Another political debate over education funding, another manufactured class war between private and public schooling.
My siblings and I went to Catholic schools as have my children, step-children and many of my grandchildren. The attack on Catholic schools as being elite and unworthy of government assistance is unfair and uninformed. Parents at Catholic schools and other independent schools have nothing to be ashamed about in receiving government funding. In fact, they should be proud. The public education system would buckle under its own weight if not for independent schools. If you don’t believe me go read about the Goulburn schools strike of 1962.
Back then, Catholic schools received no government funding. The costs of running the schools were borne by the Catholic Church, by parents paying fees and from fundraising like fetes and raffles. Most Catholic families were poor and the fees were kept as low as possible. My parents sent 11 children to these kinds of Catholic schools from the mid 1940s onwards. They were poor but scraped together the school fees. My parents also paid taxes. So, they helped pay for the free education of other people's children.
By the 1960s Catholic schools had begun to lobby governments to provide some funding to help with rising costs. However, all political parties believed providing funding to non-government schools would cost them votes. A dispute between the NSW Department of Education and Goulburn’s Our Lady of Mercy Primary School broke this impasse. The Department threatened to deregister the school because it didn’t have enough boys’ toilets. But the Church couldn’t afford to build more. Eventually the Bishop informed parents the school would have to close until it could afford the new infrastructure.
The Parents and Friends committee decided to go further. It resolved to close all of Goulburn’s Catholic schools for the final 6 weeks of term. The 1300 or so students from those schools would instead start going to the local public schools. If the Church didn’t educate them the government would have to. So, one Monday morning Goulburn’s public schools were flooded with students they weren’t resourced or equipped to accommodate.
It took only a week for the Catholic parents to make their point. If the government had to educate all these Catholic kids it would have to supply government schools with more teachers, resources and buildings (and more toilets). That would cost a lot more than providing some funding to Catholic schools.
Previously Catholic families were invisible to the public education system, their impact ignored. Afterwards they ceased to be invisible. In time both major parties went on to support government funding to independent schools.
When debates over independent school funding flare up the media is invariably preoccupied with the minority of independent schools regarded as elite. But most independent schools aren’t. Their facilities and resources are no better than most public schools and the students who go to them are in the same demographics as those at public schools within the same area. The difference is the parents at independent schools pay taxes as well as school fees.
The media never focuses on the minority of elite public schools. Schools like Sydney Boys High which has a whole Wikipedia page devoted to its famous and notable alumni many from wealthy Sydney families. Or the many public schools in expensive suburbs and selective and other high schools which have spawned property booms in their intake areas. There are high-income families all over Australia with children educated courtesy of the taxpayer. Where’s the class war outrage over that?
The Goulburn school strike taught governments two things. Catholic parents vote and pay taxes too. And they save governments a fortune by paying for their own schooling. These two lessons are still true today, for all independent schools. Even with Federal Government funding, independent schools still save governments a fortune. The cost to governments per student in independent schools is much less than the cost per student in a public school. Independent schools enable governments to fund public schools more generously.
The challenge for Australia in education isn’t private versus public schools. The challenge isn’t even funding. The real challenge is performance, which has been steadily declining against global benchmarks for some years.
This is despite massive education funding increases over the same period. Funding doesn’t equal outcomes. Funding and education performance in Australia have in fact been negatively correlated.
How does Gonski help students learn? How does it improve teacher performance and deliver teaching excellence? How does it improve Australia’s education results compared to global benchmarks? Not sure? Neither am I. All we’re told about Gonski is it involves many billions of spending.
My advice to politicians, teachers’ unions, academics, media and education departments is to stop manufacturing non-existent class wars and start focussing on properly educating Australian kids.
An edited version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 12 May 2017.
End the class warfare
30 May 2017
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO