Government Schools Good, Other Schools Bad

In the July-August 2009 edition of Quadrant I wrote an essay, “The Politics of School Choice” in which I argued in favour of choice and diversity in education and warned that the ALP federal government’s rhetoric about supporting non-government schools could not be believed. I also signalled that the then Rudd government, with Julia Gillard as Education Minister, intended to review how schools, both government and non-government, were funded and that critics such as the Australian Education Union saw the review as an opportunity to attack Catholic and independent schools.

Given that the school funding review headed by the Sydney businessman David Gonski is due to release its report by the end of this year, it is timely to take another look at the issue and to evaluate whether my initial suspicions were justified. Based on the available evidence, non-government schools and their communities have cause for concern. Notwithstanding her assurances when Education Minister that no school would lose funding as a result of the review and that there is no place for the divisive and fruitless politics of class envy, it’s clear that Julia Gillard dislikes non-government schools. In her maiden speech she bemoaned the fact that so-called privileged students in Melbourne’s eastern suburban private schools outperformed students in her working-class electorate of Lalor.

In addition to Gillard favouring positive discrimination and quotas for so-called victim groups in relation to tertiary entry, naming the former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner as one of her political mentors is also evidence that Gillard’s support for merit and competition in education is far from genuine. Kirner once declared that education had to be re-shaped to be “part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system”.

The hostility towards Catholic and independent schools is also evident from two of Gillard’s appointments to the Gonski five-member panel, Carmen Lawrence and Ken Boston, both of whom are on the public record criticising funding to non-government schools. Lawrence, the former West Australian Premier and ALP Federal President, in a September 2002 speech to Curtin University left no doubt about her views. Echoing Mark Latham’s politics of envy, represented by the hit list of so-called wealthy private schools that he took to the 2004 election, Lawrence argued that “the Howard government has poured money into the wealthiest schools at the expense of government schools” and that “the government’s funding policies and the SES funding formula are major contributions to this reverse discrimination. Give most to those who have the most; take from those who have little.”

She ignored the fact that the current socioeconomic status (SES) model of funding non-government schools is based on need and, as a result, better-resourced non-government schools only receive 13.7 per cent of the recurrent cost of educating a student in a government school (what is know as the Average Government School Recurrent Costs or AGSRC). Whereas government school students receive approximately $12,369 per student in state and federal funding, the figure for non-government school students is $6,607. In addition to paying taxes for a system they do not use, non-government school parents also pay school fees, and their children’s schools, unlike government schools, receive little, if any, government contribution towards infrastructure and capital costs.

Ken Boston, one-time Director-General of the New South Wales Department of Education and Training and appointed by the Blair government to head England’s Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is also critical of non-government schools. In a June 2002 newspaper article Boston criticised the existing funding model for privileging what he described as “neo-Darwin free market forces” and argues that non-government schools only serve “an exclusive clientele identified by SES, religion, ethnicity and some other dimension”.

While both Julia Gillard and the current Schools Minister Peter Garrett try to assure the public that the Gonski review is open and transparent, when it comes to Boston’s views it’s clear that his mind is already made up. In the article referred to above, Boston implied that non-government schools fail to serve the common good, they are over-funded, they contribute to social fragmentation and, unlike the existing SES model, any new model should penalise non-government schools by reducing government funding to take into account money, such as school fees, raised locally.

While the Gonski funding panel argues that the review process is impartial and that there are no foregone conclusions, based on a number of its publications and comments by the review’s chairman, David Gonski, it’s clear that such is not the case. One of the consistent themes running through the review’s deliberations is a focus on overcoming educational disadvantage, associated with low socioeconomic status and victimhood, and increasing equity in education.

Mirroring the views of critics of non-government schools, the argument is that how well students perform depends on their socioeconomic background; working-class, migrant and indigenous children are destined to failure, while so-called privileged, more affluent students are guaranteed success. Based on the assumption that at-risk students are concentrated in government schools and that non-government schools only serve the top end of town, the argument is that any new funding model must redirect funds from Catholic and independent schools to, supposedly, more deserving government schools.

As stated by Gonski, one of the key issues guiding the work of the committee is equity in education, defined as follows: 

It [the review panel] believes that equity should ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions. The panel does not intend it to mean that all students are the same or will achieve the same outcomes, but rather they will not be prevented from achieving their maximum potential because of their background or family circumstance. 

While not going as far as arguing for equality of outcomes, where so-called disadvantaged students are guaranteed success, the argument mirrors the long-held belief of the Left that education reinforces social advantage and disadvantage and that it is the role of government to intervene and rectify the situation. In its more extreme form, and associated with Marxist theorists like Gramsci and Althusser, the argument is that schools are instruments of capitalist oppression and that meritocracy, competition and school choice are unacceptable as they reinforce privilege and social status.

Yet research by Gary Marks, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, suggests that SES is not as significant a factor in explaining educational disadvantage as critics of non-government schools like to argue. On analysing the various factors that lead to improved student performance as measured by tertiary entry, Marks concludes, “Socioeconomic background does not have a strong relationship with student performance. It accounts for less than 10 per cent of the variation in both tertiary entry score and university participation.”

That SES is not the main factor influencing student success or failure is also argued in a report by the ACER titled Tertiary Entrance Performance: The Role of Student Background and School Factors. On identifying what influences success at Year 12 the researchers place SES third after students’ previous academic ability (measured by literacy and numeracy tests) and factors such as school culture, teacher quality and student motivation.

That the Gonski panel favours increased government regulation and control is evident by the statement in the review’s issues paper that, “The wide-reaching social and economic benefits of schooling for individuals, the community and the national economy provide a compelling rationale for governments to play a significant role in funding and regulating schooling.” Not surprisingly, while nodding in the direction of the benefits associated with school autonomy, the panel favours the kind of statist, bureaucratic, centralised model of education associated with the Rudd–Gillard “education revolution”.

In a speech to the Australian Education Union’s Annual General Meeting in January, Gonski referred to overcoming disadvantage and strengthening equity in education as central issues and observed that “many people have observed educational disadvantage being increasingly concentrated in certain systems of schools”. He argued that “governments need to equally distribute appropriate and adequate resources if all students are to be placed in the best position to achieve their full potential” and that “we need to continue to build a strong public school system, and investigate and understand the causes and effects of the enrolment shift from government to non-government schools”.

While such sentiments appear innocuous, taken in the context of the AEU’s view that funding must prioritise state schools to the disadvantage of non-government schools and that the increasing popularity of non-government schools has led to the residualisation of state schools, it’s understandable why the AEU President, Angelo Gavrielatos, in a memorandum to members describes Gonski’s presentation as sympathetic to the union’s campaign to cut funding to non-government schools and to increase regulation and control. 

The various background and issues papers released by the Gonski panel make no mention of overseas developments in education represented by school vouchers and, in the USA, what are known as charter schools. The model of education favoured by Gonski is government funded and controlled and the panel refuses to acknowledge that a market-driven approach represented by the school choice movement might be beneficial or represent a viable alternative.

If the Gonski review was truly interested in overcoming disadvantage and raising standards it should have looked at school choice. Research here and overseas identifying the characteristics of stronger performing, more successful education systems, as measured by international tests and academic examinations, completion rates, tertiary entry and parental satisfaction, concludes that competition, choice and diversity in education are beneficial.

In a paper analysing market-driven approaches to education prepared for the OECD in 2007, European researchers conclude, after examining the results of international mathematics and science tests: 

The main empirical result is that rather than harming disadvantaged students, accountability, autonomy and choice appear to be tides that lift all boats. The additional choice created by public funding for private schools in particular is associated with a strong reduction in the dependence of student achievement on SES.  

In her analysis of the charter school movement in the USA, Caroline Hoxby draws a similar conclusion about the benefits of school choice and freeing schools from provider capture.

Viewers of Yes, Minister will appreciate that politicians and governments can determine the outcomes of inquiries and reports by setting the terms of reference and ensuring that those involved are like-minded and sympathetic to the desired results. In addition to two of the members of the Gonski panel being on record favouring government schools and criticising non-government schools, a number of the researchers commissioned by Gonski to investigate funding issues are critical of the existing SES model and are antagonistic towards Catholic and independent schools.

On August 31, David Gonski and the Schools Minister, Peter Garrett, released four reports commissioned to inform and guide the review, and described as “independent”. The four reports are wide-ranging and detailed, covering issues such as: how disadvantaged students are currently funded, including effectiveness and possible alternatives; an assessment of existing state and federal funding models; the feasibility of a national schooling recurrent resource standard (to replace the SES model); and an analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing Australian education.

A number of the organisations and researchers associated with the four papers are very much opposed to non-government schools. One of the lead academics behind the paper investigating challenges and opportunities in school education, overseen by the Nous Group, is Jack Keating from the University of Melbourne. Keating used to be a senior research officer for the Marxist-leaning Victorian Secondary Teachers Association—now known as the Australian Education Union Victorian Branch. The VSTA curriculum policies that Keating helped to write embrace a view of education that defines schools, especially non-government schools, as part of the ideological state apparatus and ripe for criticism. Such was the VSTA’s opposition to merit and competition in education, symbolised by the success of non-government schools at Year 12 examinations, that it argued that tertiary selection should be decided by ballot instead of academic ability.

Far from being impartial and objective, Keating’s record demonstrates hostility to non-government schools and, while not as obvious as Mark Latham’s hit-list, represents a threat to the viability and autonomy of Catholic and independent schools. In 2009 critics of non-government schools had a “2020 Education Summit”, where Keating criticised non-government schools for supposedly promoting a “separatist and elitist culture”. In the context of then wall-to-wall ALP governments across Australia, Keating noted, “I don’t think we’re going to get an opportunity like this for a while”, and implied that the Rudd–Gillard national goals for schooling could be used to control non-government schools.

Keating has written a number of papers related to school funding, including A New Federalism in Australian Education and Resourcing Australia’s Schools: A Proposal. He understands that it is politically impossible to mount a direct attack on non-government schools, so subtler methods need to be employed. He argues, as a condition of funding, that non-government schools must abide by increased government regulation in areas such as enrolments and meeting equity targets and that non-government schools, instead of competing against government schools, should be made to collaborate and share resources, facilities, staff and curriculum. He also criticises the current SES school funding model, implying that non-government schools fail to contribute to the common good and that disadvantaged students are concentrated in government schools.

Given Keating’s record of hostility to non-government schools, it is no surprise that the report prepared under the auspices of the Nous Group represents a clear and present danger to non-government schools. While the report is described as independent and impartial, its analysis and recommendations display a cultural-Left view of schooling and an ideological dislike for Catholic and independent schools.

Many of the assumptions underlying the report are in tune with arguments regularly voiced by non-government school critics. The scenario is one where at-risk and disadvantaged students (measured by SES) consistently under-perform academically, such students are concentrated in government schools, and non-government schools exacerbate the situation by being selective in their enrolments, by promoting choice and competition in education and by draining resources from needier, more deserving government schools.

The idea of educational under-performance being linked to low SES fits with a cultural-Left critique of capitalist society, and fails to recognise that there are other equally, if not more, influential factors that determine educational success or failure. Such factors include students’ motivation and willingness to apply themselves, teacher quality and commitment, the culture of the school and the effectiveness of the curriculum. Also ignored is that Australia has a high level of social mobility and that based on the results of two out of the last three Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests Australia’s education system is “high quality–high equity”. Critics should also remember that the current SES funding model is based on need, and non-government school students receive about half of what state and federal governments invest in state school students.

Compared to other OECD countries, Australia has one of the largest enrolments in non-government schools. Approximately 34 per cent of students are now enrolled in non-government schools, 20 per cent Catholic and 14 per cent independent. The figure rises to over 40 per cent at Years 11 and 12 in New South Wales and Victoria, and enrolments have grown by 21 per cent since 2000, while government school enrolments have had only a 1 per cent increase.

Australian parents are embracing school choice, and contrary to what critics argue it is not because, compared to government schools, parents see non-government schools as better resourced. Surveys show that parents choose non-government schools because they see such schools as better reflecting the values of the home, they provide a more disciplined and academic environment and because they are faith-based.

Instead of supporting school choice and Australia’s tripartite system of school education, the writers of the Nous Report suggest that there is a need “to address the ‘drift’ from the government to non-government sectors”. They also recommend a “re-think [of] the extent to which schools that are already well-resourced, and which are doing well in large part due to selective enrolment practices, should be publicly subsidised”.

The fact that non-government schools have control over their enrolments and that parents, on the whole, can choose among schools is described as a “zero-sum game” and the report argues that competition between schools must cease on the basis that parents must be “mindful of wider community benefits of having well-functioning schools irrespective of personal considerations around school choice for one’s own children”. Additional evidence that the Nous Report favours a cultural-Left view of schools is the statement, “We do not support greater autonomy over enrolments than currently exists, and we see value in centrally-directed industrial relations arrangements for teachers.”

Equally revealing is the recommendation, as a condition of funding, that non-government schools be forced to enrol greater numbers of so-called disadvantaged students. The report’s recommendation that “well-resourced schools, which are doing well in large part due to selective enrolment practices” should be made to take on under-performing students by providing “retrospective reward-based funding” is not only an attack on the right that schools currently have to determine their own enrolment practices, it also ignores the reality that many so-called privileged schools already have programs designed to overcome disadvantage.

Through scholarships, bursaries, fee relief and outreach programs directed at indigenous communities, many non-government schools demonstrate a commitment to strengthening equity in education. The Nous Report’s example of how a system of transferring students might work, involving a Catholic school student moving to “a more exclusive higher performing government school” also displays a bizarre misunderstanding about why parents send their children to faith-based schools instead of secular ones.

Whether measured by Australia’s national literacy and numeracy tests at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, Year 12 academic performance or success at tertiary entry, non-government schools, on the whole, outperform government schools. One tactic employed by the cultural Left to undermine the widespread perception that non-government schools are more successful is to argue that the only reason such schools do well is because they enrol privileged, medium-to-high SES students. The Nous Report argues that Catholic, independent and government schools, after adjusting for students’ SES, achieve the same results when it states “there is no evidence of systematic differences between the sectors in the ‘quality’ of schools”.

Once again, the writers of the Nous Report are guilty of fashioning their arguments and evidence in a one-sided way calculated to undermine the standing of non-government schools. If it’s the case, as argued by Barry McGaw, the head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), that “the performance of private schools is not necessarily better than public schools” then parents, supposedly, will question the value of paying school fees.

After analysing the relative performance of government and non-government schools Gary Marks concludes that non-government schools are more successful when he states, “the difference between tertiary entrance performance remains, even after accounting for differences in the academic and socioeconomic mix of students”. 

A second research paper commissioned by the Gonski review panel and carried out by the Allen Consulting Group, while not as hostile to non-government schools as the report by the Nous Group, also is cause for concern. The report investigates a new model for funding government and non-government schools, what is described as the National Schooling Recurrent Resource Standard. The NSRRS is defined as the level of resources from all sources, public and private, that “would enable students attending schools serving communities with minimal levels of educational disadvantage the opportunity to meet agreed national educational outcomes”. Schools facing greater costs due to serving disadvantaged students or remote communities would receive additional targeted funding to supplement the NSRRS.

While noting a number of difficulties in defining and measuring educational outcomes, the Allen Report recommends that funding be tied to schools achieving “defined standards and outcomes” based on a model of accountability and efficiency more suited to commerce and business. Examples of expected outcomes include: literacy and numeracy standards, national policy goals, and retention and completion rates. The concern here, much like the Rudd–Gillard “education revolution”, is that an input-output model based on fulfilling government dictates leads to schools losing the flexibility and autonomy they need to best manage themselves and to reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities.

In the survey, one of the main concerns expressed by school principals, government and non-government, is the heavy-handed, inflexible and intrusive nature of government micromanagement and bureaucratic interference. Such demands involve compliance costs, undermine school autonomy, and direct resources and energy away from the classroom. Forcing non-government schools to comply with policy documents like the Melbourne Declaration, which implies that schools cannot discriminate in areas like staffing and enrolments, also has the potential to undermine the ability of religious schools to act according to the dictates of their faith.

Under the current SES model non-government schools are not financially penalised by losing government funding as a result of money raised locally through fees and other sources such as philanthropic support. The belief is that private investment in education should be encouraged and that as the SES model is based on need, with wealthier non-government schools receiving less funding, that it would be wrong to further penalise school communities. An added concern with the Allen Report is that as the NSRRS incorporates all sources of funding, public and private, it will lead to non-government schools receiving less government support.

A further illustration that the Gonski funding review represents a danger to non-government schools and that the ALP federal government harbours a dislike for such schools is the failure of the last three education ministers to guarantee that non-government schools will not suffer financially as a result of the review.

Julia Gillard, Simon Crean and now Peter Garrett, while stating that no school will lose funding, have all refused to promise that any new model will index funding on an annual basis. When he was interviewed soon after the launch of the four research papers in late August, Garrett, on being asked three times, refused to clarify the matter.

That non-government schools are in danger of losing funding in real terms and having their autonomy compromised is made more likely given that the Greens are able to exert so much pressure. Julia Gillard depends on the Greens for her government’s political survival and the extreme-Left party is no friend of Catholic and independent schools.

Not only does the Greens’ education policy call for funding to non-government schools to be frozen at 2003-04 levels, that funding to wealthy schools be withdrawn and that funding be reduced to take account of money raised by schools and their communities, the Greens also seek to force their radical social agenda on schools. If the Greens have their way, the right of faith-based schools to employ and enrol those sympathetic and supportive of such schools’ religious beliefs will no longer be permitted. 

Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and the author of Australia’s Education Revolution (Connor Court). 

Leave a Reply