Paul Sheehan’s light bulb moment on schooling

Everyone has the answers to our unequal schooling outcomes.  Politicians have had a field day and so have journalists.  The latest is from Paul Sheehan Learn from Asian culture of success |

His article notes that the school HSC winners are girls (68%) and Asian students while the losers are Indigenous students.  He takes over half the article to make this seemingly surprising observation.

And then of course there is the jump to solution  – which is… ?  Well, more importantly, which is NOT more money because apparently “Australian governments have been pouring billions into indigenous communities for years with few measurable improvements and billions more dollars on education with little change in the basic template”.

If Sheehan, who sees himself as an investigative journalist, had done his homework he would have known that this is not the case.  Over the Howard years the funding profile of Australia changed dramatically till by the  end of 2010 Australia was in the world’s top group  in terms of expenditure on non-Government schools but in the bottom group in terms of expenditure on Government schools.

We have been throwing money on high fee paying elite schools – some of which are Catholic and others of which are independent.  These schools were meant to have made use of this additional funding  to enable them to reduce fees, but this was not done – fees went up.  The high fee paying Catholic schools were alleged to have used these funds to redistribute to their more needy schools in poorer areas, but it has become clear that this was not done.  Instead what the high fee schools have managed to do is to to have teacher student ratios that are the envy of the world – and way above ratios available to high need schools where remedial support is imperative.

So Mr Sheehan we might have been pouring billions into schools, but given that very few Indigenous children actually attended these high fee schools, it is not surprising that it has not made a difference.

In fact Mr Sheehan you might like to investigate how the NT Government funds it schools.  Afterall they have the highest proportion of Australia’s most disadvantaged and under performing students.  If you do follow this up – and I do hope you do – I will be interested to hear what you find.  And I can almost guarantee you will not say – billions of dollars are being invested in this area.  I would be only too happy to give you a few leads too, to start you on your investigative journey.

But lets look further at your argument because you go on to say it is a waste of money to invest in poor schools because the problem is not resources.  Apparently they are swimming in billions.  The problem according to you is culture – specifically the culture of the parents of poor, Indigenous and otherwise low performing students.

So based on this logic you argue that non Government schools are successful because they can pick and choose their parents – they can make sure that they are not lumbered with the children of the poor.

I think you are implying that parents of middle class and rich students are responsible.  They read to their children every day, make them do their homework go to bed early and get up to eat a good breakfast and go to school every day.  They teach them about delayed gratification, cleanliness, manners and all the rest.

Parents of poor students are undisciplined, unmotivated, irresponsible and dysfunctional parents (your words) .  They don’t read to their children, teach them delayed gratification or manners and they let them wag school.

Now this is a dangerous – a racist and classist  – picture of things.  It denies that there is child neglect, crime, fraud, drunkenness, assault, murder  etc in the best of homes. And I think when you look at the social behaviours, attitudes and values of many of our elite private school ‘stars’ you will find that arrogance, prejudices, entitlement, untruthfulness, callousness, aggression are not uncommon.

We can see human weakness in all its variations in communities of poverty too.  But we also see many people who have to struggle to make ends meet, who have to make difficult survival choices, may not be literate, who are both time poor and economically poor and who lack security of abode, income, food, health and transport.  They have a lot going on.

Our problem is that our unique, extreme school choice policy framework has created a situation where children from these two groups are becoming more and more segregated – you are correct to note this.

But what of your solution?  Well here it is:

“Until state schools have the power to set and enforce codes of conduct, discipline and application comparable to the powers taken for granted in private schools, we will continue to have one system for the bright, ambitious and/or wealthy and one for the rest.”

I have to ask, what on earth does this mean?  How do you propose that schools ‘enforce codes of conduct, discipline and application’ beyond what they are already doing. Surely you understand that all schools (except for a few remaining non Government alternative schools perhaps) use every tool within their power to foster a student body that respects others,  complies with all reasonable rules and engages seriously with learning.  They already use all the discipline powers available to them to discipline, punish, suspend and even expel students.

In fact there is growing concern that the more extensive powers that have recently been transferred to principals to suspend students for quite a long time is being used unequally on poor and Indigenous students and many exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline already observable for many marginalized groups.

If you have secret tools that you could reveal that would achieve this goal it would be great to hear about them.

Or are you really suggesting that students who don’t come up to scratch should get selected out of Government schools?  What happens then?  This would be the end of universal schooling and a return to a Dickensian underclass of poverty and criminality.

Or are you saying that Government schools should charge fees like the non-Government system.  Of course you’re not.  But this is the point Mr Sheehan.  Non-Government schools charge fees and can say ‘no’.  These two mechanisms serve to keep ‘undesirable enrolments’ out.  According to Chris Bonnor, it is possible to calculate just how little or how much a school has to charge to filter out which groups of families by interogating the MySchool data.

So Mr Sheehan, I might not agree with your deficit model of poor parents and poor students, and I might not think there is a solution which involves making public schools more like non-Government schools. However I do agree that it is fundamentally unfair to set in place a so called market model of education based on choice and competition where only some have choice and where competition is on highly unequal terms because one system has to take all comers and can’t charge fees.

Its a ‘shit sandwich’ Mr Sheehan, no doubt about it, and you know what?  Those who struggle to make a difference, who are trying to both support and teach students who are facing unimaginable hardships don’t need those with the power of the pen saying they don’t need more money to labour under the unequal task they have been set.


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