Ideological playgrounds


Despite all the bad press public schools and public school teachers cop these days, 68 per cent of kids, at least in NSW, still attend them. Presumably many of these parents are making some kind of choice in favour of an old-fashioned public school education. The sort they had, perhaps, demonstrably benefited from.

The schools these kids attend are, on average, less well resourced than the private schools 32 per cent of kids attend. They also must spread these resources much wider, as they educate the vast majority of our most disadvantaged kids, including those with a disability, those from a non-English speaking background and 98 per cent of indigenous kids.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson of the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson of the Australian

Due to monstrously complicated (and unfair) funding formulas, while the NSW government gives 75 per cent of their (much larger) education funding to the 68 per cent of kids at public schools, the Federal government gives 70 per cent of its funding to the 32 per cent of kids who attend private ones. Indeed, the Howard government now gives more public money to private schools than they give to all thirty-seven of Australia’s public universities combined. Worse, in NSW, at least, the ever widening resource gap between systems can only be closed by the Federal Government because, thanks to a past Liberal ideologue, Terry Metherell, 25 cents in every dollar the State government gives to public schools must go to private schools. So if they up their funding to public schools, the private schools get a windfall too, and the gap remains.

Public schools are also much more accountable for the money they receive – unlike their private counterparts; their financial records are available to the public, for example. Unless they are selective, they cannot pick and choose who they will teach. Public schools must educate all our kids, regardless of their talents, ability to pay fees or religious or ethnic background.

This very accountability, of course, is one of the reasons they get such a bad press. Only the violence that occurs in a public school playground must be made public, for example. The only incidents we hear about in private schools are those which are so bad they get to court. Otherwise, they can and are, kept, well, private.

By any measure, public schools are asked by our society to do far more with far less. In a fairer world, this would be acknowledged and admired, in today’s Australia it is both ignored and despised.

Now there are moves afoot by both the State (in NSW) and Federal Government to compel public schools to change the way they give information to parents.

I have nothing in principle against giving more and better information to parents, and the NSW Government, at least, want their reporting standards to apply to all the schools they fund, both public and private. The Federal Government, unfortunately, will have none of this. They are threatening to remove all $3 billion of the funding they give to public schools next year, unless those schools toe their particular line. They appear to be uninterested in any discussion about the actual educational merits of their proposals and, worse, the punitive and bullying tone they have adopted towards all our public educational institutions is, in and of itself, destructive.

Much of the changes they propose for schools are petty and trivial, indeed, most public schools already comply and always have. They fly the Australian flag, they have hung the Federal Government’s rather tacky ‘values’ poster, and almost all of them happily perform nativity plays and sing Christmas carols and wouldn’t know a piece of political correctness if it jumped up and bit them on the nose. Yet, the Feds are clever. By loudly insisting public schools comply with things they already comply with, they give the impression they don’t and so further raise community anxiety and lower the status of such schools.

Some of the proposed reforms are more important, and while school reports that change ‘consistently’, ‘mostly’ and ‘sometimes’ into A, B, or C, don’t make a sods worth of difference really, the publishing of information that may be used to create school league tables does. It is probably an inevitable development now, but it remains worth having a debate about. Will it, as many teachers claim and as is claimed has happened in Britain, lead to teaching for exams rather than for learning? Probably, but in NSW at least, with the awful HSC, that now happens already. More seriously, will it mean that schools struggling with little money to serve families with even less money come inevitably at the bottom of such a table, and are then further abused and punished for their perceived failure, leading to the very last of their good kids being taken away from them? Why would teachers in schools like that try harder, when their only reward is further scorn? Yet some of them do struggle on, endeavouring to give their kids their best. Their furious protective instincts towards their students and their white hot anger at this government are not to be underestimated.

Yet the only groups powerful enough to protect our most vulnerable kids are the very ones this government has in its sights. Due to our peculiar sectarian history, almost alone in the Western world, our public schools have no natural parliamentary political champion. Most politicians, of whatever complexion, went to private schools and send their own kids to them. Only the Greens consistently stand up for public schools and they will never hold power. The ALP (both State and Federal) is too afraid of losing the Catholic vote to do much more than tinker around the edges, although Mark Latham did at least try. And I now believe the Liberal Party has decided that good parents pay for their kids’ education and the rest of us deserve what we get. They appear to be so ideologically determined to destroy unions, including the Teachers Federation, they are unconcerned about the children they may trample in the process.

Worse, there is a rank hypocrisy at the base of many of the Howard Government’s attempts to frogmarch us into a brave new dawn of personal responsibility and individual freedoms. They appear to only apply their principles to those they don’t like. Margaret Thatcher, so the story goes, almost fainted in horror when told that Australia gave public money to private schools; as a free marketer she understood that this was middle-class welfare at its very worst.

Despite the fact that the Feds give 70 per cent of their education budget to private schools, they expect virtually nothing in return for it. These schools may have their own enrolment policies, they may spend money however they see fit, they may have their own anti-violence, anti-bullying policies or none at all, and maybe they don’t even have to fly the flag, or hang up a cheap poster about values. As Ascham, Tara and Trinity indicate, to name but a few recent examples, all sorts of things can go on behind closed doors until exasperated parents finally take action. The enormous sums of money given to these schools are supposed to support parent choice, their subsidy is supposed to keep fees down. The tragedy here is so many ordinary Australians have bought this nonsense. The fees of private schools go up every year and have done so ever since they first received public funding. The elite schools, in particular, do not want to be more accessible, that’s why they charge as much as $20 000 a year, generous public subsidies or not.

Yet, unlike their public counterparts, there is no sword of Damocles hanging over the private schools heads, nor is there likely to be under this government. The government, despite its free market principles, is happy to maintain a system where such schools are private when it comes to accountability, but public when it comes to the handing out of money. The Howard Government has even suggested the ultimate absurdity, namely that as private schools get more and more of their money from the public purse (up to 90 per cent of their total income in some cases), public schools should go cap in hand to the private sector. Wouldn’t it be easier, more sensible and more ideologically pure, the other way around?

The same double standard seems to be at the bottom of their recent attack on certain charities, as outlined by Miriam Lyons in New Matilda. The basis for this attack is whether or not charities can undertake activism and advocacy for a particular cause or belief and retain their taxation status. As she states, 317 environmental organizations have received a letter from the Environment Minister warning they risk losing their charitable status if they engage in politics. Did the Catholic and Anglican Churches receive such a letter? How will their advocacy and activism regarding abortion law reform, euthanasia, gay marriage and contraception impact on their charitable status? Will St Vincent de Paul be sternly warned about its admirable activism on behalf of the very poorest in the community? Somehow I doubt it, under this government there appears to be one rule for the secular (charities, schools, whatever) and quite another for the religious.

I would like to believe that the current moves by the Howard Government are genuinely ideological, however much I might disagree with them. What chills me to the bone is that they may actually be punitive, sullen paybacks against those they perceive as their ideological enemies.

The next big education battle is likely to be over school closures, due to our plummeting birth rate, (another thing not entirely unrelated to the user pays ideology around schools). Ironically, the only schools we can currently close are the only schools open to all, our public schools. Since deregulating the establishment of schools, our Federal Government now happily gives big bucks to private schools with a handful of students. If present government policies continue, many parents may find themselves with no choice but to pay for their kids’ education. Heaven help them if they fall on hard times, or lose their jobs or their kid gets expelled from private school.

Maybe parental choice was just code for parents must pay, all along.

‘Taxing Times for Outspoken Charities’, Miriam Lyons, New Matilda, 29/6/05, click here

‘Building on Strong Foundations’, Report of the Public Education Council, March 2005, click here

‘Secrecy in the Schools of Thoughtlessness’, Michael Duffy, Sydney Morning Herald, 2/7/05, click here

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.