Building Our Nation Through Public Education

This is a summary of a new paper by Professor Alan Reid published by the Australian Government Primary Principals’ Association. The full paper is available on the AGPPA website

By any measure, Australia has a high-quality education system. It compares well against other countries on a range of education tests and benchmarks. These results, however, mask the grim reality that Australian education is not equitable.

It is the large achievement gap between rich and poor that blights Australian education – and the gap appears to be widening. According to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Australia is near the bottom of OECD countries in terms of equity in education.

Apart from denying individuals the chance to develop to their fullest potential, there is now overwhelming evidence demonstrating the deleterious effects of educational inequality on social and economic outcomes and political participation. Productivity falls, participation in civic life is diminished, and social dislocation is greater. Since education is one of the most important determinants of levels of inequality, it is clear that there is need for urgent action to improve equity in Australian schooling.

This paper argues that over the past 40 years Australia has been following educational policy settings that have exacerbated this problem, and worked against progress being made to address it. In particular, successive governments have diminished the strength of public education and in so doing have widened the educational achievement gap, and fostered social and cultural division. A major contributing factor has been the increasing social stratification of Australian education.

Part A
After demonstrating the importance of social mix to educational outcomes, Part A of the paper tracks the path by which Australia has achieved such a high degree of social stratification in its schooling system. It describes how this stratification began with the introduction of systematic federal funding to private schools in the 1970s in an attempt to address need while maintaining the principle of universal public education. It then shows how funding policies began to neglect the concept of need and foreground the principle of entitlement.

This entitlement principle resulted in increasing amounts of public money being directed to private schools, with a consequent expansion of that sector at the expense of public education. Increasingly, public education has come to be seen as a safety-net provision for those who can’t afford private education, rather than as a public good. The paper suggests that there are two dimensions of this process at work.

First, the exodus of enrolments from the public system has almost entirely comprised those from higher socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. The public education system is becoming residualised to the extent that it now carries over 80% of all students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Of course, this pattern is uneven across the public system and so the public system is itself becoming increasingly fragmented with differences found between schools in resources and student backgrounds.

Such developments have a number of serious consequences for Australian education, such as widening resource disparities between schools, reducing educational outcomes particularly for students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, and diminishing the social and cultural mix of schools and thus the capacity of schools to promote social and intercultural understanding.

Second, the discourse of choice and competition has created a policy climate where it is asserted that public schools must become more like private schools if they are to survive and flourish in an education market. In such an environment, public schools are pressured to imitate private schools and in the process jettison some of the characteristics that are so central to public education.

There is an urgent need to change the current inequitable approach to funding schools so that there is a fairer distribution of funds. In particular, additional public money must be directed to the most disadvantaged schools, most of which are in the public system.

A fairer funding model, however, is a necessary though not sufficient condition to reverse the drift to private schools. So while a new funding model may reduce disparities in resources between schools and sectors as a whole, it will do nothing about the privatisation of public education. Nor will it offer any guidance about the essence of public education that must be maintained.

Part A concludes by arguing that public discussion about public education is being conducted in the absence of a philosophical anchor that articulates the essence of public education. That is, the secret to addressing the stratification of the Australian schooling system lies not in the current trend of making public schools more private, but rather in (re)emphasising their publicness. Part B of the paper explores what this means for policy and practice.

Part B
Part B of the paper is based on the conviction that there is need for a new conceptual framework that challenges the dominant discourses of choice, competition, entitlement and privatisation, and reimagines the possibilities for public education. Once the foundation principles of public education are (re)established, not only should they inform policy and practice, but they should also better frame the expectations that can be placed on private schools for the receipt of public funds. The dynamic of the public/private debate will shift as a result.

The paper proposes that there are three fundamental dimensions of public education. The case is made that each dimension is a necessary but insufficient condition for a healthy system of public education. As the foundation stones of public education, these three dimensions must work together. To neglect one of them is to weaken the whole edifice.

Public education as a public good
This dimension relates to ‘ownership’. In this context, public education is the same as public utility: owned by the state, funded from its citizens’ taxes, and managed by the state on the public’s behalf. The idea of public education as a public good is a powerful dimension that must be protected in contemporary Australia. From this perspective, public education should be understood not as a commodity to be used solely for the benefit of individuals but as a community resource to which everyone has rights of access, and which is non-exclusionary – a kind of education commons.

The key principles of public schools as public goods within an education commons are that they are free, compulsory and secular. The paper explores each of these principles and concludes that in Australia today they are under threat and must be protected and promoted because without them the idea of universal public education will only be a mirage.

It is also argued, however, that free, compulsory and secular are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the operation of public schools. They give no guidance about the nature of the education on offer, a gap that raises the need for a second dimension in foregrounding the public purposes served by public schools.

Public education for the common good
The paper suggests that the lack of focus on the public purposes of public education has created conditions in which the idea of public education as a safety net can flourish. A rejuvenated understanding of public education within an education commons therefore demands attention paid to its role in advancing the common good. It is the second dimension of a framework for public education.

Building from AGPPA’s previous research project on the public purposes of schooling, the paper explores the concept of the common good and the role of education in its promotion. It is suggested that there are at least two key aspects to consider.

The first is to create and maintain a system of education which itself models a commitment to the common good. This includes ensuring that free education is available to all on both a comparatively equal playing field and on a non-exclusionary basis, and has policy and practices that are consistent with and promote the common good in education.

The second aspect relates to the role of public education for the common good. This involves public schools developing the skills, dispositions and understandings of children and young people, such that they can engage with others – respectfully and thoughtfully – in deliberation about the common good in the broader society.

There are a number of implications for understanding public education – teaching and learning, culture, structure, organisation, funding and governance – that can be viewed through the lens of its common-good purposes. In particular, it injects specific meaning into some important characteristics of public education, such as quality, links with local community, collaboration, innovation, equity, diversity and cohesion, and democracy. The paper demonstrates how these characteristics manifest very differently in policy and practice when they are understood through a more ‘privatising’ lens.

Well-resourced public schools in every community
Dimensions 1 and 2 provide a philosophical framework for public education, but they are meaningless unless public schools are adequately resourced. So the third dimension of a three-pronged understanding of public education is that governments have an obligation to provide and maintain well-resourced, quality public schools, available to all, in every Australian community.

The foundation premise of this dimension is that, in a democratic society, education should be available to all on equal terms so that each child can develop to her/his fullest potential.

Properly resourced public schools are the starting point for the achievement of this goal. It therefore follows that our society should make every effort to ensure that the differences between schools in such basic areas as equipment, teacher quality, buildings, class sizes and so on are reduced. And yet currently the schools with the greatest challenges are given the least amount of resources to deal with them. In the, main these are public schools.

Part A argues that the approach to funding schools in Australia has magnified rather than reduced resource differentials, and contributed to creating entirely unacceptable educational outcomes. Australia has developed a funding model that is complex, arbitrary, inequitable and dysfunctional. It privileges choice for some, at the expense of quality and equity for all. But given the self-interest at play in the education debate, this paper turns to the question of how it might be possible to engineer an approach that turns this trend around.

In recent times, the Gonski Review provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make radical changes to funding schools in this country. The fact that the current Coalition government has effectively rejected the major intent of the review does not mean it was wasted. There is much that can be learned from its processes, analyses, and recommendations, including what to avoid as well as what to pursue. This paper suggests that the Gonski Review can be perceived by public-education advocates as a staging post in the journey to a public education that serves the common good, rather than as a failed end point.

This paper traces the Gonski story and explores the strengths and limitations of the Gonski model. It uses these insights to suggest the basis for the next iteration of a needs-based schools funding model – a sort of Gonski Mark 2 – comprising four levels of operation. These range from the key assumptions and purposes of schools funding; to the equity principles at play; to the technical features of a more streamlined model; and to accountability.

The four levels offer reference points or benchmarks against which approaches to funding can be assessed. Of course, after the exhaustive consultations and processes of the Gonski Review, there is no need to start again. Gonski has given Australia a model that addresses a number of issues outlined in Part A of this paper. The next iteration of a needs-based funding approach – one that a professional association like AGPPA might argue publicly – should seek to build on the Gonski model by retaining its strengths and removing its flaws. Such a model would promote a well-resourced public education system that builds the common good.

This paper is not suggesting that simply adopting a framework like the one proposed in Part B will precipitate automatic change to current policy or the dominant discourse. This can only happen through prolonged struggle. But it is suggesting that such a framework may assist public educators in that struggle in at least three ways:

• the framework offers a common language by which to talk about and promote public education in the community and to policy-makers;
• the framework provides a holistic public benchmark against which to judge many aspects of policy and practice, including funding, curriculum and governance. It also establishes priorities for campaigning;
• the framework suggests some approaches to regulating what is expected of private schools for receiving public money. That is, rather than public schools being expected to be more private, private schools should be required to be more public in their actions and make-up.

In these three ways, it is hoped that this paper will make a small contribution to the continued efforts of public educators in public schools to maintain and strengthen the great work they currently do. Public education is a precious community resource that is so essential to the life and wellbeing of our democratic society, and to the individuals and communities that live in it. It has never been as important as now for the whole community to support, nurture and strengthen our public schools and to celebrate the contribution they make to the common good.

Alan Reid
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of South Australia

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