Timid thinking no longer cuts it. Change is needed now

By Jane Kenway

Their buildings are substandard— cheap and poorly ventilated.  Their classrooms are under resourced and uninviting. Their gardens are sparce and bleak.  Their play and sports grounds are inadequate— frequently small and ill equipped. Their students often struggle at school and their families often struggle at home. Money is scarce, employment and housing are insecure and good health care is usually unaffordable. 

Their teachers work harder than most because their students need more help than most. But these teachers don’t receive anywhere near the support and recognition they deserve. Many such schools are government schools. Yet they are left to make do with minimal resources and minimal care from state and federal governments. They have been pretty much abandoned— left to deteriorate, not properly helped prosper. 

Instead, these governments have allowed the private sector of schooling to grow without limit— depleting struggling government schools of the material and human resources they need for their students to flourish rather than flounder. 

These schools and these kids are part of the’ long tail’ of under-achievement that characterises the Australian schooling system. But the tail’s problems can’t be addressed in isolation. They are the tragic effect of much bigger problems. Australia’s schooling system is amongst the most privatised and least equitable in the world. And it underperforms on many indicators. 

New opportunities for equitable, achievement-oriented, change in Australian schooling have arisen in 2023. We now have a progressive national government, an equity-sensitive federal Minister for Education, and the National School Reform Agreement is being renegotiated. 

The time is thus ripe to reconsider and reconfigure the fateful intersections between school funding, equity, and achievement. This requires a critical examination of the vexed relationships between the public and private sector and federal and state governments. On Monday, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education hosted a policy symposium and public forum, called Funding, Equity and Achievement, which interrogated these intersections and vexed relationships.

The symposium room was packed with 75 experienced education policy analysts, members of key stake-holder groups and people from state and federal governments. Ten eminent thinkers, including speakers Professor Barry McGaw, The Hon Dr Carmen Lawrence AO and The Hon Verity Firth AM, shared their views and the public forum attracted over 250 participants off and online. And Melbourne University’s Twitter feed had over 3000 views. 

The Gonski Report of 2011 was a touchstone for discussion at this event. All agreed that its funding solutions to the problems of equity and achievement have since been seriously watered down.  

Some argued that the political timidity of the national Labor government, the power of the private school lobby and the sectional interests of the states were ultimately responsible.  

‘Gonski lite’ was the result. Yes, ‘needs-based’ recurrent funding arrangements were a result and the focus on needs was welcome. But ultimately, as many policy experts at the Symposium showed, greed replaced need. Gonski was always in the lite side, others insisted.   It was constrained from the outset by an invented funding architecture involving state, Catholic and Independent school systems.  This architecture, they argued, is a policy construction and convenience. Yet is treated as immovable and untouchable. The implicit message to the Gonski review team was don’t mess with the private schools. 

Historians in the room shared examples of the formidable power of private schools’ backlash-politics – and of their serious electoral consequences.  

State schools abandoned by governments 

So began an unjustifiable pattern of school funding. This is known as the 80/20 split. The wealthier federal government provides 80 per cent funding to private schools and 20 per cent of funding to state schools. The poorer states and territories do the reverse.  And here is the kicker. The Federal government meets its funding obligations to private schools and constantly provides them with lavish top ups. In contrast, the states and territories seldom meet their funding obligations to state schools. 

Speakers at the Sympisoum provided an avalanche of carefully researched numbers which left no doubt about the serious funding inequities. Slide after power-point slide showed how private schools have been consistently over-funded and how state schools have been consistently underfunded.  

A vicious funding circle was identified. The more resources the private sector gets, the more it grows. The more it grows, the greater its market dominance and share of allocated resources. Along with this is a sense of entitlement to automatic funding. In turn, this has led to the private school sector opening new schools and upgrading and expanding existing ones at will. 

This sector has thus enjoyed unfettered growth – becoming ever bigger, more middle class and more segregated from wider Australia. Few people in the room agreed with the funding split that has allowed this to happen. Many firmly believed the Commonwealth should more equally share its funding benevolence with state schools.  

And for this to happen they thought, a National Schools Resourcing Body as proposed by Gonski should be established. This would over-see funding for both public and private schools— together. The relationships between the sectors would be in plain sight. 

Public funding to private schools is untied. They are not required by law to provide any wider public benefit. They do as they please despite the copious amounts of public money they receive. The Symposium audience was shown how the wealthiest private schools draw on their funding excesses to fund their infrastructure excesses. We wondered if such overabundance could be justified in educational terms.  We agreed it was more about market signalling than student learning. So why fund it? 

Other questions arose. Should public money be conditional on private schools democratising their fee structures, entry policies and governance practices? Yes. 

What can stop them from draining the state school sector of money, reputation and the ‘best’ teachers, students and parents? Cap their growth for a start. Properly fund all state schools so that they can be the best they can be. 

The policy symposium provided unequivocal evidence that increases in private school funding have been at the expense of funding for public schools especially for struggling schools in struggling locations. 

Such underfunding, we agreed, leads to under achievement. Indigenous kids, country kids, kids with disabilities and kids from low-income families under-achieve because they are under-supported. They are under supported because they are under-funded. 

Struggling schools in struggling locations have less money to spend on the bare necessities. Additional resources are necessary to allow them to meet their complex needs in the best ways possible. Distinct and distinctive interventions are required.  

Ken Boston, a member of the Gonski Committee and former Director-General of the NSW Education Department, said as much, back in 2017: “They need smaller class sizes, specialist personnel to deliver the appropriate tiered interventions, speech therapists, counsellors, school/family liaison officers including interpreters, and a range of other support. And that support requires money. You can’t deliver education as a genuine public good without strategically differentiated public funding directed at areas of need. That’s what Gonski sought to achieve.”

Such under-support is sometimes driven by a naive policy mindset. It goes like this, ‘It’s not the money that matters but what you do with it’. Money AND what-you-do-with-it matter. It is not an either/or situation

Serious concerns were expressed that the current federal Labor government might not live up to its policy rhetoric.  People feared it might adopt a target and tinker approach.  Safe, simple and unlikely to make much difference. Time and again people called for systemic change. 

Presenters shared international studies that convincingly show how achieving equity at the systemic level leads to systemic improvements in achievement. Put equity first and achievement follows. 

Further, segregated education systems concentrate disadvantage. This, it was shown, has all sorts of deleterious effects and not just on the schooling of disadvantaged kids. Social cohesion depends on social mixing and where better to learn to mix than at school? The shared case study of Poland’s dramatic rise in school results is attributed to its introduction of comprehensive schools. 

 Many agreed that, despite its limitations, the Gonski review made hope possible. State school supporters united behind the slogan ‘I give a Gonski’.  

Now such supporters must unite again to save state schools from the residualisation caused by private school expansion. And the federal government must be prepared to stand up to the private school lobby which has neither the public interest nor the national interest at heart. 

Timid, standard arrangements and conventional thinking no longer cut it. Change is urgently required. 

Professor Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.  

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

11 thoughts on “Timid thinking no longer cuts it. Change is needed now

  1. Dr. Rosie Thrupp says:

    Sadly, it has been more than you describe for a long, long time. Schools with students who are ‘hard to teach” for various reasons are chastised by those higher up the organisation. These people refuse to recognise factors in the ‘harder to teach’ and ‘harder to reach’ schools (e.g. mobility, lack of attendance) and thereby support alternate strategies for these children. For example, providing breakfast in the nineties was frowned upon. These children were hungry and cold. Often asked, why I would want to feed children, my teachers and I were punished by derogatory comments at meetings etc. Still makes me sad and I am retired. All kids are not the same. The social justice jargon of the nineties is still talked about but so little is understood and enacted.

  2. Tim Delany - PhD Candidate UniMelb MGSE says:

    Thank you Jane. This is a powerful reminder of the urgency of the campaign for radical funding reform in Australia. I was a little challenged by the first paragraph, as I wonder whether some our our public school colleagues might be offended? Particularly as they work so hard to make their schools safe and welcoming learning environments students and their families? Also, I wonder if there might be readers of this article who are making choices about schooling for their own children who may not get past the first few paragraphs? Are you open to an alternative first paragraph?

    Their buildings are visible on the horizon – showcasing a mix of colonial majesty and Guggenheim creativity. Their classrooms resemble resort conference facilities. Their gardens are permanently manicured by professional groundskeepers. Their play and sports grounds are Olympic level. Their students are handpicked or come from families with lived experience of privilege and wealth. Money is no object, so, in the context of labour market shortages, they can employ more teachers than they need and offer graduate salaries of six figures. These are Australia’s elite private schools that take a large share of our public funds each year.

    Across town, teachers at neighbourhood public schools work harder than most because their students need more help than most…

  3. jane kenway says:

    Yes, Rosie,

    The injustices associated with our schooling system are long lasting and deeply entrenched.

    Social justice interventions often just scratch the surface as you make clear

  4. jane kenway says:

    I take your point Tim and agree with the points in the paragraph you offer.

    The dilemma in writing about the difficulties in some governments schools is exactly the danger you identify. And hard to avoid.

    And, coming from a teaching family, I am aware of how much effort teachers put into creating attractive environments.

    A similar dilemma arises in writing about so called elite schools.. How does one describe their abundant resources without underwriting their appeal?

  5. Jennifer says:

    I too, ‘give a Gonski’ and agree that ‘Put equity first and achievement follows’ and the resounding turnaround of Poland’s comprehensive school system justifies and consolidates this remark. Our current state of education inequity, poor funding, underachievement has been entrenched by government policy reinforcing inequity, poor funding for public schools that bare the brunt of the most complex-needs classes without resources and support. The track record of government support for public schools is woeful. Meanwhile the government deflects and defends their position by pointing to initial teacher education, a mantra of need the best and the brightest, candidates that are job-ready. Are the schools ready for support new teachers? Are the schools funded to support education in crisis? The government deflects and defers to banning mobile phones in schools when it has been stated over and over that if the government is truly serious about raising student achievement and progress in crucial life-impacting areas such as literacy and numeracy then it must must must face the underlying cause of a fairer distribution of resources and support for public schooling, encourage and support comprehensive schooling like Poland has exemplified and championed and do some heavy lifting in being responsible and accountable for that state of Australian education if it is not already too late!

  6. jane kenway says:

    So well put Jennifer.

    The injustices are increasingly obvious and odious

    Studies of school funding processes are exposing the issues in a very stark way.

    But sadly this does not seem to be an issue that provokes much press or even public interest.
    Maybe we can change that

  7. Excellent summary of the current depressing situation Jane, but surprised no discussion of the valuable research work of Chris Bonner and Tom Greenwell in raising these issues and their proposals for a more equitable and inclusive public school system.

  8. jane kenway says:

    Hi Lawrence.
    Thanks for your feedback.

    Tom and Chris presented at the Symposium and their new publication was circulated.

    They are not singled out in may piece here because there were many other compelling presentations alongside them. .

  9. Lindsay Fitzclarence says:

    The Symposium was an important and timely event. Congratulations to the Melbourne Graduate School of Education for making it happen. I was an online participant in the Public Forum. It foregrounded the issue of funding. I agree that the focus must be squarely on the drivers and sources of funding. This helps to avoid an arm wrestle debate framed by the dynamics and struggles of the public versus private binary. The ‘state’, at both State and Federal levels, is the most powerful force in considerations of funding, equity and achievement. The issue is not binary, it is tripartite in form and function. A critical spotlight must shine on the role of the state with the activities and priorities of key politicians, bureaucrats, policy makers, and indeed media personnel. The Symposium provides a warrant to undertake such crucial work.

  10. Lawrence Ingvarson says:

    Ah, my apologies Jane. Should have known. Your paper was the only one that I saw.

  11. jane says:

    I am pleased you could attend the Public Forum Lindsay. It was certainly a compelling set of presentations. A recording will follow in a couple of weeks. To your point, I agree almost wholeheartedly. While the public/private binary is a key feature of school funding policies, to understand the processes driving such policy I adopt a political economy framework, This attends to the following. 1 The economic situation and ideological disposition of the Australian state and their links to the economy. 2 Federal/state responsibilities and dynamics, 3 The relationships between the public and private sectors of schooling, and 4 The intersection between these.

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