Spring Street

From Canberra to Spring Street, With Love

The surprising aspect of the federal budget in terms of schools is not the refusal of the Abbott government to fund the final two years of the Gonski funding agreement. That was clearly flagged during the 2013 election campaign, notwithstanding some evasive language about a ‘unity ticket’ in an attempt to neutralise education as an election issue.

The real stunner is the decision to transfer responsibility for funding of public schools to the states. There will be federal grants to support this delivery of course, but increases will be linked to the CPI and there will no Gonski funding. The commonwealth government would have been fully aware of the reaction this would provoke from the states, and as commentators have observed it may well force the states to lobby for an increase in the GST.

What is equally unusual about this arrangement is that the commonwealth will retain control of funding for non government schools. Constitutionally the commonwealth has no responsibility for education. The government’s argument for pushing responsibility to the states was that ‘the states run public schools’. It has made no argument that the commonwealth runs non government schools and indeed is incapable of doing so. Canberra cannot have it both ways, it either assumes responsibility for schools or it does not.

Motivation for the decision could be financial, ideological or political. But it can’t be educational. Australia fares poorly against other OECD countries in terms of the gap between its highest and lowest performing students and our relative – and in some cases absolute – performance on international educational measures is declining. The period of decline coincides with the increasing level of educational segregation achieved through the rapid escalation of commonwealth funding for the non government school sector over the last 20 years. In Australia the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and nowhere is this more evident than in education.

The federal government could have pushed responsibility for funding of all schools to the states. But doing so would have placed non government schools at considerable risk because of their exposure to greater transparency in funding and the limitations of state coffers. So the government has played to its natural constituency and preserved the right to fund non government schools as it sees fit. Recent history says Canberra won’t be short of funds for this purpose.

Abbott and Pyne could also have chosen to retain some level of funding responsibility for all schools but to do so would expose them to a corresponding level of responsibility for addressing inequity and improving education outcomes. They weren’t up for this challenge.

So now the states find themselves in a very difficult situation. They have no commonwealth support for the various Gonski agreements most of them signed with the former government and they are about to inherit a bigger bill for education. Little wonder the state premiers are up in arms. If there is no more funding coming in terms of a higher rate of GST – and that would take years to eventuate – the states will need to rethink their education mindset.

State governments are co-funders of non government schools. The Victorian government, for example, has made it quite clear over the last four years that they govern for all schools. Their federal counterparts are now telling them otherwise.

In an increasingly fiscally constrained environment the states will have to make a choice about where their educational priorities lie. In Victoria funding for non government schools is pegged at 25% of that for government schools. A canny state treasurer might seek to do some cost shifting back to Canberra given that Abbott, Pyne and Hockey have made to clear where responsibility for different types of schools sits.

We should expect education to be front and centre of our next state election campaign and quite clearly it will be a major issue in the 2016 federal election where I doubt too many people will be buying  ambiguous LNP statements around support for public education. Inevitably this will be the outcome of the 2014 federal budget: pitting public and non government schools against one another whereas Gonski’s panel sought to create a situation where all schools would be funded according to need.

The irony in this is that we are going to get national education funding reform anyway. Public opinion strongly supports it, that’s why Abbott so carefully sought to neutralise it as an issue at the last election. And there is a natural political cycle; Labor will be returned federally at some stage and when they do there will be school funding reform. Despite wimping it in 2010 and making something of a mess of implementation in 2012/13 there is no doubt that federal Labor is well intentioned and it now has time to rethink the policy and implementation detail. School funding reform is now in its DNA and to abandon it would be electoral suicide. The next change of federal government will usher in reform, it’s just a matter of how much damage is done in the meantime.

TAFE Today

TAFE

Today I had the pleasure of giving testimony to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training’s enquiry into Technical and Further Education (TAFE). Along with other school representatives we brought a school perspective to earlier input from regional TAFEs, industry and community representatives.

Inevitably some of the local focus was on the future of Bendigo TAFE following recent disclosure that it is involved in merger discussions with Kangan Institute. The challenges facing TAFE have been no secret in recent years. Deregulation of the training sector commenced by the previous state government changed the landscape irrevocably and subsequent state budget decisions appear to have hastened the need for change.

I have no doubt the board of Bendigo TAFE would have been determined to retain local governance. The fact that they appear close to merger suggests that this was not financially possible. With all regional TAFEs facing similar challenges a regional merger option would have held little attraction. The only option appears to have been to combine with a larger Melbourne based organisation.

Apart from finances, what will be occupying the minds of the current Bendigo TAFE Board will be the extent of local influence over decision making and the impact on training options in the region in the event of any merger.

Here there might be a parallel with the other major higher education provider in the city, La Trobe University. Whilst it hasn’t been all plain sailing no-one could argue that Bendigo has not benefitted from La Trobe University’s presence and commitment to this region, particularly in recent years. Although the university is Melbourne based and this inevitably creates some tensions as resources are allocated, La Trobe proves great local options for students. Can a merged TAFE do the same?

The challenges for TAFE don’t begin and end with the current merger proposal. TAFE’s relationship with both schools and universities appears unclear. From a school perspective we’ve seen many TAFE’s choosing in recent years to operate as schools and entering into mainstream delivery of senior secondary school certificates. This is an expensive mode of delivery from a government perspective and there is no evidence that it produces equivalent outcomes to school education. It also creates tension with local schools and makes it more difficult to establish collaborative partnerships.

This brings us close to the question that often emerges when school based training is discussed, and that’s the matter of technical schools. This model of schooling failed in the past because of cost and falling demand. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t emerge again in the future, particularly if there was local support and planning was inclusive of government schools which the Australian Technical College model was not in Bendigo. I have an open mind on the matter.

TAFE’s have clearly been under significant financial pressure and inevitably their cost of providing training to schools has risen, and risen sharply. The response of schools has been to cut VET programs, seek other providers and in some cases to become Registered Training Organisations themselves which further complicates the relationship with their local TAFE. Notwithstanding this there are excellent relationships between school and TAFE staff which help drive a range of successful programs so there is a sound basis on which to build.

To survive TAFE needs to demonstrate that it offers high quality training, provides viable pathways for young people and fulfils a broader community education function.

Here the issue gets murky for TAFEs. If they are treated the same as other private providers then they will inevitably be driven to behave in similar ways. Private providers are driven by profit. They are not obliged to respond to local needs or even to skill shortages. That role has traditionally been filled by the government supported TAFE system and that’s what is now at risk. Both state and federal governments may now be pondering whether there’s a need to offer a mandate and financial support to TAFE’s to allow them to fulfil this purpose.

Deregulation of the training sector in Victoria was intended to lift training quality by creating a more competitive market. From experience we know it’s allowed many dodgy private providers to flourish, ripping money out of the public purse and condemning many young people to sub standard training. Whether by design, accident or evolution it also appears that the impact on public TAFE providers has been profound, particularly when coupled with other budgetary decisions. Is the government at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

A strong TAFE presence is important to Bendigo and to central Victoria, not just symbolically but in terms of the range and quality of training available to young adults and mature age learners.

Along with others I’ll be watching with interest to see what the future holds for Bendigo and the broader TAFE sector.

Politics pic

Politics as a blood sport

I don’t buy the whole ‘LNP is always right, Labor is always wrong’ thing. Or the opposite.

In my experience most politicians are involved for all the right reasons. They genuinely believe in what they are doing and are trying to make their country or their community a better place. Behind the public exchange of ideas and barbs many even find that others from the opposite side are actually decent people.

This seems to make little difference to those who are more interested in waging war against ‘the enemy’. In the eyes of these people everything their side stands for and does is right and everything the other side does is wrong. What simplistic nonsense.

The fact is that the major parties have more in common than their most rabid supporters care to admit. In government they all make mistakes and in opposition they all claim the government is making a mess of things. There is a natural political cycle and in time all governments fall.

My eyes glaze over when I see certain names in the letters to the editor, in the editorial pages and in social media. You know who I’m talking about, wherever you live. They’re the former politicians who never rose above the adversarial challenge, the party members who see it as their mission to shoot the other side down and the wannabe politicians. Over and over and over again. Maybe they think that by saying it often enough people will start to believe it. Not likely.

To be sure there are a lot of genuinely passionate people out there who are driven by their beliefs. But when it’s all one way, every time, people like me turn off. Particularly when those who fire the most bullets are often the most thin skinned and lacking in humour. It can get personal very quickly.

I suspect this is one of the reasons for the level of public disenchantment with the major parties and the rise of independents and minor parties. People are developing a much more cynical view of politics and politicians.

I doubt our politicians genuinely care about this. If they did they’d lift their own game. Parliamentary standards of behaviour are poor and are poorly policed. Ministerial accountability is minimised. Labor needs to reform itself from the ground up, more truly engage with its members and focus on implementation of its agenda when next in government. The LNP should cease the culture wars and govern for all Australians. There’s my bit of gratuitous advice for the day.

And both parties, including their most rabid supporters, should stop treating polities like a blood sport and start publicly acknowledging that ‘the other mob’ might occasionally have a good idea or do something right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rural school sunset

Rural students missing out

The Victorian Auditor General’s Office has released a report highlighting differences in educational outcomes for rural students.  Three statements from the report summarise the issue:

  1. In rural Victoria levels of disadvantage are higher and educational aspirations and outcomes are lower than for metropolitan areas.
  2. The VAGO audit found that DEECD has not provided access to high-quality education for all students.
  3. The report says that the government has not developed a comprehensive, targeted strategy to address known barriers to rural students’ access and participation in education.

In mid 2010 the previous state government released a consultation paper on its proposed Rural Education Framework. It was based on support for leadership, workforce reform, new models of curriculum provision and the formation of partnerships to sustain rural schools.

In the four years since the election the present government has continued the previous government’s funding model which allocated additional funding to small schools with a further weighting for rurality, made biddable funding available for small scale school based initiatives focused on sustainability and created a fund accessible for higher education bodies to lift regional participation in university and TAFE studies. In that time it has also removed the five rural regional offices; the new city based regions have become administrative centres with no real school improvement agenda and are limited in their capacity to assist individual schools.

At present the VAGO is saying these initiatives are making no difference and there is no comprehensive plan for improvement. This is not surprising to anyone who is aware of the issues confronting rural schools and communities. Here are some suggestions that might actually make a difference:

  1. The government has to accept that it must lead. Its agenda of autonomy assumes that schools have the capacity to improve themselves. In rural Victoria this is clearly not the case.
  2. Rethink the funding model. At present money follows students, as it probably should. But blind adherence to this thinking prevents creative use of new funding. Pool some of the new money coming into education, and perhaps even some of the existing funding, and force schools to collaborate to get access to it.
  3. Develop new models of governance that require communities to work together in the interests of all. At present every small community wants its own school, its own school council and its own identity. This is sometimes at odds with the need for new ways of thinking and doing things.
  4. Use new or pooled funding to develop a new online provision model to dramatically increase access of rural students to curriculum choices, particularly at VCE level. The same model should make high quality Math and Science options available to students at lower year levels.
  5. Engage and fund universities and TAFEs to work directly with schools and families to raise understanding of higher education options from upper primary school through to the top of secondary school. In rural Victoria and in low SES communities higher education never registers as an option for many families and students. They need exposure to university and TAFE sites and students as well as opportunities to engage in meaningful, ongoing activities, not just one-off tours.
  6. Revisit the question of how to encourage principals and teachers to work in rural Victoria. Salary incentives, priority for future vacancies in more ‘desirable’ locations and flexibility in employment selection processes should be considered. Why not allow rural schools to make direct offers of employment to graduate teachers, especially those from the country? Someone may even want to contemplate the return of teaching scholarships or studentships which help students through university and then bind them to a future placement in a rural school.
  7. Establish a new set of specialist Maths and Science centres in regional Victoria. The state currently has six such centres. They are located in Ballarat, Geelong, Bacchus Marsh and Melbourne (x3). They are great centres and they have an outreach function but provide only one-off activities and in reality it’s a city-centric strategy. A new model is needed and symbolically, as well as practically and politically, new centres should be established in Wodonga, Bendigo and somewhere in Gippsland.
  8. Establish a series of smaller specialist centres in rural schools. These would involve a specialist curriculum focus, a partnership with a higher education provider which might include guarantees of university offers, new or refurbished facilities in the area of specialisation, teacher training and a small ongoing coordination fund in each setting. Do a trial to see if it works in five settings.
  9. The cost of living away from home is a huge barrier to the participation of rural students in university or TAFE. Look again at the level of financial support for these students.
  10. Support rural communities to retain their best and brightest students. Independent schools routinely pick off students with the best academic and sporting ability through small scholarships. Put some boundaries around funding for schools that engage in this practice.

 

Parliament

Send some educators to Canberra

Any hope that the federal coalition government would honour the six-year Gonski funding deals with the states that signed on in the last days of the previous government have all but disappeared. Even worse, the states have been freed from the obligations they made to increase their own education spending.

It’s possible some states may continue to lobby the commonwealth over this matter and federal Labor still appears committed to funding reform. But the federal LNP seems ideologically opposed to any attempt to create a funding model that would provide all students with an equal opportunity to succeed in education and in life. The evidence collected by the broadly based Gonski panel is being ignored and instead we have a series of ‘pillars’ around which education reform will be based. There is no evidence that these will succeed or have succeeded elsewhere. Since the Howard government freed up additional money for non government schools through a funding model for which there is scant support – apart from the chief beneficiaries – we’ve seen a widening of the equity gap in Australian education outcomes and a relative and absolute decline in performance on international tests. The top has flatlined and the bottom has fallen away. That’s what you get from a segregated education system.

Federal Labor is not blameless in this matter. It squibbed the chance to do something at the 2007 election and made a mess of the implementation of the Gonski panel’s recommendations, so much so that there exists now not one but several Gonski models. The panel’s recommendation to establish a separate body to confirm and administer funding was ignored and the frenzied activity in the dying days of the election campaign produced mixed results. But at least Labor’s heart is in the right place. Their sin was one of implementation, not of intent.

The time has come for those who believe real reform is necessary to take matters more firmly in their own hands. It’s less than three years to the next federal election and there is ample time to mount a campaign to run an ‘education’ candidate for the senate in each state. Unless there is substantial electoral reform, and even if it were to occur, there is some prospect that such a campaign could succeed. I do not profess to be an expert on voting patterns in the upper house but there is ample evidence in recent half senate elections to suggest that even a modicum of public support coupled with some strategic alliances can produce a result.  Consider this:

  • More than two thirds of school students in Australia attend public schools. Their parents are increasingly aware that their children are being penalised by the current funding arrangements.
  • During the last election campaign polls consistently showed overwhelming support for funding reform, so much so that Tony Abbott intervened to neutralise it as an election issue by promising four years of funding support.
  • Support for funding reform is cross sectoral.
  • There are tens of thousands of staff in public schools who would form a willing campaign army, particularly on election day when schools are typically used as polling places.
  • The Australian Education Union, if chose to do so, would have the capacity to mobilise not just its own members in every public school in every state and territory, but non AEU members as well.
  • The last 30 years shows that the senate is finely balanced. Independents and minor parties can control the balance of power. Deals are done.
  • There is widespread disillusionment with the major parties and both are struggling to head off the drift of support to minor parties and independents. Despite Labor’s support for Gonski and funding reform, some voters might lean to an education candidate more readily than Labor.

How many Education Senators do you need to make a difference? I don’t know, but even one would be better than none.  In general I don’t see much value in single issue political candidates, but maybe this could be the exception because it goes to the heart of the kind of country we want to be. Are we a clever country? Do we want education to be a meritocracy? Are we still the land of the fair go? How can we maintain and improve living standards without lifting productivity and how do we do that without lifting education standards for all? Do we base government policy on evidence or dogma?

In the long run there will be meaningful education policy and funding reform in Australia. Declining education outcomes and the need for greater productivity will make change inevitable. Education is clearly going to be a hot topic at the next federal election and when Labor is returned to government at some time in the future there will be change. It’s just a question of how long we have to wait and what damage is done in the meantime.

Perhaps this process can be accelerated. Is the public education lobby and the Australian Education Union up for this approach?

 

Funding

Funding of Victoria’s Senior Secondary Schools

It’s time for the Victorian government through the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) to decide whether it wants to support the government senior secondary school model it has created. For many years the government has funded these schools in such a way that they are able to spend less per senior school student than every other school in the state. With a review of school funding underway now is the time to address this inequity.

Victoria has ten senior secondary schools. The first was created over 30 years ago and others have been created over time with the most recent being established within the last few years. The schools are either Year 10-12 or Year 11-12. All are comprehensive and inclusive providers, offering a wide range of VCE, VCAL and VET programs. In regional Victoria and in the west of Melbourne the provision model  around these schools includes a series of Year 7-9 or 7-10 schools.

By virtue of their focus on the senior years of schooling all the senior secondary schools develop a range of expertise and programs designed to meet the needs of students as they approach the transition from school to higher education or the workforce. The schools engage in some sharing of practice including an annual forum which supports the exchange of ideas and practice between staff.

Government schools in Victoria are funded on a per student basis with certain loadings for small school size, rurality and disadvantage. The core fund-in rate per student is the same at all year levels. A decade ago there was an evidence based funding model which recognised that schools spent more on students in the final two years of schooling than at other year levels. The key reason for this is the provision of curriculum breadth and the maintenance of pathways in areas such as languages and technology even when student numbers decline in these areas. If a school offers German, for example, in Years 7-10 it can hardly withdraw this subject for the relatively small number of students who wish to continue with it in the VCE. Likewise for technology subjects where schools may start a Year 11 program and then lose students to apprenticeships.

The consequence of this is that class sizes tend to be smaller at Year 11 and 12 and therefore delivery at these year levels costs more. This is borne out each time the government commissions an evaluation of its funding model. Other costs vary between year levels – student management, wellbeing, careers counselling etc – but these tend to balance out. Senior school delivery is still more expensive. Principals make decisions within their budgets to meet this need. They effectively transfer funding from lower year levels to the senior years to cover their costs. The small number of senior secondary schools don’t have that option.

Here the government faces a dilemma. There is evidence to suggest that a greater investment in the lower school levels bears fruit in terms of results further up the school and that schools should plan accordingly. The unfortunate fact is that this flies in the face of what schools actually do. So the government has adopted an approach whereby it funds students in all year levels at the same rate and allows schools to decide how to spend that money. The evidence says they continue to spend more on the senior years. The last time I saw the data the loading of real spending to the senior years was around 3% (in previous evaluations it had been higher).

What does this mean in real terms? It means that if you are the parent of a student in a Victorian senior secondary school your child is receiving, in real terms, less funding than students in other schools. Now 3% may not sound like much. But for each student this means around $250 less funding (government schools receive a core fund in rate of around $7500 per student). So a school with a student population of 1000 students is missing around $250,000 per year. And this has been going on for many years.

As reviews of funding have been undertaken and new models developed there has been acknowledgement from other schools that this is demonstrably unfair. But the response of other principals can be summarised like this “I know this is unfair, but if we support you it means we’ll get less because there’s less to spread around”. The response of government is that we are often large schools, that we should be able to cope and that in any case schools should be spending their money more evenly across the year levels. So apparently not only is there additional funding for small schools but there’s a penalty for being a large senior secondary school.

It’s time to start dealing in reality. All schools spend more on their senior years than our schools do. Our students are clearly being disadvantaged. The funding model for Victorian government schools recognises the particular needs of students with disabilities, from refugee backgrounds, from low SES backgrounds, from rural schools and from small schools. As the funding model is reviewed in 2014 and as the distribution of Gonski funding is being contemplated it’s time to recognise the needs of students in the state’s senior secondary schools. The key principle underpinning Gonski is equity and here’s an opportunity to fix an equity problem of the state’s own making. I expect many senior secondary schools and their communities will be having conversations along these lines with their local politicians leading up to this year’s state election.

930x431_australian-landscapes

In Praise of Country Schools

I don’t know what the data says but I’m pretty sure that the number of small rural schools in Victoria (and probably elsewhere in Australia) has declined in the last decade. And many of those that are left will be doing it tough. Rural population decline will have forced many school closures and forced communities to consider mergers and alternative models of governance and education provision. The days of stand alone schools, particularly secondary schools, delivering everything themselves that the community needs and demands are close to over and they’re not coming back.

Country schools are great places for kids. They are known and valued by the staff of the school and learn in a very supportive environment. In some cases they may not have access to the same  opportunities for excursions and co-curricular activity (or at least not without the considerable cost of transport) but in my view this is outweighed by the benefits of country life and small school education. I find it disturbing that some regional and Melbourne based independent schools scour country schools for sporting and academic talent and entice students away with offers of part scholarships. If they know the impact of this on country education communities they don’t seem to care.

Country schools are central to communities they serve. Families considering a move to the country will think again if there’s no school or students have to travel long distances to get to school. If the primary school goes it’s both a reflection of decline and a catalyst for more of the same. Where they do exist, the schools provide a hub for a range of activities and the teachers are central to the life of the town. And it’s even better if the teachers live in the town.

Apart from the value they provide for their communities and students, rural schools are also a great place for educators. The community is usually welcoming and supportive and young teachers find themselves with great opportunities to learn their craft and take on positions of responsibility early in their careers. Many move on to bigger centres but some stay and settle. It’s not unusual for teachers to spend their entire teaching careers in the one country town. For a first time principal, as I was with my first appointment, it’s also a great place to learn. You have to do a bit of everything and know something about every aspect of the school’s operations, from teaching and learning to facilities, OHS, finance, HR, staff management and leadership and so on. If you find yourself, as I did, in a much larger setting it’s the best preparation you could get, provided you don’t allow yourself to become professionally isolated.

I find it a little disappointing that some teaching graduates, and aspiring principals, don’t look seriously at ‘going bush’ for at least part of their careers. The work is the same as in larger schools but it’s a much less hectic environment in which to work. I despair when I read the profiles of graduates from some university teacher training courses, all of whom want – and expect – to work in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs or on the coast. This accounts to a large extent for why rural schools often find difficulty in attracting staff, and also why young teachers often leave after 2-3 years. The lure of the lifestyle in Melbourne or a bigger regional centre is strong.

I’m old enough to have undertaken my teacher training under a studentship which means the government helped fund my course and I was then ‘bonded’ for a few years and could be sent anywhere to teach. Despite all our fears about being sent to isolated country towns it was a neat way for the government to ensure it could fill positions in schools. I think there’s merit in revisiting that scheme, albeit in a modified fashion. The government is not going to engage in wholesale funding of teacher training but perhaps it could consider support or incentives for small schools. What appeals to me is a scheme whereby schools could retain connection with former students doing teacher training (these are the ones most likely to return to the country) by having them return for teaching rounds and being able to make direct offers of employment to them as they near the end of their teaching course. And some form of financial support for those students wouldn’t go astray either. There is currently a scholarship scheme which provides a one-off bonus to graduates who take jobs in the country but we need to be more proactive.

Country schools can also help themselves, and they do to some extent. Groups like the Country Education Project provide great networking and practical support for schools and I can assure you rural principals and their communities are every bit as innovative as their big city colleagues. They just don’t have the scale to do perhaps quite as much as they’d like.

In Victoria, schools receive additional funding based on small school size and rurality. I’m not sure how this spent in primary schools but in secondary schools it’s spent to provide curriculum breadth at the top of the school. Some people will be aware I’m an advocate of changing that model, without changing the quantum of funding, to encourage more collaboration between schools. Without collaboration and new thinking some country schools are going to wither and die, or become sink holes for funding. There are already many places in regional Victoria where it would be cheaper for the government to close the local school and send students away to an independent boarding school.

There are enormous opportunities through the use of technology to engage rural students beyond their own immediate surrounds and to have them collaborate regionally and globally. There are also emerging high quality online curriculum offerings which these schools should be lapping up, although this will require a fundamental shift in the mentality of some school leaders and their communities who think that their local school should be able to provide all their students need. Or that the alternatives should be available cost free, or at least for a lot less than the cost of local delivery.

The cost to government of running small country schools in comparison to larger regional and metropolitan centres is significant but I doubt we’ll see a rash of country school closures. It still appears to be a no-go area for both sides of politics after the lingering fallout from those in the early 1990′s. These days schools make those decisions themselves although they might be encouraged by new facilities and services available from amalgamation or shared governance with another centre.

These schools also need a supportive educational bureaucracy. Victoria was previously broken up into nine regions for the purposes of administration and educational leadership. In the last four years the five country regions have been absorbed into four new super regions with their bases in Melbourne and support outposts in the regions. This strategy might provide savings and support consistency of government ‘message’ across regions but there is a risk for small and remote schools that need hands on support. It may be too early to evaluate the new model but I have a feeling that eventually the wheel will turn.

So hats off to my colleagues and friends in regional and rural Victoria and their counterparts around Australia. You do a great job and provide your students with wonderful support and opportunities, often under difficult circumstances. If population decline continues you’ll face some interesting choices in the years ahead and you’ll need to think and act collaboratively to survive and thrive.

Classroom

Let’s close public schools

I’ve been looking at Australia’s education performance on international tests, listening to the objections to Gonski funding reforms, reading what Kevin Donnelly has to say, recalling John Howard’s concerns about values in government schools, following Christopher Pyne’s announcements and reflecting on Joe Hockey’s concerns about the state of our national finances. Based on all of this there seems to  be only one way forward: the government should get out of the education business and close all public schools.

Surely this serves the national interest. In non government schools, students achieve better results and develop values and character in keeping with society’s expectations. It would also save the nation billions of dollars a year because, as we often reminded, non government schools save the taxpayer money. More students, more savings. It would also be consistent with much of our education policy at federal and state level which seems to be about not much more than making public schools more like their independent and faith based counterparts.

So it’s a win all round. Students get a better education and moral upbringing and the government saves a fortune.

Well, there might be a few issues but nothing the free market couldn’t sort out, surely. First one would be the flight of families from schools in which their children now have to mix with the general population. Maybe the government could help them out, somehow. Perhaps a series of select entry government funded schools for the best and brightest.

I guess another issue might be how these schools could afford to educate their new students given their educational needs. After all, the non government sector would have just picked up 80% of the poorest students in Australia and somewhere around the same number of indigenous and disabled students. Maybe the government could look again at ongoing funding of those Gonski reforms, seems like there might be a good argument for funding students based on need after all.

And the parents who can’t afford to pay for textbooks, uniforms, excursions and other supplies (let alone school fees)? Maybe they take out loans or perhaps their children just can’t attend school at all. Damned tricky this inclusiveness business.

Of course it’s not going to happen. Too much at stake. It is absolutely in the interests of the non government school sector to have a public education system which can survive but not thrive. It allows someone else to look after the students they don’t want. Parents can keep their children safe from the great unwashed and they can also  feel good about making sacrifices and doing something ‘better’ for their children than sending them to the local school . Where academic and sporting talent pops up in the public sector it can be lured across with a scholarship or a better ‘offer’ at the top end of primary school.

That’s the most unkind characterisation of non government schools, I know. They are simply in the business of educating children, as we all are. But not all children, by choice. What all students should be entitled to is something approaching equality of opportunity (although maybe it’s not a good time in Australia to be talking about entitlement, particularly for the less well off).

Of course this proposition wouldn’t suit politicians either. The current arrangements allow them to claim that they have a genuine commitment to public education. Deep down I doubt most do, but it’s important for their credibility and allows them to indulge in the ‘choice’ agenda. Where do their children attend school?

Quite simply, students in public schools don’t have equality of opportunity at the moment because we’ve had a long, slow shifting of the funding scales in favour of non government schools. It’s out of balance and if it doesn’t change Australia will suffer the long term economic and social consequences. But long term thinking is often too difficult for governments.

Whenever education funding reform is discussed the advocates of ‘choice’ are very vocal about the disaster that would befall us if non government schools closed their doors. Perhaps it’s worth considering what would happen if the opposite occurred. 

Flying-Trapeze

Independent Public Schools

I notice much ado about Christopher Pyne’s launch today of the $70m ‘independent public schools’ policy. Others analysed this thoroughly before the last federal election – the knowledgeable Bronwyn Hinz here and here for example. And you will find plenty of discourse over the merits of independence for public schools such as this from Save Our Schools.

Of course, as Bronwyn Hinz points out, Victoria’s schools have been independent in the sense that Pyne means for 20 years. I doubt many would want to go back to centralised control. So there wouldn’t appear to be much in today’s announcement for Victoria and $70m won’t spread too far given the number of schools across the nation. If there’s money available then of course we’ll be in line but the focus – building leadership capacity and community engagement – is the day to day work of schools anyway (although we could always do a little better at the latter).

My concern is with the muddled thinking behind the policy. There seems to be a prevailing view on the conservative side of politics that non government schools are somehow ‘better’ because they are independent of government control and supposedly engage better with their communities. The sooner this is knocked on the head the better. Not only does it allow politicians to hide from the realities of what makes schools ‘perform’ but it leads to waste of time, energy and money. And worst of all it’s patronising.

There are two very simple reasons why, on average, non government schools do better than their public counterparts. They can set their own enrolment policies and they have more money – including the right to set compulsory school fees. That’s it. It’s not about whether a school is government or non government. The top performing schools in Victoria years on year are public schools – the select entry government schools. It’s all about the student cohort.

With the exception of some low fee independent schools, most independent schools aren’t interested in educating challenging students. Low SES students with high academic or sporting ability might get a guernsey through a scholarship – topping up and cherry picking are common practice – which serves the dual purpose of assuaging the conscience of leaders in those schools and further denuding public schools of talent. I find it rather ironic that public funding of non government schools puts many of them in a position where they can strip talent from public schools. Catholic schools are a slightly different case, they straddle the middle ground but long ago gave up their original educational mission and are comfortable with a role somewhere between the public and independent sectors and the student cohort that goes with it.

Whatever your view of the relative merits of public and independent schools don’t fall for the line that improvement is about governance, values or community engagement. I could improve our school’s results overnight by exiting the students who we know will struggle to achieve strong academic results or by excluding  them through setting compulsory fees. But the government won’t allow us to do either and I wouldn’t want to. I want to be able to sleep at night knowing that our school is inclusive of all comers.

So Pyne’s independent schools policy is a distraction and there’s scant evidence to suggest that it will lead to improvement. The right course to take, and the one backed by research and public opinion, is to recast school funding along the lines proposed by the Gonski reforms. There’s an argument that these reforms don’t go far enough and won’t completely address the growing divide between the haves and the have nots in schools and in our communities. But our national interests are not served by the current funding model and no amount of ‘independence’ without funding reform is going to fix that problem.

Principal, Bendigo Senior Secondary College