A 21st Century Investment: Better schooling starts with more choice and quality

Schooling requires a significant investment over the coming generation to provide better opportunities for young people.

This investment program would be heavily supported where reforms promote consumer-driven schools. By allowing more parents to choose schools which reflect the values and quality that they support — parents will be more willing to have the Commonwealth invest more resources in education.

Policy options for 21st Century parental choice:

Parents will engage with their child's education if they have more ability to choose the best education available for their children.

Parents from all income backgrounds should have greater opportunity to choose public or private on the one hand, religious or non-religious on the other, and certainly one-to one and small group assistance being available to children at school.

Without choices, parents from low income families will not be as likely to engage in the debate about educational values and quality for their children.

As we turn to the mechanics of this policy principle, two options for reform present themselves:

1. The Funding Model

All schools whether public and private should compete against each other in a given educational zone.

All state aid would be scaled back or would even cease — both to public and private schools — and individual school funding would be based far more (or even solely) on the number of individual students attending holding vouchers.

The voucher would be a sum of money that can increase or decrease in size according to the socio-economic background of the parents and needs of the child (i.e. special needs).

This is known as a differential vouchers system and in the writer's view it is a preferred model to apply to all families. (However, t he policy does need special consideration for the effects on regional Australia and may be best limited to urban areas where a genuine market can exist).

A World Bank report claims that “…vouchers appear to be contributing to the growth in quantity and quality of schooling”. It concluded this based on evidence from 20 countries from many backgrounds.

The advantage of this model over the Parent Model (below) is that the market would provide the best method for parental choice of schools and for determining its cost, but state school fees could be centrally regulated if necessary. Whilst this regulation of state school fees may reduce the effect of the market driving school intake, it is a measure to ensure that a school choice is available to all.

Parents from low-income families would be more able to make a real choice, with a sliding scale giving them a larger sum to spend.

The wealthier the parents the higher the top-up fees at exclusive private schools, as less well off children would have more money in the voucher and significant ability to afford the choice they desire.

An argument put against vouchers is that – given choice – children will leave the public system, leaving a less well off public system for children still attending it.

However, this threat can create rewards from change if the public system can grasp them: The public system can respond and compete hard to keep its students and even grow — meeting student needs better in the process.

A vouchers based education system promotes:

1. Competition for resources, creating efficiencies and reform at each school in a given educational zone;

2. Parents as consumers of education;

3. People shaping their own destinies, choosing the values they favour;

4. Participation and interest among parents in their children's future.

Good services would flow to areas with the parents having larger sum vouchers — the lower socio-economic suburbs — where-as now they only flow to parents who can afford the better services.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.

Consumer spending power will be greatest in lower-socio-economic areas, and teachers will more readily want to teach in those areas, where opportunities for greater incomes could develop.

If public is the choice of the parent – then it is likely that low and middle income parents would have additional funds left for books, computers, software, one-to-one tuition, and other necessary or desirable elements in an education ‘toolkit' – as the public system would likely be cheaper than the voucher sum.

New private schools (perhaps “budget private schools”) may develop that can better compete and improve the educational system — vying with the current public and private system — pushing them both harder for funding and thereby to improve.

State schools would also be driven to reform and perform better. Otherwise they would lose funding and perhaps even be replaced by better competitors.

State schools should also develop and promote aspects of the Parent Model in their practice, and this would be compelled by both policy and market pressures on schools.

Whilst the Funding Model may increase the Commonwealth budget for schools: A small shift in outlays, or a small reduction in the current Federal surplus is a small price for having a better more internationally competitive schools system also helping the most needy. This would give all children the best chance of going to University and for Australia to excel.

2. The Parent Model

Whilst the Funding Model is superior in the writer's view, the Parent Model is a marked improvement on the current system.

Under this model reforms must involve a much greater level of involvement from parents in the running of schools. Most likely and perhaps best done by Parental Board having oversight of the values and quality of education at the local school.

In consultation with parents, Head Teachers need significant powers to determine the values the individual school will aspire to and how they are taught (within guidelines).

Values debates among Head Teachers and parents can cover subjects as varied as drug use by students on the one hand, and discipline in schools on the other.

Governments in consultation with parents and wider community also need a capacity to opt for external bodies to run the local school. Private sector, churches and other third sector bodies should also be able to make a business case to government to set up new schools. If those new schools can attract enough students, then they will be a success. Such schools can be funded in equal amount to other public schools based on a fee per student (or “business throughput”). These schools would be run with a leaner more consumer driven model to attract business.

Wider reform of the public education system:

As part of a drive to create better more efficient public schools – teachers should be incentivised by bonus payments to provide:

1. one-to-one and small group teaching beyond hours for pupils who wish to excel; and

2. extra-curricula assistance for pupils.

Head Teachers and parents should also have the capacity to reward teachers who achieve excellence. This can be achieved if there is a budget for excellence in teaching used to give bonus payments when real improvements are made in class results.

Teachers could also raise their incomes directly from vouchers by providing services directly after hours to children as part of the educational toolkit of a voucher.

Teachers that consistently under-perform and do not provide wider assistance to children should also be under pressure from a greater threat of dismissal. Even if this means that more unfair dismissal claims are brought against schools, this would be a risk worth bearing to improve the teaching stock overall at schools.

Further action in the community by Schools:

Schools can be far more community minded. Incentives in the form of Commonwealth grant funding can be given to schools that design community based programs for pupils to participate in.

Charities and other third sector bodies can partner with schools in these programs to instill in young people the values of sharing, community minded participation, respect for others, and promotion of civil society. This can over the long term have real benefits for students and community alike.

Teachers can also be given incentives by individual grant funding for becoming social entrepreneurs. There is no reason why teachers or groups of teachers cannot earn further income by designing specific programs, whether matched up to other third sector bodies or individually driven.


Differential Vouchers are a real opportunity for a genuine third way in education, with access, competition and choice all coming together to help schools reform and the most needy succeed.

Schools need to infuse parental values into the fabric of teaching. Society needs choice in education, efficient good quality public schools, purpose in the role of each school (whether public or private), and trust from parents that the education received will reflect the values that the individual parent holds. When this combination emerges, parents will fund the schools system more heavily through their taxes. When this occurs, more students will have a better start in life. This will be incredibly beneficial for Australia and its young people.

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