Part 1: Education policies over the decades have intensified socio-economic segregation

As prime minister, John Howard, along with his education minister David Kemp, drove the push to privatise schooling in line with their political philosophy.

In 2007, education professor Max Angus described the system in these terms. “The Australian education system … is evolving into something but we don’t know what.”

In the 13 years since that statement, there are clear signs that the health of the education system has declined in terms of its capacity for effectiveness, efficiency and equity in supporting teaching and learning in schools.

Yet now more than ever, as a result of the pandemic, our young people need an education that is fit for purpose in a world where their survival will depend upon their capacity to find ways to work with others to manage, complex environmental, social, political and economic problems; and to live productive and rewarding private lives.

I have worked in the school system at a local, regional, state and national level throughout my adult years.

When the pandemic hit it was immediately obvious to me that if any country could cope with social distancing Australians should be able to, because we have effectively been practising it for years.  Our cities, suburbs and towns are stratified through an obsession with the real estate market that enshrines differences in wealth and income and cements a status distancing. While the education system is also stratified by religious and ethnic differences, education policies have largely intensified socio-economic segregation.

Along with the growing gaps between the high and low performers, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, overall student achievement has been stagnating, if not declining by comparison with the world’s highest achieving systems.

That many students have been achieving their best has owed more to the dedication of teachers than to the system’s effective operation. The pandemic has certainly brought home the vital role of teachers.

Schooling has a range of purposes and serves different interests. In economic terms, it can be regarded as a common good, as well as a positional and private good. Unfortunately, government funding policies over recent decades have shaped a system that militates against the common good.

The primary obligation of a democratic government must be to public schools.  Universal, compulsory schooling could not survive in a system consisting entirely, or even predominantly, of schools that can select students on the basis of parents’ capacity to pay fees or other admission criteria based on religious affiliation or ethnicity. Yet over decades the mix of public and private schools has been changing.

From 1974, the Commonwealth started putting money into schools. With the political parties vying for the shifting Catholic vote, the Whitlam government’s rationale was grounded as much in the well-documented sectarian politics of ‘state aid’ as it was in the need for increased investment in schooling. Private schools were given public funding in the form of per student grants, with no regard to considerations of demographic demand for school places.

During the 1980s, the Hawke government’s New Schools Policy had restrained the open-ended expansion of public funding to the private sector. This policy withheld Commonwealth funding from helping to establish new non-government schools and expanding school places in areas where there was already adequate supply.

When the Howard government won power in the 1996, one of its first actions was to abolish the New Schools Policy. Then, in 2000, it introduced a new funding scheme for private schools. This greatly expanded the supply of places in private schools for parents willing and able to pay fees.

The motive of John Howard, as PM, and his education minister, David Kemp was clear – to privatise schooling in line with their political philosophy of reducing costs to government and expanding the influence of private providers and market forces.

Kemp had told a conference of independent schools in 2000 that Liberal Party policy was to use ‘the dynamics of consumer opportunity and provider competition to drive service quality’ and that ‘school choice means better educational opportunity’.

So increases in recurrent funding by the Commonwealth were used to expand the supply of places in private schools without regard to demographics or the issues of supply and demand.

An excess of places is essential to choice in a consumer market. For a parent to have a choice of school for their child there must be more than one place available. States control the supply of public school places.

An excess of places can occur by default – through the failure of authorities to balance supply and demographic demand overall as well as locally.

The Howard government’s additional places instead were created by design. They were available only to those parents who were willing and able to pay private school fees. But these places still added to the overall supply.

This expansion of school places was the catalyst that accelerated the re-distribution of students, teachers, teaching workload and funding among schools.  This re-distribution, in turn, proved to be a major contributor to the inequalities and the inefficiencies that result from exposing schools to the market forces that are present in school systems the world over.

Educated, articulate and influential parents are well-positioned to protect the educational interests of their children. Few parents choose to send their children to schools with a concentration of students from troubled or deprived families and communities, as they tend to consume a disproportionate share of teachers’ time.

Market forces also affect teachers.  There are inducements for teachers to work in conditions where they perceive they are most likely to be able to teach effectively.

There is also a tendency for schools to compete for those students who are best disposed to learning and who are less costly to educate. And there are schools that are persistently hard to staff by dint of location or socio-economic circumstances or a combination of both.

The heat generated by market forces in the school system was intensified by the force of that other market: real estate. Parents can buy into suburbs that give their children access to certain public schools or, by paying fees, to private schools that draw their students from relatively advantaged backgrounds.

Public systems have been affected by policies that encourage parents to become ‘consumers’. Measures such as de-zoning and the provision of academically selective and other forms of specialist schools fuel market forces in the public school system. While places must be ‘won’ on merit, students from homes with highly educated parents have a head start.

Part 2:  Society bears costs of education policy ‘crimes’

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Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she co-authored Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement.

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