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.

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  1. More horrifying is the article in today’s Age by Kevin Donnelly! If these are his views on public schools, his inclusion onto the panel reviewing the National Curriculum should be seriously questioned.