VIC ROWLANDS. The Education funding battle and public education.

Sep 12, 2018

When then minister Simon Birmingham accepted the recommendations of the Gonski 2 Education funding model it was a courageous attempt to redress the mistakes of the past. His replacement post Turnbull by Dan Tehan sent a message that the traditional powerful education lobbies are still well and truly the influential players. It doesn’t auger well for government schools which historically end up the greatest loser because their primary source of revenue, the states, cannot or won’t match the federal largesse and they don’t have the capacity of the non government sector to game the system. 

The protests about the proposed model will undoubtedly see funding recommendations reshaped to satisfy political imperatives rather than equitable educational need. We are at another pivotal moment for public schools. It remains to be seen if the Labor party can answer the critical questions any better. ABS figures on 2/2/18 showed there were 65.6% of all students enrolled in government schools, 14.5% in independent schools and 19.9% in catholic schools. The two tier system of Education funding is very complex. The idea of consolidating all funding under the umbrella of the Commonwealth Government superficially has merit but the public sector can have no confidence because, even if the debate of the role of both tiers of government could be resolved, history shows equity for government schools is never the outcome. 

It is exactly the wrong time for state and national councils of state school organisations to be in disagreement. Unity of purpose and clarity of vision are absolutely critical. The place to start is to demand an end to unsubstantiated scurrilous assertions about public education, such as the Prime Minister’s recent ill informed and ill advised comments inferring that public schools have no values. The media should call it out because it happens without justification too often. 

The Constitutional principle of education as compulsory, free and secular couldn’t survive the challenge of vested interests and the major political responses to them beginning with Menzies capitulation to the Catholic Church in 1962 and culminating in John Howard’s egregious, wilfully political funding model of 2001 which promised no losers but left public schools seriously underfunded as a consequence. 

In 1973 the Karmel Report unwittingly spawned the creation of a plethora of small, mainly faith based schools which were able to circumvent critical requirements for registration required for new public schools, most importantly the condition requiring consideration of the existing educational provision already in the area. The untrammelled expansion of the non government sector since Karmel effectively favours the primacy of choice at the expense of public education. Many non government schools are in effect government schools because their total funding levels are above 90% but the accountability or registration requirements are not the same as for public schools.

Underfunded public schools are hostage to a number of perceptions built up over the years which have been allowed to assume the status of fact and have undoubtedly contributed to the drift away from public schooling. The perceptions have been too easily accepted. Australia has one of the biggest private school sectors in the world, much bigger than higher performing countries to which we are often compared. National and international reports and studies on student performance generally reflect the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conclusions that “Students who attend private schools tend to perform significantly better in the PISA assessments than students who attend public schools, but students in public schools in similar similar socio-economic context as private schools tend to do equally well.” The common belief that any private school, is better than any public school has no basis. The main determinant of school performance is the nature and complexity of the cohort. All non government schools are, in one way or another selective schools. Some NAPLAN results have slipped but are down nationally not only in public schools. 

It is claimed non government schools save the government money, but this is not universally true and disingenuous when unnecessary duplication of resources and other concessions and the capacity to game the system are taken into account. The trebling of the special needs factor in the most recent assessments in many high socio economic high fee private schools to two to three times that of poorer government schools beggars belief. 

The public perception is that teachers in private schools are superior to those in public schools but there is no evidence to support it. All students in university teaching courses undergo the same training in that institution. Once employed teachers go from one to sector to another and don’t become better or worse simply because of the change, what changes is the students. Of course teachers make a difference to learning but outstanding, committed teachers exist in all schools. Recruiting people with the right personal attributes into teaching and providing quality teacher training and well targeted in-service programs will result in improved student performance. 

Parent choice may simply be a desire to do the best for their child but gaining a competitive advantage in the ATAR stakes also plays a big part. The publicity of the competitive focus private schools give to things like ATAR scores and percentages of students with individual study scores above 40 blatantly (and not always fairly) presents a selective and misleading picture which often reflects poorly and unfairly on comprehensive public schools. 

The supposed values and environment promoted in private schools are also influential including, as uncomfortable as it might be, avoiding the influence of less desirable cohorts, (or mixing with better whichever you prefer). Earlier this year the Headmaster of a prominent Melbourne private school said in admonishing two Year 12 boys for kicking a soccer ball when they should have been in private study: “I have the power to banish you to the local public high school.” Are these the values Scott Morrison invokes?. 

Although hundreds of studies over the years support mixed ability classes and have found streaming not to deliver better achievement, to many parents, (and teachers) it is counter intuitive and many schools still organise around (sometimes subtle) ability grouping to assuage parent fears. Mixed ability classes are core recommendations in Gonski 2 but they will be resource expensive and on past experience government schools generally will end up pioneering changes but without adequate resourcing.

Unemployment is now stubbornly high for the 16-24 year olds. Urging young people into higher qualifications with not much more than slogans is of no use. Governments need to be able to articulate much more specifically than generalities the future of work and life and the connection of education to it. 

A strong public education system is a cornerstone of a decent and fair society. So is a school system that is comprehensive and non selective. This is not a debate about funding non government schools. It is about ensuring that the funding of education in the totality of state and federal responsibilities is fair and equitable, because it isn’t now. 

Vic Rowlands is a former secondary teacher and principal.

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