International comparisons show that while Australian students are among the best performers in the world, we are one of the lowest ranking in terms of the size of the achievement gap.
In fact, we can chart the decline in our PISA results with the growth of state and federal funding of private schools.
A major cause of the gap is that successive governments have neglected public education and, in so doing, increased the social stratification of Australian schools. This is a real threat to the fabric of our democratic society.
The policy neglect of public schools can be traced back to the introduction of federal funding to private schools in the 1970s.
Starting with the Fraser Government, funding policies began to neglect the concept of need and foreground the principle of entitlement.
The entitlement principle resulted in increasing amounts of public money going to private schools, with a consequent expansion of that sector at the expense of public education.
Yet public funding of non-government schools is about to reach and soon exceed public funding of similar government schools.
State and federal governments, with four years, will be funding the clear majority of private school students at levels higher than students in similar government schools.
Increased funding has enabled private schools to enhance their market appeal through such means as improving facilities and creating smaller classes – which in turn attract aspirational parents. It has led to a steady drift of students from the public system almost entirely comprising those from higher SES backgrounds.
The public education system now carries over 80 per cent of all students from education disadvantaged backgrounds.
The massive ongoing disparity in funding between public and private schools is a national disgrace and scandal.
The learning needs of disadvantaged students are being ignored by the priority given to funding more privileged sections of the community.
What have been the consequences for Australian education?
Such developments have several serious consequences for Australian education, including that they widen resource disparities between schools, reduce educational outcomes particularly for students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, and diminish the social and cultural mix of schools.
Schools no long have the capacity to promote social and intercultural understanding – the very foundation upon which our vibrant democracy stands.
Priority for government funding in Australia must be to support public education
The purpose of an excellent, appropriately funded public education system is to help ameliorate the inevitable inequalities that result from the lottery of birth.
The choice model has contributed to the decline in enrolments in public schools nationally.
The importance of choice for parents has been promoted at the expense of equity for students. Choice is only available for those who have the money to pay for that privilege.
Certainly, not for those on a basic wage of $35,000 whose taxes go to subsidise choice for the wealthy.
Stephen Dinham of University of Melbourne and the president of the Australian College of Educators wrote that:
"It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons.
"If these developments continue then the inevitable outcomes will be greater inequity and continuing decline in educational performance that will provide the proponents of change with further 'evidence' to support their position and for even more far-reaching change."
The more that our public education system becomes the system of last resort for parents, the greater the threat to our multiculturalism and democracy through a de facto apartheid education system.
We need to talk about the essence of public schooling.
Professor Alan Reid argues that there are at three fundamental dimensions for public education which must work together – to neglect one of them is to weaken the whole.
- Public education as a public good. This dimension emphasises public schools as free public resources to which everyone has rights of access and which cannot exclude anyone.
- Public education for the common good. This dimension involves public schools nurturing the skills, dispositions and understandings of children and young people, not only to develop them as individuals, but also to benefit the wider society. Aspects of education such as teaching and learning, culture, organisation, funding, and governance should be consistent with the aim of promoting the common good in and through education. These aspects look very different when seen through a ‘privatising’ lens.
- Well-resourced public schools in every community. This dimension assumes that properly resourced public schools are a sine qua non of a democratic society if education is to be available to all on equal terms. Currently Australia has an approach to education funding which tolerates and promotes huge disparities in education resources. It privileges choice for some, at the expense of quality and equity for all.
New OECD data to show that social segregation in Australian schools is amongst the largest in the world and in the OECD.
Australia has the eighth highest rate of social segregation out of 71 countries participating in the OECD’s Programme of International Students Assessments in 2015. Australia’s social segregation is also the fourth highest in the OECD.
This is one of the most alarming results to come out of PISA 2015. Australia has a system of social apartheid in its schools.
It has dire consequences for education outcomes and the nature of our society. Unacceptably large percentages of low socio-economic status, Indigenous and remote area students do not achieve national standards in literacy and numeracy.
Social segregation in schools begets inequity in education and a divided, unequal society.
It worsens achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students and between disadvantaged and advantaged schools. It allows privileged groups to maintain and enhance their advantages. It allows prejudice and social discrimination to hold sway.
A strong and viable government school system is vital for the nation’s future.
Australian society and its distinctive values depend on the practical expression of tolerance, fairness, egalitarianism and equality of opportunity that public schools provide.
The wilful undermining of universal public education by our governments and the direct or indirect encouragement of private education is the most flagrant betrayal of the basic principles of representative democracy.
Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of the long-standing essential role universal public education plays in making us a civilised democracy.