Forty years ago, if Gough Whitlam had decided not to sacrifice Australia’s education system for the ALP and for his own political fortunes, we might be looking at a totally different nation.
It was Whitlam who first gave recurrent public funding to private schools. He did it to win back the Catholic vote and to end the split between the Catholic DLP and secular ALP, which had kept Labor in the political wilderness for 23 years. Of course, he couldn’t just give the money to Catholic schools — that would have looked sectarian — so he gave it to all private schools and began a 30-year drift of middle class families out of public schools and into the private education system.
Imagine if he hadn’t. What would our education landscape look like today?
It would probably look like most of the rest of the developed world. The vast majority of our kids would attend public schools. Private schools would be completely private, enrolling a small percentage of kids (about 5-10 per cent, as is the case in the US, where no public money goes to private schools) from very wealthy families.
Catholic schools might have eventually joined the public system, as they have in New Zealand, where they are fully funded and must accept all the obligations for the compulsory education of all kids in return for that funding, but keep their religious character.
And our public schools (both secular and Catholic) would be educating rich kids, poor kids and every kind of kid in between. Better off parents would be committed to the public system because their kids would attend it and all public schools, no matter what sort of kids they mostly served, would benefit from their energy, disposable income, cultural capital and enthusiasm for education.
No doubt we would have tried some of the current fashions in schooling; autonomous public schools, perhaps, or the kinds of specialisation we see already in performing arts schools, sports high schools, academically selective schools and so on. But everyone’s money would be going into the same pot and allocated to schools with the same kind of obligations and responsibilities to the common good.
There would still be differences between schools. Public and public-Catholic schools in better off areas would probably still get better results and be able to fundraise and resource their students better than schools in less well heeled locations. But would the differences between schools be as great as they are today? Probably not.
Australia is a leader in the OECD not only for the difference in outcomes between our wealthiest and poorest students, but also for the way we have created ghettos of privilege and underprivilege in our schools. Under our current hybrid system of publicly subsidised private and publicly subsidised public schools, if an Australian child is born disadvantaged, he or she is much more likely to go to a school with kids who are equally disadvantaged (and vice versa) than a child born in any other similar country.
Worse, we have another dubious claim to fame. According to a report from the Grattan Institute, we are the only country in the OECD where education achievement has fallen — we’ve slipped from 3rd in the OECD for reading to 7th, for example — while education spending has increased. This has led to some kneejerk comment that money is not the answer. But what I think the evidence is pointing to is that money is not much help if you spend it in the wrong places.
And this seems to be what the Gonski Review has also recognised.
It acknowledges that we have been over-investing public money in kids who are already well-resourced and achieving highly — where we see little return for our money. It acknowledges that we have been critically under-investing in kids who are poorly resourced and under-achieving, where more teachers, better resources and intensive (and expensive) remedial programs would show real results. Gonski has acknowledged this through its recommendation we adopt a per student Resource Standard ($8000 for primary and $10,000 for secondary) topped up by loadings for disadvantage (low socio-economic status, single parent, Indigenous, disabled, rural and remote). And by acknowledging that private sources of income — specifically parents’ ability to pay the fees charged by some schools — should be taken into account when allocating public money to private schools.
And there is something else that Gonski has acknowledged and that the OECD is proving. When you put disadvantaged kids together it depresses the performance of all of them. Putting advantaged kids together does not appear, however, to have the effect of increasing their performance by very much. Indeed, the schools systems that perform the best and are improving at the fastest rate in the OECD like Finland, Korea and Canada also have high levels of equity. In other words, they tend to have schools with a higher mix of kids from different socio-economic backgrounds than we do.
It seems the evidence is growing that when we exacerbate the differences between our children, nobody wins.
As I get older, I sometimes think that the line between a good outcome and a bad one is wafer thin. I am sure Whitlam had no intention of creating the inequality and loss of opportunity for poor kids that were the results of him grabbing a golden political opportunity. He could not have envisioned the snowball effect that one lousy decision would have had.
But the price Australia has paid is high.
Middle class parents are torn by the stress and difficulty of choosing a school and many of them are spending large sums of money they can ill afford on school fees. Worse, their children’s results are not only not improving compared to students in more equitable education systems. They are actually going backwards.
As a nation, we are depressing our ability to compete globally over the long term by failing to develop all our potential talent. But the highest price is being paid by our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in terms of their lost opportunities.
Gonski — but not, so far, Gillard or Garrett — has given us a little hope for the future, but the kids currently sitting in crumbling classrooms in underfunded schools surrounded by other kids with complex layers of difficulty and disadvantage will not get their school years back.
If — and it is a big if — we implement the Gonski recommendations in full, we may begin to see the local public school come back into favour. This won’t just actually increase choice, it will save lots of families money. We may see a return of middle class parents to the public system, reinvigorating it as a whole. We may also see the public money we invest in education going where it can give us the best return: into supporting and resourcing good teachers in both public and private schools so they can do what they do best even better and actually raise student achievement.
We may — slowly — decrease the achievement gaps between our richest and poorest kids and watch as the achievement of all our students rises as a result.
Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?