This clipping is from the December 31 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Faulty system in class of its own
SMH – Saturday, 31 Dec 2011 – Page 31

With government funding both public and private schools, new arrangements must be made for fairer results.

It was a deep, bitter and long sectarian divide that gave Australia its dual system of schools.

Over the past halfcentury , Australia has been conducting a radical experiment with schools funding. This has resulted in changes to schooling in Australia that now requires more than financial tinkering to fix.

This experiment has changed the student profile in our public schools and left them to take on the ‘‘ heavy lifting’’ , but without the commensurate share of resources, particularly for the schools most affected.

Along with their other admission criteria, non-government schools have been able to continue charging and setting the level of their private fees, and to combine this income with high levels of public funding driven by enrolments. This has increased the number and range of private school providers, generally religious.

The focus of school funding policy since the middle of the last century has largely been on arrangements for the public financing of disparate types of nongovernment school. For public schools, it has been concerned largely with what can only be called dabbling with the financing of the schools serving the least advantaged students. These schools have become progressively concentrated in the public sector.

It is high time to reprise the original rationale for public funding of schooling and to consider the role of government in providing it from here on.

When the former Australian colonies moved towards a democratic system of government in the late 19th century, schools were run mainly by churches and other private agencies, assisted by various forms of public funding. These arrangements were unequal to the task of delivering the mass education required for democratic citizenship.

Like the Mother Country itself (and other emerging democracies), the Australian colonies introduced systems of compulsory public schooling. By the middle of the 20th century, the case for public investment in compulsory schooling was further strengthened by recognition that economic growth was fuelled by investment in human as well as physical capital.

In funding public education, the critical resource governments were providing was teachers. Teaching remains the key cost driver in schooling . Most other countries have put their public investment into public school systems that are universally free or affordable. Some of these public systems include schools catering for religious or other cultural differences . Australia, by contrast, went in very different directions, with a heavy public investment in schools outside the public sector.

The main reason for Australia’s relatively large private school sector lies in the past willingness of the Catholic population to generate religious teachers, who donated their services to staff the religion’s own nongovernment schools for more than a century. The rapid evaporation of this low-cost teaching force for Catholic schools provided the educational rationale for state aid.

Though not widely known or acknowledged, a key feature of changes to Australia’s school funding policy has been the progressive transfer of the salaries of teachers in non-government schools to the public purse. Largely bankrolled by the federal government, this has been accompanied by a shift in the balance of enrolments from the public to the private school sector.

The total salary bill for nongovernment schools in Australia in 2009 was $7 billion. In the same year, their total recurrent grants from federal and state/territory governments was about $9 billion, well in excess of this salary bill.

What has our radical experiment achieved? For a start, we have managed to produce a school system that sits oddly with our own image of our national character and temperament.

It was a deep, bitter and long sectarian divide that gave Australia its dual system of public and private (mainly Catholic) schools. But the experience of the past half-century has produced a more complex mix.

Human beings are herd animals. In this country, we seem to have an instinct to buy a house in the best location we can afford, partly in order to live among those who can afford to do the same. The same instinct applies when it comes to schooling. The recent HSC results in NSW demonstrate the tendency for parents of high socio-economic status to congregate their children in schools, public and private.

What we have learnt is that it does not take gross intolerance or sectarianism to produce a stratified, hybrid school system where wealth, class and cultural (including religious ) differences are overlaid on underlying neighbourhood and geographical inequalities.

All that is needed is for parents to exercise what may be mild preferences and for schools to have a differential capacity to select their student intake.

This capacity may be based on schools’ overt or covert selection by academic ability, or their real or perceived status in a highly uneven market ; and for one set of schools only, the public schools, to carry the legal obligations that are necessary to ensure universal access to schooling.

Much of this sifting and sorting will happen whatever governments do. The question is whether governments should use public funding to fuel these tendencies or to temper them.

The evidence from across the world is that putting public effort and investment into producing highly stratified systems does little to improve outcomes, and possibly depresses them overall. However much we sift and sort our children and transport them across towns and cities to schools, we still have to teach them all. And the countries that produce the best educational outcomes are those that concentrate on this reality.

The Australian experience has shown that, apart from the handful that serves students from wealthy backgrounds, schools are only viable in this country if their teaching costs are fully covered by government . And this creates a basis for consensus around future funding arrangements that recognise the mutual interest across the sectors in the supply and quality of teachers for all these schools.

The past decades have also shed light on the economics of different forms of schooling.

If we consider the public, Catholic systemic and independent sectors from the point of view of their total per-student expenditure and pupilteacher ratios, then the Catholic systemic schools look as if they are the most efficient. Like their public counterparts , they can achieve economies of scale through their systemic operation when compared with the standalone , independent schools.

But their apparent efficiency rests largely on the fact that they bear none of the obligations of the public system for overall demographic planning other than to suit their own financial considerations; and that they select their students from among families that can meet private fees out of their after-tax incomes. They now largely leave the costs of educating those growing up in the lowest income families – once over-represented in Catholic schools – to the public system.

While ‘‘ autonomy’ ’ has become the latest education policy buzzword , the independent school sector has been quick to argue that this non-systemic status constitutes, in itself, a disadvantage for which such schools now need to be compensated with public funding if they are to meet any obligation to enrol students with disabilities. They even argue that this need applies even for those independent schools that have grossly superior resource levels to most other schools.

The need for new public funding arrangements to enable provision of high quality and equitable schooling was recognised by the incoming Rudd government as a matter of national interest.

In April last year, the then minister for education, Julia Gillard, announced a review of the national school funding arrangements, to conclude in 2011.

The review panel, headed by David Gonski, handed its final report to the government on December 20. It will be released early in the 2012 school year.

Our national experiment with schools funding has demonstrated that public schools are essential to the operation of non-government schools as they are constituted in this country.

The Minister for School Education , Peter Garrett, has set the stage for new arrangements by formally acknowledging that public schools are the ‘‘ backbone of our education system’’ . He has also acknowledged the right of parents to choose nongovernment schools for their children . Public funding for these is now part of the fabric of schooling in Australia.

There are now many parents and communities that seek to express, through various forms of nongovernment schooling, what they see as different or special about themselves and their children.

We look to the Gonski review to provide governments with advice on how they can continue to do so without undermining the operation of a high quality public school system open to all, the provision for students’ common educational needs and entitlements, or the equality of educational opportunity that is a hallmark of democracy.

We also look to the Gonski review for advice on the distribution of public funds among schools that reflects differences in the teaching workload that they carry, largely reflecting differences in their student intake and in the communities they serve.

It is to be hoped that the Gonski review will point out to the federal government in particular the inadequacy of funding the most hardpressed schools though a plethora of ‘‘ special’ ’ programs that come and go; and the need for greater investment on a sustained and predictable basis to create the conditions conducive to successful schooling.

If moral arguments for increased funding are not enough, then it needs also to be recognised that the under-resourcing of the schools facing the greatest challenges is already undermining Australia’s productivity.

Jim McMorrow and Lyndsay

Connors formerly held senior

policy posts at federal and state

levels.

Copyright © 2011 The Sydney Morning Herald