Public schools – a case for charity

Jan 23, 2024
PUBLIC SCHOOL in stainless steel text against a brick background.

Much has been written about the entrenched disadvantage in public Schools. Successive Governments have failed to provide the very basic resources for these students. Further evidence has revealed a concentration of students with disabilities that require additional support are now located in residualised comprehensive public schools. These impoverished conditions have been easily avoided for families who have the resources to enrol their students in private schools. However, another ‘private’ system has emerged that has moved in to exploit these ‘failing’ schools – charity!

Charity is big business in western countries and Australia is no exception. The not-for-profit sector of the Australian economy manages close to $1 billion per annum. They use their enterprise to take advantage of government’s neglect and provide ‘services’ that address the ignored, social demands that are exclusively in our underclass.

The one thing ‘big charity’ needs to identify is an area to exploit and the Smith Family has adopted education. They have embraced government’s failure to provide support for students in resource poor schools with such a determination they have become a de facto education department. This educational emphasis has become so successful it dominates their attention.

The Smith Family, like all big charities applies the principles of rational economics, top down management and along with businesses, success is measured in growth. To their credit they have continuously increased the number of students who have benefitted from their support however, to expand their services they require an increase in funding! Much of that growth has come from donations that, in the main have been boosted by a continuously streamed advertisement showing an underprivileged child moving about a school yard, ignored by other students, unable to go on excursions, does not have a uniform and needs books and materials to learn. Such a situation is a myth! This depiction of such a child in a school setting has been created by some slick ad agency. It is obviously successful and last year personal and corporate donations raised almost $117 million an increase from the over $73 million raised in the 2018 – 2019 financial period confirming the desired ‘corporate’ growth.

However, these ads infuriate most teachers because the situation depicted is fabricated. In fact all schools are subjected to mandatory policies that ensure no student is denied access to excursions that are related to their formal education. Schools have facilities to provide uniforms and certainly the materials for learning. These needs are provided in their budgets. As for a child being ignored, all public schools have student policies that address bulling, isolation and wellbeing. Schools quickly identify students who are feeling isolated and provide support for them to belong with their peers.

Pointing this out to the Smith Family has no impact. They continue to run these ads raising the finances to create an enterprise that provides employment for 685 full time, 148 part-time and 129 casual employees. The income for these employees is not easily ascertained but a financial report from Seedling Giving and the Hays 2023/24 Salary Guide conclude that the CEO’s of large not-for-profits are being paid approximately $350,000 P.A.

In this last year government provided almost $19 million to the Smith family which went towards providing education services. Contrast this paltry amount with the $9.8 billion to Catholic and $8 billion to independent schools, all of which already exceed the necessary resource allocations. This indifference reflects the government’s priorities, they are so shameless they don’t realise that a charity is doing their work!

The most recent Smith Family Impact Report, ‘Harnessing the Power of Education’ reads like a management plan for any large educational institution. Stated goals such as improved student outcomes, students advancing through the system, enhanced engagement and digital inclusion exist in most school management plans. The bulk of the report is various forms of motherhood statements.

The startling declaration in the report is that the Smith Family has become embedded into the South Australian Department of Education gaining access to individual student data through a direct dashboard connection with the department’s data base. This gives real time information on individual student’s numeracy, literacy, attendance and behaviour records. This is a major concern. To my knowledge a child’s private data, particularly their behaviour records should not be in the public domain without the parent’s knowledge and consent. Despite this potential human rights infringement Queensland are in the process of adopting this ‘initiative’.

I have great concerns with any charity providing assistance to individuals. It is not that I am against helping others but it is the process of choosing, for whatever reason which individual to support. When the Smith Family provides their Learning for Life scholarships to 62,822 students they fail to quantify the number of students with equal needs who do not get this support; there is an injustice in all charity! To be fair, the Smith Family acknowledge they fail to meet all children in need but they never question what right do they have to choose who to support.

Education is at a crossroad; much has been written about the asymmetrical distribution of school funding. The Federal Minister for Education, Jason Clare has assembled an ‘expert panel’ to examine the latest Productivity Commissions report that will inform the next National School Reform Agreement. The panel is led by the chair of the Australian Education Research Organisation, Lisa O’Brien who, incongruously was a former head of the Smith Family. The current CEO, Doug Taylor was also invited to join this reference group. These individuals are not trained educators, their expertise is in management!

A real ethical finding from the ‘expert panel’ would be that all funding for private education organisations such as The Kings School and the Smith Family be terminated and funding be solely distributed to public schools who service the whole community without exception, there is no choice in who attends. This is another test for the ALP!

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