How Inclusive is your English Literature syllabus?

Sir, when are we going to study a book that is not about a sulky teenage boy on a beach – year 9 Girl

How inclusive is your English literature curriculum? What authors are you studying and who are the key characters?

This short video made during the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival could be a useful starting pint for a discussion on the decisions schools and teachers make about the literature selected for study.

In the video, children’s authors Kirsty Murray and Mike Bartlett suggest that our efforts over the past two decades to encourage boys to read has had the unintended effect of increasing the level of gender stereotyping in children’s literature.*

Murray reports that there are many schools where girls can go right through from year 7 to yr 12 without ever studying a single novel with a strong female protagonist. Is this because we are so fearful of putting the boys off? What is the impact of this on girls and on boys?

In an article in The Saturday Paper, Samantha Trenoweth talks as a parent about the accidental discovery about this issue at her daughter’s school

“…a week before the start of school … I logged on to the school intranet, printed the year 10 book list…

I ticked off the set English texts: Orwell, Steinbeck, Shakespeare. All important writers but, damn, no women again. I’d loved Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Brontës when I was 15. I’d nicked off with my parents’ copy of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and, at the urging of a history teacher, read Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police. So I’d read eclectically but mostly they were books by women.

It occurred to me, that night, that there had been no books by women on last year’s school list either. Had there been any the year before?

I downloaded the 2014 lists for years 7 to 12. There was one book by a female author for year 7 (Red by Libby Gleeson). After that, students of Standard English at my daughter’s school weren’t set another book by a woman ever, all the way through high school. Students of Advanced and Extension English fared slightly better. Nothing until year 11, when they were plunged into the deep end with Virginia Woolf (forgive the terrible pun), followed by a bonanza of Dickinson, Plath and Modjeska in year 12.

I was perplexed. We’re talking about an enlightened, inclusive co-ed school here, and the school was certainly responsible. State government bodies set texts for the final years of high school (those studied for the VCE, the HSC and so on), but book choices from kindergarten to year 10 are left to individual schools.

So, was this an oversight? Had the school decided women’s writing was so complex that only advanced year 12 students could safely grapple with it? Or was it that old chestnut that tells us girls will read anything but boys will only read books by and about themselves?

I wasn’t the only mother who’d noticed. A bunch of us wrote a very polite and up-beat letter to the head of English …

The teacher responded by conceding that this topic was often discussed over the English staffroom urn. We were floored. Really? Women’s contribution to the literary canon is still up for discussion over a Bushells and a Scotch Finger in 2014? Enough with the preamble! Surely it’s time to just add the books.”

This issue goes beyond the English curriculum. As one woman writer, Robyn Black who constantly gets asked by men at book launches to sign books for their wives reflects:

“… I am [also] filled more with questions about the larger implications of men not reading fiction by women than about the causes. If you think that because I’m female what I have to say in my novel won’t interest you, what about the things I say when I am talking to you about the research project in which we’re both engaged? About the funding needed for the public school system? How about when I am arguing a case in court? Filing an insurance claim?

Is it credible that fiction occupies a unique place? Credible that men who dismiss what female storytellers have to say as irrelevant to them, aren’t also inclined to dismiss – albeit unconsciously – what females of every variety have to say? To think it somehow less relevant than what the other men say? Is it credible that this often unexamined aversion is a special case of some kind? A glitch?”

The Stella Schools Program is a new initiative designed to address this issue. Its goal is to change this culture and inspire students – girls and boys alike –to engage with quality literature that includes female authors and female characters and that engages the whole spectrum of human experience.

The Stella Program has a focus on Girls and Boys from Year 7 -12 and offers the following:
• School visits by notable Australian writers, educators and publishers;
• Hands-on writing workshops;
• Teaching notes on all Stella Prize shortlisted books (for Years 10–12);
• Resources for all secondary-school levels; and,
• PD for teachers and librarians.

You can find out more about their activities here.

This is a great start but isn’t waiting to year 7 a bit too late to address this issue?

*The video discussion is limited in that it examines the issues only from a gender perspective. So it needs to be seen as a starting point only.

Street Harassment: breaking it down by race/privilege

I am sure many teachers and students saw the Hollaback video that went viral a few weeks ago of a woman walking around New York city streets for over 10 hours, and the unending street harassment from men that followed her every move.

It makes for great viewing leading into a classroom discussion:

  • Is this the reality for all women?
  • It is a similar experience for all women?
  • Does it happen in all locations?
  • How does it effect women? and men?
  • What would be different for women and girls if this phenomena did not occur?
  • Why does it happen?
  • Do men understand how it impacts women? And, if they did, would they do it anyway?
  • Why do men do it?

But there were two other articles, one with also with a video, posted about the Hollaback video that have not yet gone viral, nor are they likely to.

Firstly Collier Myerson’s article notes that the NYC harassment video showed the experience of one woman – a white middle class woman – and the only harassing men shown in the video were Black and Latino.

I confess that while I did notice this in passing I explored no further. It just left me with a vague feeling of unease.  But am 100% confident that if I was a Black or Latino man or a woman it would have been the first thing that jumped out at me. I would have reacted by thinking, “I bet she only walked through Latino and Black residential areas. Did they do that deliberately?”

Collier notes that this video serves as a de facto cautionary tale: to avoid Black and Latino men at every turn, because from the looks of it, they alone are loathsome predators.

I tend to think this is spot on. I may not have noticed the ‘race messages’ explicitly but I am sure that its implicit message would tend to validate my unconscious reactions and responses.

I am not saying that I am racist. In fact I work hard at noticing how these messages are produced and on checking my unreflective initial responses to situations. But I am saying that this is a life-long task. One doesn’t just arrive at a morally righteous non-racist state. We may not be racists but racism still inhabits us. My response to this video, my inadequate response to its implicit message, is not unique.

I am pretty sure that Hollaback did not intend to create nor legitimise fear of men of colour. But that does not take away its unintended message.

In fact, in response to criticism of his video, Hollaback acknowledged that there were white men who harassed, but ‘for whatever reason’, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera and so was omitted.

This ‘”for whatever reason” quoted above is quite important.

In the second article, “White men don’t catcall, they harass in other ways” Lee Dockett suggests that the reason is related to white privilege.

 …white men, on average, don’t catcall in the same way that men of color do—and oftentimes, as I’ve learned, they don’t do it at all.

That, of course, is not to say that white men don’t have their own predatory nature—one that is expressed in ways unique to their privilege. As we know from countless court cases, it’s not that white men don’t hassle women … it’s that they do it in a different way.

 For all men, harassment of women has more to do with establishing power than it does sexual interest; they do it to control space, both public (the very street you both walk on) and personal (a woman’s self-set boundaries). Men of color catcall vocally and visibly on the sidewalk because they have to—not that there’s ever excuse for harassment. They need the “Sexy!” and “Smile!” to create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces that social constructs and institutional racism have never afforded them control over.

White men, on the other hand, have no use for that sort of catcalling. They marked their territory centuries ago. So, instead, their sexual harassment is less invasive and harder to recognize—even when it’s staring you in the face. They do it in bars, at parties, on the frat row at your local college campus, in boardrooms, and other places men of color are never privy to, at least not in positions of power.

Myerson also notes that the lack of women of colour in the video implies that it is a problem only for white women:

 Additionally, black and brown women were excluded, as if we do not exist, or are not affected by street harassment when, in fact, we are more endangered by it. Black and brown women, women of color, of size, and trans women are among our society’s most vulnerable. Black women are at a greater risk of domestic violence. For trans women, even leaving the house can be fraught with emotional and physical violence. Women of color, regardless of gender expression, have an extra layer of fear and anxiety when walking down the street. The Hollaback video’s omission of white men, and the omission of black and brown women, worked together in an sinister alchemy to reinforce centuries-old stereotypes about who needs to be saved and protected and who needs to be feared and controlled.

But Myerson has the last word on this issue because she decided to make a similar video using women of colour and guess what happened.

 As (bad) luck would have it, while we were shooting a video about how women of color were affected by street harassment, one of our interviewees was approached — totally unsolicited — by a white man who asked her for a kiss.

How apt, and what a great set of resources for a very important classroom discussion.


Proud to be a Feminist Left-splainer

“Women of the right are just as committed to the advancement of women as their sisters on the left.” – claims Paula Matthewson

Tommy rot – I say

You know when we spend all our time discussing who is willing to call themselves a feminist I really think we have lost our way. I am heartily sick of writers like Paula Matthewson who assume that real feminism is about individual advancement for individual women and that the left see it as ‘being a victim”.

Feminism has nothing to do with being a victim.

In fact when the first domestic violence refugees and organisations were being formalised in the 70s the feminists used to get pretty dirty with anyone who referred to women who had been subjected to violence as victims. The insisted they were not victims, but survivors.This is still an important semantic distinction.

It is not about girl power, individual success, or more women in politics and on boards.

These have a place as ways of influencing policies, services and businesses (depending of course on the politics of the individuals involved). They can also be seen as a by-product of the struggle against a patriarchial system.

Frankly I don’t think having Julie Bishop in Cabinet has made one jot of difference for:

  • single parents,
  • Indigenous women,
  • refugee women,
  • women fighting to save the water table and the environment from fracking,
  • women running or using domestic violence services,
  • women in TAFE, or university,
  • women who need quality child care services,
  • women under 30 seeking work,
  • women in countries where our development programs have been slashed.

Having more Julie Bishops in top law jobs, as CEOs on Boar, in Cabinet wont help either. And having Julie Bishop as PM would not be good for women

Paul Mattewson states that:

Women of the right are just as committed to the advancement of women as their sisters on the left. Women of the right are mothers too, and they want to see their daughters have prosperous and fulfilling lives. These women don’t reject the principles of feminism – equality and the advancement of women – but they see them being achieved in different ways. If that view is flawed, yelling at them to take on the feminist mantle will not correct it.

But that is just the problem. Advancing the cause of women is not about making sure your daughters have prosperous and fulfilling lives. That is ridiculous. Most conservative men want that for their daughters too. Was Tony Abbott being a feminist when he arranged for Francis to have a $60,000 under the table scholarship?

For me being a feminist is about looking at policies, programs and issues from the perspective of whose interests are served well and whose less well served. There is overwhelming evidence that women are systemic losers from policies that promote war, attack: working conditions, promote xenophobia, privatize services, ignore climate change issues, defund community legal aid, overseas development, and reduce access t ad the quality of childcare. This list could be extended but I think you get my point.

School Funding is indeed wasted Kevin, but not in ways that you are suggesting

sub title: More Dog Whistling from Kevin Donnelly:

Given that Christopher Pyne, anointed Kevin Donnelly as the one who could have his way with the Australian National Curriculum you think he might just sit back a little. But no – here he is again, but this time back to his old ways of vindictively threatening funding for Australia’s most needy students. But perhaps, after the Barry Spurr fiasco, Christopher Pyne has called on him to create a distraction.

So let’s look at his arguments and let’s apply Kevin’s own standards of Judaea-Christian tradition of solid, impartial, non-emotive, non-misleading, rational discourse.

His first claim runs as follows:

A prevailing myth of Australia’s left-leaning education establishment is that increased funding of government schools leads to improved educational outcomes.

But if you take out the misleading elements of this sentence, it might read more like this:

The prevailing position of Australia’s education establishment is that increased funding for high need schools will lead to improved educational outcomes.

Saying it this way reads a little differently doesn’t it? Here is the rationale for my edits:

  1. The Gonski report does not argue for more funding for Government schools – their status as Government schools is not the reason for additional funding. The Gonski report argues that Australia needs a resource standard that would be the amount of funds it takes to education an average child in Australia. On top of that we need to provide additional funds to be directed on the basis of needs – you might have noticed, Kevin, that it is called ‘needs based funding’ not Government school funding.
  1. Left leaning is nothing but a dog whistle. I am left leaning and Jane Caro might confess to this heinous crime too, but not David Gonski, nor Liberal Minister Adrian Piccoli. Rather, there is a consensus that needs based funding is the right way go.
  1. Thirdly, The use of the term ‘a … myth’ is quite emotive and misleading. It is not a myth just because Kevin says it is. In fact, the overwhelming weight of impartial, informed experts and researchers supports this view. Kevin knows better than to use red rag language like this. A more appropriate word would be ‘position’.

His next argument is that the OECD’s PISA tests show that increasing expenditure is not the solution. He is referring here to tables comparing global schooling expenditure to comparative PISA results. This argument actually has zero relevance to the Gonski claims because it has nothing whatsoever to do with needs based funding. It does not give any consideration to where the funding is directed.

Statistics on the global resourcing of schools tells us absolutely nothing about where the money goes. For example, the vast bulk of increases in schooling expenditure in Australia, since the mid 90s, has been spent on non-needy schools. Australia lags behind – way behind, other OECD countries on expenditure on public schools, where most of the needy students go, but is way out at the front of the pack on expenditure to private schools. In fact, no other country has directed such a huge amount of new funding on this sort of reverse targeting – on students who need it least.

This is a good example of Kevin’s sleight of hand approach to mounting an argument. He has cherry picked: this one, of many observations from the OECD reports, The OECD reports offer many other conclusions that were not referenced by Kevin. Those of most relevance to this debate include:

  • How resources are allocated is just as important as the amount of resources available to be allocated. P41
  • Much of the impact of socio-economic status on performance is mediated by the resources invested in schools. P43
  • How resources are allocated to disadvantaged and advantaged schools is also related to systems’ levels of performance. In higher performing systems, principals in socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools reported similar levels of quality of physical infrastructure and schools’ educational resources, both across OECD countries and across all countries and economies participated in PISA 2012 (Table IV.1.3). As shown in Figure IV.1.11, even after accounting for per capita GDP, 30% of the variation in mathematics performance across OECD countries can be explained by the level of similarities in principals’ report on schools’ educational resources between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. P43

Of particular note is Figure IV.1.11 which illustrates that, on this indicator of equity, Australia is at the bottom of the pack – equal to the United States, with only Turkey and Mexico less equitable than us

  • Across OECD countries and all countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools is not related to a system’s overall performance.

Kevin does not refer to any of these conclusions, preferring to use the one OECD conclusion that is ostensibly making his case. Here is the gist of his argument:

The OECD’s PISA in Focus 2013.. [concludes that] the countries that are the strongest performers in PISA are not the wealthiest, nor do they allocate more money to education

But what he should have said, drawing on all the relevant information might look more like this

 The OECD’s PISA in Focus 2013.. [concludes that] the countries that are the strongest performers in PISA are not the wealthiest, nor do they allocate more money to education, but they also don’t invest heavily in private school systems and they do invest more resources in low Socio-economic schools and ensure that the school facilities and standards of physical resourcing across schools are similar.

Kevin supports his poorly argued claim by drawing on a report prepared by Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh MP that appears to support him.

In Long Run Trends in School Productivity: Evidence from Australia, Leigh and Chris Ryan, analysing test results from 1964 to 2003, observed minimal improvement and concluded: “Real per child school expenditure increased substantially over this period, implying a fall in school productivity.”

But, of course, there are no comparable tests between 1964 and 2003, and Leigh and Ryan did not investigate where the expenditure increases occurred. If they had, they would have discovered that the bulk of the increases, above and beyond CPI, can be attributed to the combined result of the Whitlam decision to fund private schools in the 1970s and the huge boosts these schools enjoyed over the Howard years.

Kevin’s third argument is that the catholic system achieves superior results to the Government system.

To be honest, I don’t quite understand why this is an argument for not increasing funding to public schools. Surely if this was true it would support Gonski’s recommendations.

But is it true? Kevin does not substantiate or reference this claim.

Kevin also neglects to add that according to the OECD report 2013 cited above, (Figure ii-i-19) the results for Australia on the different performance on PISA (Mathematics) of school systems, after accounting for the socio-economic status of students and schools favours public education by a small margin.

And finally, Kevin’s last argument is about class size.

Perhaps this is relevant because Kevin assumes that the additional funds that would flow to high needs schools would all go towards reducing class sizes. This is an assumption as there are many other demands on cash strapped high needs schools – remedial support, counseling, diagnostic assessments, ICT, investing in teacher professional development, teacher remuneration …

Kevin ignores research that demonstrates that there is a positive relationship between smaller class sizes and student outcomes for low SES students and this is where the bulk of the additional funds will be directed.

He has also neglected to note that, since Government funding for private schools commenced in the 1970s, private schools (non-Catholic) have led the way in reduced class size even though this is where we get almost no gain from our investment. On the other hand Catholic School class sizes have absolutely plummeted and are now on par with Government schools.

Perhaps these two systems could be persuaded by Kevin to give back to the Government the additional funds they received that have been directed to reduced class sizes. After-all Kevin is adamant that money does not matter and should not be wasted and this is the key area where increased funds have not translated into improved outcomes.


This essay has a number of fundamental weaknesses: un-necessary emotive language designed to unduly influence readers, failure to substantiate core claims, cherry picking of evidence to suit a pre ordained conclusion and lack of engagement with the core conclusions of the OECD research. F-

The funding of NT remote Indigenous education is a first class disgrace and should be completely overhauled as a matter of urgency

Many readers will have read the article published in The Conversation yesterday (20 August 2014) written by Marcus Waters.   This is an opinion piece from a Indigenous academic in which he claims that Noel Pearson, has allegedly managed to completely hijack Indigenous education and community development funding policy for a small group of ‘his people’ and for programs that are not evidence based or adequately scrutinised. This paints a picture of a great deal of money sloshing around at the sole discretion of a powerful individual and available for services for less than 3000 people living in only four remote Indigenous communities. This is an extremely important issue but it is only one end of the problem.During this same week, another Indigenous education funding media story of a very different kind aired that received no attention whatsoever. In fact, the transcript of the interview (which is the story) had to be purchased by the NT branch of the Australian Education Union (NTAEU) because it was not available on the web.

This 18 August 2014 FM 104.1 transcript is of an interview with the NT Education Minister Peter Chandler by Daryl Manzie. The discussion topic is the current dispute between the NT Government (NTG) and the NTAEU branch of the Australian Education Union (NTAEU). This short exchange about school funding is my focus:

Manzie: Now look the Union, I have just talked to the interim head Jarvis Ryan this morning and he said look it’s all about resources and the Government is not providing sufficient resources to remote schools and you are cutting them even further, I mean, how do you answer that particular argument Peter?

Chandler: Well it’s a load of rubbish Daryl. I have visited schools and other locations and we have got some of the best-resourced schools in the Northern, in Australia. Some of the infrastructure we have in the Northern Territory compared to Queensland, the difference is remarkable, the resources in those schools are remarkable and I have mentioned this before but you visit schools like Aurukun, nineteen classrooms one smart board in the entire school, whereas we have got smart boards in most classrooms in the Northern Territory.

Is there anywhere else in the world where school funding disparity claims would be defended in the basis of the comparative number of smart boards? Isn’t this a bit like comparing two cars and their value on the basis of the CD player?

And isn’t it also predicable and extremely sad that claims of over funding and poor funding in relation to Indigenous Australians can grab headlines but the persistent reports of underfunding, under servicing, and more specifically, the rip-off of remote Indigenous communities by the Northern Territory Government are ignored.

One of the key findings of the first (2011) independent evaluation of the NT Emergency Intervention (NTER) was that the problems that gave rise to concerns about child safety were in large part the predictable result of chronic under servicing of these isolated financially impoverished communities. It also concluded that many of the initiatives funded under the NTER should have been in place as part of normal services – a proper housing planning, maintenance and replacement program, safe houses, policing services, infrastructure planning and maintenance, food security and quality standards for community stores and so on.

This chronic under-servicing has been a consistent state of affairs over a long period no matter which party held Government.[1] While elements of this story are exposed time and time again absolutely nothing ever changes, and, I fear, that nothing ever will. Many commentators argue that it would be political suicide for any Government to even hint at diverting funds spent on Darwin residents and white directed infrastructure to remote communities.

School education servicing is no different. I have written about this in great detail in a number of articles[2].

When I worked in NT Department of Education, it was common knowledge that Darwin schools were overfunded and remote schools underfunded. It was also common knowledge that for obvious political reasons this was never going to change.

This under-funding happens through deliberate policy decisions.

Firstly, the NTG is the only jurisdiction in Australia that does not have a needs-based school staff-funding model. This is despite the fact that it invested time and resources from 2007, over multiple years, to fund a unit dedicated to revising the staffing formula to include needs based weightings. The existence of this unit was useful for fobbing of queries about the staffing formula, including in response to queries I made in 2012.

This overfunding-underfunding came to light again just recently. The Gonski modeling work revealed stark funding disparities between NT provincial (Larger NT towns and Darwin) and remote schools. This was one of the reasons why Adam Giles turned down the Gonski Gillard offer.

In an article in the Australian on July 2013, Adam Giles, Chief Minister for the NT admitted that, according to the Gonski Student Resource Standard metrics, many Darwin, and some Alice Springs, schools are significantly over-funded and its remote schools underfunded.

The article notes that Giles thought “Gonski is a con that says more than 40 per cent of Territory students attend schools that get too much funding and need less “ and that he “accused Canberra of trying to hoodwink the Territory into signing up to a bad deal that diverts money away from urban students in Darwin, the rural area, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and redistributes it to remote schools”.

According to this article, under the Gonski model the following schools are overfunded relative to the Gonski school resourcing standards:

  • Darwin High School – overfunded by around $2 million
  • Palmerston Senior College – overfunded by around $2 million
  • Moil Primary School – overfunded by more than $1.3m,
  • Taminmin College – overfunded by $2.5m,
  • Bradshaw Primary School – overfunded by more than $900,000.

These are all schools in Darwin or Alice Springs with comparably low numbers of Indigenous students.

The I Give a Gonski website look up table lists the percentage increases Indigenous NT remote schools would have received under the Gonski funding principles. The following examples show clearly the degree of underfunding:

  • Shepherdson College – needs an increase of 73%
  • Yuendumu School –needs an increase of 60%
  • Umbakumbar School – needs an increase of 86%
  • Alekarenge School – needs a increase of 68%

Given this sorry state of affairs, does anyone believe that Giles and Chandler are going to use the additional Gonski funding allocated to the NT by Federal Minister Pyne for needs based funding? Perhaps they will set up another talented team of statisticians to develop a new staffing formula? But they don’t really need to bother, do they, because no-one is asking.

Secondly, the NTG persists in short changing remote schools by staffing all schools by attendance numbers and not on enrolment (which is standard practice in all other states).

This is a long standing practice in the Territory; it was one of the points of grievance for the Wadeye community that took both the Commonwealth and the NT Governments to the Australian Human Rights Commission arguing that they had been discriminated against and short-changed over a long period. They won the case but the ramifications were contained.

The Commonwealth tried to force the NTG to change its policy and, as part of negotiations around the NTER, the two Governments signed, in September 2007, a Memorandum of Understanding on Education that committed the Commonwealth to fund an additional 200 classrooms, to house student numbers if all attended everyday and to fund an additional 200 teachers.

In return, the NTG committed to fund on ‘agreed student numbers’ rather than attendance. This agreed student number was to be derived from triangulating ABS and NT data to arrive at an estimate of the actual numbers for school age students in each community. Needless to say this work was never completed.

The NT took the money but did not change the funding approach.

This policy and practice systematically discriminates against remote schools. With attendance running at between 50% and 60% in most remote communities, the NTG saves up to 48% of its staffing costs in remote communities. However, 100% of these children actually attend over the school term – just on an intermittent basis. They still need to be allocated to a teacher or teachers and to class rolls. They still need to be taught when they turn up.

A remote teacher colleague in the NT informed me recently that in their school they now have some class rolls of over 55. I ask you to imagine how you would teach effectively in such a situation.

I have raised this egregious matter on countless occasions but no one appears to accept its significance. Perhaps we are, if we are honest, convinced that nothing can change; it is inevitable an ‘Indigenous deficit’ that we nobly struggle to overcome. Or perhaps we just don’t want to know?

I have argued before that the “wickedness” of the Indigenous education disadvantage problem is that no-one expects that NTG to make any progress on this matter and this leaves them free to appear to be ‘making all efforts’ but to essentially wash their hands of any guilt associated with this failure.

I don’t know who I am more angry at:

  • deceitful politicians?
  • lazy journalists who let Governments’ get away with unsubstantiated and deceptive claims but run with over funding claims with alarming frequency;
  • the Darwin based members of the NT Education Union who know that their well funded schools are at the expense of their union colleagues struggling in remote schools to educate and manage in the toughest of contexts; or,
  • the Australian public who do not hold governments and journalists accountable for doing their job.

I know many Australians care about these issues but it is’ over there, hidden from view’ and ‘oh so complicated’. But what if underneath our helplessness and failure to focus, there resides an unacknowledged and implicit assumption that ‘it is all their fault – their problem’ ?

[1] To find out more about the evidence of under-servicing in remote communities go to, Margaret Clark, Getting Accountability Settings Right for Remote Indigenous Australians Ch 22, Achieving Quality Education for All, perspectives from the Asia – Pacific and Beyond, Phillip Hughes Ed, Vol. 20 Springer 2013. To read a more detailed analysis of the problems and role of both levels of Governments in under-servicing remote Indigenous communities in the NT go to Michael C Dillon and Neil D. Westbury, Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with Indigenous Australia, Seaview Press, 2007.



It is the Funding Stupid: Fixing Remote Indigenous Student Attendance

The Commonwealth has recently announced yet another Remote Schools Attendance Strategy focused on improving attendance through the funding of a cadre of school attendance officers and supervisors in identified communities across Australia. In fact it is one of the very few initiatives focusing on Indigenous students that the Commonwealth is continuing to fund.

Attendance is also a key priority for the Northern Territory Government (NTG). The NTG has recently published for final report of Bruce Wilson’s extensive Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory called “A Share in the Future”. This Report underscores the importance of continuing to focus on improvements to attendance in spite of poor progress and makes a number of related recommendations.

There is no doubt about poor school attendance being a stand out feature of remote Indigenous schools in the NT. Imagine having an average 60% attendance rate at best in an urban white dominated schools where only about a quarter of the children attended more that an average of 4 days a week. That is the reality.

However Wilson’s review report makes a number of claims about student attendance, that are questionable and is silent on some of the most important matters that contribute to the problem.

Firstly, Wilson claims that there is a causal link between improved attendance and improved student outcomes. I am sure most of us think this makes intuitive sense but is it actually the case?

Secondly, Wilson argues that the NTG has spent incalculable resources over many years to improve the school attendance of Indigenous students, but without any material improvement. I will dispute this in this article.

Thirdly, Wilson’s recommendations related to attendance, while an improvement on his original draft report, neglect two critical issues: school funding and the quality of what happens in classrooms.

The relationship between school attendance and student outcomes

The report includes two tables that show that there is a direct relationship between the percentage of days students attend schools and their NAPLAN scores. Wilson makes the common mistake of assuming that this relationship is a causal one: that the more time a student spends in class, the greater their NAPLAN score.

But this is not necessarily the case. A link could be due to a third factor, or the causality could be reversed. For example, a school could radically improve its curriculum and pedagogy causing both attendance to rise and results to improve, or it could be the case that students who are more successful are more likely to attend more regularly.

The question Wilson should have asked is: does a student improve when s/he attends class more frequently? To answer this question, it would be necessary to focus on schools where attendance is improving and then look at their NAPLAN scores. But there is a catch.

At the recent AARE National Conference James Ladwig and Allan Luke presented a paper arguing that there is no relationship between school student attendance and improved student outcomes for Indigenous students. Here is what they have to say:

The overall claim that increased attendance is linked with improved achievement seems like common sense. It stands to reason that if a student attends more, s/he is more likely to perform better on annually administered standardised tests. The inverse also seems intuitive and common sensical: that if an individual student doesn’t attend, s/he is less likely to achieve well on these conventional measures.

But sometimes what appears to make sense about an individual student may not factually hold up when we look at the patterns across a larger school or system.

Ladwig and Luke did not undertake a simple correlation exercise comparing attendance levels with NAPLAN results. Instead they attempted to focus on those schools where student attendance improved.

However, what they found was that Indigenous dominated schools making big improvement in attendance rates are very rare. So rare that the empirical study of the changes in NAPLAN score is making a lot out of a tiny tiny set.

They also found that attendance in remote schools is highly resistant to change. This of course comes as no surprise to long term teachers and principals in these schools who simply sigh and shrug when the latest new or recycled magic bullet is announced.

Luke and Ladwig were able to identify a very small group of schools that showed improvements in school attendance AND NAPLAN improvements, but in every case, these same schools had “implemented significant curriculum and teaching method reforms over the same period examined”.

They concluded that “attending school may or may not help generally, but improving achievement depends on what children do once we get them to school”.

I couldn’t agree more.

What Wilson missed

Wilson’s recommendations around attendance suggest some very important areas for attention – encouraging parent responsibility, identifying the community factors that negatively impact attendance, using kinship connection to enhance attendance maintaining and making more inclusive Clontarf type programs, and better management of the impact of increased attendance on classrooms.

But he neglected to address the two major areas that might make a difference: what happens in classrooms and adequate needs based funding.

Ladwig and Luke have identified the first factor – curriculum reform and quality professional development. But they assume that this is straightforward and will translate to change in what happens in classrooms. I disagree.

What Ladwig and Luke missed

I am disappointed that they neglected to note that all the professional development and curriculum reform in the world cannot change practice in the NT as long as the NTG persists in short changing remote schools by staffing remote schools by attendance numbers and not on enrolment (standard practice in all other states).

Attendance rates are frequently misunderstood.   I recall a Minister, who shall not be named, once asking why 40% of remote Indigenous students do not attend school in response to a briefing about attendance rates being at 60% for remote NT schools. The reality is both better and worse. All of the students included in ‘the denominator’ (100%) attend school some of the time but the average RATE of attendance is 60%. However in NT remote schools only around 27% attend more that 80% of the time.

I have described in a previous blog just how much staffing by attendance, and not enrolment, impacts on the classroom:

… a primary school with 300 children enrolled, but an attendance rate of 60per cent, would be allocated staff for 180 students not 300. Yet the number of students who need to be assigned to teachers and classes is 300 not 180 – they just attend irregularly. This would require making class sizes of about 33 not 20.

So on any one day, a teacher might have only 20 children in their class but about 33 children on the roll.  Based on the expectation that only about 27 per cent would attend over 80 per cent of the time, this class of 33 might have about 9 children who attend on a very regular basis and the remaining 24 children would also attend, albeit on a highly irregular basis.

Can you just imagine the chaos of such a classroom and how hard it would be to focus on the small number of students who are there regularly?  Add to this mix, inexperienced short term principals, a high number of novice teachers, a generally non-English speaking student body and cultural challenges, and you get an even more accurate picture.

How can a regularly attending student progress in their learning when the teacher has no choice but to attend to the high needs and behaviour management demands of the irregular attendees? They need a calm learning environment and they get the extreme opposite of this. Staffing on enrolment – on the same basis as other schools – could support this.

I have raised this egregious matter on countless occasions but no one appears to accept its significance. Perhaps we just don’t want to know?

One of the issues that worries me about the findings of Ladwig and Luke is that it can operate as a “get out of jail free card”. It can too easly slide into being understood as, “Attendance is dependent on factors outside the schools control and is not a priority. Instead lets just focus on what happens in classrooms”. Of course, don’t be too surprised when this too produces no change. We have come to accept this inevitability.

I have argued before that the “wickedness” of the Indigenous education disadvantage problem is that no-one expects that NTG to make any progress on this matter and this leaves them free to appear to be ‘making all efforts’ but to essentially wash their hands of any guilt associated with this failure.

Ladwig and Luke have done an important piece of work identifying an issue that requires further investigation. But, it is important that we ask the right questions, and have high quality researchers like this team get into the classrooms for a period of time in order to observe first hand how the current set up in NT remote and very remote Indigenous schools guarantees failure through gross indirect funding discrimination.

What would your school do with Gonski money?

Throwing more money at schools isn’t the answer yells Dr Scott Prasser. This is the man who has defended every red cent that the Government has allocated to Catholic schools – even the 50% of them who were overfunded after the SES model was introduced and their funding level was grandfathered.

The Gonski Review Panel did not address the issue of how the additional funds so sorely needed by public and needy schools in Australia because this was outside their terms of reference.

But it is an important question. Glen Fowler in an article in the Canberra Times, How Money Makes a Difference tells the story of Richardson Primary school – one of a very small number of ACT disadvantaged schools and how they managed their Low SES National Partnership funds to improve learning outcomes for their children. He is what they did

Richardson Primary started by enhancing its capacity to gather and analyse data about how their students were performing. They purchased licences from the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) to administer annual internal tests in literacy and numeracy at all year levels. That way, they didn’t have to wait for NAPLAN results. They had up-to-date information about where students were falling behind and needed extra support.

Drawing on hard data that indicated students were struggling with vocabulary development and reading comprehension, the school set about enhancing teacher capacity to address these issues. Every staff member attended a five-day intensive course in Dr Spencer Kagan’s high-impact collaborative learning strategy. Kagan’s approach aims to engage every student, especially those who are struggling, by structuring activities so that students feel individual and collective responsibility for their learning.

Additionally, every teacher attended a two-day seminar with educational expert, Dr Dylan Wiliam, on using his formative assessment strategies to enrich each student’s learning journey.

The school also purchased teacher and classroom resources to complement structured and supported teacher-learning teams that ensure effective school-wide implementation of these key strategies. This razor-sharp focus on improving instructional practice through collaboration and reflection has led to more confident and skilful educators, adept at engaging every learner every moment of the learning process.

The school’s final strategy was to build community partnerships. Working with the YWCA of Canberra, the school established an Intel Computer Clubhouse for 10-18-year-olds in the area. The Clubhouse is an out-of-school-hours high-tech digital studio where young people can work with industry-standard hardware and software and collaborate with mentors on passion projects.


This is an interesting set of initiatives for a number of reasons

Firstly, This school understands that particularly in relation to students who are not achieving agreed benchmarks in reading outcomes, NAPLAN test results come too late. Fowler doesn’t state it but I am sure the school also understands that NAPLAN does not provide information for this group of learners. It is too narrow and not diagnostic in design. It is interesting to note that after using these more diagnostic assessments it was found that the real barriers to reading developments were vocabulary and reading comprehension. These are of course quite linked but neither is well tested by NAPLAN.

Secondly, the professional development focus was cooperative learning using groups of differing ability students using a well-researched evidence based approach. Now cooperative learning has a long history in education but there is a big difference between a few teachers across a school taking this approach and a well-prepared well-trained school adopting it en mass. Its worth noting that recent research has identified a growing trend for schools to adopt streaming approaches in their classrooms – not because it is well researched but because this makes it easier to teach based on NAPLAN content as the key organiser.

Thirdly, basing classroom learning experiences around information based on formative assessment allows for learning personalisation and ensures that the time spent on learning is both accessible and challenging.

Finally, there are things about Richardson Primary school that are not mentioned in this report but that matter a lot. First of all the principal is Jason Borton, who is known to many twitter-active educators as a wise, brave and outspoken leader on key education issues. High quality leadership for low SES schools is critical and systems should be investing in strategies to ensure that. Secondly, I don’t know how but Richardson Primary have managed to have relatively small class sizes – 19 at most in all but kindergarten where the ration is 16-1. Don’t let anyone id you that the size of the class does not matter.

So there you have it, this school has not wasted a cent on extrat resources to drill down on NAPLAN, new fancy learning packages aligned with NAPLAN. In fact they appear t have completely ignored it – and righty so in my view.

Instead Richardson Primary is well placed to support all its children through high quality leadership, a whole school focus on well evidenced pedagogical strategies, intelligent and focussed use of formative and diagnostic assessments across the school and a classroom student teacher ratio that is workable. I don’t know how this school will adapt to the highly financially constrained environment they will find themselves in if the full 6 years of Gonski are not agreed to, but it wont be good and students will be negatively affected.

It would be interesting to collect accounts of what other schools are currently doing that will need to stop. I do hope someone is doing this.

Tony Abbott backs US-style corporate schools for Australia

I am delighted to be able to post this piece from my friend Lyndsay Connors.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised before the election that there would be ‘no surprises’ from a government under his leadership.

True to form, it is no surprise that he would come out with an announcement, during his visit to New York, ‘that the federal government will unveil plans next month for an Americanised education system in which schools are run in partnership with big companies and children educated to work specifically for those companies or others in the same field’ (Australian Financial Review, 13/6/14, p.6).

Similarly, it is no surprise that some big companies, like cuckoos, would like to lay their own eggs in the schools and systems that are the product of past investment by others – public and private.
Of course, while not being surprised, we can still be shocked.

From my personal standpoint, it is now several decades since my youngest child completed schooling.

Thinking now of my grandchildren, I would be the last to attempt to push them forward ahead of others to experience the benefits of Tony Abbott’s latest brainwave.

No, let the young Pynes, Hockeys and Cormanns be the first to benefit from this educational innovation. Let them reap the rewards of schools designed to prepare them to work for one or another of our big companies. Let them ride this exciting wave first.

The previous Labor government was a disappointment in this regard. When PM Julia Gillard took herself to America, Joel Klein was the New York schools city Chancellor. ThePM waxed lyrical about him, as if he were the repository of wisdom on all things educational, but in no time at all his star appeared to wane. Let us hope that those who plan to have their children’s education curriculum shaped by Rupert Murdoch or his ilk have better luck.

It is reasonable to assume that the schools to be first in the queue to gain the advantages of the Americanised education system will be those to whom Tony Abbott and his government, according to Christopher Pyne, have an ‘emotional’ commitment (see That would be both fair and logical. After all, these are the schools that, leaving aside the small matter of their significant reliance on public funding, are in the vanguard when it comes to privatisation. They are in a state of readiness for the new regime. Many of them even have their own chaplains.

It would be too embarrassing, in my view, for IBM or other corporate players, to have to deal with the likes of the schools my grandchildren attend. The amateurish school fetes, the various ‘spellathons’ and ‘walkathons’ – it would be too humiliating to draw the attention of rich and powerful corporations to these motley attempts at private fund-raising.

Then I think of the many P&C meetings I have attended. To be frank, it would quite beyond the level of sophistication generally found in these associations to handle the kinds of complexity that could arise in the new ‘corporate pathways’ academies. No way could most of them cope, for example, with takeovers. They would be quite out of their depth in the kind of situation that might arise where the company arranging their children’s curriculum and future employment gets swallowed up by an entirely different corporation – possibly an overseas one.

No, it is clear that ideas as imaginative as those envisaged by our Prime Minister can only be handled by the private schools. Not only does he have a soft spot for them, but these are also the schools with which his Government, according to Minister Pyne, will retain a ‘direct’ relationship that will obviate the need for messy negotiations with states and territories.

Under the new Americanised scheme, these schools can be encouraged to shed the shackles of government funding. Consistent with the end of the ‘age of entitlement, they can be freed to seek any subvention they need on top of their fees and other sources of private income from Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates or other corporate leaders.

As for public schools and their supporters, they deserve to be left to their own devices. When it comes to their vision for their children’s schooling, many of them are not yet ready to move on from Henry Parkes to Henry Ford.

Its time to call it: a public school spade is an elite school shovel.

I was outraged when I first heard that PM Julia Gillard required the Gonski Review of School Funding to ensure that, in developing their options, ‘no school should lose a dollar’. I was not the only one.

It was a disgraceful requirement to impose on the first comprehensive review of school funding arrangements in 40 years.

Some observers might have wondered why there wasn’t more outrage. The reason is really very simple. Most of us who care passionately about a better deal for needy public schools didn’t like this imposed requirement but felt that getting more money flowing into public education, and establishing a more transparent and fair set of principles for needs based funding into the future, was so important that it was better to accept the terms of the Review and work for the fairest outcome possible under these terms.

The no loser stipulation was also seen by many as a possible circuit breaker to the highly polarized debate that pitted private school against public school funding. It was viewed as a win-win opportunity that would increase the probability of support for the model across from private sector school lobbyists, and consequently enhance the chance of success.

Immediately after the release of the Gonski report, there was a sense of optimism because the private sector did not publicly oppose the Gonski package.

But even then the undermining had begun. The private sector, almost immediately, initiated backdoor, undocumented meetings. This resulted in the Government response to the Gonski Report revising the modeling to ensure the Catholic sector share was maintained in proportional terms. For example, the needs based Gonski weightings were for students in the bottom 25% of the SES scale but the reworked model applied needs based funding for students in the bottom 50% of the SES scale. This shifted the proportion of the needs based funds from the poorest schools to the less poor schools and ensured that the Catholic Systemic schools retained their proportional share of increased pool of Commonwealth funding.

The Gillard Government also put the implementation of Gonski at risk by delays, by attempts to tie the funds to other Commonwealth initiatives, by making it an election issue and through delaying the bulk of the funding to the post budget period out-years.

Then when it looked like there would be a change of Government several outspoken private sector advocates started to spruik alleged negatives of Gonski.[1] Ironically the high price ticket for the full Gonski, necessitated in large part by the no losers stipulation, made the package an easy target to shoot down by the very sector that benefited from this stipulation.

So we are back to fighting for a fair deal for the Public Schools. We need now to talk about why the ‘no losers ‘ framework was a bad bad policy idea. It’s time to speak out about the rank injustice and the waste of funds in a policy that gives tax payers education funds to schools that have resources other schools can only dream about and that simply do not need them. This is the focus of this article.

Why was Gillard’s no school will lose a dollar imposition bad policy?

This paper identifies five very important reasons why we should work towards a school funding policy that continues to support sector blind needs based funding fully without wasting much needed funds on schools whose level of resourcing means that they can manage perfectly well with no additional taxpayer funds.

The initial decision to fund elite private schools, 40 years ago, was not the result of considered policy

Government funding for a very significant number of elite schools had never actually been the policy intention of the initial review of school funding undertaken by the Schools Commission over 40 years ago.

The Karmel Review of school funding originally recommended giving priority in the use of public funds to schools whose standards were below certain agreed desirable levels, and deferring the eligibility for extensive support of schools with resources above this standard until others had been raised to a standard nearer to them. The report stressed that they accepted the right of parents to school choice but not their right to public assistance to facilitate this choice.

The Whitlam Government failed to get this through the Senate and was forced to amend the legislation to extend funding to all schools.

They won this ‘concession’ – now a sacred right – not through any merit of their case for funding, but in spite of it. They won it on the backs of the urgent and pressing needs of the Catholic parish schools, that with the demise of strong sacred orders to fill their classroom ranks, were unable to fund their local parish schools on their own.

Poor policy decisions and blatantly pro-elite schools decisions have progressively increased funding to elite schools

To explain how, and why, I need to give a potted history of Commonwealth Government funding to the private schools sector since the 1970s. In significant ways, this 40 year period can be divided into two distinct parts: the Pre Howard years and the Howard years.

1973-1996 The Pre Howard years

Before the 1970s, the common sense logic was no different from that which operated in most other countries: Governments fund schools out of taxes. These schools are designed to cater for all comers. Not everyone uses these services but they are part of the Common estate just like hospitals, unemployment services, parks, police, footpaths, roads, public transport, sporting facilities. Some people access and/or need, these services more than others. Some can effectively opt out but the services are available for all. Governments don’t fund private roads or private security services for those who don’t find the public system meets their needs. I don’t get a rebate if I don’t use public transport or footy ovals. This is still how most countries think about their schools.

According to Jean Blackburn, one of the key authors of the Karmel Review, the decision to push the school funding bill through the Senate, by accepting the inclusion of elite schools, led to school funding arrangements that can only be seen as unique and extraordinary in a number of respects, and not in a good way. By funding schools that did not need the funds, it established a logic, almost unique to Australia, that because the wealthy pay taxes for services like education they are entitled to have a ‘market share’ of those taxes applied to schools of their choice.

One of the other unintended consequences of this significant amendment to the legislation, pushed through for political reasons, is that the usual considerations essential to good policy development were skipped. The school funding arrangements put in place by the Karmel Review established accountability free funding, where monies were provided with no strings attached, unlike any other Government grant based program.

This mattered less when the funding recipients were struggling Catholic and other schools that needed the money for teacher salaries[2]. They had no room for discretionary spending even with new funding. But as Jean Blackburn observed years later[3]:

There were no rules about student selection and exclusion, no fee limitations, no shared governance, no public education accountability, no common curriculum requirements below the upper secondary level.. We have now become a kind of wonder at which people [in other countries] gape. The reaction is always, ‘What an extraordinary situation’.      

The funding system established differential funding based on a measure of need. However, in the accountability free environment of the time, that had the perverse effect of rewarding schools that directed a greater proportion of the private income towards capital expenditure – towards buildings and facilities. This increased the inequality in building standards and services between school systems.

When one takes a longer term view of school funding in Australia, it is notable that for the first 60 odd years of the 20th century, school funding was entirely a responsibility for the states. The Commonwealth entered the picture in a minor way only through the specific funding of libraries and science centres.

But over the period 1973- 1996, it came to be understood that the Commonwealth had an ongoing role in core funding for the private school sector but only for specific purpose lines of funding for the public sector. This left all core funding for public education in the hands of the more financially impoverished states. As Connor and McMorrow note this had serious consequences over time:

This is a serious issue in a federal system in which the Commonwealth government raises the lion’s share of all revenues. The Commonwealth was readily able to increase grants to schools in the non-government sector, especially as this sector is only half the size of the public sector, at a rate that was far harder for States and Territories to match for the much larger public sector, given competing claims on their tighter budgets.

By the beginning of the Howard years in 1996, the operation of the private school funding policies had become normalized. The historical newness and the global uniqueness of these arrangements had been forgotten by all but a few, and the sacredness of parent choice had been enshrined in our commonsense thinking as a fundamental right (only for those that can afford it, of course).

Public education activists of the period feared that this approach would lead to the residualisation of the public school system, school segregation on the basis of race and class and greater educational inequality. In 1983, well before the Howard education reforms, Blackburn noted that:

In an ironic twist the achievement of long denied public support for non-Government schools has played its part in producing a situation where it is public schooling and public purposes in education that are now on the defensive.[4]

1996 – 2007: The Howard Years

That was where things stood up until the early 90s. Then came the Howard years, where things went from bad to worse. Here is what Connors and McMorrow have to say about this period:

The next watershed in schools funding policies in Australia followed the election of the Howard government in 1996. The Howard government’s arrangements for Commonwealth recurrent funding of schools were grounded in the belief that the way to drive the quality of schooling was to use public money to promote parental choice of non-government schooling and by this means to stimulate provider competition.

I have emphasized the word promote because the first time I read this extract I missed the importance of this shift from supporting parent choice to actively promoting, not just choice, but private schools as the desirable choice.

This was a blatant attempt to privatize education provision for all but the most needy. Public education went from being the default option at the heart of our democratic vision for Australia to a necessary, but residual, second tier service. This quote in the Connors and McMorrow papers reveals the extent of this new vision:

In this policy scenario, the fundamental value and strength of government schooling was described by Prime Minister Howard as the ‘safety net and guarantor of a reasonable quality education in this country’ for the children of those with parents unable or unwilling to pay for private schooling.

This was a significant ideological shift. Prior to this the idea of residualisation was talked about as a potential unplanned outcome of school choice. But here we have Howard stating that this is now a Government policy goal – to residualise Government schools. This is quite extraordinary.

To support this policy goal, funding to the private school sector, over the Howard years, grew by leaps and bounds.

In 2001 a new funding formula was introduced that was described as needs based. The actual effect was the exact opposite due to a number of significant reasons.

Firstly, a new SES[5] funding model was introduced which tied school funding levels to the average SES of the family’s residential postcodes. This was a windfall for schools that had sucked out wealthier families from socially mixed communities. For example, the inner North of Melbourne has a number of suburbs that have a bifurcated population where public housing high-rise estates abut the trendy new developments of the upper middle class. The SES classification for these suburbs will be an average of the 2 groups, but the families who opt out of public education will come almost entirely from only one of these two groups. They take with them to their private schools the funding levels of their postcode.

But it was an even bigger windfall for the large number of high SES schools whose historical level of funding was higher than the funding they would receive under the new classification. The Government agreed to maintain them at their current levels of over funding (another no schools will lose a dollar moment).

Thirdly, this new scheme tied the private school per-student metric to the average cost of educating a student at a public school (The AGSRC). This might sound sensible and fair. But as low needs students exited the public system in ever increasing numbers, and the concentration of high needs students grew, the average costs of educating this higher needs cohort also grew. This created an unearned windfall to the non-Government system (and by the way pushed up the costs of education with no returns on investment).

This new funding scheme increased funding overall to the private school sector above and beyond the pro-rata student increases. This was justified by claims that schools could use the increased funds to reduce fees and thus broaden the base of parents able to choose private schools. This did not happen due to other perverse incentives built into the new scheme. As Connor and McMorrow note:

At the same time .. the government removed all downward pressure on fees, arguing the non-government schools should be free to raise their private income without affecting their level of Commonwealth general recurrent grant; and that any restraint on fees constituted a disincentive to private effort. This was an example of either policy confusion or obfuscation. If the government’s intention was to broaden the socio-economic composition of those families with access to non-government schools, its policy embodied a powerful nudge in the opposite direction.

So the overall effect of these changes has been:

  • An increasing private sector and a contracting public sector, especially at secondary level;
  • Increasing numbers of the higher SES families across all suburbs opting out of public schools and into private schools;
  • An increasing concentration of high SES students in private schools and an increasing concentration of low SES students in public schools;
  • Increasing costs in the public school sector as the proportion of high needs students increased;
  • A consequent unjustified increased transfer of funds to the private schools; and
  • Increasing inequality of student outcomes tied directly to student background.

In funding relativity terms the funding story is very clear. As noted by McMorrow and Connors:

From 1976, a steady shift started to take place in the Commonwealth’s distribution of its schools funding between government and non-government schools. From a 70 per cent share of the Commonwealth’s total funding in 1974, the government schools’ share had dropped to less than one-third by 2007. The changing policies and priorities of successive governments had contributed to this reversal of the Commonwealth’s funding shares for government and non-government schools, until by the end of the Howard government’s term of office, there had been a complete reversal.

In summary then, by the time the Gonski Review of School Funding was announced, the initial 1970s Senate political compromise to include elite schools in Commonwealth funding arrangements had blown out through a succession of both poorly developed policy arrangements and deliberately constructed policies that pushed parents to the private sector. Public schools had become significantly residualised and poorly resourced, and funding for elite schools overblown and unfettered.

The no-losers stipulation meant that the Gonski review could never address the harm done through the creation of a highly segregated school system.

Putting more funds into public schools could assist schools to address the additional challenges of teaching the more needy disadvantaged students and could potentially stop further residualisation. However it would not help to break down the segregation that had already been established.

A socially mixed school helps students with the highest needs without any detriment to the lower need students. A highly segregated system imposes another disadvantage on high need schools that Chris Bonnor refers to as ‘ the school effect’:

…the ever-increasing social and academic divide between schools represents a looming disaster for the students being left behind and for a nation that is already feeling the effects.

…..This social pooling of enrolments is making the SES impact of the school itself, as distinct from the direct impact of family SES, far more significant. The impact of family SES on student achievement in Australia is close to the OECD average, but impact of school SES is among the highest in the OECD. ..

[This is because] … students themselves constitute a very significant intellectual and cultural resource for schools – they bring prior learning, family education, networks and know-how. Depending on which students they enrol, schools gradually look and feel different in things such as resources, student discipline and time on task, number and type of welfare issues, teacher qualifications and expectations, curriculum, achievement culture and more.

The only way to address this un-equalising ‘school effect’ is to desegregate our schools, by ensuring that our public schooling system comes to be seen as a high quality system that caters for all through the ability to provide targeted support for diverse needs.

The large funding quantum of Gonski made it a big target

David Gonski in delivering the Inaugural Jean Blackburn Oration reminded the audience that the reason for the $5 billion price tag is because the stipulation that ‘no school should lose a dollar’ required a lot more funding to be put into the system. The flexibility to redistribute would have delivered a lower cost package. For example the overfunding of the some schools could have been redirected. Alternatively, Gonski could have reverted to the funding principles of the original Karmel recommendations and cut funding to elite private schools.

The Gonski funding quantum is not high in GDP terms but the Abbott Government has used it as a reason to walk away from the Gonski model. Cries of, ‘we can’t afford Gonski,’ have reverberated around our newscorp media with a sense of glee. Almost no-one has responded by stating the obvious, that if you want to reduce the price tag, the solution is simple – lose the ‘no losers’ stipulation. That the Commission of Audit did not identify this option speaks volumes about their interests and ineptitude.

The no–losers stipulation was based on a myth

It’s a myth that has now hardened into a self-confirming truth – that the elite schooling sector is so powerful that no Government can ever roll back the unfair funding regime. Belief in this myth explains the backdoor, undocumented meetings that were not offered to the public school counterparts. Belief in this myth explains why the needs based formula was watered down to such an extent that the funding share to the Catholic system was sustained in spite of their higher SES intake. Belief in this myth explains why Julia Gillard, after a visit to an elite private school with world-class facilities, exclaimed, “Isn’t this great!”

This myth grew to ultimate truth status due to an event that came to be known as the “Latham school hit list incident”. Just weeks before the 2004 election Mark Latham, then leader of the opposition, declared that funding for the very elite private schools should be cut and the funds distributed.

The media exploded. It went nuts. Peter Browne on Inside Story in 2012 noted that the media touted it as act of provocative class warfare and electoral suicide:

The plan provoked a furore, particularly on talkback radio. The Prime Minister, John Howard, characterised it as “old-fashioned class warfare,” a phrase that appeared repeatedly – along with “hit list” – in media coverage over subsequent days and weeks. The churches “savaged” Latham (according to a headline in the Australian), and the private schools warned of fee hikes and an exodus back to government schools. Robert Manne described the announcement as “dubious politics.” Andrew Bolt described it as “abhorrent.

The media believed its own story and so the fact that Labor lost the election because of the Latham hit list was accepted a fact. Except that it is not true. Browne’s investigation shows that this is a misunderstanding of why Labor lost the election as the polls of the time tell another story entirely:

Just before Christmas 2003, Newspoll asked 1200 adults to say what they would “like” or “not like” to happen in 2004. Fifty-five per cent of respondents said they would like to see “a reduction in government subsidies for private schools.” Thirty-five per cent opposed such a move and 10 per cent were uncommitted. In other words, only a little over a third of respondents felt strongly enough to oppose what would later become Labor’s education policy for the election.

Latham announced the school funding policy on 15 September, three-and-a-half weeks before election day.

Ten days later, though, an ACNielsen survey of just over 1400 voters found that support for a shift in funding had actually risen since the Newspoll survey ten months earlier. Fully 66 per cent of respondents approved of Labor’s policy, with 27 per cent disapproving and the remainder uncommitted. Even among Coalition voters, the policy attracted support from 47 per cent of respondents, with 44 per cent opposed.

In conclusion

Now that this Government has walked away from both the funding quantum and the key principles underpinning the Gonski recommendations, we may feel demoralised and defeated but we are not right back to ‘before Gonski’. The Review process and the huge effort put in by the Australian Education Union and many others was not a waste of time and effort.

The funding principles of a ‘school resource standard’ and ‘needs based weightings’ have now been firmly established as the way forward on the basis of extensive research and consultation.

The inequality of resourcing and the needs of public education have been clearly demonstrated.

But we also now know that trying to work with the private sector, hoping for a win-win solution will not work, and that this Government’s priorities do not include a fair go for the old, the young, the marginalised, the sick, or even for future generations. This has become crystal clear through the budget., However, civil society is starting to get organised and to build a broad based pro-poor, pro-social justice, pro-environment, and pro-inclusive movement. Manifestos and priorities for this movement are in development through multiple social media based processes.

This is our opportunity to make sure the key school funding principles outlined through the Gonski process can be included in this broad based movement.   Let us take what we need from the Gonski model and build a strong and clear narrative about what high quality equity based schooling system would look like in Australia. Let us place this narrative within the larger school funding historical narrative where the last 40 years can come to be seen, not as the sacred baseline, and not as the default position but as a foolish, unjustifiable, politically motivated aberration that has done immense harm.


[1] I have documented some of this in a previous article.

[2] Although it is worth noting that while the poorer private schools had less freedom to squander their funds there were many questionable practices that were allowed to flourish because of high growth in evangelical Christian schools. Marion Maddox details some of this in her book Taking God to School

[3] Quoted by Dean Ashenden in Mr Gonski and the Social Contract following Gonski’s Jean Blackburn Oration

[4] Jean Blackburn, Changing Approaches to Equity in Education, John Curtin memorial lecture 1991 ANU

[5] Socio-Economic Status

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.