Opinion

Jane Caro
Enemies of public schooling

An award-winning public school principal I know responded wistfully to the extra $4.6 billion in education funding Prime Minister Scott Morrison is giving exclusively to fee-charging schools. Of course, she could have used some extra money, but it was our new PM’s grandiose claim that this extra dosh will “end the schools funding wars” that hit her hardest. Morrison’s complete lack of interest in the fight public schools and their supporters have waged for fairer funding over decades was devastating. Either he doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Either conclusion is deeply dispiriting for those who care about public schools. It ought to be just as troubling for all the rest of us. It certainly is not the attitude of a prime minister governing, as he likes to claim, for “all Australians”.

The principal remarked that the thing that hurt her most when she thought about the very disadvantaged community her high school works so hard for, was that Morrison and Education Minister Dan Tehan are acting as if public schools – and the 70 per cent of Australian kids they teach – don’t really exist.

“My students don’t matter to them,” she said. “It’s as if their future, their potential and those of us who do our level best to encourage them are beside the point. Our schools simply don’t count, and we can be safely ignored.”

There is a terrifying arrogance among those who have no understanding of the importance of public education in ensuring the strength and resilience of both an advanced economy and a functioning democracy. Caught up with their own personal agendas – proselytising a particular religion on the part of those who run such schools or buying an advantage for their own children on the part of those who choose them – they totally miss the bigger and more important picture. Worse, it seems as if almost every member of the federal Coalition has no understanding of the importance of public education. Some of them might deign to turn up to speech night at the public schools in their electorate to placate a few voters. Many don’t even do that. In the 13 years my children attended a comprehensive public high school in Tony Abbott’s electorate, he didn’t once turn up. I know because both my daughters were singers – not award winners, sadly – and I attended every single speech night to watch them perform.

There is simply nothing special or important about private education as an idea. It’s been around since kings hired tutors for their children. Any tin-pot dictatorship can, and does, create a highly educated elite. There is nothing difficult or clever about that. What is difficult, what requires a commitment by every member of the community – particularly, one would think, those who lead it – is a strong, well-supported, well-resourced public education system open to every child in their own right, regardless of who their parents are. That is what differentiates a civil society from one where inherited privilege trumps equality of opportunity.

And, of course, the reason tin-pot dictatorships remain tin-pot is because the people who get promoted and fill the positions of power do so because of privilege, not talent or skill. I sometimes look at the antics of our current crop of political leaders, most of whom attended the same small group of so-called elite boys’ schools, and wonder if we might not already be there.

Perhaps not coincidentally, none of our recent prime ministers have been great supporters of public education. John Howard declared it to be “values neutral”, which is bizarre as it is the only system that accepts all children without judgement. It’s hard to think of a more important value in a participatory democracy than that. Kevin Rudd injected some much-needed money into the system via his school halls program, but he was undermined by his education minister and eventual successor Julia Gillard, who declared she couldn’t see the difference between public and private schools. Despite the popularity of the original Gonski scheme, Gillard dithered for months over it and had to be dragged to the sticking point by then New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell – a Liberal – and his then education minister Adrian Piccoli – a National. She also warped its needs-based character early on by insisting that no school could lose a dollar. Mind you, perhaps she was prescient about the political cost, given Morrison’s opportunistic announcement last week. Abbott made no pretence of being anything but hostile to public schools. He tried to about-face on Gonski after promising no cuts to education in the election campaign, though the resulting outcry forced him to about-face on the about-face. Malcolm Turnbull was smarter, quietly burying the Gonski funding – he cut $2.2 billion from all schools but $1.9 billion of it came from public ones – while claiming to praise the scheme. And now we have Morrison. A man so hostile to the very idea of public schools that he said he keeps his own children out of them because of the values they teach – specifically inclusion and gender diversity.

Frankly, like the public school principal I quoted above, it is hard not to despair. Public education is a perfect storm. The federal Liberal National Party can call their funding needs-based until they are blue in the face, but with 52 per cent of public school enrolments coming from families below the average Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) – while only 11 per cent of Catholic school and 5 per cent of independent school enrolments do so – such spin is not just cynical but cruel. The result of this “needs-based” scheme, in fact, will be that 87 per cent of the schools that educate most of the neediest kids – that is, public schools – will remain funded below the minimum school resource standard into the foreseeable future. Already, 65 per cent of fee-charging schools are funded above this threshold; even more now, I dare say, thanks to Morrison’s largesse.

According to the OECD, Australia is far and away the biggest spender of public money on private schools of any advanced economy, and that was before Morrison’s spectacular injection of cash. A year earlier, another report from the OECD warned that Australia invests a lower proportion of public money in public education than the OECD average, with only Turkey and Colombia doing worse. Yet, enrolments in public schools are going up, mostly at the cost of Catholic schools. The main reason for this, no doubt, is stagnant wage growth. The fallout from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the worldwide scandals concerning the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse in general, and the loss of religious faith by so many in the West will have also played their part. And therein lies the clue.

There is simply no economic, ethical or educational justification for spending $4.6 billion on the kids who are overwhelmingly from better-off households in already well-resourced schools. So why do it? I believe this florid, unjustifiable injection of cash is part of the culture war. This extra money is an attempt to turn the tide against public education, particularly among the people our leaders think “matter” – read, the middle class. There is an existential terror among the religious right, and no wonder. Forget Australia’s overwhelming “Yes” vote for marriage equality, when Catholic Ireland also votes for marriage equality and even more spectacularly for the repeal of draconian abortion laws – and has now made all abortions available free – a collective, worldwide shiver runs down the spine of people who prefer the rules to be made by those who are white, male, Christian and straight.

It is the secular nature of public education that Morrison and his fellow conservative believers don’t like. That’s why unexceptional teaching resources such as the anti-bullying Safe Schools program cause such a disproportionate kerfuffle. It’s why media furphies over Christmas carols and nativity plays in public schools are as ubiquitous as tinsel and reindeers every December. It’s why conservative prime ministers from John Howard onwards have sneered at the lack of values in public schools. What they really mean is the lack of their particular brand of rigid Christian values. It’s the greatest strength of public education that they reject – inclusivity, the fundamental belief that there are as many ways to live a good life as there are people living lives.

In fact, it’s not that Morrison doesn’t care about public schools, the people who teach in them or the kids who attend them. It’s worse than that. He sees them as his ideological enemies.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Schools of thought police". Subscribe here.

Jane Caro
is a Sydney based novelist, writer and documentary maker.