If Independent Government Schools are the answer: what is the question?

Pyne believes that introducing Independent public schools across Australia will bring significant benefits to these schools and their communities.

Yesterday The Conversation published its fact checker that concluded that the claims to increased productivity and efficiency as well as increased student outcomes have no basis in evidence.

While I agree with this, I think this was a cautious assessment that drew its areas for consideration too narrowly. In this post I focus on some of the more concerning aspects about the IPS system that were not considered by the fact checker.

Claims of improved student outcomes – treatment of the research

But first a brief comments on the claims that were considered.  The fact checker, in looking at overseas evidence of schooling set ups that have similarities to IP schools, looked at Charter schools in the US.   It drew from the 2013 CREDO Charter Schools study of the comparative student learning effects of Charter Schools.  This report concluded that there were some comparative learning outcomes improvements but that they were non-significant in nature.  Most media headlines reported in terms of Charters are performing slightly better than public schools

What I find interesting about this is how this non-significant difference is treated.   The Great Lakes Centre for Research recent Review of the CRDEO study makes this point

 The most important results of the study…are differences of 0.01 or 0.02 standard deviation units, and even the largest effect size reported are on the order of 0.07 standard deviations. 

Hanushek has described an effect size of 0.20 standard deviation for Tennessee’s class size reform as ‘relatively small’ considering the nature of the intervention.

So there you have it – an effect size that is tiny- very tiny – is hailed as a small improvement justifying this large scale reform.  However it is much smaller that the effect size attributed to smaller class sizes by Hanushek, who led the campaign to oppose class sizes because, the effect size is too small.

The logic behind autonomous schools

To go beyond the fact checker scope it is necessary to dig behind the claims.  Pyne is arguing that Australia has invested strongly into non-Government education and it is working well for Australia.  He notes that we are unusual in our high levels of investment in non-government schools relative to other OECD countries – so we must see it as a public good.

He is asking the reader to assume that non-Government school enrolments skyrocketed over the years of the Howard regime just because it was a great idea – totally demand driven. But I won’t chase down this particular rabbit hole here.

So, says Pyne, we have these great institutions that work well, so lets get a piece of this into the public education system.  This implies without any evidence that the public system is not working so well.

So what he is borrowing from the non-Government system?  Is it the great facilities, or the ability to enrol students as they see fit, or their ability to charge fees or their superior levels of per pupil funding.  No – because non-Government schools can only selectively enrol students and charge fees because there are government schools that must then pick up all the non selected students, and provide a free education

What he is picking up, is the stand-alone school concept, minus the generous funding – a school with a bucket of money to do its business, responsible to a board and able to make all its own decisions. This will, he argues, be more efficient, will encourage bold new thinking and innovation, and will give the community much more say over spending priorities.

It is interesting to note that in the negotiations over Gonski the non-Government sectors successfully argued for additional systemic funding to better support their stand alone idealised schools. Maybe, just maybe, stand-alone models are not all they claim to be.

The previous WA Education Minister, Barnett justified the WA model of IP schools in terms of increasing competition and variety because maintaining all schools as equal was undesirable as it breeds mediocrity.

So to follow the logic pathway, IP schools will deliver better student outcomes, more productivity and efficiency because ‘stand alone schools’ will make all their own decisions about how they use their bucket of funds.  This will make them more competitive, they will spend the same amount of money more wisely and they will be more innovative.

So lets look at these claims

IP Schools will be more innovative

A WA press article recently profiled an IP school in WA that opted to become a marine biology school.  Fabulous example!  This school has reported that student engagement is high and that they have a big enrollment waiting list.  Students in its enrollment district have an automatic right of entry but students outside this district will have to move house or hope for an enrollment win.

However, NSW, arguably the most centralist state when it comes to its schooling has schools that specialize in agriculture, in performing arts, in technology, in sports, in languages.  There are schools with Opportunity Classes and the Board of Studies has a year 12 syllabus in Marine Studies.  Victoria has Government schools that offer Steiner programs, ACT has the Cooperative school and a bilingual French-Australian K-12 IB school.  There are networks of schools that adopt innovative approaches such as the Big Picture schools, IB schools, UN schools, Stronger Smarter school leaders and Dare to Lead schools. These are just a few examples I know about.  We don’t NEED IP schools to develop innovative schools within the government system.

Lyndsay Connors, argues that when she was involved with the National Schools Network – an initiative of the Hawke-Keating government intended to free schools from bureaucratic and union rules, the new and innovative practices that schools adopted, that she witnessed, were all ones that they could have done without special freedom.

She says this was also true of the self-governing schools created within the Victorian public system under the Kennett government. A few principals took the opportunity to create a governing school or board with some financial freedom, such as increasing salaries, but she says other innovations she knew of depended on extra funding.

Connors argues that with the same increase in funding, other schools could have implemented similar reforms, even while operating under a more centralised system.

And of course not all innovations are good innovations.  A school could decide that they could shift funds directed to ESL learners or special needs students to a program that the more influential members of the board might want – a violin program, or an artist in residence.  Having parents on boards does not always lead to decision that are in the best interests of all parents.  Articulate ‘entitled’ parents will always end up with more say.

And finally, lets remember that some of the innovations in Charter schools are very worrying – “no excuses” schools that feed the school-to-prison pipeline, or, schools with built-in churn as they rely almost solely on TFA teachers passing through education, en-route to a high profile future.

Pyne is allocating $70 million to this initiative.  This will give all participating schools about $47,000 as a one off allocation. So all the innovations will have to come from changing the staff profile in some way because that is where the vast bulk of the funds are spent.

 Competition improves schools

Proponents of this view argue that by giving parents the power to choose between schools and the power to influence schools, schools will work harder to earn more student enrollments.  This competition will improve all schools.

It is very clear that in WA, where only some schools are IP schools, this competition has been hard for non-IP schools.  Trevor Cobbold has posted extracts from principals about the effects of the IP arrangements on their work.  They talk about how the IP schools suck up all the highest rated teachers, while they are forced to staff based on redeployees.  And the more high needs the school, the more intense the problem.

Here are some of their comments:

 Basically, the better ranked teachers chose better schools. That is how it goes and that is how we get residualisation within schools. Low SES schools just cannot compete with the leafy greens, and they don’t even have to be leafy greens but good solid communities that support education and their kids in school. There was always a component of this, but IPS has really amplified it.


[this is not a low SES school]
Public education was once about equity, about being able to say that a child way up in Wyndham and a child at leafy Wembly Downs will get the same quality of teacher. Creating a privileged set of schools badly damages this concept.

Autonomy and Student Equity

The ACER evaluation of the impact of IP schools in Australia did not ask questions that might have exposed the impact of this set up on student equity.  They did not look at any changes in the enrollment share of IP and non-IP schools by student demographic characteristics, nor did they look at the changes to the staffing profiles of the schools.  In my view this is a pretty big omission – not necessarily of  ACER’s choosing.

This is the big issue with Pyne’s proposal in my view.  Trevor Cobbold makes this point

 Greater demand for IP schools amongst higher income families and increased flexibility of IP schools to select student enrolments is likely to lead to more social segregation between government schools in WA. Inevitably, it will mean increased differences in school results and more inequity. This is after all what a market in education is designed to do.

 Chris Bonner reiterates

But the bigger danger is that we risk losing the equity safeguards which our public school system, with all its claimed faults, currently provides. [Where schools can choose their own teachers] … the best will gravitate to the schools with the more valued location, easier to teach students and money.   ….there are no prizes for guessing which schools and communities will miss out.

 There are other hidden stings. Unless closely monitored, increasingly autonomous public schools will seek and gain greater control over student enrolments. I love them dearly but already there are few rules which get between many of our enterprising school principals and a desirable enrolment. The better placed autonomous public schools will join their private counterparts in applying both overt and covert enrolment discriminators, worsening the complex equity problems revealed by the Gonski review.

A blog post by Chris Lubienski about research into schools autonomy and equity in the New Zealand context gives us a glimpse into how enrolment manipulation is likely to happen over time if autonomous schools are introduced across the nation. He found that schools will actively pursuer policies of enrolment segregation if they are given a chance to do so and that autonomy initiatives provide just that sort of opportunity.  His findings are so important I am quoting from him at length:

Previous research has shown that schools in more affluent areas are more likely to be in greater demand, and thus more likely to have enrolment schemes.  The question we asked was whether these self-managing schools were using their autonomy to draw their zones in order to improve or restrict access for disadvantaged students.  To do this, we simply compared the level of affluence in a walkable radius around each school to the level of affluence in the boundaries that the schools themselves had drawn.  Certainly, school zones are not perfects circles, as their creators have to consider traffic patterns, geographic barriers, and the boundaries of competitors.  But, all things being equal, we could expect that deviations in those boundaries from a geometric radius around a school would be more or less equally likely to include or exclude more affluent neighborhoods.  

But that is not what we found.  Instead, there is evidence of rampant gerrymandering to exclude children from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  In the cases where there is a statistically significant difference in the “deprivation level” of the population in a school’s drawn zone compared to its immediate area, over three-quarters of these self-managing school had drawn a zone that was significantly more affluent than their immediate vicinity. 

Moreover, as if to add insult to injury, more affluent schools are not only drawing boundaries to keep poor kids out, but in their promotional materials are bragging about their success in doing this.  A review of school websites shows that more affluent schools are much more likely to include official information about the number of disadvantaged students they serve. 

While we might find these types of practices to be distasteful for public schools that are funded by taxpayers to serve all students, in some ways, such actions are predictable (if indefensible).  After all, policymakers are creating education markets where schools recognize competitive incentives to shape their enrollments.  It should be no surprise that, given such autonomy and such incentives, they find creative ways to do just that. 

So if on Saturday we have a change of Government, this is what we can look forward to in our schools.  We will have a tiered system of schools, competing on a highly unequal basis and our already highly segregated education system will become even more so.

Ironically one of the best tools for highlighting the issues will be the data from MySchool.  Is this why Pyne thinks the publication of the NAPLAN results is a bad idea?  It sounds crazy but I do wonder.




School Autonomy and the ‘unwanted student enrolment’

A moving article by Travis Smiley PBS talk show host about the film “Education Under Arrest” depicts what happens to poor and minority students under ‘zero tolerance’ regimes being implemented as part of corporate education reforms in many US states.

It made me think about a problem I have predicting will become more relevant to Australia as we foolishly rush to embrace the ‘independent public schools’ model of WA.  The problem, put simply is this:

If schools are going to be made to compete more and more in the schooling market place this will enhance the ‘choice power’ of all students from desirable well educated ‘stable’ middle class families and reduce the ‘choice power’ of families in less stable, middle class circumstances.  Autonomous schools who want to increase their attractiveness in the market place and are in a position to do so will do what is in their power to attract desirable enrolments and keep at bay those considered less desirable.   One possible ‘ solution’ will be embracing notions such as ‘zero tolerance’.  How will this impact on ‘ ‘unwanted students’?

The film is based on interviews with kids who are victims of this policy.  Smiley’s account of the stories are sad and disturbing.

“We had to shut the cameras down for a moment. The testimony of the two New Orleans sisters, Kenyatta, 15, and Kennisha, 17, was too surreal, too emotional and too raw.

Kenyatta was involved in a fight at school that she didn’t start. Because of “zero tolerance” policies adopted at their high school and many others in America, Kenyatta was handcuffed, arrested and expelled. Kennisha, who tried to break up the fight, was also expelled….

One of every three teens arrested is arrested in school. It’s a punitive system based, in large part, on “zero tolerance” policies adopted in the late 1990s after the shocking school shootings in Columbine; a system that’s built a highway into prison, but barely a sidewalk out.

We took our cameras to Washington State, Louisiana, California and Missouri to meet and speak with those involved with educational and juvenile justice reform. Through their expertise and experiences we get a definitive look at how arresting children in school, sending them to court and then locking them away in jail impacts America’s dropout rate.

We shut the cameras down briefly after Kenyatta, with voice cracking and tears flowing, described her ordeal with a school district’s unyielding policy and her encounter with the juvenile justice system:

“It was completely unfair. I felt all of this was so wrong. ..”

Dean Ashenden’s Faux Rationality and the Class Size Debate

This article responds to Dean Ashenden’s attempt to critique David Zyngier’s article defending the merits of small class sizes.  The relevant articles plus an earlier one of my own are referenced below for those who want to explore this debate further.

I have two major objections to his article.

Firstly, it is lazy.  A critique of a position that makes a number of important points cannot be said to be a comprehensive critique unless it acknowledges the key points that have been made. 

Zyngier did not just make his case on the basis of the evidence relating directly to class size studies.  He did cite a number of important studies that Ashenden just dismissed out of hand. But he also broadened his case to other important aspects.

For example, Ashenden used the work of John Hattie (Visible Learning) to delegitimize the claims relating to class size without acknowledging that Hattie’s study shows the effect size of single interventions only and therefore has some limitations (as Hattie notes in his book).

But Zyngier also drew on Hattie’s research to argue that class size reduction should not be implemented as a single magic solution, but as a way of supporting the pedagogical changes recommended by Hattie – personalized learning, student feedback, direct instruction and so on.  This is an important point because while Hattie bemoans the fact that education policy ignores his work and focuses overly on class size, it could equally be argued that the number of student in a class limits the ability of teachers to implement the kinds of changes that his own research shows have the biggest student effect.

Secondly, Ashenden’s article claims to be a rational (even econometric) approach to a vexed issue but completely ignores the political realities of the current context.

Our current school funding architecture has privileged parent school choice over all other educational values and the logic according to Kevin Rudd is that by giving parents unlimited choice and lots of school performance information, parents (that is the market) will create heightened competition between schools that will ‘float all boats’.

So we have this intense school market place.  Now what do the high end schools sell to parents in the market – why small class sizes among other things.   Even the briefest investigation of the ABS data on schools will show in no uncertain terms that the independent (i.e. non-Catholic non-Government) sector has led the way on small class sizes over the past 15 years.  They have been able to do this because they get Commonwealth Government (i.e. tax payer) funds far in excess of their needs on top of generous school fees.


Government schools have been the victims of this market model of schooling but they are being told that unlike their unfettered competitors they can’t compete, even in the same arena, because there is not a strong enough case for small class sizes.  They are the ones that must make the hard economic choice between decent class sizes (still bigger than their competitors) and time for collaborative planning.

Yet where the evidence for smaller class size is strongest is for struggling student – and where do we find large concentrations of struggling students – Government schools, in overwhelming numbers.

So my message to Ashenden is this.

Firstly, how dare you get on your high horse and pontificate about the most responsible and parsimonious spending of the taxpayer dollar in our struggling government schools.  How dare you say they must choose between more time for professional development or collaboration or small class sizes when you say nothing about the exorbitant levels of taxpayer funds that go to the high-end Independent schools with absolutely no outcry from the likes of you and Ben Jensen

You see what you forget, when you ride in to represent tax payers with such ethical force, is that the Government’s decision that non-Government school should not lose funds, mean that this picking apart the returns-on-investment options for education is only occurring in the sector where Australia spends far less than most OECD countries while the other sector where we are a high end spender can do what it likes.

I hate our market model of education with a passion. But you can’t expect that one sector competitor can play by the logics of the market place (what parents want) in an unfettered way, while imposing on the other a demand that they play in the market place but cannot adopt any of its logics.

Secondly, Australia is a wealthy nation and it can and should invest more in the education of students in Government schools.  We don’t have to choose just one solution.  Given that this spending is an investment we should not have to choose between ICT based learning, professional development for teachers, early intervention for identified students, more time for collaboration and humane sized classrooms where it is possible to develop positive relations with all students and give them personalized and considered learning feedback.

As Zyngier argues “ to suggest then that investment in smaller class sizes is not necessary for schools indicates a need for a serious reality check – or at least a few weeks in one of these schools as a teacher”.


Dean Ashenden paper – The case against http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=14746&page=0

David Zyngier Paper – The presentation of ‘ the facts’


My earlier papers – The case for


Paul Sheehan’s light bulb moment on schooling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what of your solution?  Well here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two D.C. school reform events, competing visions – D.C. Schools Insider – The Washington Post

The two Washington DC meetings described in this article  Two D.C. school reform events, competing visions – D.C. Schools Insider – The Washington Post. say it all.  In the one meeting we have the wealthy, the powerful sitting down to a silver service dinner with high profile speakers celebrating their successes in changing the educational landscape in the territory through their privatisation,choice and charters agenda.  They are doing this of course for the poor and dispossessed because they know best and they have millions of dollars behind them.

Note: For those readers not yet familiar with the agenda of a group of phanthropists that include The Walton Family, Eli Broad and Billl and Melinda Gates a useful starting point is Joanna Barkan’s article in Dissent, Winter 2011, called, Got Dough, How Billionaires rule our schools http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=3781

Down the road we have the teachers, parents and activists in a spare meeting room.  They have come together out of a concern that the choice/charter trajectory will without intervention lead to a completely privatised autonomous school system and the death of the neighbourhood government school.

Just as I was reading this the mail arrived and it included a timely article by Adam Smith (Philanthropy and Schools – A Changing Paradigm, Education Review, May 2012) about philanthropy and schools in the Australian context.  Smith reminds us that the Gonski report (you remember that ?) recommended a larger role for philanthropy.

Now diehards like me are very gun-shy of anything that dilutes the clear responsibility of government to provide, for every citizen, no matter how rich or poor, a high quality education with opportunities for progress for all.  I have a fear that the more philanthropy puts in, the more Governments can retreat – this sort of funding is highly fungible and hard to keep track of.  I also have concerns about the possible undue interest and influence of large corporations who we did not vote for and can not vote out.

But Smith is more optimistic that there is an important role for philanthropy in schools and he has form in this space – good form – through a number of ventures including a role in the development of the NAB-FYA Schools First Program.  His article lays out the ground rules for philanthropic engagement which if heeded could help to avoid the kind of problems that are taking place in the US.

Perhaps we need a set of protocols for the philanthropy sector wishing to work with Australian schools, protocols that could help to mitigate the risk of the kind of ideological agendas being  prosecuted so aggressively and so successfully in the US

Views anyone?

The results are in! There’s too much testing. « Rethinking Schools Blog



This blog post    The results are in! There’s too much testing. « Rethinking Schools Blog. on the wonderful US based Rethinking Schools blogsite creates a snapshot of all the ‘push-backs’ to the high stakes testing regime and associated reforms of NCLB and RTT legislation.  The list includes the widespread and growing opting out  by school districts across the state of Texas – the leader in test based accountability and the model for NCLB –  plus a growing non-cooperation movement by parents and students  including the aptly titled “Pencils Down” campaign.

Now these are the sorts of ‘push-backs’ that make the news, but this posts also mentions a range of other activities that do not tend to get the same attention.  These include people and/or organisations coming together to form a commission to investigate matters and advise on better policy options, the development of joint open letters to Obama, the preparation of manifestos as an organising tool and so on.

As we all know, the testing and accountability disease spread from the US to Australia and, on reading this piece, I started to wonder about whether its growing opposition movement might impact here too and whether we could help it along a bit.

In Australia the weight of educationally informed opinion is clearly against using the NAPLAN results to imply something about schools at the individual school level. These include experts in the field of assessment and testing, parents groups, researchers, teachers associations and unions, principals and policy makers.  Yet at the height of the controversy around NAPLAN testing and MySchool one could be forgiven for thinking that the issue was a teacher’s union issue alone.  It is not, of course, but they were the ones who threatened to boycott the tests, and the media singled them out as ‘the opposition’ on this matter.

I have yet to see a well reasoned Australian based manifesto or committee report that clearly sets out the arguments against the current approach to NAPLAN reporting in my school and outlines a more intelligent approach to school AND system accountability and improvement.  I am using the terms manifesto or committee report here to imply a statement that has endorsement from a group of people or organisations.  I  have of course seen many excellent papers outlining the technical  problems with how we use NAPLAN and many papers about the potential negative impacts, particularly on low SES, struggling schools.  But these have been prepared by a single person or body. Having a document that represents the considered thinking of a broad coalition of people and organisations is quite different.  It could certainly be done and then this could be a document individuals and organisations could sign on to, and or use to inform parents and other stakeholders .

This is a very common way in which opposition to poor public policy is addressed in the US context and our failure to use these kinds of tools puzzles me.  Are we content to each do our own small thing in isolation? Are we more individualistic that the Americans?  Is this something worth addressing?  Or do we need something really dreadful,  akin to the Victorian cuts to TAFE budgets, to galvanise us?

I would dearly love to see concerned Australians – as individuals or as representatives of associations or organisations, with an interest in supporting schools to be the best they could be, agreeing to come together – online or face to face – in order to develop a new education assessment and accountability strategy.  Such a strategy could include a realistic pathway forward for Australia that shows how over time we could replace NAPLAN with quality controlled and carefully developed banks of authentic assessment items – aligned to the national curriculum standards and able to be implemented by teachers as part of their assessment for learning program.

Am I a unrealistic dreamer?  I hope not.

No Gerard, Schooling is not part of the social safety net: It is a PUBLIC GOOD!

When Tim Hawkes, Principal of The Kings School, proposed that the well off middle class who choose to send their children to government schools should pay extra for doing so, I, like many, shrugged and thought, ‘typical’ .

But now that both Gerard Henderson, Director of the Sydney Institute, (SMH, “Well off get a free ride from tax payer for children’s education,” 20 March 2012) and emeritus professor Don Watts, the former Vice chancellor of both Curtin and Bond universities (Education Review March 2012) have joined the chorus I think it is time that we had this issue out.

Education in the compulsory years is set up to be exactly that – compulsory – the democratic right of every child. In fact it is one of the few services provided by Government that is defined as compulsory regardless of circumstances. In a recent speech to the Sydney Institute, Minister Garrett makes a similar point ‘School education is unique in public policy terms because it reaches into every household in a way that is manifestly different from other forms of Government’

It is compulsory because the people, through their Government, commit to the goal of universal quality education, not just as an individual market good, but as an essential social or public good – in the public interest. This is because the benefits of education to each individual aggregate to strengthen communities, the polity and workplaces. That is to say the universal provision of a comprehensive, sequenced, quality exposure to knowledge, understandings, values and experiences is provided in order equip all future citizens, workers, parents, and community members to contribute to our social democracy and our economy.

As early as 1869 Henry Parkes articulated this vision

 …We are endeavouring to supply the means of sound instruction to those who, in a very few years, are to constitute the strength of the country…a Public school system in any country is an essential part of its institutions in the large sense ofgovernment politics.
It is part of the policy of the country. It is part of the intention and action of the Government; part of the very life of constituted authority.

He went on to say that, Whatever may be our form of Government … Let us by every means in our power take care that the children of the country grow up under such a sound and enlightened system of instruction, that they will consider the dearest of all possessions the free exercise of their own judgment in the secular affairs of life, and that each man will shrink from being subservient to any other man or earthly power.

My father was a passionate educator and so I imbibed this understanding – in a way that I often take for granted. But I do think it is widely accepted. This is why, at first, I did not think this middle class fee proposal merited a response. I assumed that it would be dismissed by most and I also assessed that implementing it would be very tricky. Would Australians stand idly by when families who refused to pay the fees are penalised? How can you make individual parents pay for something that they are required to have and that is in everyone’s interest? The reality is that all taxpayers benefit from a good school system not just individual parents.

But I am now convinced that responding to this sort of talk matters- it demands a robust critique.

It matters because pushing well-off families out of the public sector would lead to higher concentrations of disadvantage in government schools and we already know that schools with high concentration of the poor do worse even when controlling for the effect of the individual student demographics. And remember that this could be the impact even if the Government did not try and implement the policy. It would just require this idea to become part of the populist rhetoric.

It matters because, any further movement of the middle class out of the public system could lead to reduced government expenditure and reduced services in government schools because of the loss of articulate voices in support of public education.

It matters because, if schooling comes to be seen solely as a private good, we are really looking at a very grim social vision – a pre industrial vision. A vision that is incompatible with the whole enterprise of Australian nationhood. It matters because this kind of thinking takes us even further down the neoliberal market model of schooling.

We are already global outliers in this respect. For there would be almost no other comparably developed country in the world where this statement would be considered as anything but extreme neoconservative babble – even in the US. Our funding regime for Government and non-Government schools is highly irregular in global terms. Australia sits around the middle of OECD countries ranked in terms of per capita investment in schooling. But this obscures the bifurcated elements of the funding relative to other countries. Our funding to Government schools is very near the bottom, at third lowest. But our funding to the non-Government system is near the top of the list, at fourth highest. But this uniqueness is not apparent to most of us – our set up is the water we swim in.

This has led to some confused understandings. For example, the idea that the Government and non-Government systems are just different streams of the same set up is widespread. Schools are part of markets and you can choose A or B.

However, they are not separate but equal because the Government schools system is available and open to all comers – it is the default system. Garrett makes this clear in the Sydney Institute speech “Government schools provide access for all students irrespective of personal circumstance and remain the backbone of our education system. They educate the majority of Australian students and do most of the heavy lifting.” When Lyndsay Connors delivered the 2010 Henry Parkes Oration she used a biological metaphor to describe the nature of the public system (in the context of universal, compulsory schooling) as the ‘host organism’. This was because, she argued, public schools do not require the existence of private schools to be able to operate; whereas, non-government schooling, as currently constituted in Australia, is only viable because of the existence of the public schools that are open to all and, in this sense, it exists in a parasitical relationship with the host. This analogy was not used to make a moral point but to make the important and unassailable argument that the future health of the public school system is the key to the health of the school system as a whole.

There are also those who do see the two systems as separate but not equal and this slides into seeing the Government system as the social safety net for all who cannot afford to, or won’t make the ‘quality choice’. Henderson implies this when he castigates journalists for failing to apply their middle class welfare critique to schools. Needless to say those who see the schooling system in this way would not expect the social safety net ‘product’ to be funded to deliver a high quality education – adequate is the term I have often heard used.

It matters because we have already seen how this kind of market-based justification can be used to undermine an important government service. Many readers will remember that during the Howard years we were exhorted to be responsible citizens and to purchase private health cover. To persuade us to ‘make this choice’ the Government implemented an age based penalty system for everyone over the age of 30 who did not have private health cover.

Now to my shame and puzzlement I complied – out of fear I suspect. Nobody wants to find himself or herself at the mercy of an uncaring system as one ages. But in part my compliance was a response to a very loud silence – there was very little in the way of protest against this new policy direction. You see the justification for this policy was, ‘if you can afford it, you should not impose yourself on the public system, because these services can’t cope. You should use the non-public system or pay extra’.

This sort of logic, if it not interrogated, sounds intuitively sensible. But it ignores so much. There SHOULD have been outrage in response to this because it stripped away the fundamentals of the hard fought for National Universal Healthcare System. And yet when, in the 70s, the LNP made its first attempt to undermine the National Healthcare System there was a general strike and the Government had to cave in. So what happened between 1976 and 1996?

I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I do believe that in the 90s we lost a sense of something that is very important. We are not a bunch of individuals connected to each other only through the market and differentiated from each other only by our differentiated capacity to pay.

We need to respond vigorously to this kind of talk and to hold our Commonwealth government to account for staying true to the legacy of our founders by ensuring that in all its dealings with schooling, the primary obligation of the Commonwealth is to maintain and safeguard strong and socially representative public school systems that are of the highest standard and are open, without fees or religious tests, to all children and young people.

Henderson rails about the fact that the concept of free education is so ingrained in the Australian national psyche that it is rarely, if ever, challenged. I celebrate it and will continue to defend it. For as Garrett says, ‘if we are to have a productive, prosperous and sustainable future, it will be built on the capacity of our people’. And a nation’s capacity building starts with schooling.