The sound of silence on school education in NSW

Jan 30, 2023
Teacher blocking his ears.

The failure of this country’s school system to give many students a fair go and a fair share of resources did not feature on the last Federal election agenda. Nor has it surfaced to date as a key issue in the NSW state election. What does this silence mean?

With an election only two months away, NSW is facing budgetary challenges from climate change, the effects of the ongoing pandemic, rising household costs, skills and labour shortages in key areas and lack of affordable housing.

Difficult as it may be to deal with all these priorities, there are very real dangers in deferring action on the schools front. In times past I spent time in schools to inform education policy advice to governments. I was often surprised by the degree of awareness of some young people that they were being denied their fair share of resources and opportunities compared with more advantaged peers in other schools. In the worst case scenarios such anger finds expression in anti-social behaviour.

Does leaving these issues off election agendas mean that major political parties fear raising one of the most traditionally toxic issues in our national politics – schools funding – in an election context?

Or does the current political silence indicate that politicians consider the electorate is quietly resigned to having a school system characterised by inequality, inefficiency and waste, and a less than optimal return on its public investment in terms of student outcomes? The circumstances documented by Cobbold, Rorris and Bonnor amount to what could almost be described as a war of attrition by governments against public schooling in this country.

Outside of the election context, it is possible to discern some signs of recognition by governments that it is the system that is failing our schools; and that the system has only been maintained due to the heroic efforts of teachers, students and school communities over recent difficult years.

After the Federal election last year, it took until December for recognition by education ministers of the need to deal with teacher shortages. In announcing a National Teacher Workforce Plan, Minister Jason Clare paid tribute to the dedication and hard work of teachers across the country and acknowledged that this plan was not a quick fix but rather a first step towards an ongoing strategy to attract and retain more teachers. It builds on a range of pre-existing initiatives, including yet another review of initial teacher education designed to deliver more effective shared delivery by universities and schools. This review is headed by Mark Scott, former head of the NSW education department and now Vice-Chancellor at Sydney University.

In NSW, the election silence was preceded by an announcement by the NSW government of its decision to realign school enrolment boundaries to manage a surge in the student populations in some areas of NSW. Parents have been escaping from capital cities to coastal towns in recent years in response to the experience of working from home during Covid and to high city house prices.

At the start of this year, action was taken in these hotspots — based on demographics, enrolment and travel patterns and on community feedback — to reduce the well-documented educational effects of socio-economic segregation. Without such action, children of the more affluent newcomers who were buying up homes would be concentrated in some of the local schools, while their less privileged peers were concentrated in others.

It was as if someone had reminded the NSW Minister of the purpose of a school system. In broad terms, this is to make it easier for teachers and students to do their best work in schools than it would be if all schools operated in isolation from each other.

A high quality school system maximises student outcomes, providing society with a good return on its public investment. It distributes the available resources among schools on a rational and transparent basis. The most significant of these resources is teachers. A system enables economies of scale and sharing of expertise. It also recognises where decisions are best made–centrally, at a regional or district level, or at the level of the school itself.

Why was the Perrottet government’s positive action limited to the public school system? Why does the State government take account of “current demographics and enrolment and travel patterns” in relation to the operation of only public schools? By the time students in NSW enter their senior years of schooling, around 43 per cent are in non-government schools. Why are these schools largely left to deal with changes to the school population as they see fit, in their own best interests and regardless of the effects on other schools or the system as a whole?

Unless governments find the answers to these questions before too long, we will be a society condemned forever to a school system riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions.

Schooling is an essential, universal service where the primary obligation of governments must be the provision of public school systems to ensure that education of the highest standard is open to all children in their own right, without fees or religious tests. Private schools should be licensed to operate within a regulatory framework that ensures that they complement the public school system. Achieving a holistic system based on these principles will take time, care, effort and compromise to achieve, while avoiding damage to the education of any groups of students.

Such a system cannot be achieved by any state acting in isolation from the Commonwealth. And rectifying the dysfunctional and asymmetrical relationship between both levels of government which has evolved in relation to schooling has proved the hardest nut to crack in reform efforts to date. Any chance of reform offered by The National Schools Reform Agreement (NSRA) which was due in 2024 has now been delayed by the Labor Government until 2025. From a NSW perspective, this means that too many students are being short-changed right now and some of these will be fronting up to their HSC before 2025, without the support they need.

Whatever blame lies with the Commonwealth for the problems in our school system, NSW is directly answerable for its own underfunding of public schools and overfunding of schools in the private sector against the established Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) until 2029.

NSW needs a government with backbone to call on the Commonwealth–as the main revenue-raising government–for immediate financial assistance for schools dealing with effects of natural disasters. This assistance is needed over and above prior agreements to mitigate the damage and long-term effects of children and young people from disruption to their schooling.

NSW needs a principled, honest government to repudiate the disreputable bilateral agreement it entered with the Commonwealth. This entailed a 4 per cent reduction in its funding commitment to its public schools only, making a mockery of the SRS. Pending the negotiation of a new NSRA in 2025, NSW should offer to provide its public schools with their rightful level of state funding, in return for the Commonwealth agreeing to amend the Australian Education Act to remove the arbitrary cap of 20 per cent on its contribution to meeting the SRS for public schools.

Are you committed to making the NSW school system, taken as a whole, less stratified and unfair – or not? If we care about the education of our children and grandchildren, this is a question voters need to ask each and every candidate in the weeks before the March election.

Some steps for election candidates to consider are set out in the newly-released report by the Productivity Commission of the review of the current National School Reform Agreement This report emphasises the centrality of the supply and quality of teaching for all schools, but it stops short of making this the focus of the recurrent funding of schools. But now that the total recurrent public funding provided by both levels of government exceeds the total teacher salary bill for all Australian schools, there is both an opportunity and a logic to making this link.

What better way to use the power of the public purse than to focus on ensuring that all schools have the resources needed to provide the conditions that are most favourable to high quality teaching, taking account of their differing student communities and the range of circumstances in which they operate?

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