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How can we improve opportunities for talented and disadvantaged kids?

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 25 June 2015


It's difficult making much sense of the bombshell launched earlier this week about funding schooling.

Various suggestions have been offered. It's just an idea being floated. It's not the Abbott Government's policy. Maybe it's the start of a complete rethinking of education funding.

And so on.

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Before the 1960s education was controlled by the State Governments. Here in NSW, kids went to schools owned and paid for by the Department of Education (earlier, called the Department of Public Instruction). Teachers were trained by the States and taught in State schools. Education was declared "free, compulsory and secular" in a landmark Education Act of 1880. Parents who didn't like this system sent their children to private schools largely set up and paid for by churches, with the aid of school fees and private donations. Catholic systemic schools were established. And for those who could afford them, there was a small group of Great Public Schools with very substantial fees. For the record, I have worked in and done research in State and many types of private schools.

What we have had since 1963 is the slow advance of the Federal Government into many aspects of education, State and private. There are many priorities for disadvantaged children, Aboriginal education and so on and these priorities change. Commonwealth funding flows in these directions and schools struggle to keep up with what's currently favoured.

The Gonski Review set up under Rudd and Gillard was an attempt to look at needs and priorities. It followed an earlier Karmel Report and Schools Commission set up in the Whitlam years. Gonski was an attempt to look at the state of education and channel funding to where it was most needed.

Where is the most need? Teachers tell me that in a disadvantaged area these patterns are common:

- kids are kept at home- to help on the farm, to help Mum shop, to look after a sick relative

- kids live in homes which are chaotic, in which the TV is constantly on and other noises blaring

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- parents smoke around kids, drink in front of them day and night and use other drugs

- books are uncommon

- there is no space where the kid can keep books or do homework regularly

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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