The media stories at the start each school year are usually predictable: getting ready for school, the cost of schooling, the odd crisis or two. Most of these are written well in advance.
But a story this week broke the mould and created more than a little interest. The Australian told of a leaked report which dispelled any doubt that government policy was largely responsible for the increasing residualisation of public schools – and at a great cost to their enrolled students. The report by Professor Richard Teese added new and disturbing information to what we already know.
In one sense the situation it portrays isn't new. The residualisation of public schools, the ones which are obliged to be free, accessible and inclusive, was inevitable from the day governments funded private schools to compete with their own. The charging of fees alone would guarantee that they would harvest the middle class, leaving the public provider - as John Howard once put it so - as a safety net for others. You couldn't write a better script to create social, resource and academic divides between schools.
This has long been denied by supporters of private education who cite (and occasionally parade) the kids from poor families who attend their schools. Some sustain the fiction that all schools (and kids) are the same, while others still claim that private ownership produces better schools. A deluge of data and research, from Australia (NAPLAN scores) and overseas (including PISA) has eroded the ground from under their otherwise nimble feet. A few brave souls, Kevin Donnelly amongst them, stand Canute-like before this tide of new information.
But there is more to this report than meets the eye, in particular the way it came about and how it was handled. It was commissioned by the State education departments and this alone was significant: their understanding and response to what was happening to public education over the last decade or two is indirectly challenged by this report. It is hardly surprising that they wanted it to remain secret.
The report was apparently needed to better inform the response by the States to the school funding review. They certainly needed to be better informed: their submissions to the review were patchy at best, with only half showing any understanding of the bigger framework issues impacting on their public schools. The submission from New South Wales showed the most promise, along with brief comments from Tasmania. Queensland managed to wring its hands about equity but in the same submission firmly supported the charging of school fees. The Victorians wrote a letter and the Western Australians used the opportunity to justify their odd policy mix. Responses to the research papers were marginally better, but they certainly needed to find out much more.
The real message of the report is that the very schools that the education bureaucracies are supposed to champion are increasingly becoming a safety net for the children that no one else wants. One can only hope that they find this unsettling, even if this outcome is not entirely their fault.
The State education departments face a confusion of roles and ever-diminishing resources. Once strong advocates for public education and able to provide close support for schools, they are now primarily required to serve the interests of their Ministers, especially when the latter need to duck and weave to avoid any nasty fallout from their schools. I had a couple of (mercifully) short stays in the bureaucracy and my lingering memories were of all other work ceasing whenever the Minister's office rang or when a hapless senior officer came down from Mordor (the Minister's office) with news of yet another axed program. Meanwhile, schools and kids were somewhere out there in the real world.
The bureaucracies oversee public schools as if each exists in a vacuum - separate from an impact of competing private schools (armed with a different set of rules) and of homes and families on student achievement. Both home background and teachers are the most important impacts on student learning – but a culture of denial in public systems puts home background out of sight.
To an extent this is understandable: no one wants to see poor home background trotted out as an excuse for low student achievement. But to deny its significance (and unequal distribution) is to perpetuate an imposed fantasy which has become an enforced part of the public education culture.
And who would challenge this fantasy? Certainly no one at the top end of the bureaucratic food chain. At the bottom end it would be a courageous school director who would accept or promote the idea that any deficiencies in their schools are even a part-product of home background – or in part created by the unlevel playing field of competition between schools. There are good education bureaucrats who have known and said this – at the price of isolation or a subdued career trajectory.
So the avoidance of real issues faced each day by schools and teachers simply becomes endemic. Teachers are told that they can and must make a difference for kids. Of course they can, but not alone.
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