Public Education – A problem for the ALP

One major problem the ALP has to face is the state of public education.  The new Federal Government may be able to shift some blame on to the Coalition for the current shameful conditions. However, they are in a bind, if they seek to redress these problems they will face substantial electoral backlash, the majority of swing voters have already left the public sector.  A further problem is that the geneses of these current conditions lies at the feet of the Rudd/Gillard ALP Governments. 

Of all the Prime Ministers of Australia Julia Gillard is the one who genuinely cared about public education.  You could not doubt her commitment to improving the learning outcomes for all Australia students.  However, it has been her reforms that created the environment that has allowed the private sector, with help from the Liberal/National Coalition to exploit the system, enriching elite schools at the expense of public schools.  More than this Gillard applied the systems of modern management practices to a public service that operates in every socio-economic community!

Like most leaders in that era, Gillard was captivated by the rationalist approach to all forms of management.  Although trained as a lawyer and spent much of her career as a politician she had, and continues to have no concept about her lack of experience in the field of education; she didn’t know that she didn’t know about schools.  She listened to the ‘experts’ who also have no experience in schools amongst whom was Joel Klein, a lawyer from New York.

Klein came to prominence when he was appointed Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education by the then Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Together they identified the problems facing a broken system and in typical non-informed, conservative fashion they attacked those progressive voices who had sought real reform.  They introduced the restructures still prominent in the conservative’s playbook, back to basics, the three R’s, standardised testing, accountability and teacher evaluation.  Like all reforms that aggressively target limited outcomes the early results seemed favourable, they always do.  However, the early success was followed by slow decline in the school’s learning performance.

Gillard, informed of the apparent success in the New York school community invited Klein to Australia in 2008.  At a welcoming dinner hosted by UBS Assets Managers she declared “the core of his message is one I agree with absolutely: that we must be determined to provide a first-class education for every child in every school and every community.  As he said, it requires a focus on three things: equity, excellence and accountability”.  In her speech she also quoted another education ‘expert’ from the conservative side of politics – “let me quote Rupert Murdoch, who said last weekend in his fourth Boyer Lecture, ‘Sometimes I think that because we [in Australia] are doing well enough for most people, it’s easier to close our eyes to the tens of thousands of children we are betraying. We have too many people who secretly believe the gap between those who are getting an education and those who are not is something that cannot be changed’”.

It is worth noting that Klein went on to be awarded a lucrative contract to News Corp to manage ‘The Achievement Reporting and Innovative System’, designed to track the changes desired.  He later joined Murdoch’s company rising to Executive Vice President.

Gillard threw herself into introducing sweeping changes to education, both as Minister of Education in the first Rudd Government and later as Prime Minister.  Her reforms echoed those of Klein and other conservatives; back to basics, accountability and the most popular and most damaging for staff morale teacher quality!

Reforms came thick and fast, Gillard embraced the NAPLAN testing with a passion.  This standardised testing provided the ammunition to attack teachers.  Amongst practicing teachers and informed academics this test has been condemned by all reputable educationists as being next to useless but the Labor party invested heavily in it both for accountability and exposing ‘poor performing’ schools and teachers. 

The implementation of the National Professional Standards for teachers started the journey to every increasing demands on teachers by mandating targeted, professional training.  These ‘standards’ was designed to establish a system of registration with the view of ‘improving accountability and for lifting the quality of teaching in classrooms across Australia’.  Naively the idea some external authority can accurately measure this ‘quality’ has allowed politicians to continue the argument of performance-based pay.

All teachers now have to complete a set number of ‘training hours’, time either taken away from actually teaching the kids or increasing the hours worked.  There is no evidence this approach has worked to improve teaching but there is plenty of evidence the vast majority chose the latter course of action because the workload has become unsustainable. 

When considering what that training should look like, the bureaucrats were guided by the latest trends coming from overseas or the academic world shifting from things like productive pedagogy, quality teaching, goal setting, peers’ reviews and now leadership training.  Each approach resulted in increased demands on teachers’ time.  Further whenever a new program was introduced it was aggregated to the previous workload.

These new demands has increased the amount of work for teachers to a level where a significant numbers are fleeing the profession.  An NSW Parliamentary Committee identified a current shortage of 1,657 vacancies.  On top of this one in five students who complete their teacher training refused to enter the profession and 60% of employed teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years.

Another disastrous reform introduced by Gillard was the introduction of the My School website.  She announced with some pride, ‘for the first time ever, [the webpage] provides consistent, accurate information about the performance and circumstances of every school in the country. That includes the number of students and teachers, and the school’s performance in national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, which are undertaken by students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9’.  Her goal was to allow parents to choose schools based on the data provided.  She claimed this ‘approach is empowering parents. It is changing the way Australian parents think and talk about our schools, providing more information about our schools than parents and the nation have ever had before’.

NAPLAN has been a complete failure.  It has failed to make any difference in the learning outcome and in fact, Australia’s educational performance is plummeting down the PISA score board in numeracy and literacy.  The PISA is another useless test that compares student’s in vastly different cultures and economic conditions. 

The importance placed on the NAPLAN test has seen a narrowing of teaching strategies and of the curriculum, teachers are told to teach to the test!  The NSW Premier, Perrottet has only recently exposed his lack of knowledge about education by trotting out the ‘back to basics’ argument, one of a series of proposed, regressive education reforms he and his Minister announce on an almost daily basis.

The philosophy of judging school against school based on a flawed test resonates with the concept of meritocracy.  Both assume equity of resources, human and physical which is clearly not the case.  Just visit a private school and a public school and the contrast in resources is evident! 

This false competition has meant that parents who can afford to move their children into an apparently better performing school will do so.  These are the parents who will resist any changes in the current funding landscape. 

The result is comprehensive public schools that have become residualised.  The morale in these schools is low and any chance of changing the NAPLAN results becomes significantly more difficult with a greater percentage of their students having learning difficulties and/or disruptive behaviours.  Yet these schools and teachers are demonised in parliament and in the conservative press.

The one glimmer of hope, the one area of constructive reform Gillard did initiate was the National Education Agreement and the Gonski Report.  Both had the promise of addressing the financial inequalities and acknowledging the needs of our poor public schools.  The Gonski Report revealed the comparative malaise of the public system in comparison to the ‘healthy’ private system. 

The honesty of this report really surprised many educators particularly when you consider the members of the committee.  David Gonski was one of the most powerful business men in the country, Kathryn Greiner is a prominent member of the Liberal Party and Ken Boston was one of the most unpopular heads of NSW Education Department who had to resign to work in England where he initiated the Qualifications and Curriculum which resulted in underperforming schools being shut.  The result, of course was the ‘problem’ student who attended the ‘failed schools’ was moved onto the next school bringing their challenges with them ensuring that school would soon be threatened with closure.  The fact that these conservative committee members came to such accurate conclusions suggests they could see the stark contrast between both systems.

Despite their propensity to minimise the issue they released an excellent report that gave a lift to public schools across the country.  $42.4 Billion was promised over the following four years.  This was Gillard’s chance to make a real change but in the face of threats from the private sector particularly by the Catholics she crumbled, initially surrendering any opportunity to move to equity by guaranteeing no school would be worse off!  A full and concise analysis of the demise of the principals behind Gonski can be found in Greenwell and Bonnor’s excellent book ‘Waiting for Gonski’ (UNSW Press, 2022).

Regrettably, the extended period following the fall of the ALP has seen the Liberal/National Coalition slowly demolish the proposals outlined in Gonski.  This has led to the current under-funding and inadequate resourcing of public schools.  These conditions are that far below the needs-based targets, accepted in principle by all governments catching-up has become an almost impossible task.  

Unlike most other democracies and, particularly those with the gold standard education systems, Australian governments have happily funded private faith-based schools.  The conservative side of politics has no trouble pouring money into these private schools and in NSW we have had over a decade of Federal and State Coalition Governments redirecting education funding.  The amount going to these schools has increased at a growing rate since the late 2000’s with Government spending for private schools increasing four times that of public-school support. 

Trevor Cobbold of the Save Our Schools – Australia organisation, through his forensic analysis of funding continues to point out these obscene inequities.  In a recent essay ‘NSW public schools face a funding crisis while private schools are over funded’ (Pearls and Irritation 21 March, 2022). Cobbold exposed the real state of funding in NSW with private schools having a three-fold increase compared to public.  Elsewhere, Cobbold points out that by 2029 public schools in all states except the ACT will be funded at 91% or less of their SRS and there is no plan to address this short-fall.  In contrast private schools in all states, except the Northern Territory will be funded at 100% or more of their SRS.  The cumulative under-funding of public schools for the years 2022 to 2029 inclusive will amount to about $53 billion while private schools will be over-funded by about $5.3 billion.

With Labor in charge in the Federal Parliament and the almost certainty of a Labor Government being returned to NSW will see Australia dominated by that Party and they should have to face-up to this unjust situation but I fear they have not the courage or the ethical fortitude to do so, to right so much of what is wrong with our school system.

The policies taken to the people prior to the last Federal election were very light on substance.  It is worth noting the unveiling of their Education Policy prior to the election took place at an elite private school attended by Plibersek’s son.  Their focus was on vocational education, pre-school and a promise to spend $440 million on better ventilation.  Nothing about addressing the short-fall in the funding of public schools. 

When Plibersek appeared on Insiders prior to the election, at the time she was Shadow Minister for Education she refused to answer the question ‘when will Labor deliver 100% of the needs-based funding for public schools’?  Her response “Well, we’re in the middle of an existing funding agreement that the Commonwealth signed with the states now,” she protested. “That agreement concludes in 2023. We would, if elected, be negotiating with the states and territories about the next funding agreement.”

Labor will not address this issue, it has been wounded too many times before when they have tried to help the poorest members of our society and after the obligatory meeting with Murdoch they have again placed pragmatism over integrity. 

There has been a huge drift from public education supported by Government and it is plainly obvious comprehensive public schools are existing purely on the enthusiasm of the teachers.  This passion is being continually eroded because of the meaningless, excessive and pointless workloads that have their roots in Gillard’s reforms.   And you have to ask yourself, in the competitive society we live in why would those who can afford private education send their kids to comprehensive public schools that are becoming more and more concentrated with student’s whose abilities and behaviours are not accepted in the private sector.  It is a sad situation but the majority of teachers in public schools will not send their own children to their school system, they are aware of the difference and although they work hard for the students they teach they know the advantages provided in the private sector!  Poor families do not have this choice!

We pretend to be a fair country; the ALP pretends to look after those who need a hand-up but only if it wins them votes!  We are creating a generation of graduates from poor public schools who understandably feel forgotten and disenfranchised.  Instead of looking to the USA for tips in education look at the results of their poor public schools.  Their system has resulted in the divided nation that Trump has engaged, those have seen democracy fail them and they look for a ‘strong-man’ to lead them.  This is already happening in our country.

Public education is the backbone of any successful democracy but I fear, to paraphrase the words of Paul Keating when the ALP thinks about the neglected public schools; ‘they are simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up”.

Jonn Frew

John is a Principal of Frew Consultants Group. He served for 10 years as the foundation principal of a NSW secondary school for students with Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Disturbance. He is the author of five books on managing severe behaviours in children and adolescents. 

An abridged vesion of this article was oringinally published on John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.