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<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

Don’t Mention The Class War

Parents have plenty to study in the Gonski report — including data that shows expensive schooling isn't producing rich results for the students, or the country.

Let's start with a simple statement with which everyone can agree: education is the key to this country's future. Now, a statement with which large numbers of people will disagree vehemently: private schools are making Australia dumber.

Please discuss. But, before you do, consider this fascinating conundrum.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a significant drift of students away from government schools. At the same time, Australia's educational performance, measured against other countries, has declined.

That latter point was one stressed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Feb. 20 at her press conference, held to accompany the release of the so-called Gonski report on school-funding reform.  Gillard spoke of "worrying signs" for Australian education. Over the past decade, she noted, "we've slipped from being equal-second in reading internationally to being equal-seventh, and from being equal-fifth in maths to being equal-thirteenth."

But of the correlation between that decline and the rise of non-government schooling, she said not a word.

The Australian system encourages a kind of ghettoisation of schools; the more privileged parents remove their students from the public system, leaving behind a concentration of kids whose educational needs are greater.

This, of course, is hardly surprising, in political terms. Even before the report came out, the opposition (that's opposition with both a big "O" and a little "o") had begun the ritual chants of "class warfare". Any suggestion that the non-government sector — which now educates more than one-third of Australia's children — should get a relatively smaller share of government funding is fraught with danger.

Consider what happened last time a Labor leader dared raise the prospect of directing money away from elite schools, towards under-resourced public education. The year was 2004, and the leader was Mark Latham.

His announced plan to cut funding to 67 of the nation's wealthiest schools was an electoral lead balloon; Kim Beazley dumped it, and dumped on it, as soon as he resumed the ALP leadership from Latham.

And ever since, Labor has stuck with, or, more accurately, been stuck with, the funding model of the Howard Government which, entirely coincidentally for sure, came into being at about the same time as Australia's decline in international educational rankings began in earnest.

So it is not surprising that Gillard did not want to frighten the horses. Instead of a Latham-esque approach, this Labor government has been far more subtle, and it hopes, reassuring. The mantra of Gillard and her schools minister, Peter Garrett, is that "no school will lose one dollar" of funding.

That, of course, is disingenuous, as the release of the Gonski report yesterday made quite clear. Sure, elite schools might not lose funding, but they inevitably will get a smaller proportion of total funding.

Gonski advocates an increase in school funding by state and federal governments of $5 billion. It also advocates a very different model for allocating that money.

As David Gonski put it at the joint press conference yesterday, the new suggested framework would be based on "acknowledging student and school needs in all schools, regardless of sector, and funds an aspirational outcome, rather than just costs."

<p>Nous Group Report &quot;Schooling Challenges &amp; Opportunities&quot;,August 2011</p>

Nous Group Report "Schooling Challenges & Opportunities",August 2011

To this end, he said, funding would come in two parts. The first would be a standard amount per student. The second component would consist of added loadings, intended to address disadvantage of various kinds.

Smaller and remote schools would attract extra funding, so would indigenous students and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students with limited proficiency in English, or a disability.

You can see how this would result in the big city, elite schools getting less in relative, if not absolute terms, because they have fewer poor, black and disabled students.

Gonski continued: "Government schools, special schools and disability loading, in our opinion, should be fully funded. Other non-government sector payments should be based on the anticipated level of a school's private contribution."

Those were careful words, but they were immediately translated in media reports as meaning there would be a means test on private schools.

All of this, of course, depends on the government proceeding with the implementation of the recommendations. At yesterday's press conference, Gillard went on at length about how there would have to be a lot of further "consultation with stakeholders" including the various education sectors, the states, et cetera. She said she was "mindful of Budget sustainability", and added that she was not at this stage going to make "any Budget commitments". She indulged herself with an extended metaphor about the report being like the blueprint for building a car. Not only was the car yet to be built, she said, but even the tools needed to build the car were yet to be made.

So all those middle-class parents who scrimp and save, and in some cases take out loans to send their children to expensive schools are quite possibly wasting their money.

And who says Julia Gillard can't sell a policy?

If the launch of Gonski was a bit underwhelming, the substance of Gonski was anything but. And much of that substance, much of what led the panel who carried out the review to their conclusions, came in a report from the Nous Group. The group describes itself as a "values-based" firm that sees the value of its own work as measured in part by its capacity to make a lasting difference. Unusually for a consultant's report, theirs makes for fascinating and pretty easy reading.

It also makes it clear that the contentious statement which began this piece — that private schools are making Australia a dumber place — is not as glib as it might seem.

For a start, bear in mind that the Australian model, in which fee-charging, autonomously-run independent schools are subsidised by the government, is unique among all the developed countries. And those subsidies help make the independent schools sector here unusually large.

Although Australia does reasonably well on average compared with other countries, that average is deceptive. As Nous says, it is made up of a "sizable proportion of schools that are producing very good results, a large number of schools that are not, and a group in the middle that helps balance this out."

And that wide range of outcomes, it says, "goes straight to the heart of the equity issue, as there is a strong relationship between socio-economic status (SES) of a school population and its educational results.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

"What is striking is the strong correlation between the performance of a child and the average SES of all the students that attend his or her school. In other countries, including 'high equity' countries like Finland and Canada, such an effect would not be evident. In Australia it is quite pronounced.

"The movement of a bright child from a low SES school to a higher SES school will undermine the quality of the remaining student body in the low SES school. The gain to the child who moves is offset by a loss to his or her fellow students who stay behind. This is how the process of SES and performance stratification is reinforced."

In other words, the Australian system encourages a kind of ghettoisation of schools; the more privileged parents remove their students from the public system, leaving behind a concentration of kids whose educational needs are greater. This, it should be noted, reflects not only on the elite private schools and on the Catholic schools, but also on state selective schools.

Says the report: "…if the schools that can select the students who are likely to do best are allowed to, the schools that cannot choose (mainly the government-sector schools) are left with a student body that is less supportive of good performance for each individual student who remains."

And that is exactly what has happened in this country. Compared with other nations — particularly those whose performance is strongest — Australia has a higher concentration of disadvantaged kids in disadvantaged schools. It has a lower proportion of kids who attend schools where there is a mix of social and economic backgrounds. Fully 60 per cent of the most disadvantaged students are in schools whose SES ranking is below the national average.

"This is higher than in all similar OECD countries, and the OECD average," the report says.

The best-performing school systems in the world, as well as the fastest-improving — in places as diverse as Canada, Korea and Finland — also are marked by higher levels of equity.

"While Australia performs quite well in relation to the OECD average and to a set of comparable countries, our performance in reading and mathematics has declined since 2000," the report says.

Australia was one of only four OECD countries to have experienced such a decline. Worse, scores usually improve as countries become more wealthy, it said. Yet Australia's decline came against a backdrop of rapid economic growth.

The report charts the drift: more children of well-off, well-educated family backgrounds — "bright" kids — go to independent schools; more "average" kids go to Catholic schools to replace the bright ones who've moved to the independent sector, and disadvantage gets concentrated in the public sector. It's a vicious cycle, says Nous.

"So while the drift continues, it has a compounding effect on disadvantage and underperformance, creating a vicious circle... The important point is that the impact of this concentrated effect is felt not just at the level of student performance, but plays out in teacher morale, community alienation from the local school, and difficulties in attracting good teachers as well as good students. As a school's reputation worsens, so more and more parents send their children elsewhere."

But here's the thing — those bright students from the well-off backgrounds would probably do as well at state schools. Indeed, when the survey controlled for the background of students, there was no significant difference between the educational "value added" of state and private schools.

"Given that Catholic and independent schools tend to produce higher results than governments schools," the report says, "one would expect to be able to demonstrate that the non-government sector adds more value to a student's education.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

"In other words, taking a student from a government school with, say, a mediocre record of performance and putting them into an independent school, you would expect to see better results after you've controlled for the effect of the students being with a higher socio-economic cohort. There would be something about the school's intrinsic quality that would make a difference to the student's education outcomes. However, this does not seem to be the case."

So all those middle-class parents who scrimp and save, and in some cases take out loans to send their children to expensive schools are quite possibly wasting their money.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the SES spectrum, where the education ethic is perhaps not as strong, where more resources might make a greater difference, the resources are lacking. This is particularly the case in rural, regional and remote areas.

[The report] might actually give some comfort to angsting parents, committed in theory to public education, but troubled about experimenting on their children.

Now, the flip side of the coin. What happens when there is greater equity in a school system?

The report produces some arresting evidence on that front, too. It actually poses the question: "Is it possible to have school systems that are both highly equitable and high performing?"

And it plots out the international evidence: yes. The best performing school systems in the world, as well as the fastest-improving — in places as diverse as Canada, Korea and Finland — also are marked by higher levels of equity.

We could go on, but the point of Gonski is made: a more equitable system produces better results; a stratified system produces worse results.

Which might actually give some comfort to angsting parents, committed in theory to public education, but troubled about experimenting on their children.

It might also give some ammunition to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and schools minister Peter Garrett, as they face the inevitable onslaught from those who accuse them of preparing for class war. There's a large body of evidence to support the line that equity produces better results. And the real class warriors are the ones fighting for a dumbed-down future.


Why the Catholic Church doesn’t want to see the Gonski report implemented.

In recent weeks the national and state Catholic education offices have been showing signs they're concerned about the Gonski report.

Dr Michael Furtado works on a social inclusion project aimed at mainstreaming children with disabilities in Brisbane. He is a former education officer at the Brisbane Catholic Education Office who did his doctorate on funding of Catholic schools. He says the Gonski report presents the Catholic system with a serious policy dilemma.

Listen to Dr Furtado's interview with The Global Mail's Stephen Crittenden.

13 comments on this story
by Mike

Schools, be they public or private, cannot bear the total responsibility for Australia's declining academic performance. The various State curricula have been dumbing down the requirements for years/decades and the schools can only teach what they are told. Certainly, teaching standards may have declined but the curricula, the academic requirements, are less challenging than 20 or 30 years ago.

February 21, 2012 @ 10:54am
by Margo

The argument about outcomes from public and private schools probably stands up when you are talking about results in test scores. However when education is looked at more broadly then issues such as wel being, thinking and problem solving, creative thinking, and so on seem to be more effectively fostered in schools with smaller class sizes and autonomy to work with different types of pedagogies. Add to this the effect to children's sense of themselves as valuable members of society that comes from attending schools with outstanding facilities then you begin to understand why parents choose to struggle to send their children to private schools. The sadness is that these opportunities are not available to all Australian children.

February 21, 2012 @ 6:39pm
by Rob

I seem to recall seeing some research which concluded that the kids from low SES backgrounds performed just as well in school as those from higher SES backgrounds - and that the difference came down to what happened outside the school. ie it had to do with what pressures the child faced outside the classroom and what sort of extra-curricular support their parents could afford to provide.

If the stratification is resolved simply by maintaining an average SES mix in each school, it will eliminate any apparent disparity between public and private while totally masking the issues faced by kids from low SES backgrounds. I wouldn't have thought that is a sensible outcome.

February 22, 2012 @ 1:51pm
by Roseanne

Brilliant article - although the heading is not fully explored in the body. I am really concerned about the growing 'class' system in Australia and I truly believe it is being caused by private schooling.
I won't be happy until the subsidising of private schools by taxpayers, many of whom cannot afford private schooling, is removed or greatly diminished.

We truly are the 'Stupid Country'

February 23, 2012 @ 6:25pm
by Anna

Finland puts great value on education as a source of national power, they have to because they don’t have the same natural wealth as their neighbour, Norway, and look at where they stand between Russian and NATO forces. Canada's national history suggests their more current preoccupation with equity and it acts as a point of difference to their mighty neighbour who sells a great American dream reliant somehow on intrinsic personal power. The Republic of Korea is daily subjected to nuclear threat and perhaps that common enemy binds their people together in a quest for national strength. These are generalisations but my question is whether Australians have ever had reason enough to value education, high quality or otherwise, equitable or not? Why would they? Furthermore, why would parents send their kids to private schools if they thought the government believed “education is the key to the country’s future” as Secombe suggests in his opening?

February 24, 2012 @ 1:19pm
by Amanda

I have been teaching for fourteen years and disagree with the statement that standards are declining and standards are being dumbed down. A good teacher will always extend those children who need it beyond the curriculum expectations, alas the standards and what children are expected to know and do is constantly being expanded. Which tends to result in children missing out on a truely strong understanding of the fundamentals. Without these base skills to build upon children will struggle. Good teachers work in both systems, however public teachers are not under the same pressure to "just do what makes the parent body happy". I personally feel that public teachers educate the most needy and have a greater role in teaching children how to think and work i.ndependantly

March 8, 2012 @ 11:36pm
by paul

The analysis of the implications of the Gonski report are I believe excellent. The attached discussion with Michael Furtado is also very central.The systemic Catholic system is not going to disappear no matter what public school supporters think. An obvious response is that of much of the Western world over several decades where Catholic schools have been incorporated into the state system. Full funding would be dependant on schools taking all comers and not being discrimnatory. A combined system that covered 90+% of the population would create overwhelming pressure on govt to properly fund. SES levels across both systems would equilibrate over time. The elite schools with no public funding would then have to survive against a well funded intergrated system and I believe will be found wanting.

March 16, 2012 @ 1:50pm
by Lois

Great to see an article that raises the most important issue. Educational research has for at least 40 years indicated that all students do best when they learn together in mixed classrooms. The figures show that the Howard model has not been an economic or social success so why persist with it. Sadly too many aspirational parents have come to believe that they are only good parents if they send their children to private schools. We have yet to reap the results of what has happened over the last 15 years and lets hope for the good of our country it can be reversed.

April 11, 2012 @ 5:13pm
by Stephen

Excellent article. Where once about 20-25% of students attended private schools that figure is now >33% and close to 40% in high school. And all the time we've fallen down the list.

I would add, that the decline in our standings in the international rankings also (inversely) correlates with the Howard governments "back to the future" philosophy on education (i.e the three "R"s and nothing else). Which has been enthusiastically embraced and enhanced by Gillard's NAPLAN policy. We now have a complete cohort of students who have been taught, from Yr 1 to 12, just like we were in the 1950s and 1960s. Wow, such progress.

Finally there is a simple word to describe our current obsession with private schools; placebo.

August 21, 2012 @ 6:24pm
by Evan

I doubt that any Australian Government will implement the recommendations in the Gonski report in the foreseeable future; the golden days of major reform are behind us, in my view. There is an absence of responsible policy debate about raising the tax revenue base (real mining and banking super profit tax reform, as well as personal income tax reform, and repealing negative gearing, and other tax breaks to those who don’t need it, etc, etc) to sustainably fund high quality public education, infrastructure, health care, and welfare spending.
In the meantime, there is a strong body of evidence that shows socio-economic background is one of the strongest predictors of access to higher education and professional employment. In other words, it doesn’t matter if educational attainment/performance is comparable among children from low cost public schools compared with those from very expensive private schools; parents of the latter can rest assured that their children should be able to break through the glass ceiling into a socially elite profession.
Source: Fair Access to Professional Careers, A progress report by the Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, May 2012, by Rt. Hon Alan Milburn

August 21, 2012 @ 9:22pm
Show previous 10 comments
by Dane from Finland

I have been a student in Finland and Australia, and in my humble opinion the problem is not in what type of school you are in, but more the matter of curriculum.

No compulsory physics, chemistry, biology, geography or history? In Finland I did all these subjects and then moved to year 10 in Melbourne, and we had "science", where we read about volcanoes and horoscopes.

Yeah, well, very motivating. It's not like the resources in Finland to be anything to hurrah about. That said, there is a much more a culture of constant revision and improvement in Finland about everything, while Australia has a more "if it aint broke, don't fix it style" (disastrous, by the way), which might have contributed to the current state of affairs.

There are parts where the Australian system is stronger- the arts. Though in part it might be because of the Scandinavian emphasis on function over form. Incidentally, art is not really measured in international school performance reviews anyway...

In the end it matters more what is being discussed, not whether it is in a posh private institution or a container-converted classroom in the public sector.

Of course this comes from a person who never had any problems in school anyway.

PS. I have found that teachers in Australia are horrible at spelling, and so are the general public. What are "Base skills", for example: I know what a "skills base" is, and I'm familiar with "basic skills", but "base skills" sounds kinky, unless it has something to do with baseball.

August 22, 2012 @ 6:10pm
by FelineCyclist

The Australian education system is the educational equivalent of the US healthcare system - highly unequal, expensive for government and the individual and largely ineffective. Australians understand why the US health care system is the wrong model and resist attempts to change our system to the US model. It is unfortunate that we don't recognise the same model in our education system.

September 1, 2012 @ 11:55am
by Melissa Castleman

I am currently living the lifestyle of a middle income earner, "the average Joe". My daughter is enrolled in grade 1 at a low socio economic school because it is in close walking distance which I believe should be a strong factor in deciding on a school for social and environmental reasons. We walk to school with our dog and younger brother on the days when I don't work. I anguish over my decision all the time. She is top of the class, possibly of her year level but there are not many others functioning at the same level. Today we had a birthday party forher and her younger brother who attends a mixed socio economic kinda. Nearly all of the invited to turned up to my sons party and only 3 from my daughters school. The parents from the kinda contacted me the ones from the school mostly didn't even bother. The lesson here is that it is more than the education at school it is also the calibre of the families you and your children will associate with. This is a fairly condensed version of my thoughts on the issue but basically I'm just trying to say that a lot of these kids are coming from a place of somewhat disinterest of the behalf of their parents. My heart broke for my daughter today and the contrast for me was depressing and made me revisit the decision I have made to send her to her current school. People I know that live within the schools zone have chosen to send their children to other schools and I have disagreed with this decision but who am I to make a point and experiment with my childs future?

June 29, 2013 @ 10:29pm
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