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Issue #1912      April 27, 2020

SPOTLIGHT ON SYSTEMIC INEQUITY

IT’S TIME FOR ONE QUALITY PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM

The COVID-19 health crisis has opened up a dangerous opportunity for monopoly capitalism to strengthen and extend its ideological dominance over the Australian working class. While denying ideology is driving the government response to the pandemic, the Morrison government is pushing the biggest ideological con since the 1980’s Accord was foisted onto workers by the Hawke government.

This time the social contract ideological message is being spun by the Coalition with the help of its supporters in right-wing think tanks and the privately owned mass media. The message is wrapped up in the language of “Team Australia,” and the increasingly ubiquitous phrase, “we are all in this together.” This article challenges the dishonest representation of a classless Australian society as seen through the experience and example of NSW public education in the COVID-19 crisis.

Successive Australian federal and state governments have been batting for “Team Private Australia” for many years and in the process disadvantaging the public system in all sectors. In education, funding and policy decisions have long favoured supporting a two-tier system. Public education has been positioned as the poor cousin of the private and independent schools. COVID-19 has exposed this inequity to public scrutiny as public schools struggle to provide equity and access for schooling at home for the two-thirds of Australian children. There are reasons for this which go beyond the current pandemic.

NSW – A CASE STUDY

NSW education has been sliding into chronic and systemic inequity for many years now. A two-tier system of public and private education has been the policy of both sides of politics, the ALP more softly but in the same direction as the LNP. The Greens have also been reluctant to challenge the growing privatisation of education in Australia, possibly because they are fearful that they are not prepared to tackle an electorally unpopular issue.

NSW is a case study of how ideology, translated into policies of small government and privatisation, created a crisis of inequity for NSW children and schools. The COVID-19 crisis response of governments has not strayed ideologically from their previous course; it has merely shown that in a crisis, the reaction of capitalist governments is to disadvantage the already disadvantaged further.

The COVID-19 crisis did not change the government’s class-oriented policy in education. No decisions were announced to put an end to federal grants for obscene levels of capital works to wealthy private schools, or to reduce government subsidies for students that advantage private schools. We can only ask why not if the team was one and we were all in this together.

It is obvious the new social contract language was not meant to indicate a desire to look at the underlying inequity in education, nor offer to resolve its causes. The Australian working class is left to ask a fundamental question: If we are one team, then should we not have one fully funded and resourced public education system?

In appearance and reality, the purpose of the two-tier system in education only serves class interests: the class interests of those already advantaged. It divides communities into sectional interests by wealth, religion, and ethnicity, which ultimately divides the working people and makes it more challenging to pursue their common interests. Those common interests, in essence, are for a better society for their children.

The systemic inequity has been outed by the COVID-19 driven need to transition to online education. It has affected all public schools, though it is significantly worse in the most disadvantage schools: those with low socio-economic status (SES). In NSW, the low socio-economic and disadvantaged schools are highly concentrated, but not limited to, the working-class areas of Western Sydney and throughout rural and remote areas of NSW.

By definition, NSW public education does not discriminate. Public schools do the “the heavy lifting,” embodying the values of inclusiveness and equity in education in Australia. The same expectations and values are not required of the private system.

Access and equity in schooling at home are therefore big issues for public schools. Low socio-economic families often don’t have the internet at home or adequate technology. Families from non-Engish speaking communities will often have difficulty supervising and helping with schoolwork; children with special needs often need one-to one or small group tuition and other support services; Indigenous communities in regional areas experience overcrowding, poor living conditions, social, and economic problems. Only a robust fully funded public school system could be in a position to be able to address these diverse needs under normal conditions, let alone in a crisis.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, a spotlight has been shone on this massive contradiction ignored by the “Team Australia” spin. While the private system serves a more homogeneous socio-economic and cultural section of Australian society and, largely a privileged part of society, it also receives a disproportionately greater share of the government education pie. It was in a far better position to adapt to a crisis and deliver homeschooling.

Transitioning of schools to online learning has seen public schools dragging a ball and chain stamped “made by Australian and NSW governments.” In many cases, NSW public school teachers needed to prepare hardcopy lesson packs for students with no access to the internet and computers at home and deliver online teaching. Simultaneously, these teachers were asked to upskill for online teaching and learning, handicapped by a lack of departmental professional support in using the technology they needed to teach.

“LOCAL SCHOOLS, LOCAL DECISIONS” FAILURE

It’s not a secret that public school teachers’ attempts to upskill were made more difficult by the consequence of the introduction of the “Local Schools, Local Decisions” (LSLD) policy in 2013. In the name of devolution, LSLD, the NSW Department of Education and Training stripped the department, (and therefore public schools), of centralised professional learning and support resources. Public schools are now doing it on their own and without the experts.

The main aim of the failed policy of LSLD was to save money, money that subsidised the failed privatisation of TAFE. In a crisis like COVID-19 public schools, starved of professional learning support from the NSW Department of Education, have become places where the semi-blind are leading the blind. Places where one or two tech-savvy teachers are taking responsibility for ad hoc training and IT support for a staff of fifty teachers and more. In a developed Western economy like our own this situation beggars belief.

UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD IN IT

Since LSLD there has been a lack of comprehensive and expert professional learning in IT for public school teachers. Schools have attempted to fill this gap with the creation of teacher IT mentors on staff. The LSLD model allows principals to allocate funds from their school budget to areas of local “need.” Tech-savvy teachers are released from face to face teaching to “mentor” colleagues and troubleshoot the IT issues in the school.

For online teaching and learning to be truly effective requires teachers to develop a great deal of skill and expertise in using online platforms, fluidly and flexibly. It has been an IT nightmare for many experienced and talented teachers in the public system who needed time and professional support to switch to this mode of teaching. To be effective, they also need access to high quality IT resources which are at present in limited supply in the public school system.

Not surprisingly, the private system was able to transition to online teaching and learning quickly. Their success in delivering “best practice” was presented in the media as a reflection of the norm and not of the advantage of a minority subsidised by the public purse. Absent in these stories were the voices of the less advantaged sections of Australian society.

NO INTERNET NO ONLINE LEARNING

In disadvantaged and low socio-economic areas of the public school communities, it is not unusual for forty per cent or more families to not have internet access at home. This percentage is likely to increase dramatically as parents lose their jobs, and their incomes disappear.

The demographics of these working class communities reveal that these families are over-represented in casual and temporary employment, amongst the unemployed and the most vulnerable families. They are the ones who are sacked first and lack the economic buffer of savings, super, and other assets. If they have the internet at home now will they be able to afford it next week?

These issues are compounded for rural and remote Indigenous communities who have been deprived of decent and adequate housing and services by successive state and federal governments. Disadvantage piled onto disadvantage. The lie that is the “Closing the Gap” policy takes on new life in the new unprecedented times of COVID-19.

EDUCATION FOR PROFIT

Alongside these developments, NSW governments have been aiding and abetting the emergence of a burgeoning education industry sector to fill the gaps it has created. This industry is made up of private providers in professional learning and curriculum programs delivered in a user-pay model to public school students. In this new education world, families are asked to pay for dance and sports programs or their children sit and watch. Even phonics professional learning to support teaching and learning has been contracted out in the public system. Education dollars are being wasted to create profit opportunities for business.

THE ILLUSION OF EQUITY WILL NOT PASS

The COVID-19 crisis is the time for teachers, unions, parents, citizens organisations, and all of us to raise our collective voices to demand a non-class divided team in education. That can only be realised with a comprehensive, fully funded public education system from pre-school to university. One where funds are there to guarantee equity and access to “best practice” and high quality education for all NSW and Australian children.

It may not be on today’s agenda, but it is time to consider what a socialist Australia will look like. In a socialist Australia, the needs of all children would not and could not conflict with the needs of a profit-hungry private sector. There would be no contradiction between children’s right to an equitable playing field in education and the rights of a privileged minority subsidised by the public education budget.


 

Facts about Funding

  • NSW Public Schools funding increased by 11.2 per cent while equivalent funding to NSW Private schools increased by 32 per cent between 2008-9 and 2017-18.
  • 99 per cent of Australian public schools are funded at below the minimum School Resource Standard (SRS), private schools are funded above the SRS.
  • Enrolments in NSW public schools grew by 33,694 students in the last five years indicating growing need and support for public schools.
  • The Save Our Schools Lobby Group’s research shows that Federal and NSW state funding massively favoured private schools over public schools between 2009-10 and 2017-18.
  • State and federal government funding for private schools increased by $1,779 per student while funding for public schools was cut by $49 per student over the same period, (adjusted for inflation). Furthermore, private school funding up 18.9 per cent, public school funding down 0.4 per cent.
  • More than 80 per cent of disadvantaged students are enrolled in public schools, and more than 90 per cent of disadvantaged schools are public schools.

Next article – ONLY SOCIALISM CAN SAVE US

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