Hey! Gillard! Leave them schools alone
The Prime Minister’s decision to throw Peter Garrett, the education minister, a lifeline in the form of Brendan O’Connor to manage the school funding review, chaired by David Gonski, proves how sensitive and potentially politically damaging the issue is.
Non-government schools enrolments have surged over the last 15 or so years with much of the increase occurring in low fee paying non-denominational schools in marginal seats that are crucial in any election campaign.
During the 2004 election campaign Mark Latham’s hit list of wealthy private schools proved an electoral liability and when education minister, the now Prime Minister Julia Gillard, assured non-government schools and their parents that schools would not suffer financially as a result of the review.
Notwithstanding Gillard’s assurances about maintaining current levels of funding the question arises: are non-government schools being set up for a fall with the Gonski report designed to cut funding and to curtail the freedom such schools currently enjoy to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their school communities?
Based on recent interviews given by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett, the federal education minister, the answer is ‘yes’. Instead of waiting for the official release of the report, due early next year, both Gillard and Garrett have begun to pre-empt possible recommendations by going public on the funding issue.
It’s also clear that both the Prime Minister and the education minister have accepted the cultural-left’s mistaken view (adopted by the Gonski review panel) that non-government schools reinforce inequality and that funding must be redirected from such schools to government schools defined as disadvantaged.
Minister Garrett argues that the current socioeconomic status (SES) system used to apportion government funding to Catholic and independent schools is “all over the place” and he hopes the Gonski review will recommend a “fundamental break from the systems of the past”.
Echoing arguments put by the Australian Education Union (AEU) that the presence of non-government schools and the way they are funded have led to government schools being residualised, Minister Garrett also states that, “We’re at risk of a two-tiered school system in this country and I want to avoid that”.
Prime Minister Gillard, in a recent interview with the Murdoch Press’ Samantha Maiden, also argues that Australia needs a “new model of school funding” and that the current system, apparently, fails the fairness test as it reinforces inequality.
The Prime Minister also echoes an argument much favoured by non-government school critics that Australia’s education system reinforces disadvantage when she states, “Our data always shows, compared to other countries, that we let disadvantaged kids down”.
The fact that both the Prime Minister and the education minister refuse to guarantee, under any new funding model, that payments to non-government schools will be indexed and that schools will not be financially penalised as a result of raising money at the local level also suggest non-government schools will suffer.
The first thing to note about the Gillard/Garrett scenario of educational inequality and the place of non-government schools is that it is flawed and misconceived. While the existing SES system has its critics, the reality is that it is based on need with better resourced non-government schools only receiving 13.7 per cent of the recurrent funding received per government school student.
The fact that approximately 32 per cent of students across Australia attend non-government schools and governments only contribute 57 per cent of the cost of educating such students means that billions are saved every year that can be spent in other areas such as social welfare and health.
While it’s true that certain groups of students (indigenous, low SES and non-English speaking) underperform, the reality is that OECD research shows that Australia, largely as a result of our education system, has a high degree of social mobility. It shouldn’t surprise that a recent report by the UK’s The Sutton Trust, on analysing educational inequality across Germany, the US, England, Sweden, France, Canada and Australia, concluded that Australia, along with Canada, had the “smallest disparities between adolescents with high and low-educated parents”.
Being working class or a migrant does not necessarily lead to failure and research, both here and overseas, proves that equally, if not more important, than SES background in determining success are characteristics like, ability, motivation, school culture, classroom environment and teacher quality.
Instead of reinforcing inequality and disadvantage, it is also the case that non-government schools, as they best embody such in-school characteristics, are more effective than government schools in raising standards and achieving strong educational outcomes; even after adjusting for students’ SES.
As noted by two researchers from Western Australia investigating Australia’s NAPLAN results, in a paper titled Lessons From My School and published in the December 2011 edition of Australian Economic Review, “The results also indicate that test outcomes vary by school sector, with non-government schools having higher average scores, even after differences in schools’ ICSEA are taken into account” (ICSEA measures the characteristics of a school’s population).
Additional evidence that non-government schools are effective in overcoming disadvantage is found in a 2011 report sponsored by the US based National Bureau of Economic Research titled Does School Autonomy Make Sense Everywhere? Panel Estimates from PISA.
After analysing the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests over the last 10 years or so the researchers conclude that the presence of privately operated schools is associated with stronger performing education systems. The paper also argues that school autonomy, an important characteristic of non-government schools, does not lead to educational inequality.
The researchers write, “Finally, there is no indication that autonomy differentially affects students with well-off and disadvantaged backgrounds. This suggests that autonomy reforms do not effect inequality between students with different social backgrounds in either developed or developing countries”.
In her interview with Samantha Maiden, Prime Minister Gillard is quoted as saying that education is vitally important because, “what you do in schools today will make a long-term difference for national prosperity”.
If the Prime Minister and her government are serious then they will ensure that any new school funding model, to be legislated next year and implemented in 2014, will ensure that non-government schools, on the basis of efficiency and equity, are properly funded and supported and that non-government school parents are not financially penalised because of school choice.
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