Opinion

Jane Caro
How schools have become political pawns

As a long-term campaigner for disadvantaged students and the schools that overwhelmingly enrol them – public schools – I was gobsmacked this week by the sudden concern our federal government expressed for these students, and the risk they are getting left behind during the Covid-19 lockdown.

It was the Howard government’s introduction of the outrageously biased socioeconomic status funding formula, which only measured disadvantage in fee-charging schools, that first pulled me into the campaign for schools equality.

Never, in the 20 years since, have I heard any member of the federal Coalition show any interest in the kids who “get left behind”. Quite the opposite.

The reason the Gonski funding formula was never really put into effect is the resistance from the federal Liberal Party and the Nationals. Some of their state counterparts – then New South Wales Education minister Adrian Piccoli and premier Barry O’Farrell – did their best, but the feds resisted every step of the way.

Under Malcolm Turnbull, they took what was meant to be needs-based, sector-blind funding and – by legislating the 80-20 schools funding split – flipped it back into a sector-based, needs-blind scheme.

Turnbull then airily assured public schools that the cash-strapped states would take care of them. I called it the Pontius Pilate response at the time: the Coalition government washed their hands of public school students.

As a direct result of the government’s lack of interest in the schools that overwhelmingly educate our poorest children, most private schools are now funded above the minimum resource standard, essentially the last part of Gonski left standing. Virtually no public school is expected to reach it.

Since Scott Morrison’s election win in May 2019, things have gone from bad to worse. On March 2 this year, the NSW Teachers Federation estimated his government’s gifts to private schools totalled almost $5 billion. Meanwhile, not an extra cent has gone to public schools since he came to power.

The Liberal–National Coalition, it seems, is clinging to its long-held – if totally irrational – belief that money only helps the already rich. It has no benefit for the already poor. In reality, students in a position of disadvantage are actually the most expensive to teach, precisely because they need more resources to catch up to their more fortunate peers.

Yet, our prime minister is now lecturing teachers about how delivering lessons online in response to the Covid-19 lockdown is disadvantaging the neediest students.

We’ve heard a similar refrain from other members of his government, including Education Minister Dan Tehan and Victorian Liberal MP Tim Wilson. Frankly, their concerns about disadvantaged learners are crocodile tears. As the president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Angelo Gavrielatos, put it recently, with apologies to Julia Gillard, those of us who advocate for public schools will not be lectured about educational disadvantage by the Morrison government. Not now, not ever.

My anger rose when I saw the announcement that the government was giving even more money to independent schools. They will get 25 per cent of next year’s funding in June – totalling about $3.3 billion – but only if, and this is the sting in the tail, they are fully open by then.

Some will try to argue these schools are only getting next year’s money early. But it’s naive to think they won’t get their full allocation in 2021 – may I point your attention to the $5 billion extra already given in less than a year.

This is, no doubt, a political ploy designed to wedge the states, particularly Victoria. That state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, has stood firm in his decision to keep schools teaching remotely until term 3 begins in mid-July – on the advice of his chief medical officer.

Far from having any concern about students, the Morrison government is using them – and their teachers – as pawns in this game. He sees closed schools as a hurdle to getting the economy running, and he is desperate to remove the obstacle. So desperate, in fact, he even claimed social distancing was magically no longer needed in schools. In supermarkets, on beaches and bushwalks, certainly, but not schools. Another miracle, perhaps.

But just compare the $3.3 billion sweetener offered to independent schools with the guilt-tripping, shaming and blaming being used to push public schools to reopen for more face-to-face teaching. There’s not an extra cent for them – not from the federal government, anyway.

According to the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, schools have received some additional funding for “enhanced cleaning” and will get a supply of sanitisers, soap and toilet paper distributed prior to week 3. I bet they think it’s Christmas.

It’s no wonder most public school principals are warning there’s no way they can comply with Covid-19 health guidelines. And it’s the teachers who will have to do most of the cleaning and sanitising once public schools reopen – because there simply isn’t anyone else to do it. One public school teacher told me their personal protective equipment amounted to nine rain ponchos, six bars of soap, three tiny bars of hotel soap and 20 rolls of toilet paper – for a school of 900 students.

Utter confusion reigns. Teachers already performed miracles in term 1 when they got lessons ready for online delivery in a matter of days. But the PM did not acknowledge their efforts. Instead, he sneered at their work as “childminding”.

Craig Peterson, acting head of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, told me, “In term 2 we are being expected to teach no more than 10 to 15 kids in a classroom, but also bring back year 12 – sometimes with classes of up to 24 – plus continue teaching online. Teachers are pretty amazing, but even they can’t be in three places at once.”

Most public school staffrooms are cheek by jowl and even Morrison has admitted they are the riskiest place for spreading the virus, so schools will have to work out where they can safely park teachers in already overcrowded schools with too few classrooms. No libraries built to look like Scottish castles for the likes of them.

On Sunday night, just before term 2 started in most states, I was part of a social media campaign called #TeachersRock. Under the hashtag, a group of well-known Australians shared words of encouragement and appreciation for teachers. Those involved included John Bell, Magda Szubanski, Jimmy Barnes, Juanita Phillips, Kathy Lette, Craig Foster and Kurt Fearnley. As far as I know, this is the first such campaign in this country. Soon, it took off and was trending at No. 2 on Twitter in Australia all night, just behind #covidsafe – the government had launched its tracking app at the same time.

The success of #TeachersRock is heartening, but that is not the point. It’s that such a collective shoutout of support for teachers was needed. The response from many teachers was even more revealing. They reacted with relief, delight and – sadly – surprise. Some were even moved to tears.

How did we get to a place where teachers feel so demonised, bullied and misunderstood that a few kind words are enough to undo them?

Australia is far and away the most generous public funder of private schools in the OECD. There is daylight between us and anyone else. Yet all these billions have achieved little. The gaps between our highest and lowest achievers have grown. We are seen as having a low-equity education system. Education is not the path out of poverty that it once was. And our results continue to slide internationally. The Australian taxpayer is entitled to ask – what exactly are we getting for our money? 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "Uneven paying field for schools’ return".

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