Hanging over these is the Productivity Commission’s January 2023 assessment that what we’ve done with Australian education over the past decade has done “little, so far, to improve student outcomes”.
Education authors Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonnor agree. In an ambitious new report for education initiative Australian Learning Lecture, they offer a way forward.
They propose a framework for Australian schools to increase parental choice (including for religious-based schools) and improve the inequity that afflicts the system.
What’s the problem?
Greenwell and Bonnor say too many disadvantaged students are being concentrated into communities of disadvantage. This results in
unacceptable gaps in learning [that] separate disadvantaged students from their more privileged peers.
Since the introduction of government funding to non-government schools in the 1960s, we have seen an increased concentration of advantaged students in some schools, and the same for disadvantaged students. The OECD has been warning Australia about this for some time. But current policy settings offer little incentive for change.
As Greenwell and Bonnor argue, achieving our national educational goals is unlikely when:
we are stacking the odds against the children who have the least luck in terms of the circumstances they are born into.
There is also a conflict here with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms that education at least at primary level should be free and compulsory. Crucially, parents have “a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children”.
Australian non-government schools do provide opportunity for parents to exercise this right, but even the lowest level of fees charged by some Catholic system schools can still be beyond the reach of some parents.
As the authors note, this is not a problem for non-government schooling alone. Segregation within government schools exacerbates the situation. Selective schools (government schools that select students on their academic or performing arts ability):
draw in a high proportion of advantaged students, compounding the concentrations of the strugglers in comprehensive public schools.
What’s their proposal?
Greenwell and Bonnor offer a five-point plan, the first three of which are relatively uncontentious.
First, they want to fully fund school entitlements under the so-called “Gonski model”. This would ensure all schools get the funding resources they need to deliver quality learning. Some estimates show government schools currently receive less than 90% of their entitlements.
Second, they call for a frank conversation on a new common framework for Australian education. This would include not only funding arrangements, but “commensurate obligations and responsibilities” on schools.
Third, convene a national summit at which “common interests are identified and areas of agreement are developed”. Greenwell and Bonnor are at pains to point out their suggestion is not to prescribe the total solution. Rather, they invite stakeholders to come together and design a system in which “equity and choice can be expanded in a win-win manner”.
A change to school funding
Greenwell and Bonnor’s fourth point is likely to be a catalyst for much debate: they propose full public funding for all non-government schools, within a commonly agreed regulatory framework.
Yes, this means non-government schools would be fully funded by the taxpayer. But they would not be able to charge their own fees.
The authors argue this would remove the fee barrier for non-government schools and open the possibility for any family to choose a non-government school without the impost of fees. It expands, rather than restricts, parental choice. And the bonus is non-government schools “could continue to apply enrolment and other policies necessary to promote their specific religious or educational ethos”.
If non-government schools don’t want to do this, they don’t have to, but there’s a catch. Schools that “continue to charge fees or reject inclusive enrolment obligations would no longer receive any public funding”.
Their fifth point is the creation of a new authority to oversee implementation and monitoring of the new framework.
Can it work?
The Albanese government has committed to “work with” state and territory governments to get every school “on a path to 100% of its fair funding level”, as per the Gonski model.
This will come under the microscope as the next National School Reform Agreement is developed. This ties school reforms to the funding the federal government provides the states and territories. The next agreement is due to begin in January 2025 and is currently the subject of a review.
Whole holding a national summit should be straightforward, a national common framework has substantially more barriers to overcome. The multiple sectors of education governance in Australia (state/territory, Catholic, independent), and the multiple legal instruments that govern them, make this very difficult, even from a practical perspective.
At the simplest level, education remains a state/territory constitutional responsibility that seems unlikely to be collectively ceded back to the federal government any time soon.
The idea that non-government schools would have to choose between government funding or charging their own fees is also likely to be politically difficult. This is not to say the proposal is far-fetched. UNESCO, in its Global Education Monitoring Report has noted
publicly funded education does not have to be publicly provided.
As the review into the next National School Reform Agreement gathers pace, Greenwell and Bonnor’s invitation is for us all to come together with a vision for something different in Australian education.
Certainly the evidence strongly suggests what we are doing right now is not working.