The Prime Minister’s announcement about her Government’s response to the Gonski Report made me wonder if she is not planning for an early election later this year. The response is full of great words and aspiration. It is short of detail and money — exactly the kind of talk you utter in an election campaign.
She had to say something. There has been a serious campaign by the education union, P&Cs and other stakeholders in school education for a response, and by and large those campaigning are her supporters. I’m not sure that they are happy with the outcome.
School education has seen a fundamental shift over the last fifty years: in brief, going to school has moved from being a legal necessity for parents to becoming a consumption item. Australians are, on average, three times wealthier than they were in the 1950s, and parents can and do decide to spend more money on their kids’ education, rather than buying a new car, or having an overseas holiday. As they do so, they leave government schools and move to the private sector, bringing their money and their energy with them.
This process began in 1956 with the decision by the Menzies Government to provide funds to church schools in the Australian Capital Territory, and by its later decision in 1964 to provide funding for the construction of science blocks in private schools everywhere. There was a good reason for doing so: like other parts of Australians society, schools had seen little new construction since the 1930s, and there were more children at school and more children staying longer there. There may have been one or two electoral reasons, too!
Given that Australia grew steadily wealthier, and that concessions once given are defended strongly, the process of reshaping Australian school education has continued to this day, and will continue in its present direction. The outcomes are not all bad. Our education system is a good one in world terms, and we have a flourishing economy and society where educations and skills are valued.
But, and it is a big ‘but’, the old difference between the haves and the have nots is widening. Children whose parents have the money can receive a wonderful education that was simply not available to anyone in the 1950s. Those whose parents have little or no discretionary money have to go to the nearest school, and take pot luck. In some parts of our big cities, that is a real disadvantage. The peer group may be actively hostile if it is not just apathetic. The problems are not educational but, as so often, the school becomes a sort of first-aid station for social wounds. Teachers are run off their feet, resources are hard to come by, and the outcomes are indifferent.
And governments are in a bind. A considerable amount of taxpayers’ money goes to make the good schools even better, and that is defended on the grounds of ‘equity’. Parents of kids who go to private schools pay their taxes, so why shouldn’t their education money, so to speak, flow to the schools where their kids go? One answer is that governments have a responsibility for the whole society, and that it is not in wider public interest for schools that are in disadvantaged areas to be disadvantaged schools — that is where the marginal government education dollar should go.
So the Prime Minister’s announcement has to be seen in its full historical context. There is a problem, and it has been with us for a long term, and it will get worse before it gets better. By concentrating on disadvantage, and the means of overcoming it, Gonski made the right call. And the Government is accepting it. Julia Gillard has said, again and again, that no school will be worse off under her plan. And while that may be true in absolute terms, the private schools will protest loudly if they become relatively worse off.
And there is no indication yet of the contributions the States will be asked to make. They are cashed-strapped as it is. An aspiration for Australia to be among the best in the world by 2025 is almost meaningless. We will all have forgotten about it in a year or two, and few will be keeping score. The measurements on which these comparisons are based are rubbery at best, and take no account of cultural differences. For example, Singapore kids do well in mathematics and science, but theirs is a highly streamed system quite unlike ours. In the long run we are trying to produce adult citizens who fit well into a relatively egalitarian society. The goals, not just the goalposts, are different.
I’m all in favour of spending more money on schools, and if asked where the money will come from I will say ‘higher taxes’. If the Prime Minister really wants to increase the value of education, she might consider paying teachers a whole lot more — and nurses too, while she’s about it. All the stuff about demanding more of teachers means very little if they are poorly paid, compared to the rest of the professional workforce. Try doing it in hospitals, too, and see the difference that well-paid nurses will make to the problems that are daily fare on television news.
So I’m back to the beginning. This sounds to me like an important shot in an election campaign, from its vagueness about details to its pretentious sloganeering. What happened to the ‘education revolution’? Why do we now need a ‘crusade’?
Pshaw! — as people used to say in the 19th century.