public debate has begun in anticipation of the yet-to-be-released Ruddock Report on religious freedom, sparked off by the Prime Minister’s commitment in the run-up to the Wentworth by-election, to strip private schools of their existing exemption from sex discrimination legislation in respect of students. This has, in turn, sparked divisions within the private school sector itself. 

It was to be expected that some private schools would claim the right to continue to apply criteria based on their religious beliefs about human sexuality to the selection of students and teachers to their schools. But this raises a question about the distinctive purposes of schools. Schools should not be confused with places of religious worship or social clubs. 

The second over-arching goal of The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (reference to which was also removed by the Turnbull Government in its 2017 amendments to the Act) related to the responsibility of schools in ensuring that all young people become ‘active and informed citizens’. 

If preparing students for active and informed citizenship is a fundamental responsibility of schools, it does not seem to make sense for schools to be operated by groups that claim a right, in order to protect their religious sensibilities, to operate outside the law of the land.

There have been claims that exemption of private schools from sex discrimination law should be removed on the grounds that these schools are in receipt of public funds. But in this context, funding is a second order question.

Our school system is now characterised by a lack of coherence and consistency between the responsibilities we expect of our schools and the principles that that should underpin the level and allocation of public funding necessary for each school to provide its students with the support they need to achieve their personal best. But schools funding and the basic purposes of schooling are also matters that each require consideration in their own right.

And the ABC News analysis has exposed that this country has schools funding arrangements that cannot be justified on educational, social or economic grounds. They are certainly way out of kilter with the traditional image of Australia as an egalitarian democracy. 

Lyndsay Connors AO is the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the 2015 report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

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