JULIA PLEASE EXPLAIN – an example of what?

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gil...

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard at a Q & A Session in Rooty Hill, New South Wales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, like many concerned citizens following the Gonski developments, or lack thereof, I read the text of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech to the Association of Heads of Independent Schools Conference.

While there were some worrying statements, the one that everyone is quoting goes like this:

“I’ve never looked at a big independent school in an established suburb and thought ‘That’s not fair’. I look at a big independent school in an established suburb and think ‘That’s a great example’.”

What does this mean?  A great example of what exactly?

One possible meaning is that our Prime Minister has a radical egalitarian vision going well beyond Gonski, or, for that matter, any previous proponents of school funding reform.  She is saying that the lush grounds, the well maintained housing stock, swimming pools and fully equipped facilities and classrooms in the wealthiest of independent schools in Australia sets the example we must follow for all schools.

By contrast, Gonski sets the resource standard at a level one might find in a school in a middle class suburb where most children are successful above national minimum benchmarks in NAPLAN literacy tests.  This is below the standard of the wealthiest of Government schools and far below the wealthiest of independent schools.

And the $5 Billion figure quoted in Gonski is an estimate of what it would cost, using 2009 data, to bring all schools up to this middle rank standard with additional allocation based on need.

Has the drive by a wealthy independent school given our prime minister a rush of blood to the head? Is she now going to find a way to ensure that “this great example” sets the standards for all schools? And if this is the base standard – or the standard for a sound education for our most advantaged children then there would still be a strong case for additional needs based funding. However if this is the governments proposal I will even give up campaigning for additional needs based funding.

If schools in the outer west in Melbourne and Sydney and in Arnhem Land had access to the kind of resources enjoyed by Kings School, Riverview, or Carey Baptist, it would be possible to set up the full range of culturally relevant wrap around services to support children dealing with the overwhelming challenges that go with being disadvantaged and living in a disadvantaged community. Teachers would not be able to be cherry picked by the independent sector through the lure of school provided accommodation, generous remuneration packages and other perks from capital investments.

If schools in the middle class suburbs of Northcote in Melbourne, Leichhardt in Sydney and Garran in Canberra were of an equivalent standard, the many parents who opt out of the Government system might stay, ensuring a socially mixed school community with articulate powerful parents to advocate on its behalf. And of course the greater the social mix of the school the greater the educational learning benefits, not just for the most disadvantaged, but for all students.

Our school choice scenario would be a little fairer.

However the alternative is that our Prime Minister might be saying ‘that is a great example’ of schooling for the children of our wealthiest and most privileged. We should support that because they deserve this.’

Is she echoing the values of that the old hymn ‘ All Things Bright and Beautiful’

 The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them, high or lowly,

And ordered their estate

Is her comment indirectly, or even unknowingly, referring to the rightness of the current set up – because it conforms to a deeply embedded sense of a ‘natural order’, where there are rulers and others.  If so it is a far cry from the vision and legacy of Sir Henry Parkes and many of our founders.

Education in Australia was designed to be compulsory not just as an individual market good, but as an essential social or public good – in the public interest. This is because the benefits of education to each individual aggregate to strengthen communities, the polity and workplaces. Universal provision was provided in order equip all future citizens, workers, parents, and community members to contribute to our social democracy and our economy.

As early as 1869 Henry Parkes articulated this vision

 …We are endeavouring to supply the means of sound instruction to those who, in a very few years, are to constitute the strength of the country…a Public school system in any country is an essential part of its institutions

Whatever may be our form of Government … Let us by every means in our power take care that the children of the country grow up under such a sound and enlightened system of instruction, that they will consider the dearest of all possessions the free exercise of their own judgment in the secular affairs of life, and that each man will shrink from being subservient to any other man or earthly power (my emphasis).

Neither of these explanations sound likely to me.  The PM is not an education revolutionary – her alliance with the worst of US corporate education reforms suggests that this is not the case.  More importantly, she knows we could never afford the public investment it would require to bring schools up to the standards of our wealthiest schools.

But the idea that the PM is an apologist for the current state of inequality doesn’t seem likely to me either.

I may have written some of this tongue-in-cheek but I am deadly serious when I say I have no idea what on earth Julia Gillard means when she says that the wondrous facilities and resources enjoyed by our luckiest of children at our wealthiest of schools is a great example.

An example of what exactly? After all she did not just look and admire, she promised them increased public funding, as a national priority.  And that demands a please explain.

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