Education

World leading education is critical to Australia's success

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The recent David Gonski chaired Review of Funding for Schooling was the first major review of Australian education funding since the beginning of the Whitlam years. Anna Sande explains why we must get funding right this time.

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The two most significant figures in relation to Australian education in the last 40 years.


WE NEED TO TALK about education, because we don't talk about education anywhere near enough.

In most countries education and educators are revered — understood as the means to realize a citizen's and therefore a country's potential.

You can see the buildings and playgrounds, some with verdant sweeping lawns, some mostly dust and bitumen. On a tram, bus or train you can feel the presence as swarms of uniformed and uniformed students surge aboard. These are schools, these are students, but what is education?

The fact is education is invisible yet, like radiation, of long-lasting effect, ongoing one hopes — taking place inside each of our skulls, world-wide, constantly, uniquely, hopefully, more or less, every day.

This invisibility presents problems. Not least of which is, because education is mostly out of sight, it is also easily out of mind, and its younger recipients cannot vote. However as increasing numbers of parents feel they have to pay for the invisible and its trappings, the more financial support they want from government. This makes for an exceedingly skewed and difficult debate, particularly since so fundamental a right has thus been politicised.

A conversation about school buildings can quickly turn to one about outcomes (what are they? how measurable, how useful, how valuable, how reliable?). It can turn to websites which might to turn to regions, and then to indigenous education. So the 'debate' spirals out of control, into various territories, various responsibilities.

Too often participants in the 'debate' leave scratching their heads. Too often it seems, they abandon the public offering and resolve to save harder, or seek another loan, to invest in some comforting materiality with green and verdant lawns, at the very least. Thus education becomes a commodity.

A free, compulsory and secular education for all was enshrined in the Australian Constitution in the 1880s. However, Monash University's David Zyngier writes:
'...ever since federal and state governments began to siphon funds from the public purse to top up poor Catholic parish schools over four decades ago, there has been an exponential growth of government funding go to middle class and wealthy private schools at the expense of increasingly impoverished and disadvantaged public schools.'

In the last decade, Australia has grown to have the most privatised education system in the world.

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The disparity of outcomes between private and public schools has never been starker. (Image courtesy education.net.au)


Despite our apparent well-being as a nation, our education system is one of the most confusing (and hence neglected) aspects of our society. It has been forty years since school funding reviews.

Because it is about money, the public-private divide is what adults sometimes like to talk about. Not for long though. That subject usually becomes too hard. Yet, leaving 'too hard' untackled is going to bring Australia undone.

The facts need to be clearly laid out. The conversation needs to be had and the evidence is in. The quality of Australian education is slipping by international standards. In terms of public and private funding of education in relation to GDP we ranked 20th out of 37. The 2012 OECD report Education at a Glance lays this out clearly.

We are fifth out of 32 in terms of private expenditure.  A year earlier, only Belgium and Chile spent a smaller proportion of national income on public schools, and only Belgium, Chile and Israel spent a higher proportion on private schools. We need to be aware of information like this and relate it to the value Australians place on education.

We live in an impatient world. Education is a slow process and, when inequitable, a potent form of segregation. Presently, an aggregation of disadvantage is disabling the under-funded Australian public education system. Public schools educate 66 per cent of our children and are caring for 80 per cent of students with a disability or special needs.

A sound education for all young Australians is a right, not a commodity. When treated as the latter, as the recent chaos among post-secondary private providers has demonstrated, the uncertainty engendered causes despair among students and teachers alike. The conversation halts in disbelief.

Who among the general population knows which government tier funds which level of education? Who is responsible for the disadvantaged and indigenous among students? Increasingly, jurisdictional divisions within the so-called 'system' are compounding an already opaque, complex and inequitable 'scheme'.

Responding to this miasma, the David Gonski chaired Review of Funding for Schooling sought transparency, along with increased and more equitably distributed funds. Sadly, this Julia Gillard initiated review was constrained at the outset by her imprimatur that "no school would lose a dollar" and it has been tarnished by her pleading with individual premiers to 'sign up'.

The process has been so delayed and ugly that it does not invite conversation. What we have is a far cry from the times when the primary responsibility of government was to our public education system. Greg Thompson of Murdoch University rightfully suggested:
'The Gonski review needs to recommend one thing – spend as much as education costs.'

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The Review of Funding for Schooling has shaped the public debate around school funding for the last few years. (Image courtesy abc.net.au)


Why don’t we pay what education costs? Rather than predetermining how much we should spend and then making schools fit that figure? Let’s commit to a level of funding that decreases the achievement gap.

Who today would disagree that a level of education that enables full and satisfying participation in contemporary life is the right of every Australian? That it forms the most fundamental of cornerstones in a fair and productive society?

If a worsening of standards and erosion of equity is allowed to continue Australia will become little more than a mineral pit on the edge of Asia. Monolingual Australians will not speak the language of that enterprise and will be working too hard to learn it.

The vision could be that we are a smart and powerful bilingual hub of research and development, a nation mindful of its primary resources and products. Not dependent upon them, nor careless with them. Such a dignified and intelligent position cannot be attained without the discrimination learned through an excellent education and unflinching visionary leadership.

However, if Australia continues to fail in its duty to well educate all its citizens, as a matter of principle, then our place in the world will be lost in the mad scramble for basics.

Thinking smart, and fair, we should now also be looking to the online tsunami that is about to hit education in the form of MOOCS (massive open online courses).

What is clear and unquestionable is that education and politics have become entwined. They desperately need to be uncoupled.

We all need to care about, know about and talk about education.

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