In one of his last acts as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott and his Minister for Education Chris Pyne appointed one of their mates from big business to review how schools were funded. He brought to the review his experience of attending one of Sydney’s most expensive grammar schools and being Chairman of the Board of Trustees there. He’s a good friend of Rupert Murdoch though, and owns a house worth over $5 million (and sold a penthouse for $14 million). A real battler for the disadvantaged.
Unsurprisingly the review he just handed down entrenched strong funding for the sort of private schools he attended and presided over. A “sector blind” approach basically sneaks in a school voucher system. Commentators on the left are livid and are planning to run a sharp campaign to demand that the government prioritise public schools in the funding model.
No, I’m kidding. This was actually 2010, and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Minister for Education Julia Gillard appointed David Gonski. But the rest of the facts are the same. Oh and except for the howling on the left. Under the cloak of supporting Labor (and not giving ammunition to a strong Abbott opposition) the left was mostly supportive of the Gonski model. Perhaps it’s also just realpolitik – substantial new money in education is a good price for silence on how it should be allocated? It’s hard to figure out how the consensus arose to largely be silent on Gonski’s flaws.
David Gonski seems a good man, and genuinely cares about giving disadvantaged student groups in Australia a fair shot in life, but there are significant right-wing, business, private-schooled values are clear in the model bearing his name. These don’t get enough press, particularly by groups you’d expect would devour anyone proposing any of these things by themselves.
The biggest blow to the predominantly public system that these people talk about wanting is the whole “sector-blind” approach. This is the idea that funding is per-student and gets allocated with minor caveats regardless of the system that the student is in*, effectively following each student. Come on – if this was introduced as a standalone policy anywhere else, we’d call a spade a spade and say it’s basically a school voucher system. Sure private school funding trails off as parent contributions increase, but the real change is that it makes low-fee private schools competitive with their public counterparts. Given the decreased accountability and rules for private schools (in curriculum, industrial relations etc.) this is close to sneaking in a charter school system to Australia through the backdoor. Sure, it is a tapered school vouchers system, and a low fee charter-wannabe would have to get some parent contributions or significant fundraising. The Victorian Government is happy to help out though, with their policy to raise the minimum floor of government contributions from 10% to 25%.
In the biggest change to funding that 5 years later is left to be implemented and will probably stand for over a decade when its (if ever) introduced, it’s just surprising that the progressive voices concede such a huge entrenchment of government funding. A small pip in The Age today reminded me to publish this, is this the start of a conversation in the right direction (if you’re so inclined that way)?