It is difficult to find your destination using an inaccurate map. At the moment a flawed understanding of the Australian educational landscape is stopping us from reaching the destination we all desire: an excellent education for all children.
On behalf of Education Foundation Australia, I would like to present a more accurate map of Australian education as it exists today, and propose a new course for the journey towards universal high quality education.
Contrary to the prevailing view shaped by the media, the quality of schooling does not delineate itself along the private public divide. There are high and low performing schools within each of the school sectors (Government, Catholic and Independent). In fact, the disparity within each sector is greater than the disparity between them(1). Our continued focus on the private public divide in school education obscures the reality of this cross sectoral disparity in education and obstructs the combined efforts that are needed to overcome it.
In both government and non government sectors, those schools where students face the greatest difficulties are the ones with the least social and cultural capital to support them. As postcode and regional disadvantage grows, many schools can be more aptly defined by their location than their sector. And so entrenched disadvantage is re-entrenched.
In fact given the continued evidence of strong links between socio-economic status and educational outcomes, it can be argued that Australian schooling in its current form is merely reproducing and reinforcing the patterns of privilege and disadvantage that already exist in families and communities. This lack of social mobility and access to equal opportunity does not accord with our aspirations of democracy.
How can this be changed? Not with more of the same, or by tinkering around the edges. Education Foundation Australia has come to believe that significant change will only be achieved by reshaping our landscape around an entirely new framework of public education, one based on public value, rather than on who owns or operates the school.
Under this new definition, public education would be focused on the achievement of public value for the community. It would be built on the principles of quality and equity and would support the rights and interests of individual students and the public good, including the wider Australian community today and in the future.
In this new framework, structures and regulations would recognise that education brings not only private benefit to the individual but also brings public benefit for the community. If a student leaves school early and falls into a pattern of unemployment it is a loss to the community and a cost as well. According to the Department of Premier and Cabinet, early school leaving and lower levels of education cost Australia an estimated $2.6 billion a year in higher social welfare, health and crime prevention costs and lower tax revenue, productivity and Gross Domestic Product and in inter-generational problems of low education, unemployment and poverty, decreased participation in the political process and lower social cohesion and contribution to the community.
Conversely, if most students go forward to full participation in society and economic life it would add enormously to Australia’s capacity and strength, both in the global economy, and as a dynamic society with advantages for us all.
Reshaping the education landscape around a concept of public value has other advantages. Only a broad interpretation of public value can accommodate the modern realities of choice and diversity. Some students need more help than others. Some communities need local solutions. Students have different learning needs and interests. Diversity can be welcomed if it exists within a broad clear framework. The experience of other countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, England, New Zealand and Denmark is worth noting here. Public education in these places includes provision by denominational schooling and various types of government-dependent, privately managed schools. Considerable diversity is allowed as long as schools conform to the democratic standards and expectations set by education authorities.
In going forward, we have a choice between cooperation and shared responsibility for our children or fragmentation and division. Education Foundation Australia’s experience is that there are already many people and institutions who wish to work cooperatively for the benefit of all children rather than struggle with the divisions that currently prevail in Australian schooling. In one Victorian town, a coordinator is appointed by nine government, independent and Catholic schools to oversee vocational opportunities for students across all nine schools. In a number of country towns, senior school offerings are enhanced by a combined program that spans sectoral schools, thereby giving all students wider subject choice. In Victoria and South Australia, Delfin Lendlease is building campuses where schools from different sectors share facilities. These are examples of a positive remapping of the landscape for the betterment of all students and a more efficient use of resources.
- Keating, J. & Lamb, S. (2004) Public education and the Australian community, University of Melbourne: work commissioned by the Education Foundation and formally presented by Jack Keating at a June symposium conducted by the Foundation.
A fuller description of the Education Foundation’s Equity Excellence and Effectiveness; Moving Forward on Schooling Arrangements in Australia can be found on the Education Foundation Australia website www.educationfoundation.org.au