It is critical that we don’t just return to normal but take advantage of Covid disruption to address structural flaws in Australia’s education system.
No one is craving a normal year more than parents, teachers and students. Two years of start-stop schooling has been a recurring nightmare. For many young people, especially those who were already struggling to engage with school, online learning has been no substitute for the real thing.
The eventual easing of restrictions will be welcomed enthusiastically. But we should aim to do more than just return to normal. For years, normal has under-delivered on countless promises, hopes and expectations. Normal schooling has delivered mediocre or declining average student achievement now for over two decades. Various measures tell much the same story: the connected and the advantaged are doing OK, but the strugglers aren’t improving.
Unless we are careful, returning to normal could see Australia doubling down on structures and policies which have long failed our schools. For decades these policies have continued to widen the socio-educational gap between schools: high SES schools have been growing, and low SES schools have been stagnating.
In common parlance, the former are good schools, and the latter aren’t. Families scramble to get their kids into ‘good schools’, regardless of sector. When the strugglers who are left behind look around their classrooms, they find it harder than ever to see the aspirant and the achieving. For many, the teacher standing in front of them may not last any longer than the one they had before … if they managed to get a new teacher.
Concentrating the strugglers in low SES schools depresses their achievement. It impacts on average student outcomes across Australia. It is peers, ahead of pedagogues and parents, who most impact on learning. It isn’t a good place to be.
The Gonski Review, 10 years old this month, knew about this problem. It gathered the evidence and explained it in some detail. And it offered an ingenious solution. Not only did it recommend additional funding loadings for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also proposed that the size of the loadings would increase along with the number of disadvantaged students in a school.
Tragically, too much of what the Gonski review recommended has been left undone, and the plan to direct funding increases to those most in need has been substantially watered down. It will still take a decade or two to be realised, if ever. At this point, we have simply added a bit more funding, distributed according to rules which reflected the demands of the most powerful school pressure groups.
Now the pandemic has further exposed the fault lines around access and equity in learning, in resources and teacher supply. It has highlighted vast differences in the capacity of many families to cope – especially those without the necessary know-how, the hardware and the right connections, both digital and social. While we need to see more research, indications are that the pandemic has increased the divides between schools, in the process worsening the cruel link between school and family SES and overall achievement.
At the same time, the two years of global pandemic has spawned commentary about the potential for a new normal or a ‘normal-plus’, a chance to build on new ideas about work, cities, travel, services and even school. Indeed, it is critical that we don’t just return to normal but take advantage of Covid-caused disruption to address the fundamental structural flaws in Australia’s education system.
This means slowing, and hopefully reversing, Australia’s de facto separation of children into different and unequal pathways through their school years. It means challenging the mechanisms driving this separation: including taxpayer-funded resource disparities, school fees, entrance tests, scrutiny of student backgrounds and prior achievement.
Ever since the 1960s Australian governments have topped non-government school budgets with public funding. While the poorest schools needed this funding, the taxpayer support continued to grow, and for a majority of non-government schools, this ‘topping up’ has now become an overflow. A very large number of non-government schools receive more taxpayer funding than comparable public schools. Even a decade ago, the Gonski panel visited a number of such schools.
Notwithstanding the extent of public support, private schools have continued to charge ever-increasing fees, turning away most of the poor who inevitably became over-represented in the lower SES public schools, in the process worsening average achievement in those schools and impacting nationwide. Australia has become an international oddity in which private schools are fully or almost-fully publicly funded but free to charge fees and pick and choose students as they please. It is a scenario once described by the marvellous Jean Blackburn, co-author of the Karmel report that shaped the introduction of state aid under the Whitlam government, as ‘a kind of wonder at which people [in other countries] gape’.
We’ve ended up with an expensive and unsustainable hybrid ‘fee versus free’, public-private system that doesn’t deliver. It is time to reshape it from the ground up, with everything on the table: school purpose, resourcing, enrolment practices, obligations, operation, accountability and much more.
The pandemic may represent a fork in the road, a time to choose: it might open the way to new conversations about schools and new possibilities, or it might just represent another reason to rush back to normal and ignore the mounting longer term problems.
We talk a lot about choice in schools, it’s time to confront the biggest choice of all. For too many, a return to normal will see them falling further behind.
Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor are authors of Waiting for Gonski, how Australia failed its schools, shortly out from NewSouth Publishing.