Public School Funding Fight: Time to change strategy and our language

Christopher Pyne has now made it clear that any concept of sector blind needs based school funding has been joyfully and gleefully knifed. His speech to the Christian Schools proclaimed loudly that this Government has sworn to maintain the Government’s emotional commitment to the continued funding of private schools, while ditching public schools.  By any calculation this is the opposite extreme of the Gonski proposal.

It is not sector blind – in fact it is sector funding apartheid

Pyne’s announcements leave private schools in the hands of the Commnwealth Government in a context where the current Government has shown that it is anything but resource constrained where their interests matter.  How else can quarantining top end schools from funding cuts be seen? We can’t have a budget emergency if we can still afford to subsidise schools with olympic heated indoor 8 lane swimming pools, specialised art performance spaces and so on.  If anyone can explain to me why schools with resources like this and per student fees of of over $20,000 pa need government subsidies at all I would like to hear it.

Pyne’s announcements cost shifts all funding responsibility for public schools to cash constrained states.  This means that from 2016, there will be no targeted Commonwealth funds for public schools, with the singular exception of the Chaplins-in-schools program, of course.  This is a dramatic shift.  For over 40 years, the Commonwealth has provided additional support to public schools in recognition of its special responsibilities for addressing disadvantage, supporting Indigenous  populations and maintaining the national education estate.

It is the very opposite of needs based.

The ‘not one dollar lost to private schools’ promise has been kept but the public school sector has been slashed.

There will be no national system of funding transparency and accountability 

There is no longer any agreement nationally by states to apply the principle of needs based funding.  In practical effect this will mean that states like NSW and Tasmania will apply the principles, but states like WA and NT – where our schools most disadvantaged and underfunded schools lie  – will continue shamelessly to neglect their remote schools.

The Gonski funding compromise  (which is what it was) was a chance to put in place a win-win funding system, where funding could be increased on a needs base without undermining power and privilege. It was given the fatal blow by this Government but they weren’t the only ones who undermined this win-win solution.

Private education sector workers, parents and lobbyists of all persuasions, where were you when Gonski needed support? Were you pushing for timely and accurate implementation of this win-win solution?

No, we did not hear your voice in support.  But we did hear: ‘more funding for disadvantaged students won’t improve student outcomes’ and ‘this proposal is too complicated’ and even, ‘this proposal will lead the Government sector to game the system by concentrating disadvantage’. We also saw your frequent and undocumented backdoor visits with the then PM and education Ministers and the subsequent watering down of the needs based weightings to ensure you did not just ‘not lose a dollar’ but could retain your sector ‘share’ of the spoils.

So I and many others will never accept such a compromised solution again.

One of the first things that will go is this ridiculous Government schools and non Government schools language.  Public schools are not just state schools or even just government schools.  They are public institutions and a core part of our national education estate – our ‘common wealth’. And the term non Government is a misleading misnomer as Marian Maddox reminds us:

... one challenge of writing about schools is finding appropriate terms.  One common terminology distinguishes ‘government’ from nongovernment schools. …these terms are of limited use.  .. all Australian schools receive considerable government support, meaning that no school can seriously claim non government’ status … (Taking God to school: the end of Australia’s egalitarian education)

So I will never again use ay other terms but public schools and private schools or the even more accrue ‘government funded private schools’ and I urge all people who care about langauge accuracy to do the same.

Christopher Pyne might be dancing around with glee at the idea of punishing public education – Labor’s base.  But public education advocates will not give up.  The next phase of the stronger than ever struggle for needs based funding and a strong and vibrant high quality public sector will be gloves off. Bring it on.


Keeping the #Gonski promise alive: finding allies in unlikely places

I was one of the 700 odd people who attended the Jean Blackburn Oration last week where David Gonski broke his silence for the very first time post the Gonski Report Publication. To be honest I was not at all sure what to expect Gonski to say. But I hoped that what he said would assist the hard fought campaign to have need based funding implemented in Australia.

My initial reaction was one of mild disappointment. Gonski is not a firebrand. But now I have read the reports of this event in the media re-read his speech I now realize that there were quite a number of very important messages in his address that need to be teased out.

This article focuses on what might be considered a ‘by the way observation’ by Gonski which goes as follows

 The 11 months of work was an eye opener for me. As a businessman working in an ivory tower I was given what may be a once in my life time opportunity to go into schools and associated organisations.

I saw:

The calibre of people who were principals of schools in the school visits I personally made. I don’t believe I found one I didn’t admire and respect. Some I liked more than others. Some handled me better than others but all had a quality of leadership which was both impressive and inspiring.

The difference between well-endowed schools and those in lower socioeconomic areas which is enormous.

I found most of the schools happy places – places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked. To this day I remember a principal at a primary school in a very low socioeconomic area in the west of Sydney looking at me when I asked had he had any success in getting parents involved with the school. He noted that 40% of his student roll changed each year and that getting the kids to school within an hour of commencement each morning was his personal goal for the year – involvement of parents he had tried but just at the moment felt it was too hard.

He repeated this observation later in his talk

I cannot easily forget the differences I saw in the schools I visited. To say that many of the schools in the state systems need further assistance both in money and tender loving care is to me an understatement.

So here is a highly successful business man admitting he did not realise just how neglected many public schools are in comparison with schools he is more familiar with. And as a man of spare words he made this point not just once but twice.

On rereading these two extracts I was reminded of two submissions to the Gonski Review that are noteworthy because of their differences in content and flavour although both came from the top end of town – in this case Banking.

The one that produced the most media reaction was submitted by the National Australia Bank[1].

While currently unable to quote from the submission this SMH article about it notes that

 The National Australia Bank has entered the highly charged debate about school funding with a submission insisting private school funding be maintained in real terms and claiming that non-government schools save taxpayers money…

The submission argues that parents have a right to choose a non-government school for their child, and says any reduction in funding for private schools would have a ”detrimental” impact and place a greater financial burden on parents.

‘Parents of students in non-government schools already save governments billions of dollars each year in choosing to utilise the non-government system.

What infuriated public educators was not just its blatant promotion of top end schools that must be among its important clients, but its complete lack of comment about the adequacy of public education funding, – and this from an organisation that is promoting its corporate citizenship through its involvement in the Schools First Initiative.

The submission prompted Lyndsay Connors the then president of the Australian College of Educators to remark that:

 The purpose of public funding for schools is not to add to the attractiveness of independent schools as NAB customers or to the profits that NAB makes. In a true democracy, governments fund schools to give every Australian child high-quality schooling that offers each of them an equally good chance of success, whatever their family or community circumstances.

The Australian Education Union demonstrated their concern by publicising their letter to Mr Clyne Group CEO of NAB as follows

We write to express our deep disappointment with your organisation’s submission to the Australian Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling, chaired by David Gonski.

The NAB submission is profoundly ignorant of the complexities of Australia’s schools’ funding system and exhibits a total disregard for the majority of Australian students attending public schools and their families.

The submission expresses a narrow view, concentrating on only two of the review’s terms of reference. It is silent on the broader issues raised by the review and therefore the broader challenges facing Australia’s schooling system, including a commitment to equity and addressing barriers to achievement.

Not only is the NAB submission silent on the range of matters being addressed by the Review, it aligns the bank firmly with one set of vested interests. It falls well short of balance that one would expect of a submission from such a significant organisation.

The NAB has sought to present itself as a responsible corporate citizen through the Schools First program, aimed at recognising and promoting school and community partnerships. This has now been brought in to question.


The Commonwealth Bank Submission could not have been more of a contrast.

Here is the Australian Education Union commentary on this Submission

The submission highlighted Mr. McComas’ significant concerns about the poor condition of the building infrastructure in the government school system across Australia; notably that:

– Government primary school facilities (described as the “National Education Estate”) are generally of a lower standard relative to equivalent facilities in the Catholic and Independent school systems.

– The divide between Government and non‐Government schools could not be greater; e.g. some government schools (large and small) are housed entirely in non‐permanent accommodation; permanent accommodation in many locations is unsuitable to current teaching styles and is poorly maintained; administration and non‐teaching facilities in many facilities are of an unacceptable standard; and sporting and extra‐curricular facilities are poor or non‐existent.

It goes on in quite same detail and in this extract we learn just why these two submissions are so different:

 Having seen first‐hand the current standard of the government schools “National Education Estate” it’s no surprise that retention rates are low, that school teacher morale is low, and that academic and extra‐curricular achievement are failing many students.

In dividing up scarce educational dollars and establishing a framework for the funding and development of associated infrastructure, please don’t ignore the immediate need and ongoing responsibility to rebuild a large proportion of the government schools “National Education Estate”.

There is an immediate and urgent need to introduce minimum standards for educational facilities across states and educational jurisdictions based on best practise, for the benefit of all students.

You see Malcom McComas, who penned this Submission for the Commonwealth Bank, had been on the Audit Review Team for the Review of the Building the Education Revolution Initiative. He saw with his own eyes just how run down public schools were in comparison to schools normally associated with CEOs

So on the basis of this admittedly small sample of three powerful ruling class men I say to you invite your local persons of influence into your schools. If they attended a top end school, and are influential in business, the community, politics, or the media, so much the better.

I am as guilty as the next passionate public education campaigner of assuming that parents, teachers, principals, and administrators of non-Government schools have a vested interest in not supporting a fully funded needs based aspirational system but this is not actually the case. We have a wide base of passive support and we can turn that into active support. We need powerful allies and we can help to deliver that.

The vocal and outraged response to the budget from articulate people who are not personally affected, should remind us that most Australians can see that there is such a thing as “the common interest” and that a high quality education for all is a core and mandatory part of this “Common Wealth”

What they don’t yet share is knowledge and understanding at an intellectual, emotional and visceral level of the stark contrasts between the amenity of most non-Government schools and the amenity of struggling schools. They need to be shown.

So let them come. Make them come. Invite them to spend time in your schools. Do what takes to get them there.

I will finish with a quote from one of our greatest allies: Michael Kirby who wrote that:

Many current leading politicians did not attend public schools. They can hardly be blamed if they are not much aware of the ideals and achievements of public education or if they fall victim to stereotypes. Every effort must be made to invite members of Parliament (federal and state) to visit public schools. There they will witness the often-desperate needs of the teachers and students in that sector.  


[1] It is interesting and disappointing to note that the Gonski Review Submissions have disappeared from the DEEWR Website and I am sure it is not because they are running out of space.

What might Hannah Arendt say about the budget?

I am sure many teachers have been to see the film about Hannah Arendt.  I hope you found it inspiring and insightful.

I am also sure many of you will be feeling as  do – furious, helpless, defeated, tired and depressed by the budget revelations that Gonski funding principals cut no ice with this Government.  It doesn’t matter that we suspected that this was the case all along.  With the odds so stacked against public schooling in this country, we do tend to cling to false hope when there is little else.

So I am sharing a quote from Hannah Arendt sent to me by Lyndsay Connors  which sets out just why we continue to fight for quality education for all

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love our children enough … not to strike from their hands the chance of undertaking something new”. It is only through gifting our children this freedom that we will prepare them adequately for “the task of renewing a common world”.

On a brighter note – I am very curious to know what David Gonski will share with the punters tomorrow when he delivers the Jean Blackburn Memorial Oration for the Australian College of Educators at The University of Melbourne.

Will he reveal what he really thought about the impossible constraints put upon the review team to deliver a fair proposal where no school would lose a cent?

Will he share with us his personal reaction to experiencing top elite schools and struggling low SES schools?

Will he document the extent to which the original modelling in the report was watered down in an attempt to appease the Catholic Sector

Will he critique the decisions of Julia Gillard who, even though she wanted this to be her defining achievement, delayed implementation to try and use it as a vote catcher

And what on earth is he likely to say about Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott?

Please Mr Gonski – deliver a frank and fearless exposure

Stay tuned.



NAPLAN DAY – What did your child do today: go to the zoo or sit a test?

Today is the start of NAPLAN day for every Australian parent with a child in years 3,5,7 or 9. The vast majority of parents will send their children off to school as per usual, perhaps with an extra hug and an exhortation to” just do your best and don’t get stressed”.

But for a small, but growing, number of parents, this is a day to do something quite different – to go to the movies, the zoo, a picnic or just stay home and have a pajama day. They have taken the decision to remove their child from testing.

Now there are no rights or wrongs about this. It is a personal decision. But you may be wondering why people are making this decision.

I have been reading the many testimonials from US parents about why they have come to this decision and the few statements I have come across about withdrawal decisions from Australian parents. In this piece I bring together the key reasons.

Here is one US parent speaking:

 As a nation we have been convinced that our public schools are failing, that the “status quo” is unacceptable, that schools need standards and testing in order to succeed, and that market based reforms such as privatization, charter schools, vouchers and “dumping the losers” are the way to get it done.  The only problem is that none of this is true. None of it…..

It is the test that binds all of this insanity together.  Without the tests, the reformers have nothing to threaten schools with.  Without the tests, the federal government loses power over states.  Without the tests, schools would be able to stop assigning multiple choice tests to kindergarteners.  Without the tests, there would be no way for education reformers to convince you that your schools are much worse than they really are.  Without the tests, there wouldn’t be a target on our teachers.

But tests aren’t really the problem, the real problem is how the tests are used. Tests are an important form of data that can help educators determine how students are doing and how they need to improve.  When used for that purpose, tests are great.  Still limited, but great.  However, when used as a tool for propaganda, profit and pressure, tests are more punitive than positive.  As long as high stakes standardized tests – despite their limitations – are used as the primary means for evaluating schools, they will continue to be far more valuable for punishing states, schools and teachers than for evaluating student achievement.

There isn’t much I can do about this as an educator and an academic other than write and speak when I’m allowed.  But as a parent I have the power to take control over the education of my child, and that’s exactly what my wife and I have decided to do.


This opt out movement in the US started as a mere trickle but this year it has reached a critical mass. In Long Island alone more than 20,000 school children did not take the first round of state tests that began April 1[1].

Here is another parent – this one not a teacher – explaining her decision to opt out

Lawmakers and education reformers are pushing policies that subtract joy from the classroom, and as a parent of two public school students I am looking to push back. That’s why I joined the opt-out movement ..

Lawmakers and education reformers are pushing policies that subtract joy from the classroom, and as a parent of two public school students I am looking to push back. That’s why I joined the opt-out movement ..

…this year their father and I refused to send our kids to school for …testing. Instead they slept in, watched TV, played outside and read for pleasure. Their grandma also took them to the museum….

I’ve come to believe standardized tests are to learning as an exhibit of butterflies is to nature. In the attempt to pin down what is measurable, we render something wild and beautiful, dead and on display.

While our public school leaders pay lip service to creativity and innovation, they are mandating more class time be devoted to standardized testing in the name of holding teachers accountable for student progress. Next year, Colorado charges headlong into a pay-for-performance system tying 50 percent of our public school teachers’ evaluation to student progress.

Ravitch, … believes parents can halt this parasitic process by refusing to allow students to take the tests that feed it. “Deny them the data,” is the slogan inspiring me and thousands of parents around the country.


But my personal favourite is this letter from Will and Wendy Richardson from Delaware

To the Editor:

After much thought, we have decided to keep our son home during …standardized assessments …. we are basing this decision on our serious concerns about what the test itself is doing to our son’s opportunity to receive a well-rounded, relevant education, and because of the intention of state policy makers to use the test in ways it was never intended to be used. These concerns should be shared by every parent and community member who wants our children to be fully prepared for the much more complex and connected world in which they will live, and by those who care about our ability to flourish as a country moving forward.

Our current school systems and assessments were created for a learning world that is quickly disappearing. In his working life, my son will be expected to solve real world problems, create and share meaningful work with the world, make sense of reams of unedited digital information, and regularly work with others a half a world away using computers and mobile devices. The NJ ASK tells us nothing about his ability or preparedness to do that. The paper and pencil tasks given on the test provide little useful information on what he has learned that goes beyond what we can see for ourselves on a daily basis and what his teachers relay to us through their own assessments in class. We implicitly trust the caring professionals in our son’s classroom to provide this important, timely feedback as opposed to a single data point from one test, data that is reported out six months later without any context for areas where he may need help or remediation. In short, these tests don’t help our son learn, nor do they help his teachers teach him. 

In addition, the test itself poses a number of problems:

         Over the years, the “high stakes” nature of school evaluation has narrowed instruction to focus on only those areas that are tested. This has led to reductions in the arts, languages, physical education and more.

         Research has shown that high scores can be achieved without any real critical thinking or problem solving ability.

         The huge amount of tax dollars that are being spent on creating, delivering and scoring the tests, dollars that are going to businesses with, no surprise, powerful lobbyists in the state capitol and in Washington, DC, is hugely problematic.

         Proposals to use these test scores for up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation are equally problematic. The tests were not created for such a use, and to create even higher stakes for the NJ ASK will only create more test prep in our classrooms at the expense of the relevant, authentic, real world learning that our students desperately need.

         These tests create unnecessary anxiety and stress in many students who feel immense pressure to do well.

In no way are we taking this step because of our dissatisfaction with our son’s public school, the teachers and administrators there, or our school board. We have simply had enough of national and state policies that we feel are hurting the educational opportunities for all children. At the end of the day, we don’t care what our son scores on a test that doesn’t measure the things we hold most important in his education: the development of his interest in learning, his ability to use the many resources he has at his disposal to direct his own learning, and his ability to work with others to create real world solutions to the problems we face. And we feel our tax dollars are better spent supporting our schools and our teachers who will help him reach those goals as well as the goals detailed by the state standards in ways that are more relevant, engaging and important than four days of testing could ever accomplish.

There are many many parent testimonials to opting out and many impassioned arguments about why they feel it necessary to take this step. But for me the following themes appear to stand out:

  1. The problem isn’t testing per se – but how tests are used –  the lack of validity and reliability in their unintended uses. This testing culture punishes and diminishes teachers.

 In the US this is particularly problematic, because of federal Government mandates that require states to use standardized tests as one of the measures to assess teachers. This was mooted by Ben Jenson from the Grattan Institute at one point and also by Julia Gillard. But because of excellent intervention by AITSL this disastrous situation has been avoided – at least for now.

But we do use NAPLAN scores as the basis for student outcomes reporting on the MySchool website. This turns these tests from a low stakes test to a high stakes event, uses the data in ways that are psychometrically questionable and fosters an unhealthy market choice model of education.

  1. The testing culture has impoverished what happens in classrooms and parents want education to be a joyful experience and to prepare students for active participation as adults in social, economic and political life. The kind of learning that can be tested will not equip students for this.

It is interesting to note that almost none of the testimonies I located were from parent who had children who were stressed or made sick by testing days. This is not to suggest that this situation does not exist , but that this is not what is driving the opt out movement. These are parents who want education to be the best it can be for all students and see the testing culture as undermining that, not just for their child but for all students.

  1. We don’t want to be part of the problem, so we are pushing back, refusing to provide our data to a bad process. In this way we haope to be part of building a movement that will destroy the corporate education stranglehold on our nation’s education.

Many many parents were at pains to state that they don’t believe there is a crisis in public education in the US and that they trust teachers as professionals more than they trust a multiple choice test to assess their childrens’ progress

How will you know what your child is capable of if you don’t have test scores?”  The answer to that is pretty simple.  We trust our son’s teachers.  The privileging of standardized test score data above all other forms of information regarding a student’s progress is a relatively recent phenomenon.  There was a time when we trusted teachers to teach, assess, and evaluate the progress of our students.  We believe this should still be the case.  We don’t need standardized tests to tell us what our kids are capable of.  Our sons’ teachers are more than capable of evaluating and communicating our son’s capabilities in the class using the data they collect through classwork, teacher created assessments and other formative data points that aren’t mandated by the federal government.  Did you know that the new assessments for CCSS will be graded completely by a computer?  Even students’ writing will be scored by a computer.  They’ll tell you that algorithms can be constructed to evaluate a human’s writing capacity.  As an expert in how kids think and learn, I’ll tell you that’s ridiculous.  Testing is one of the least authentic ways to determine  what any child is capable of. Nowhere else in life do we try to determine what somebody is capable of by putting them in front of a test and asking them to fill in bubbles.  Yet in in American public education, that’s quickly becoming the ONLY way we determine what students are capable of.

In Australia one person who has gone public about his decision to withdraw his eldest child from NAPLAN testing is Glen Fowler, ACT branch secretary of the Australian Education Union.

He has withdrawn his year 3 child, because NAPLAN data is published to show how individual schools are performing.

The use of this data to compare and rank schools is a disingenuous practice, and from my point of view, if the data is being misused, there will be no data provided by my family….

I’ve got no issue with standardised tests which are low stakes – I’ve got no issue with sample testing which is done by PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] every year … there’s no capacity for that to damage the reputation of a school or a teacher or a student.

If I had kids of NAPLAN age I would definitely withdraw them, not because of concerns about the effects on my child but as a political act. If enough parents acted in this way, the results would become even more unreliable and eventually there might need to be an acknowledgement that this is not our best policy. NAPLAN is NOT diagnostic; it narrows the curriculum and encourages low-level thinking, and it harming some children[2].

Maybe all this could be seen to be acceptable if there was a more important upside to the enterprise, When the decision to publish NAPLAN results to the school level o MySchool was first announced, there were many noble speeches about using NAPLAN to assess which children and which schools need extra help so that resources can be appropriated for this purpose,  But NAPLAN is NOT being used to identify those schools needing extra funding. And with tonight’s budget decision I very much fear, school funding in Australia will continue to ignore the needs of our most disadvantaged students. In this context NAPLAN is nothing but a cruel joke.


[2] if you want to think through your position on NAPLAN the ‘Say no to NAPLAN’ site established by Literacy Educators at Sydney University provides an excellent set of papers about why NAPLAN is problematic.