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Denigrating public education - again

By Ian Keese - posted Friday, 2 May 2008

In an article in The Weekend Australian of April 19-20, supposedly examining Prime Minister Rudd’s “Education Revolution”, Kevin Donnelly continues his long vendetta against public education. Public education is still the choice of over 70 per cent of Australians, has given the great majority of Australians the opportunities to succeed in the modern world and has been primarily responsible for our comparatively high standing in world education systems. As well, in New South Wales at least, public education is experiencing renewed support partly because public school teachers have begun to better promote their achievements.

Continually repeating lies may convince the person making them, but does not make them true. In this article Donnelly makes the unsubstantiated claim that “The most successful schools in Australia, on the whole, are non-Government schools”.

The first thing he does in making this statement is to put three categories into two. There has always been a Catholic system that, apart from its faith-based element, very much mirrors the public system, being inclusive, comprehensive and based on its local community. Over the period 1996-2004, their student population has remained relatively stable at about 20 per cent, while the system classified as Independent has gone from 10 per cent to 12.2 per cent, (although in secondary Independent School numbers have gone from 13.5 per cent to 16 per cent) which can be just as well explained by increasing middle class affluence, attacks on public education in some elements of the media and supportive government policies.


But there is an even more fundamental flaw in his argument. The only valid way to measure whether one system is more successful than another is to carry out a longitudinal study that measures the social and intellectual attainments of individual students who enter a system and then evaluate how much these have improved by the time they leave some years later. I would be interested in seeing if Kevin Donnelly can specify one empirical, evidence-based study that demonstrates the truth of his claim.

Instead he supports his assertion by providing as “evidence” the justifications people give for choosing private education, justifications which are often based on just the kind of misperceptions he has helped create in the first place.

Many people, in fact, chose to send their children to public schools just because it is such schools, rather than private schools, that “mirror the values and aspirations of parents”: values like respect for others irrespective of their social background and wealth; an understanding that people can maintain different belief systems and yet live together in one community; and a belief that a democratic society can only prosper if all its members have an equal opportunity for a high quality education.

From my experiences the majority of teachers in both the public and private sector are equally committed to the moral, social and intellectual growth of their students. The most significant factor in the success of teachers in achieving this is not the system they work in but their individual dedication and moral integrity, and this far outweighs any material resources they may have at their disposal. Pity us all if public (and private) teachers, by working towards equality of opportunity for all Australians, become labelled as “left-wing ideologues”.

In the same vein Donnelly dismisses the appointment of Professor Barry McGaw to the National Curriculum Board as that of a person “responsible for the status quo” and he describes the board made of distinguished educators from all sectors as representing the organisations responsible “for the parlous state of education”.

As a result of his contributions to education in Australia Professor McGaw was appointed the foundation Education Director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which has been excellent preparation for now developing an Australian system of international standing.


One of the key areas McGaw has worked on is attempting to match the quality of Australian education with the achievement of equity as evidenced by a presentation he made in Adelaide (PDF 892KB) in 2006. This increasing disparity between our bottom and top students is the one acknowledged negative in the international standing of our education and if this was addressed, and the results of the more socially disadvantaged students could be improved, we would move even closer to countries with outstanding results like Finland.

Since 1960 Finnish students identified with educational needs undertook intensive individualised learning programs that were concentrated in the first three years of schooling (Review of Educational Research Volume 53, 2007; Page 283–302). While some private schools, and Catholic systemic schools in particular, do have programs to cater for socially or educationally disadvantaged students this can never, for quite practical social and financial reasons, be anything but a very small part of their mission. The greatest burden for achieving this will always on the public sector, the sector Donnelly continues to denigrate

The majority of teachers and administrators in both educational systems choose to accept lower pay and lower perceived status than other professions because they consider the ability to make a real difference in the life opportunities of the students is of higher priority.

Another of Donnelly’s buzz words is “politically correct”, and if this means letting your ideology prevent you from seeing reality he stands accused. It is just unfortunate that public school teachers have the additional burden of continual sniping from an ideologue putting himself forward as an educational commentator.

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About the Author

Ian Keese has degrees in Science and the Arts. He has been a secondary school history teacher and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators. He lives in Melbourne and writes on history and education or anything else in which he becomes interested.

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