Earlier this week Australia received a rude shock when, after participating for the first time in an international reading level test, a quarter of Australia’s Year 4 students failed to meet the minimum standard in reading.
The Australian reports that in some states, such as Queensland and the Northern Territory, the reading level rose to a maximum of just 30 per cent. Significantly, Australia was outranked by seventeen countered, placing us 26th out of 45 participating nations in reading levels.
Maths and science also suffered, with children from 21 countries outperforming Australian students in grade 4 science in the 2011 Trends in International Maths and Science Study. I’ve noticed that for a while now, Liberal Premiers across Australia have declared a war on education and the Arts.
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We all love a high-powered soap involving large sums of money and big egos. Who needs the new season of Downton Abbey or the Dallas reboot when we have the row that has enveloped the Methodist Ladies College? It’s got it all: the top-level social and business connections, the heightened emotions of a distressed school “community”.
The media has even been able to frame it as a catfight between sacked principal Rosa Storelli and the head of the school board that fired her, Louise Adler. Until the Uniting Church moderator ordered the parties into mediation on Tuesday, it was all out there in public and made for great viewing.
But like those high-end soaps, it’s been played out in a world that bears little relation to the everyday environment that most of us inhabit. You have to wonder what the parents of the 63 per cent of Victorian children who still rely on government schools for their education are making of it.
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On the face of it, it’s hard to know whose side to take in the row over the sacking of Methodist Ladies’ College principal Rosa Storelli.
Ms Storelli, who was put to the sword by the school’s board last week, is clearly an inspirational figure to some, and her sudden and unexpected exit has her supporters up in arms.
On the other hand, it is not in dispute that she has been overpaid a very large sum of money and the board would appear to have been within its rights to send her packing - with a nice payout, mind you - once it decided it had lost confidence in her.
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Do Australian schools reinforce disadvantage and fail to promote equity in education? Cultural-left critics, like the Australian Education Union, teacher academics like Melbourne University’s Jack Keating and, most recently, the Gonski Report on school funding all argue “yes”.
The belief is that instead of providing a ladder of opportunity and overcoming disadvantage, Australia’s schools, especially non-government schools and selective high schools, reinforce inequity and injustice by favouring already privileged and affluent students at the expense of those less fortunate.
According to critics, only the wealthy can afford a good education while poorer students forced to attend government schools are destined to failure. As a result, critics argue, governments must stop funding Catholic and independent schools, selective high schools (where entry is based on merit and ability) must be closed and all students must be forced to attend the same state-managed and controlled government schools.
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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.
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Last week on The Punch, conservative education writer Kevin Donnelly laid into a report proposing a new model of universal funding for public and private schools. Here, the report’s author, Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies, sets the record straight.
School choice means different things to different people. In essence, it refers to the principle that parents should have the right and the means to choose their child’s school, and that this choice should be not be restricted to government schools.
To adhere to this principle, a school funding system must have several key features.
First, it must be child-centred. The amount of public funding provided for the education of each student must be based on their individual needs and circumstances. Second, the type of school attended, whether government or non-government, should not affect the level of funding. Third, students should be able to enrol at any school of their choice. And funding entitlements should follow students.
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Vitriolic claims that private schools are elitist ignore the fact that public schools can be even more exclusive.
The Wheeler Centre, the Melbourne-based cultural body established to promote debate and literary dialogue, held a public debate last week on the topic ‘Public funding of private schools in unconscionable’. I had the pleasure of being one of the speakers for the negative, along with the ex-Howard Government minister Amanda Vanstone and a Year 12 student from Scotch College, Andrew Elder.
During the debate the issues raised received a fair hearing and the standard of argument was balanced and objective. There was one exception; the Australian crime novelist Shane Maloney who used the occasion, once again, to gratuitously vilify and stereotype Catholic and independent schools.
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It would be funny if it wasn’t so predictable. The original opponents of My School - the Greens, State teachers unions, public education spruikers and the like - who at first campaigned against publishing schools performance data claiming it would lead to the stigmatisation of selected schools, have now done a complete reversal.
Now, their line is that My School confirms what they have said all along - that private schools are overfunded, and that federal funding of independent schools is grossly unfair. From being condemned at first, My School has morphed into a Trojan Horse for tired old positions on independent school privilege and State school disadvantage.
Typically though, what the State education spruikers conveniently ignore is that My School offers as many insights about the fairness of public funding of State owned schools as it does about the traditional public versus private debate.
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This wretched Government simply must increase the funding for private schools. The more children we can get into private education, the better we, as a nation, will become.
There has been quite the furore over the figures revealed by MySchool 2.0 – and commentators have rightly pointed out that this Labor Government is using the politics of envy to further its ideological warfare against the wealthy.
Two points about the MySchool data leap out at one:
1. Private school students do not necessarily perform better on the literacy and numeracy tests.
2. It doesn’t matter.
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One wonders whether David Gonski, appointed by Julia Gillard when Minister for Education to head the Commonwealth Government’s school funding review, is familiar with the saying, ‘let Caesar’s wife be above suspicion?’ Even though Pompeia had committed no crime, suspicion that she had been unfaithful was enough to cause Caesar to act.
If Gonski is aware of such a warning, then it is difficult to understand why he gave the speech he did at the Australian Education Union’s AGM.
A speech from which the teacher union President, Angelo Gavrielatos, quotes at some length suggesting that the AEU and Gonski are in agreement when it comes to funding issues.
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