Let me take you back a few weeks. It’s a Sunday afternoon and I am at a BBQ on Sydney’s Lower North Shore. In the midst of social chatter, where among other political issues, the Gonski Review came up, I casually announced that I did my entire schooling in the public education system and was supportive of any kind of extra attention it got.
‘But you’re not really a typical public school person,’ someone says.
‘Excuse me?’ I ask.
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In 2004 I argued in Why our schools are failing that if state and federal governments are serious about lifting standards and making schools more effective then school autonomy was critically important.
Based on overseas practice and the example of the Victorian Kennett Government’s Schools of the Future Program I argued, “… it is vitally important that Australian schools are freed from provider capture (where teacher unions and bureaucrats control what happens) and given greater flexibility and autonomy”.
Over the last year or two, it appears that governments around Australia have finally caught on and whether Western Australia’s Independent Public Schools initiative or the Queensland and NSW governments recent decision to give schools greater autonomy, it appears that schools and their communities are finally being empowered.
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Even the hardest-nosed economic rationalist would not begrudge state funding for primary and high schools. Take Adam Smith in 1776: “The expenses of the institutions for education are, no doubt, beneficial to the whole society, and may, therefore, without injustice, be defrayed by the general contribution of the whole society.”
Arts degrees might have become taxpayer-funded book parties, but even free-market economist Milton Friedman said public schooling imparted the “minimum degree of literacy and knowledge” required for the functioning of “stable and democratic society”.
Cost is another matter. Just as gilding lighthouses might be considered excessive use of public funds, it is possible to overspend on education. While the marginal public benefit of extra public spending falls, the cost of raising extra tax rises.
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We are all now awaiting the Gillard Government’s response to the Gonski Review of School Funding that was commissioned by Gillard herself in 2010 when Education Minister and which was released some six months ago.
For the Gillard Government, responding to Gonski is important for its survival. It is another policy box to be ticked that shows the government is delivering on policy in contrast to the Opposition’s negative approach.
Also, spending more money on education aligns with Labor’s caring brand, even if some of this goes to the non-government sector. And how the Government responds will also affect its relations with Labor-aligned trade unions like the Australian Education Union (AEU) which represents public school teachers.
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The Government’s consideration of the Gonski Review, which recommends an additional $5 billion annually in funding for schools, has cast a strong spotlight on school reform in Australia.
Much of the debate at the moment is rightly focusing on what we need to do in order to tackle our most pressing problem: the underperformance of children from disadvantaged areas, who can be up to three years behind their peers of a same age.
As the principal of a secondary school in one of the most disadvantaged areas of Australia, I feel I have some insights to offer on this topic. Glenala High School has 470 students from 24 nationalities, with the most prevalent population being Pacific Islander students, followed by Australian Aboriginal and Vietnamese.
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The London Olympic Games later this year has focused minds on the place of competition, excellence and winning in sport.
Historically, the Games have allowed various countries to showcase their best athletes and the medal count represents a league table used by nations and their citizens to evaluate success and failure.
Recent events suggest that this might no longer be the case. Research funded by the European based Equity in Sport foundation concludes that not all countries and athletes have an equal chance of success.
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Much of the argument and debate around the Gonski funding review, which is due for release next Monday, relates to equity and disadvantage and whether non-government schools should be financially penalised.
While funding is crucial, for both government and non-government schools, equally as important are the conditions attached to funding and the extent to which governments regulate schools. When it comes to education the consensus is that Julia Gillard, as education minister and now as Prime Minister, has reigned over a highly, centralised, micromanaged and bureaucratic model of educational delivery.
Despite the fact that the federal government neither manages any schools nor employs any staff, all roads lead to Canberra. Whether a national curriculum, national testing and accountability, national teacher certification and registration or the Building the Education Revolution fiasco, schools are being forced to implement the government’s agenda.
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