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Why non-government schools provide the best model - part 1

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Monday, 15 October 2012


In her September 3rd speech to the National Press Club Prime Minister Gillard detailed the ALP government's response to the Gonski review of school funding. At the same time Gillard announced her plans to overcome educational disadvantage, improve teacher quality, make schools more effective and put Australia among the top 5 performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.

In additional to being unachievable, the major flaw in the Prime Minister's plans is that they represent a continuation of the government's statist, centralised and inflexible approach to education; all roads lead to Canberra. Once again, Gillard refuses to acknowledge autonomy, diversity, competition and choice, best exemplified by Australia's non-government schools, as a more effective and beneficial way to raise standards and strengthen schools.

Gillard's speech also fails to give any details or certainty about the future funding model, post 2013, and her proposals, if implemented, represent a serious threat to the autonomy of independent schools and their ability to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities.

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While much of the political and public debate centres on issues like the carbon tax, boat people, the economy and the cost of living, it would be a mistake to underestimate education as an issue important to the electorate.

That funding to non-government schools is a political minefield is understandable given that approximately 34% of students attend non-government schools, with the figure rising to over 44% at Years 11 and 12. Many aspirational voters in marginal seats value school choice and the popularity of non-government schools is proven by the fact that over the years 2000-2010 whereas their enrolments grew by 20%, the equivalent figure for government schools was only 1%.

John Howard, when Prime Minister, described education as a real BBQ stopper and as discovered by Mark Latham during the 2004 federal election campaign, when he released a hit-list of so-called wealthy private schools, getting it wrong can have significant political repercussions.

Hence, the importance of Prime Minister Gillard's speech at the National Press Club where she gave the government's response to the Gonski report on school funding and outlined her plans for what she described as a 'National Plan for School Improvement'.

Reminiscent of the ALP's grandiose plans in its first term of government, under the banner of the Kevin Rudd inspired education revolution, Gillard also seeks to stake the high moral ground by announcing that her plans represent a "national crusade" and that educational disadvantage is a "moral wrong" that has to be corrected.

The Prime Minister also promises, as a result of her government's initiatives and policies, that Australia will be "ranked as a top 5 country in the world" in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests for 15 year olds with our students eventually equalling students in Shanghai – the top performer in the 2009 PISA test.

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Ignored, compared to Australia, is that Asian education systems have a far more academic curriculum with high-stakes tests and examinations, students are often streamed in terms of ability and interest, home background reinforces the benefits of learning and the Confucian ethic values and respects teachers and education.

Compared to Australian children (who have an inflated sense of their ability, are rarely told they have failed or urged to strive and achieve better results) students in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Shanghai believe that they can always work harder to improve their standard of work.

While failing to make explicit details about the quantum of funds available to government and non-government schools, the split between state and federal governments and the rate of indexation, Gillard endorsed the Gonski report's core recommendation that all students attract a base level of funding and that there also should be additional funds to compensate for disadvantage.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at kevind@netspace.net.au. He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at www.edstandards.com.au

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