Mirror, mirror on the wall…a better and fairer school system

Aug 10, 2023
Education concept with books, school accessories and apple.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children’. The Review set up by the Albanese government to inform a better and fairer education system is an occasion for some serious soul-searching by Australians.

The Consultation Paper circulated by the Expert Panel leading the Review begins on an inspiring note. “Education transforms lives — it is the key to unlocking the ability of individuals to reach their full potential, contribute to society and engage in the workforce. It is the key to improving social equity and lifting social and economic outcomes for individuals

It goes on to acknowledge that “Australia’s current school system provides this to many students – but not to all”. This is an understatement. If we asked the mirror on the wall which country has the fairest school system of all, we would not like the answer.

I share the anxiety expressed by the SMH’s economics editor, Ross Gittins (2/8/23): “The older I get, the more I worry about the nightmare we oldies are leaving for our children and grandchildren. The obvious, in-your-face problem is climate change, but other difficulties are everywhere you look”.  They are certainly there in our school system, looming ever larger.

The current Review – to inform a better and fairer school system – takes place in the context of growing teacher shortage and financial pressures on many families with school-age children. Governments have greater responsibility than ever to provide a school system with the level and range of resources needed to equip all children and young people to deal with the social, political and economic challenges they will inherit.

There is growing consensus that our school system is not fit for this purpose. But there is a risk of governments being pressured towards solutions without a clear understanding of how our system works in the real world to influence the way money, students and teachers end up in particular schools.

The purpose of a school system is to provide organisational and planning structures, processes and strategies which ensure all schools have adequate and appropriate resources for all teachers and students to do their best work. As the American educationist, Jerome Bruner, stated it: “It is inside the hearts and minds of teachers and students, working together in their classrooms, that the subtle process of schooling happens, the process of empowering human intelligence and human sensibility for life in an open society”. The school system should support that process, not hinder it.

But many of the circumstances that limit equality of educational opportunity come from the wider society, beyond the direct influence of education policy and schools.

The complex effects of economic change, patterns of affluence in society generally and in specific communities, trends in the birth rate and in patterns of immigration and settlement – these all influence the social composition of schools. These factors predispose some schools to being ‘strong’ in the market while others are ‘weak’. Schools in rural and remote areas, and particularly those serving students from communities characterised by poverty, are generally hard to staff even when the overall supply of teachers is adequate. In some areas of the country, the market forces which affect schooling are now inextricably entwined with the operation of the real estate market. Parents with the capacity to buy or rent housing close to — or to transport their children to — their preferred schools have more options than those who lack these means.

Irrespective of what kind of government and school system a country develops, there will be will be those who take decisions in their own best interests and, in particular, to advance the interests of their own children. Democratic governments have an obligation to take actions to avoid or minimise collateral damage to other people’s children and to adopt policies that are conducive to co-operation among schools rather than competition on what will always be an uneven playing field.

It is right and proper for Australia to aspire to a school system which celebrates cultural diversity. But diversity has been allowed over recent decades to degenerate into disparity in a class-stratified school system where choice and competition lead to gross resource gaps among schools.

Rather than giving priority to mitigating market forces which feed the stratification of schools, Australian governments have adopted policies which intensify them. As well as damaging the most vulnerable students, these policies have produced broader negative effects — stagnating achievement levels, widening resource inequities, inflated costs and, in particular, the maldistribution of teachers among schools.

Anxious as governments may be to avoid opening up the politically toxic issue of schools funding, it is unrealistic to hope that we can achieve a better and fairer education system in a resources vacuum. Or without confronting the implications of current funding arrangements for the supply, quality and distribution of teachers.

The Rudd-Gillard Labor government took a positive step in 2012 in accepting advice from the Gonski report to re-introduce the concept of a recurrent funding standard, the Schools Resource Standard (SRS). Despite the fact that the integrity of the funding arrangements introduced by Labor in 2013 based on the Gonski Review has been seriously compromised by subsequent political decisions, the concept of a funding standard which applies to all schools regardless of sector should be retained.

But the current mix of funding mechanisms for schools in Australia provide a weak proxy for measuring the resources really needed in actual schools, recognising that schools are complex organisations and that teaching lies at their heart.

“We don’t have a clear picture of how funding is allocated or spent”. With these words, the Consultation Paper alludes to the ‘fog’ created by the vagaries of the Australian federal system. This fog has enabled cumulative political decisions, largely taken by the Commonwealth, to create a gross imbalance between the two levels of government, Commonwealth and state, when it comes to their public funding of government and non-government schools.

As a consequence, recurrent funding to the latter from the Commonwealth alone has now reached a level where it exceeds the total teaching staff salary bill for the private sector as a whole. This means that the Commonwealth is now a large, de facto employer of teachers, with the vast majority of teachers in the non-government school sector on its payroll, but without the attendant responsibilities and far from the action. These realities need to be linked more explicitly in future development of a fairer and better school system. They creates both an opportunity and an obligation for the Commonwealth to work with states and territories to improve the supply, quality and distribution of teaching across the school system as a whole.

Recognising that that investment in teaching is the most direct lever available to government for influencing the quality of schooling, the current Schools Resource Standard should be replaced by a ‘Teaching Resource Standard’. Such a standard should capture the contemporary realities of teachers’ work, all the elements that are fundamental to quality teaching, from supply (including the recruitment and initial education of teachers) to the distribution of teachers among schools and to the range of conditions that are most conducive to teachers achieving their best through all stages of their careers.

A Teaching Resource Standard could be described as a kind of vitamin-enriched staffing formula. This would build on the strengths of the method used by public school systems to deliver the bulk of recurrent funding to government schools. It would be both the resource standard and the funding mechanism. The standard should be developed using public schools, since these are provided to communities in vastly different circumstances across the length and breadth of the country, and then applied to all schools, public and private.

The introduction of a Teaching Resource Standard would be a constructive and practicable means for governments to demonstrate commitment to the teaching profession; recognition that teaching is an intellectually demanding profession that involves highly complex tasks; and shared responsibility for creating the pay and conditions necessary to make teaching an attractive and rewarding career in order to recruit and retain quality entrants.

It makes sense to retain the existing SRS until all schools have been provided with their full funding entitlement, noting that it is largely public schools which remain under-funded.

But it is now time to plan for the replacement of the SRS with a resource standard and funding mechanism more directly related to each school’s staffing entitlement and the related resources needed to support all students to gain the full benefits of schooling.

A better, fairer school system would be one based on explicit principles and values. It troubles me that, in a time of teacher shortage, some of my taxes go to fund schools already operating above the agreed SRS and well-placed to commandeer more than their fair share of the available teaching force, given the selectivity of their student intake.

A democratic society that puts its children first could start by adopting the principle that public funding should not be used to create or expand resource gaps among schools which cannot be justified on educational grounds.

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