Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Gillard and Abbott’s ‘Race to the Top’ to Support Private Schools

Christine Milne & Penny Wright give a Gonski
Christine Milne & Penny Wright give a Gonski (Photo credit: Greens MPs)
by Dr David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer Faculty of Education at Monash University, The Conversation:

In a political echo of the unseemly bi-partisan “race to the bottom” over asylum seekers, we now have a “race to the top” with the prime minister and opposition leader vying to offer the most support to non-government schools.

Prime minister Julia Gillard earlier this week told a private school forum that “every independent school in Australia will see their funding increase” under the government’s new funding plan. “This plan will lift school standards, not school fees,” she said.

Abbott on the other hand told the forum that because 66% of Australian school students who attend public schools get 79% of government funding “there is no question of injustice to public schools here. If anything, the injustice is the other way.” Abbott reached this conclusion because the 34% of students who attend independent schools get 21% of government funding.

In a backdown away from Abbott’s comments the opposition’s education spokesperson, Christopher Pyne later said there was no injustice in regards to funding independent schools, saying the current level of funding for both independent and government schools is “appropriate.”

Pyne also stated publicly last month that there isn’t an equity issue in Australian schools and that the problem was with student outcomes. He has also declared that any government changes to the funding model of schools would be repealed under a coalition government.

Extending privileges for the privileged

This latest unedifying part of the debate comes after 10 years of public critique of the iniquitous funding formula. A system developed by the Howard government and continued under the Rudd and Gillard governments that is blind to the real needs of students, as well as schools and teachers and sees the most disadvantaged students in our community receiving the least amount of funding. The results of this 12 year program have only extended the privileges of the already privileged.

The fact is that the fundamental pattern for the last 12 years of Australian Government funding for schools is that while most additional funding goes to non‐government schools this has never prevented private schools raising their annual fees more than 10% per annum.

Those most concerned with public education today in Australia were, until now, quietly optimistic that the unfair education funding system would be changed.

A growing chorus of parents, teachers, principals as well as those within the business community and charity groups (including Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott, Westpac’s Gail Kelly, ACOSS' Cassandra Goldie and the Smith Family’s CEO Lisa Ryan) all called on Julia Gillard to implement the reforms recommended by David Gonski in his review of school funding.

Breaking new ground

The Gonski Review sought to change an unfair system into one that was more transparent, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all students. Gonski looked forward to an education system premised on ensuring educational outcomes that were “not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions”.

When the Gonski Review was released earlier this year, it a was watershed moment in the debate on schools funding. It embraced the OECD definition of equity in education as its starting point; that every child should be able to achieve her potential regardless of social, cultural or economic background or their relationship to property, power or possession.

Gonski also gave overdue recognition to the fact that disadvantage has been “rusted on” to our education system. And he finally acknowledged our private schools whether independent or Catholic are not looking after our most vulnerable students.

Disadvantaging the disadvantaged

But there were weaknesses in the report. Gonski in fact understated the great weight of disadvantage shouldered by our public schools, the same who are least equipped and able to deal with this disadvantage: 85% of indigenous students, 78% of disabled students, 79% of low SES students attend our public schools.

While the rhetoric around social justice is espoused by both independent and especially Catholic school sectors that they are looking after the poor, in reality they are not. Research by Professor Richard Teese demonstrates this issue clearly. The Gonski Review does not have the depth of analysis about this disadvantage but politically it may have been impossible.

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