Quality education for all: the view from the ground

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In my last day as a working principal of a high school I interviewed a couple of parents about the proposed enrolment of their Year 7 son. He had learning difficulties and had attended a local private school during his primary school years. The school made some effort, but along came the high school years and they were called in to see the headmaster to be told that alas, it was time to “let him go”.

So they knocked on the doors of four other similar schools, all with saint or grammar or college in their name and they were all ‘full' or unable to help. I estimated that this family had paid well over $100 000 in fees for their children to attend this private school…..but for the school it all suddenly became too hard to support this boy with a learning disability.

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I enrolled their son. In public education we alone have that obligation. It is a source of our pride and, because it is our obligation alone, it is one of our greatest burdens. I know that some private schools do wonderful work with such students; the data clearly shows that most don't.

My experience is a symbolic snapshot of the biggest problem in our landscape of schools. We now have public schools and government-funded private schools operating alongside each other, with some similar but also significantly different rules. It is this difference, almost unique amongst OECD countries, which makes our current system unsustainable.

What we have done over the last four decades, with our mishmash of state and federal deals and funding, is create and encourage the development of a private sector without considering how it might impact on the public provider. Almost no thought was given to what public obligations should accompany the cash given to private schools.

This means that these schools can combine public funding and private resources (from school fees) with a relative lack of regulation to compete against other schools. They can largely pick and choose not only the extent of their public obligations but the very students they enrol.

All school principals know, and study after study shows, that the clustering of students with advantageous socio-economic circumstances is a critical factor in explaining the performance and ‘success' of a school. The ‘best' schools become those which are able to increase their density of such students. Schools use whatever discriminators can be wheeled into place to capture the middle class: admission by test, enrolment criteria, scholarships, enhancing school culture and most importantly, school fees.

Fees are the most significant discriminator. Even ‘low' fees are high enough to ensure that the schools gather together those students and families with a capacity and willingness to pay, inevitably the latter are the most motivated and aspiring families in the district. Anglican and Christian schools, even in or near disadvantaged communities, have been very successful in harvesting these students.

In this situation it is almost impossible for the public provider to retain a full cross-section of families and students, triggering the marginalisation of the public school, with impacts on community social capital and wellbeing.

We know that there are many reasons why families change schools. Notwithstanding genuine dissatisfaction with some specific schools the movement is fuelled by the legislated and regulatory differences in the way they operate, differences which advantage the private provider. Examples abound:

  • because public schools have to enrol everyone, they include the very students and families that the middle class are prepared to pay money to avoid;
  • public schools can't enforce school uniforms because some people don't like them and won't comply;
  • public schools can't redirect their most disruptive students because there is usually nowhere else for them to go.
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They cannot offer higher salaries for staff, they can't keep up with what has become a resources auction, they alone are subject to FOI and anti-discrimination legislation, and they must provide for the disabled, in some cases regardless of the cost.

Some of these public-private differences seem quite trivial but they are cited by families shifting from public to private. The issue of school uniform is symbolic. State education authorities will not mandate school uniforms in government schools. In one of my last weeks as a principal a parent wrote to me to say that his son will not wear the school uniform and what was I going to do about it? The answer is “not much” because, even if I could have stiffened the resolve of the education bureaucracy to support me, the Minister would almost certainly back the parent.

Trivial? Not when families walk out of your school and into Ivyclad Grammar down the road. That school doesn't have a uniform problem: students who don't wear the uniform are threatened with being despatched to the public school. Horror of horrors!

We all know about the accountability regime faced by private schools and there is some legislation and regulation which is common to all schools. But it doesn't extend to the obligation and operational matters which help create the image and much of the success of the school at the local level.

Certainly public schools and systems need to fix some of these problems. The NSW government has created a sub-stratum of “behaviour schools” underneath existing public schools and is now able to direct students to those schools, even against the wishes of parents. It comes as a relief to hard-pressed schools and principals but is it the answer? There are many other recent changes in public schools which have reversed the drift in some areas.

But the inclusive public provider still faces huge operational disadvantages. As long as the private school down the road is not subject to a comparable regulatory regime it will be able to accrue advantages at the expense of the local public school. There is growing evidence that the gap between public and private schools is seriously exacerbating social problems. In many country towns we have black public schools and white Catholic or other Christian schools. This is the extreme end of a disturbing element of ‘white flight' in what passes for school choice. On an international level the PISA testing program shows that Australia has a worrying equity gap.

It doesn't have to be this way. It is not as bad in other countries and jurisdictions. New Zealand ‘private' schools don't charge significant fees, they have the same rules and obligations as state schools, their dealings with staff and students are the same and all schools are funded according to the needs of their students. In effect they are state schools and the true “private” schools make up around five per cent of the education sector in New Zealand and other OECD countries.

Some believe that this is the solution for Australia: to integrate government-funded private schools into an enlarged public sector, leaving the remnant (usually high-fee) private schools to be genuinely private. The integrated schools would not be allowed to charge fees or discriminate, in effect operating under a public charter.

But this idea is controversial amongst some public education stakeholders: they point to the huge increase in funding which these schools might demand if they can't charge fees. Some have already put their hand out for more funding if they are to enrol more disabled students. In addition, while most private schools represent mainstream faiths, some more fundamentalist schools insist on a pedagogy and set of beliefs which would make them very strange bedfellows in any education system regarded as “public”. Falling short of integration, others say that the answer lies in considerably increased regulation without creating an integrated system.

Such solutions require increased public awareness and corresponding pressure on governments to act. A source of pressure might be created by the closure of more public schools (partly due to demographic change) and the loss of a quality local free education for families. There is a limit to the extent to which governments can shift responsibility for schooling onto family budgets. Until governments start to feel this pressure they are going to be most unwilling to insist on a greater range of public obligations for private schools.

For public educators there is certainly pressure to provide, within an equity framework, a greater element of choice for parents and to better address their anxieties, both real and imagined. After all, if my child is special (and they all are) can I really be sure that the local comprehensive school is good enough? Some of the answer lies in specialisation along the lines established in England by the Specialist Schools Trust, provided that such specialisation isn't accompanied by discrimination in enrolments (something which is exacerbated by local control over admissions). We would also need to make sure that selective schools are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Finally the enduring oddity in our evolving landscape of schools is that we have never really had a national (and rational) debate about the issues increasingly emerging in the public-private divide. We need to audit the benefits and costs of current public policy. I believe that an audit would show that current frameworks, by default or (as some argue) by design, are condemning one sector to struggle and enabling the other to succeed.

The questions we need to address really depend on one's view of the purpose of public funding. If we believe, as do many policy writers in the Centre for Policy Development, that public funds must be used to create and sustain our common wealth, then the key questions about funding and schools are:

  • What is ‘public' in education: what does public mean in terms of values, curriculum, obligation, operation and accountability?
  • Should funding be directed, in whole or in part, only to those schools which demonstrate a commitment to ‘public' education?
  • If this is the case, what policy changes might be needed to ensure a commitment to what would amount to a public charter for schools?

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