The ACT school system: An increasingly stratified, inequitable and dysfunctional schooling system

The following is the text of a presentation by education researcher, Barbara Preston, to the Progressive Canberra Summit, held at the National Gallery of Australia on Saturday, 14 November. 

I would prefer not to be talking about the relationship between public and private schools – it’s a topic that elicits groans and eye-rolls. But that structural relationship is the fundamental defining feature of Australian schooling, increasingly creating a stratified, inequitable and dysfunctional system. Australian schooling’s arc of history for 40 years has bent toward injustice, not justice.

For around 100 years until the 1970s the share of all school enrolments in Australian public schools was around 80%. In the 1970s the ACT public sector had a lesser share at the primary and high school levels, and the same as the rest of Australia at the senior secondary level. Since then the public sector’s share has sharply fallen.

Now only 65% of Australian school students and 58% in the ACT are in public schools. At the primary and high school levels the public sector share is much less in the ACT, while at the year 11-12 college level it is greater. At the primary and high school levels the Catholic sector has a much larger share in the ACT compared to the rest of Australia. There are a number of reasons for these differences.

First, the initial establishment in the ACT of a relatively large proportion of private schools, and the maintenance of a high proportion though urban planning and the provision of low cost land for private schools

Second, compared with the rest of Australia, the ACT’s:
• very high level of urbanisation
• higher average incomes
• higher percentage of Catholics, especially in the early years of establishment of the territory’s schools
• high rate of enrolment growth during a period of overall increase in private sector enrolment share
• the ACT’s pattern of planned urban development that results in substantial fluctuations in school enrolments as the child populations of suburbs age with the suburbs, combined with the lack of any requirement for the private sector to share the impact of large enrolment fluctuations.

Third, the ACT’s separate years 11 – 12 college system in the public sector (Preston, 2015).

Along with the change in enrolment share there has been a change in social mix. In the 1970s the overall SES mix in public and private schools was much the same. But this has changed dramatically: now there are around two LOW income students for every HIGH income student in public secondary schools, and the reverse in the private sector.

In 2011 the difference between the sectors is clear, though slightly less pronounced at the primary level in the ACT, and the ACT’s generally higher incomes are apparent. At the secondary level family incomes overall are a little higher than at the primary level because parents are older, but the patterns are similar but more pronounced: lower SES students more concentrated in the public sector, higher SES students in the Catholic and independent sectors.

In addition, according to 2011 ABS Census data, the public sector enrols disproportionate shares of:
• students who do not have broadband at home
• students from one parent families
• students with disabilities
• students who speak another language at home and do not speak English well
• Indigenous students.

These students have rich experiences and cultures, but are often disadvantaged in the Australian schooling system. They need respect, additional resources, expertise, commitment, and, often, transformed curriculum and pedagogy, to get the quality education available to others.

This stratified schooling system has consequent educational outcomes: Australia is the only OECD country with an increase in the performance gap between low and high SES schools this century, and there have been falls in international rankings, and some declines in absolute performance (Ainley, 2013).

But perhaps more important has been the effect on social learnings. In segregated schooling young people get to know and understand a limited social milieu. Christina Ho documented the very strong cultural segregation between public and private schools in Sydney, noting that in most independent schools more than 80% of students spoke only English, while in comparable public schools 80% also spoke another language. She commented that Anglo-dominated private schools lack “everyday multiculturalism”; “monocultural schools, regardless of their teaching programs, cannot socialise students for the realities of a cosmopolitan Australian society and globalised world” (Ho, 2011).

Dean Ashenden recently wrote that “Students who do not learn about others do not learn about themselves … Australian schools are increasingly active in constituting an elite that knows only itself, and an underclass that is being duded and knows it” (Ashenden, 16 October 2015). I would add, too, that our dysfunctional structure of schooling is creating split communities – suburbs and towns where whole swathes of the residents do not know each other the way they would in similar suburbs and towns around the world.

Yet despite the dynamic of residualisation, public schooling is holding its own overall: given the same SES, students at public schools generally do as well as students at private schools, and often do much better (Bonner & Shepherd, 2014). And public school graduates tend to do better at university than private school graduates with the same year 12 results (Preston, 17 July 2014; Hare, 6 November 2015).

So how did this increasingly stratified and dysfunctional schooling structure come to be?

In the 1970s the political and social problem of seriously under-resourced Catholic schools was resolved with substantial Commonwealth funding – for independent as well as Catholic schools. Unlike such resolutions elsewhere around the world, where Catholic and some other private schools were integrated into the public system, in Australia there were negligible conditions on receipt of public funds – no limits on fees, no controls on selection and exclusion of students, little control on new schools or quantitative enrolments by individual schools or sectors. The public sector has students creamed out by the private sector, has excepted excluded students, borne the brunt of enrolment fluctuations, and had little defence against aggressive marketing by new private schools without an established clientele.

The high levels of public funding of private schools and the lack of limits on fees has resulted in the private sector as a whole now having better staffing levels than the public sector, even though the public sector disproportionately enrols students who need extra resources for just and equitable outcomes.

The developments in enrolment share and social makeup that have transformed Australian schooling were anticipated in 1973 by the committee that laid the foundations for the current system of public funding of private schools, the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission (Karmel Committee).

Unfortunately, to put it mildly, the Commission did not act on its own analysis.

Matters such as ‘choice’ disguise the reality: families make decisions about schooling within the context of history and culture, and the framework of funding and regulation. Individual competitive benefits for some do not maximise benefits for all.

The structure created by the Schools Commission and the Whitlam and subsequent federal governments has left the fiscally weak states and territories largely powerless to ameliorate its dysfunctionality. In some cases the states have exacerbated the situation, such as the expansion of selective schooling in NSW creating another elite stratum that has further residualised inclusive, comprehensive schools.

What can now be done?

The problems are clear to mainstream outsiders such as the OECD, even if they are diplomatic to point of obtuseness – but note the explicit recognition of school choice as a fundamental problem.

Some specific suggestions include:
• Implement the Gonski plan for schools funding (for original report see Gonski, 2011) and real needs-based financial, teaching, curriculum and other transformative support. Governments (such as Victoria) end the link between expenditure on public schools and private school funding (and thus automatically increasing funds to private schools that do not need it when funds are increased to the public schools that need it most)
• Better regulate new and existing private schools to ensure minimal damage to existing schools
• Effectively deal with exclusion/expulsion of students by the private sector (and elite schools in the public sector)
• Where fully selective public schools exist, introduce and expand non-selective cohorts
• Publicly encourage the private sectors to take responsibility for educating students who are more difficult and resource-intensive to teach – this is NOT scholarships for promising low SES or Indigenous students
• Publicise the international uniqueness of the ‘Australian settlement’ of the 1970s, and recognise that the Schools Commission and Whitlam got it wrong.
• Provide convincing evidence to Minister Birmingham that vouchers would be a disaster, and Treasurer Morrison that greater private involvement in schooling at the state level is sure to be dysfunctional – economically, educationally and socially
• Encourage journalists to make clear that schools with high ATAR or NAPLAN results generally add no more educational value than other schools
• Publicise the evidence of public schools’ generally greater achievement once SES or prior achievement is taken into account
• Celebrate the values of comprehensive, inclusive public education.

Such things are not always easy – or enough. But where will we be if the trends of the past 40 years continue for the next 40 years? We must act to turn around dynamics of residualisation and “white flight” from public schools (Ho 2011; Patty, 10 March 2008), and properly meet the needs of those who schools now serve least. Without deliberate action we cannot hope to bend schooling’s arc of history back from injustice and toward justice.

Barbara Preston

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