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.
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.
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.
 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.