On ABC1’s Q&A last year, American writer and humourist PJ O’Rourke said "Beyond a certain point, complexity is fraud." At the time, he was not talking about the way Australia funds education, but he certainly could have been.
As I progressed from concerned parent to public advocate and, eventually, to researching and publishing a book on the subject, I was continually astonished and appalled about the sheer level of complexity and confusion that surrounds the way Australia provides the vital funds that support the education of our children. What this extraordinary amount of complexity means is that it is almost impossible to have a clear, concise and meaningful discussion about the way we fund our schools so that the general public can make an informed and sensible decision about the way they’d like to see it done. And the reason I believe this level of complexity really has become fraudulent is it allows politicians, public servants, lobbyists, ideologues and school communities of all biases and complexions to justify just about anything, knowing that any rebuttal will — of necessity — have to be complex, nuanced and so longwinded and technical that the average viewer/reader/listener will tune out.
Yet, it is in the name of transparency that the Federal Government today launched a new website called "My School". What we will see on the website (once it overcomes the technical difficulties that it seems to be having) is the relative performance of all the schools in Australia in last year’s round of NAPLAN testing. Schools will be compared with supposedly similar schools and those who do the worst will be marked out with a red flag.
What we will not see is any reference to the often-vast differences in resources various school communities have at their disposal to educate their students, nor any reference to the educational, social and behavioural challenges (or lack thereof) that their students bring through the school gate. So what the site will show is a deceptively simple comparison of schools which will only appear to be enlightening because it lacks any context.
No doubt the launch of the My School website will be the catalyst for renewed debate about the relative merits of public versus private schools and about the fairness of their funding. Thanks to the complete lack of transparency around our complex funding formulas, both sides will be able to make convincing arguments to support their cases and drag out the sets of figures that most suit them, ignoring any that don’t. As a result, many parents will end up even more anxious and confused than they already are.
And, pardon my cynicism, but this confusion suits our politicians very well. It enables them to take the credit for successes and neatly side-step the blame for any failures. Meanwhile, real teachers in real schools teaching real students will have to struggle on amid a cacophony of self-serving, biased and often ignorant comment and finger-pointing.
Because of my own biases, my heart particularly goes out to those students, parents and teachers in the schools that will cop a red flag. According to researcher Barbara Preston, in 1996 there were 13 low-income students to every 10 high-income students in our public high schools. By 2006 that number had risen to 16 low-income for every 10 high-income. Remember that before you too easily condemn the red flag schools — particularly if they are public ones.
But debate over the My School website will be nothing compared to the war that will be declared when the Federal Government begin its review of school funding later this year.
Private school supporters will point to their smaller proportion of public funding. As usual, they will ignore their privately generated incomes and resources, and downplay the fact that their schools disproportionately educate the wealthiest students, who are frequently the cheapest to teach. Public school advocates (like me) will attack the corrupted "SES" scheme that the Feds use to fund private schools and gloss over the money that comes to public schools from the states while emphasising that public schools increasingly educate our poorest and most expensive-to-teach students.
Thanks to the fraudulent level of complexity around funding — private donations, fees, state subsidies, federal subsidies, formulas like SES and "AGSRC" (don’t ask) — the public will remain bemused, unable to get a clear grasp on what is being argued and unable to understand it in context.
Their confusion will then frighten politicians — even the well-meaning ones — away from the root-and-branch reform our education funding system desperately needs, which suits the powerful, because those who now benefit from the complexity will continue to benefit and those who lose out will lose even more.
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