Parental choice in education advocated by Liberal stalwarts like Sir Robert Menzies and ex-Prime Minister John Howard has been an essential part of the Liberal Party’s DNA since the beginning of state aid to non-government schools, introduced when Menzies was prime minister.
Not so with Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who are attacking Catholic schools as they re-badge the Liberal government as Labor-lite. There’s no doubt that the Gonski 2.0 school funding model beginning next year financially penalises Catholic schools across Australia — schools that enrol approximately 20% of students.
When PM Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham launched the Gonski 2.0 school funding model earlier this year, alongside David Gonski, I described it as a prime example of the “political ineptitude” so characteristic of the Turnbull government.
As detailed in two comment pieces for Quadrant (May 26th, 2017 How to Lose the Catholic Vote and June 2nd, 2017 Gonski: Forgotten People Forgotten Again, in addition to alienating a significant number of its conservative base, the methodology underpinning the quantum of funding received by Catholic schools, in particular, is both compromised and flawed.
Even worse is the fact that the original Gonski review and its final report, on which Gonski 2.0 is based, embraces a Fabian inspired view of education that is opposed to parental choice and the existence of non-government schools.
That the Gonski funding model embodies a cultural-left view of education and is inherently biased against non-government schools is best illustrated by the make-up of the original Gonski panel chosen by the then ALP education minister, Julia Gillard, to undertake the review.
Ken Boston, an Australian educrat who had to resign as the head of the British Qualifications and Curriculum Authority before returning to Australia, is a strident critic of non-government schools. Boston attacks funding to Catholic and independent schools for privileging “neo-Darwin free-market forces”. In addition to condemning non-government schools for providing an “exclusive education” Boston also argues government schools deserve priority and that such schools are “residualised” by the existence of non-government schools.
Ignored is that non-government schools are constrained by having to abide by state and commonwealth restrictions in areas like curriculum, teacher quality and certification and a funding system that restricts enrolments by financially penalising parents.
It is simply wrong to suggest such schools operate in a free-market system best illustrated by school vouchers (where parents receive government funding and then decide what school their child should attend) and charter schools (where schools have the flexibility to hire and fire staff, set work conditions and curriculum focus).
Also ignored by Boston is the reality that it is a myth to describe government schools as open to all – selective schools decide entry based on merit and many government schools are only open to those wealthy parents who can afford nearby prime real estate.
A second Gonski panel member, the ALP’s Carmen Lawrence, is also on the public record attacking funding to non-government schools. In a 2002 speech delivered at Curtin University Lawrence argues “the Howard government has poured money into the wealthiest schools at the expense of government schools”.
The ex-ALP Federal President goes on to argue the Howard Government’s funding policies “are the major contributors to this reverse discrimination. Give most to those who have the most; take from those who have little”.
While not as explicit as Boston or Lawrence the chair of the original Gonski review, David Gonski, in a 2011 speech to the Australian Education Union also betrays a cultural-left view of what constitutes the best way to fund schools.
One of the central tenets of the socialist-left Australian Education Union and like-minded academics is that socioeconomic status (SES) is the main cause of educational success or failure. Low SES government school students, supposedly, are disadvantaged and destined to failure while wealthy, privileged non-government school students are always guaranteed success.
The solution, as argued by Victoria’s one time socialist Premier Joan Kirner, is “to reshape education so that it is a vital weapon in the transition to more equal outcomes for disadvantaged groups and classes rather than a ladder to equal opportunity for individuals”.
David Gonski’s statement in his speech to the Australian Education Union that “one of our main drivers is about equity of educational outcomes” mirrors Kirner’s mantra that education must provide ‘equality of outcomes’ where SES does not determine success or failure.
The argument by Gonski that any funding model must ensure “differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions” reflects this cultural-left belief system – one where inequality in education is caused by students’ home background and postcode.
David Gonski also repeats the AEU’s argument that the existence and continued funding of non-government schools is leading to the “residualisation” of government schools when he states “there are concerns about the growing shift of enrolments from government schools to non-government schools”.
Ignored, according to the OECD, is that students’ SES only accounts for 12% of the variation in educational outcomes and that more critical factors include: student ability and past performance, teacher quality and classroom environment, having a rigorous curriculum where teachers can focus on essential knowledge, understanding and skills and parental engagement.
Research also proves autonomy, diversity and choice in education, best illustrated by the success of Catholic and independent schools, are important in ensuring a strong and more equitable system of schooling – something the Turnbull Government appears happy to ignore.
Instead of championing Catholic schools, as did Sir Robert Menzies and John Howard when prime ministers, both Turnbull and Birmingham are happy to embrace a Fabian inspired school funding policy and, as a result, have turned their backs on the Howard battlers and the government’s aspirational base.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Dumbing Down.