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Issue #1564      12 September 2012

Privatisation of education

The Gillard-Gonski model

Last week Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her response to the Gonski review of school funding, what she called a National Plan for School Improvement. Presented as a plan to put Australia in the top five internationally for education outcomes, it is in reality a neo-liberal recipe to destroy quality public education. It rejects the proven approach of the most successful countries, instead pursuing the failed US model of education markets, standardised testing, parental “choice”, competition and privatisation by stealth.

David Gonski.

The “education revolution” is now referred to as a “national crusade”. Considering the origins of the term crusade – a war instigated by the church for alleged religious ends, the name is quite apt. The churches and their schools have a great deal to gain from this crusade. Gillard has assured all church and other private schools, even the richest, that they will receive extra funding.

This is not just about winning over the Catholic vote prior to the next elections. It is part of a process to eventually put public and private* schools on the same footing in regard to government funding. At the same time it continues the breakdown of a high quality, secular, public education system.

Gillard in a speech to the National Press Club pointed out that by year three, 89 percent of the children from the poorest quarter of Australian homes are reading below average. She expressed concern, not so much for the students who are falling behind, but that it was harming Australia’s economy. “Put bluntly, our businesses will be unable to compete if our children’s education keeps falling behind ... . To win the economic race, we must first win the education race.”

Ironically, retaining the class-based education system and strengthening the private/church sector will not “win the education race”. Like a race, it has a few winners and lots of losers. The model is based on competition, on ranking of schools, of teachers and students when what is required is equity and successful outcomes for all schools and students.

The key components of the plan are:

1. Decentralisation of public education system: give principals the power of a CEO to hire, fire, promote and reward teachers and other staff, and to manage budgets for recurrent and minor capital expenditure. State schools will gain autonomy similar to that of private schools, paving the way for their privatisation. They will be encouraged to raise additional funding through corporate partnerships and from parents and other sources.

Devolution of employment opens the way to victimisation of teachers who are militant unionists or express their views. It will see the employment of more teachers on short-term contracts and a casual basis to keep costs down. Staffing of regional and remote schools will be made more difficult.

The battle will be on to prevent deregulation of hard won gains such as class sizes.

2. Voucher system: state schools will receive a set amount per student – called the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). The SRS is be based on “what it costs to educate a student at the schools we know already get strong results.” Extra funding – called “needs loadings” – will be attached to individual students from low socio-economic backgrounds, to Indigenous students, students with a disability and students with limited English skills, as well as to help with extra costs for small and remote schools.

For private schools, the public (federal plus state) contribution will be adjusted to take into account “the anticipated level of a school’s private contribution”. This will be based on the socio-economic status of the school, the highly discredited post-code based SES formula. The needs loading will be an add-on extra bonus.

The federal government has given a commitment that public funding to these schools will not be reduced if the amount calculated is less than what they already receive. It will increase the amount! It certainly adds a new meaning to the word “equity”.

3. Choice and competition: parents, so the theory goes, will have a choice between schools on a highly competitive education market. NAPLAN standardised testing and the MySchool website set the basis for comparing schools. These tests according to the prime minister identify the “worst” and “best” performing schools.

NAPLAN is a crude, narrow measure of performance, has little to do with assessing educational performance of schools, with all the stigma that is attached to “worst” schools and their students.

Competition means winners and losers – successful and failed. Choice means there are significant differences. It is not just a reference to curriculum specialisation, but to whether a school is secular or non-secular, whether it is elite and privileged, whether the school offers quality education, has the facilities and resources or staffing it needs. The outcomes of choice depend largely on geographic location and wealth. They have little to do with equity.

Parents can look at the results of a rich private school and compare them with a local high or primary school. The only catch is that the richer private schools select the most advantaged students and help perpetuate that advantage, the Catholic schools give preference to Catholics, many refuse to take “problem” students, others have no Indigenous students or kids with a disability. They are left to the public system.

For example, at the exclusive Barker College, almost 80 percent of students are from the wealthiest quarter of the population and only one percent from the poorest quarter. That will not change. Nor will its fees of over $20,000 per annum come within reach of working class parents.

Barker has recurrent income of more than $24,000 per student and receives a total of $6.5 million from state and federal governments. The government contribution is set to increase. Compare that with a state school attempting to educate children from poorer backgrounds with around $11,000 spent by government on each student. Choice is class based. (See table below)

The identification of schools as “worst” performers is one step away from the totally discredited US model which Gillard is wedded to. “Failed” schools are shut down or handed over to the private, for-profit corporate sector to drill the “3 Rs” and make a profit. At present we are told that additional funds will be directed to “red” (deemed failing on MySchool website) schools. But, as they say, watch this space.

The whole process is geared towards the commodification of education, facilitating the growth of non-secular church schools and the entry of big business – in the name of parental “choice” and “competition”.

4. “Lifting teacher quality”: trainee teachers will be required to acquire more classroom experience (as unpaid or low paid assistants?) before graduation. Teachers should come from the top 30 percent of year 12 students, says Gillard. She is not proposing higher salaries or better working conditions to attract top students.

Drawing on OECD statistics, Rachel Browne in The Sydney Morning Herald (05-09-2012) notes that an experienced teacher in Australia is paid $47,000, which is 30 percent less than the average salary. In South Korea, with an OCED ranking of second in the world, they are paid $81,000 – three times more than the average salary. In Finland it is almost 40 percent higher. Finland ranks third internationally.

Repeatedly the Prime Minister gives the impression that Australia has fallen behind and the gap widened between “top” and “bottom” students because of poor quality teaching.

This is rubbish. It is a result of decades of underfunding of the public system, diversion of education dollars to non-government schools, the increase in complexity and difficulties teachers face with today’s social problems and lack of necessary staffing and support.

The notion of performance-based pay is insulting, it implies teachers are not dedicated and will only try if they are paid extra.

Instead of increased salaries, teachers will be subjected to even more difficult conditions of employment and job insecurity. How many good teachers have been (often reluctantly) driven into the private sector or left teaching because of the low pay and lack of support?

If the government were interested in quality teachers from working class backgrounds it would abolish university fees and provide adequate income support during the four years of university studies.

The constant references to quality, choice and competition are spin to cover up the neo-liberal privatisation agenda which is phased in bit by bit.

5. Privatisation: Gillard claims, “It is a model that strips away all the old debates about private versus public and puts children at the centre of the funding system.” It certainly avoids debate, but it does not put children first. For example, it will not narrow the gap between the public school with $10,000 to $12,000 funding per student and the private school with $20,000 to $24,000 at its disposal. Throwing even more money at the rich schools will widen that gap.

The elite wealthy private schools have vast resources including equipment, teaching and non-teaching staff at their disposal. They select their students and perpetuate the advantage that these students already have. The reason the gap has widened is that the public education system has been starved of funds.

The focus on standardised tests (lucrative profit-generators for the private sector developing the tests and practice sheets), competition between students, ranking of schools (ranking of teachers will be next), choice and treatment of education as a commodity, is a neo-liberal recipe for the perpetuation of inequality and privatisation.

The highly successful Finnish model (see Guardian No 1559, 08-08-2012 GERM Warfare – School Education in Finland) involved incorporating all private schools into the public system and concentrated on providing good schools for all children. Teachers are well paid, trusted as dedicated professionals. The driving principle is equity in education. There is no standardised testing or ranking of schools. Children come first.

Competition means winners and mostly losers, it is not about equity. As Bob Treasure pointed out in The Guardian article on the Finnish model, “choice” and “equity” are two mutually exclusive notions and “freedom of choice” amounts to a class system of education.

Gonski pointed out that the performance gap is far greater in Australia than in many high-performing schooling systems. He said, that there is “an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socio-economic and Indigenous backgrounds.” This will not be addressed by throwing more money at the Barker Colleges.

The government talks about greater accountability. But the private schools will not be accountable or required to make public how they spend any of that government money. Not one cent of it.

The fundamentalist schools will continue to teach creation theory and other creeds using public funding. The importance of secular education in a multicultural country like Australia cannot be overemphasised, but the Gonski/Gillard blueprint continues to fund and fuel the growth of non-secular schools.

6. Funding: Education unions, state and non-government schools, teachers, parents, students and the corporate sector have all welcomed the prospect of extra funding. The big question is where it will come from and how it will be used.

The much touted $6.5 billion increase in annual funding is to be phased in over six years from 2014 and public schools are set to receive some of it, but by no means enough.

There is the big question of who foots the bill, not just for $6.5 billion for education but the national disability insurance and dental schemes.

Gillard talks in terms of “tough” decisions (budget cuts). The government is still determined to deliver budget surpluses (an excuse for cuts rather than an economic necessity). It will continue with thousands of sackings in the public service. Departments are already struggling to find a four percent “efficiency dividend” cut in spending this financial year.

She also makes references to extending means testing to other areas. Medicare looks set to be first on the chopping block. It will all be dressed up in the name of “fairness” and claims there is a shortage of funds. Universality is a fundamental principle of Medicare not to be breached.

The government has already introduced means testing of the private health insurance rebate. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is subjected to a form of means/assets testing for lower priced medications. The new dental scheme for children will be means tested.

The situation will be made even “tougher” as the government makes further cuts to corporate taxation and goes ahead with billions of dollars of purchases of fighter planes, submarines, etc, to fight US wars.

Gillard envisages states spending more on private schools. But state Liberal and Labor governments will not come on board without a fight. They are strapped for cash and have been making cuts to public education, health, police, fire, ambulance and other community services as well as sacking public servants.

The NSW Liberal government has fired its first shot indicating it may reduce its funding to private schools. The churches have come out screaming.

There is only one way in which they will come on board – that is with extra income. Ideologically and politically, they are not opposed to the Gonski review or Gillard’s plans. After all it is their agenda. Victoria is already well down the path with devolution of the governance and management of schools. In Western Australia, there is a pilot program. The NSW government has similar plans.

Don’t be surprised after the federal elections if the GST is raised to 15 percent or more or if it is extended to areas presently exempt such as education, health and fresh food products. Neither major party has any intention of raising corporate taxes or introducing a real tax on super profits in the mining or other sectors.

Basic human right

The guiding principle and aim of the education system must be the provision of free, universal and secular public education for all children to produce a highly educated and cultured society. Education involves much more than passing numeracy and literacy tests. It is about the full development of human potential, equipping people for life as well as preparing them for further studies or work.

The public education system must be strengthened with increased funding for teaching and non-teaching staff, for the building and maintenance of classrooms, and the purchase of resources.

State aid to non-government schools must be phased out. The MySchool website should be pulled down, the centralisation of employment fully restored along with the abolition of contract employment in schools. The education system needs democratisation not privatisation.

There is no place for class-based choice or competition in education. Education is a basic human right not a privilege for those who can afford it. Australia has the wealth to be able to provide every child with a quality education.

A tale of two schools

Fairvale High School (Sydney, outer-western suburb, public)
Barker College (Hornsby, Sydney, private Anglican school, K-12)

ISEA = Index of Socio-Educational Advantage

Data taken from MySchool website

  Fairvale Barker
Number of students 1,364 1,980
Equivalent full-time teaching staff 104.6 201.8
Ratio teachers to students 1:13 1:9.8
Equivalent full-time non-teaching staff 22 147.8
Ratio non-teaching staff to students 1:62 1:13.4
Net recurrent income $16 million $47 million
• Average recurrent income per student $11,485 $24,446
• Federal government recurrent net income $2 million $3.8 million
• State government recurrent net income $13.5 million $2.7 million
• Fees, charges, other parent contributions $0.58 million $41 million
• Income from other private sources $72,000 $4 million
Students from bottom quarter of the ISEA 46% 1%
Students from second to bottom quarter of the ISEA 20% 3%
Students from second to top quarter of the ISEA 27% 17%
Students from top quarter of the ISEA 8% 79%
Indigenous students 1% 0%
% of students with non-English language background 84% 14%

* Private refers to all non-government schools including church schools.  

Next article – Editorial – Smoke and mirrors

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