Did Neoliberalism Kill Gender Equity in Australian Schools?

My starting point for this article is the following puzzle. We live in a world saturated with discussion about feminism across all media and many areas of focus – from gaming, to global conflict. But in our schools it is largely an absent presence.

This is in spite of the fact that, in the two decades following the publication of the landmark Australian Schools Commission Report, Girls, Schools and Society (1975),[1] Australia was one of the world leaders in bringing together the best of feminist academic scholars, education policy makers and education practitioners to develop understandings about the nature of gender inequality, how school contributes to this inequality and the best ways to address gender issues in schools.

During this period, gender equity policies were in place nationally and in all states and there was a lively debate about gender equity priorities, drawing on practice and research, about how gender inequality is constructed and maintained, the implications for the education of boys and much more. Of course it was far from perfect and there were pockets of resistance, but it was never just ignored.

It is true that there are still some programs that are being implemented in Australian schools today that are informed by feminist understandings. Some good examples of this include the safe schools program – a national program addressing homophobia, some but not all anti-bullying programs and a Victorian state school program that has a focus on sex education and gender based violence.

However, these are not across all schools and there are no consistent broader gender equity programs in place. It appears to be entirely up to individual feminist educators to find suitable material and more importantly to find space in pressured teaching programs for any learning that prepares students to understand and respond to patriarchal cultural, economic and social practices and structures that they both already experience and will come across in adulthood.

There are also no longer official systemic policies they can rely on to legitimize this work and I have heard anecdotally that even strong feminist educators often decide not to raise issues relating to gendered practices in their school or to suggest the inclusion of feminist perspectives, where they may be relevant to a particular learning topic, because they fear the consequences.

Why this happened could be seen as less relevant than what to do about it. But what if the issues are connected? What if the ideas, assumptions, practices and or forces that contributed to the demise of gender equity policy and practice continue to impact today?

In my previous article, I noted that I had always assumed that the gender equity movement died because the ascendency of the men’s rights backlash coincided with increasing evidence that, in terms of school level academic outcomes, girls were actually faring better than boys, in crude terms, and that in 1996 the Howard Government was voted in and backed the men’s rights view of the world.

Looking back I can see that this might have been the main driver in the first instance but this does not explain why there was no rebound effect.

Why has gender equity stayed off the schooling agenda for 20 years when there has been such a significant resurgence almost everywhere else?

In this article I make the case for the following propositions:

  1.  That neoliberal understandings[2] have had a profound impact on the structures and cultures of schooling and this has reduced the opportunities for the kinds of intellectual work required to bring feminist considerations to mainstream learning.
  2. That neoliberal understandings have also impacted on the kinds of feminist understandings that are most accessible to educators by privileging individualistic perspectives and practices.
  3. That the impact of this has been significant and problematic for young people who leave school and enter adulthood poorly prepared for negotiating patriarchal structures, practices and assumptions that they encounter as adults particularly around work and family.

Neoliberalism and Schooling[3]

The gender equity policies and practices that were taken up by school systems right across Australia, in the period between 1975 and 1995, took place in school settings that lacked the significant elements of neoliberal understandings of schooling.

There were no national standardised tests and even when they (the NAP, now NAPLAN) were first introduced in the mid 1990s, they did not become high stakes tests until the Labor Party, excited by Joel Klein’s vision decided to report the results a school level through the MySchool website in 2008.

The Howard and Kennett visions of improving schooling through markets and school choice had not yet begun. While many parents decided to send their child to a non-state school, and a small number of parents chose out of area public schools, the local community public school was still the default. Politicians were not yet sprouting the idea that schools across all systems would improve by competing with each other for teachers and students and that it was the responsibility of good parents to make an informed choice about their child’s schooling.

The National Curriculum Statement and Profiles, that had been completed by the early 90s, looked very different to the more proscribed syllabus outline we have today. They were firmly based on developmental understandings of children’s learning, they rejected A-E grading and the notion that children must be assessed against year level standards.

Australian participation in global testing, PISA and TIMMS, was in the early stages of negotiation. Indeed, we did not know how well our students were doing in a global context, as there were no global standards or comparative data.

Teachers were still accused of being not good enough and there were vicious debates about how to teach reading, and the merits of progressive education vis-à-vis other methods. However, progressive education as understood in the broad traditions of John Dewey and Jerome Bruner dominated, and the idea of education for full democratic participation was not hotly contested within the profession.

Schooling was seen as being about much more than test scores and preparation for work. Issues that had importance beyond the world of work, like gender justice, could be prioritised in such an era. Teachers were not pressured to teach to the test and had the time to introduce broader learning themes.

I am not suggesting for a minute that things were perfect or even necessarily better. I know from my own experience during this period that our understanding of education disadvantage was not well examined and that deficit understandings of poor, Indigenous and disabled students may well have led to lowered expectations and complacency about poor outcomes. The ideas about teacher professional standards, school improvement, teacher collaboration and continued professional development existed in the research but had not yet been comprehensively implemented across all systems. But there was an absence of the kind of pressures that have become associated with the global education reform initiatives of marketisation and high stakes testing that have been documented by a many researchers in Australia and internationally.

I will draw on just two such studies, both Australian.

The first was undertaken by The Whitlam Institute, in response to public concerns about the effects of high stakes testing. They conducted a survey of teachers and principles to ascertain their perceptions of how high stakes testing has impacted on students and classroom practice.

In relation to classroom practice, survey respondents noted the following impacts:

  • NAPLAN preparation is adding to an already crowded curriculum – over 85%;
  • NAPLAN is affecting the range of teaching strategies they use – 59%.
  • NAPLAN is impacting on the way in which school communities view curriculum areas, with subjects that are not tested reduced in importance – 75%
  • The focus of NAPLAN on literacy and numeracy has led to a timetable reduction for other subjects in their schools – over 66%.

This suggests that the pressure to prepare students for the NAPLAN test is reducing the space for the kinds of enquiry that used to occur in the days when there was a gender equity policy and readily available relevant curriculum materials.

But it goes beyond this. The NAPLAN performance pressure does not just impact on individual teachers in individual schools. Schools are now in competition with one another for the most desirable school enrolments and desirable parents. NAPLAN results are published on the MySchool website so that parents can make ‘informed choices’. On the website, schools are compared with ‘ like schools’ – that is those who have similar student demographics and parents can also compare their NAPLAN scores with schools in the nearby vicinity.

The Whitlam survey also noted the following respondent views:

  • The publication of ‘weaker than expected’ results would negatively affect parental perception of the school. – 95%
  • Poor NAPLAN results would negatively affect media reports about the school – 95%
  • Weak results would damage the school’s reputation in the community – 96%
  • Lower than expected results on NAPLAN would mean that a school would have trouble attracting and retaining students – over 90%
  • There would be a negative impact on staff morale – 90%
  • Weaker than expected’ results would lead to a negative student perception of the school – 75%.

This is consistent with the observations made by Susan Groundwater-Smith and Nicole Mockler in their book, Teacher professional learning in an age of compliance[4]. These researchers undertook extensive school based research in schools across NSW in 2009 and this book is based on this experience.

They observe that the impact of the global education reform agenda has resulted in a retreat into a standardised, audited, and backward-looking schooling culture, the rolling back of a more progressive educational philosophy, an increased acceptance of ‘common sense solutions; a reduced tolerance for ambiguity; and an increase in fear and distrust. They also make the following important observation:

Almost a century after the publication of Democracy and Education, [John Dewey 1916] we find ourselves in uncertain, ambiguous times. …On a policy level we appear to be once again retreating, from a once-within-our-grasp vision of progressive education into safer, more measurable, more quantifiable territory. More worryingly we see the very notion of democracy at the heart of Dewey’s thinking under threat…at the hands of religious, economic and educational fundamentalists and a pervasive neoliberal agenda.

They concluded that ‘the press for compliance leaves little room for a more critical position to be adopted”.

Neoliberalism and Feminism

Neoliberalism has also influenced, profoundly, the dominant ideas of feminism. Eva Cox made this same point recently:

During the past few years, I have been seriously rethinking feminism. This intensified at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival when I attended a session by Michael Sandel on money, followed by a panel on feminism. Sandel analysed the damage done by more than two decades of neoliberal market models; the feminist panel ignored this and just complained about continued inequities, but not why this is so (my emphasis).

Cox is suggesting that those feminists who have the most exposure in popular discourse are not interested in how the neoliberal economic, social policies, practices and ideas have impacted on women – and on particularly on differently positioned women.

She goes on to say that the tamed-down version of feminism of today misses many of the important issues for women because the scope of its focus is far too narrow. Violence might be a fundamental women’s issue but many issues of mainstream economic, political, environmental importance also demand a feminist lens.

The shift to market models meant many women’s groups focused on raising the status of women via access to power in current macho terms. More women in male-defined areas of power – in politics or on boards – was erroneously claimed to be the route to feminist change. But we failed to see they were promoted because they posed no threat to the system that allowed them into the tent to share some of the power that men controlled. There are active women’s groups with current demands for remedies to violence and exclusion, access to childcare, improvements to bad media images and solutions to female poverty and lack of representation. But these are not radical demands and are defined as “women’s issues”, not general problems for society.

I want to see more action in devising solutions rather than just protest campaigns. Feminists need to lead so that we can counter the bipartisan bad policies of the major political parties: low welfare payments, bad indigenous programs, overlong working hours, too many market-based not community-based services.

There is an urgent need to solve many “wicked” policy problems – boat people, inequality, environmental damage. These issues need much better connectivity and social cohesion, so it is irrational that women are not there to contribute perspectives broader than the limited experiences of current leadership incumbents. We need wider views than macho neoliberal economics can offer to cope with the problems caused by an ageing population, mobile workers, single-person households, social inequities and growing personal care needs.

Nancy Frazer goes further and argues that feminism today actually promotes and legitimizes neoliberalism:

 In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. That would explain how it came to pass that feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms. Where feminists once criticised a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to “lean in”. A movement that once prioritised social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorised “care” and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy.

 Sarah Jaffe, a blogger for Dissent magazine explains how feminist campaigns for equal pay and for equal access to male dominated areas of work dominated feminist activism at the expense of a focus on valuing of women’s traditional work, including unpaid caring and community work and union organizing. This was a feminism that was highly compatible with the neoliberal focus on undermining unions, seeing all activity in market terms, ignoring community and pushing down wages.

 [T]he so-called “second wave” of feminism fought for women to gain access to work outside of the home and outside of the “pink-collar” fields. Yet in doing so, some feminists wound up abandoning the fight for better conditions in what had always been considered women’s work—whether that be as teachers and nurses, or the work done in the home for little or no pay.

. ..The devaluation of work that involves care, work for which women were assumed to be innately suited, continued apace when feminism turned its back. As other jobs have disappeared, the low wages that were acceptable when women were presumed not to need a “family wage,” because they ought to be married to a man who’d do the breadwinning, became the wages that everyone has to take or leave.

Equal pay for equal work means little when the wages for all are on the way down….[ F]or a hotel housekeeper, a nurse, a janitor, the best way to improve your job isn’t to get promoted through the ranks, but to organise with your fellow workers.

 What do we want young women (and men) to learn about feminism?

I am retired from the paid workforce now but I spent many years working in the public service on social policy, some of it on women’s desks. I constantly came across strong, smart, interesting women who stood up against sexism and homophobia in the workplace but whose paid intellectual work appeared to be gender, class and race blind. They did not see it as their role, in developing policy, to consider how particular design elements would impact on differently positioned individuals and families. We need scientists, economists, education and health policy workers to do better than this.

I want a schooling system that insists that students ask questions about what they learn and that equips them to apply a feminist and/or class and/or culture lens to all issues of importance. If we are committed to a fairer more just society we need nothing less.

Feminist questions and perspectives belong in the technology, music, art, English literature, science, legal studies, history, civics and citizenship, environmental studies and health classrooms, not just in wellbeing, sex education, school dress code and bullying policies.

We also need to better prepare students for what Leslie Cannold once described as ‘the equal opportunity train wreck that is motherhood”. Liberal Feminism won’t help with negotiating the structural inequality issues enmeshed in the work relationship conundrums that arise when a baby comes on the scene, even in a supposedly equal relationship.

Stephanie Coontz, Professor of family history at Evergreen state college (USA) observes that: 

…men and women .. are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to arranging their work and family lives. For more than two decades the demands and hours of work have been intensifying. Yet progress in adopting family-friendly work practices and social policies has proceeded at a glacial pace.

While the US has even worse family friendly policies than Australia, those same tensions exist for young parents here.

While research[5] suggests that most young men and women have similar expectations of work, family and careers on leaving school and remain committed to the ideal of an equal relationship and with shared care of children and equal opportunities to progress in their respective jobs/careers, the reality is that this is extremely difficult to manage and most fail. And when this idea fails, the fall-back compromises are depressingly predictable.

When family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work. But unlike the situation in the 1960s, this is not because most people believe this is the preferable order of things. Rather, it is often a reasonable response to the fact that our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals.

Women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category. They are less likely than men to hold jobs that offer flexibility or family-friendly benefits. When they become mothers, they face more scrutiny and prejudice on the job than fathers do.

So, especially when women are married to men who work long hours, it often seems to both partners that they have no choice. Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.

So what happens when young women – including young feminists, with high hopes for their careers – find themselves doing most of the care work and, because they are home more, most of the housework, and find themselves earning less or even being, for a period, economically dependent?

When people are forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals, they often undergo what sociologists call a “values stretch” — watering down their original expectations and goals to accommodate the things they have to do to get by. This behaviour is especially likely if holding on to the original values would exacerbate tensions in the relationships they depend on.

When a couple backslide into more traditional roles than they originally desired. The woman resents that she is not getting the shared child-care she expected and envies her husband’s social networks outside the home. The husband feels hurt that his wife isn’t more grateful for the sacrifices he is making by working more hours so she can stay home. When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you. So couples often create a family myth about why they made these choices, why it has turned out for the best, and why they are still equal in their hearts even if they are not sharing the kind of life they first envisioned.

And when this happens, the frameworks and ideas most readily available to make sense of what has happened do not help, because what is a structural problem – the failure of work organisation to cater for the role of caring and the undervaluing of this role – gets framed as a personal choice.

What I have outlined above only covers the dilemmas experienced by young people who end up in hetero-normative coupledom. Others who traverse these pathways as teen mums, queer parents, divorced and single parents have an even more difficult time.


In my view, young people need exposure to the best analytical frameworks that feminism can provide, not a gender blind education that leaves them to work it out and not a feminism that binds them to the key assumptions and beliefs underpinning neoliberalism, but one that is able to look at issues from a structural perspective and from the point of view and experience of people living in very different contexts.

Schools can and should prepare our young people, men and women, for the challenge of negotiating work life balance in an unequal world. We can’t just paint a nirvana of a gender blind world where work and family options are equally open to all with no detriment.

So how do we prepare them? Well the reality is that we can’t – not explicitly. You try telling even the most highly educated person that having a baby will change their life and not all in a good way. But we can equip them with the tools of feminist analysis that go beyond a liberal feminism of personal choice. We can study issues that will be relevant to their futures as workers and possibly parents.

In the 2014 budget, Hockey announced many unpopular proposals but it is important to note that they were not only about savings. The reforms to higher education and the co-payments for GP visits were also driven by a belief, held by this Government, that all services should have market signals. If implemented, these understandings take us even further into an extreme neoliberal future where education and health are not investments for the common good, but a private good that must be purchased in a competitive market.

To respond to the problems created by neoliberal policies, people need to be able to name and understand the assumptions and beliefs that underpin such practices, and to understand their impacts.

Neoliberalism dominates our understandings today but until recently it was hegemonic – so taken for granted that it was invisible like the air we breathe. The term neoliberalism was rarely used outside of leftist circles and was viewed by many as extreme left jargon. But this is changing as its tensions, contradictions and problems are becoming more and more apparent.

We now have increasing levels of exposure to information that shows how powerful business groups, drawing on neoliberal buzz words about market forces and small government, have had an unequal impact on our democratic processes as large corporations effectively ‘buy Governments’ and used the system to amass huge wealth at the expense of most of the planet. This historic concentration of wealth to a fraction of the population while hollowing out the middle class and increasing poverty is in the popular press and even the Pope speaks out about it.

Best sellers like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything[6] make popular the notion that climate change is intrinsically connected to neoliberalism and this is starting to change the conversation. She makes it clear that we cannot solve the urgent issues facing this planet on which we all depend just by lobbying for better climate policies. We have to change our thinking entirely:

..[W]e will not win the battle for a stable climate by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game – arguing for instance, that it is more cost –effective to invest in emission reductions now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such conversations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on arched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with wonders and beauties of creation”

Now I am not saying that we should indoctrinate our young people about the evils of neo-liberalism and create revolutionary activists. But we can and must expose young people to the important ideas and perspectives of our time and the significant associated debates. Tomorrow’s adults deserve nothing less.

[1] Girls, Schools and Society: Report by a study group to the Schools Commission Nov 1975. Jean Blackburn was the most high profile person who was part of the group and the foreward states that she did the final editing of the publication. This had a significant influence on education policies and practices across all schooling systems in Australia and set in train a series of gender equity policy documents spanning the next two decades.

[2]Neoliberalism, sometimes referred to as unconstrained capitalism,, is, basically, the belief that states ought to abstain from intervening in the economy, and instead leave as much as possible up to individuals participating in free and self-regulating markets. This means that as much as possible, all services should be run as user pays businesses. Individuals are also seen as being solely responsible for the consequences of the choices and decisions they freely make: instances of inequality and glaring social injustice are acceptable, because they are, in the main, the result of freely made decisions.

.[3] to read more about schools and the influence of neoliberalism go to https://educatorvoices.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/what-have-schools-got-to-do-with-neo-liberalism/

[4] Susan Groundwater-Smith and Nicole Mockler: Teacher Professional Learning in an age of Compliance: Mind the Gap, Springer 2009

[5] Stephanie Coontz, Why Gender Equality stalled New York Times, Opinion Feb 2013



Hernan Guevo and Johanna Wynn, Rethinking Youth transitions in Australia, Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne, March 2011. This is a detailed longitudinal study of young men and women from school leaving and up to their late 30s. This report makes t clear that man and women had similar attitudes to careers , jobs and families but that when children arrive the gendered patters of work and care continue to operate along traditional lines not because couples believe this is how things aught to be, but because of the complex choices and challenges under structurally constrained circumstances. http://web.education.unimelb.edu.au/yrc/linked_documents/RR33.pdf

[6] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, Penguin Group 2014


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