Perhaps you remember the ladder of opportunity. It was then opposition leader Mark Latham’s pitch for the 2004 election, directed at aspirational voters who were concerned – rightly, as history has since shown – by the increasing inequality and declining social mobility resulting from the policies of the Howard government.
There were a number of rungs to Latham’s ladder, but all the focus fell on one. That was his plan for major change to the funding of Australia’s schools.
His proposal was to cut $520 million of federal government funding from 67 of the nation’s richest private schools over five years, and to freeze funding at existing levels for 111 others. The savings from this were then to be redistributed among the most needy government and non-government schools.
It was based on a formula that determined all primary schools should receive $9000 a student, and all secondary schools, $12,000. All the targeted schools, Latham said, already received more than that in fees alone.
Then prime minister John Howard called the policy “class warfare”. The wealthy private schools warned of fee hikes and a flight by students to the government schools, which would not be able to cope. The plan was savaged in the conservative tabloid media, which called it a “hit-list”.
A few weeks after the announcement, Latham lost the election. Indeed, there was a significant swing to the government. And that was the last time anyone in either of the major parties dared suggest that private schools received more taxpayer support than was fair and that maybe something should be done to redress the situation.
Until last Monday week, that is, when the current education minister, Simon Birmingham, suggested some wealthy private schools were overfunded. He stopped short of saying they would lose money, but the logical inference was they should.
The political response was very like 2004, except with the roles reversed. Now it was Labor talking about a government hit-list.
“Which kids will be robbed by this minister,” demanded Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek, “who seems incapable of being upfront about his secret plans for school funding?”
It may well be that Plibersek was hoping to bait Birmingham into actually naming private schools that were in need of fiscal trimming. It may be that she intended to use the intense media attention attracted by his admission as a point of contrast with the billions he plans to cut from government schools.
But it looked to a lot of people like she was defending elite private schools.
She wasn’t, of course. Plibersek is a strong advocate of public schooling and one of the very few in parliament who is not only state educated herself but who sends her children to state schools.
Equally, though, she was scrupulous to avoid giving the impression she was attacking elite schools. Ever since the Latham debacle, Labor has lost heart for that fight. The lesson they took from 2004 was that taking on the non-government schools was electorally perilous.
That prevailing wisdom is very questionable, however. If you go back and look at the polls from 2004, they show Latham’s schools funding policy was actually very popular. Sixty-five per cent of the electorate supported the idea of taking money from rich private schools and redistributing it. So, whatever the voters’ reasons for rejecting Latham, his school funding plan was not one of them.
Polls consistently show two-thirds of Australians want a more equitable education system. The fact this proportion is about the same as the proportion of people who send their kids to state schools perhaps indicates an element of the politics of envy. But there is more to be concerned about than that. The evidence strongly suggests our segregated school system is making Australia less globally competitive. In colloquial terms, a dumber nation.
Year by year, in one international comparison after another, we are sliding down the global rankings. In the most comprehensive of these, a year ago, the OECD assessed the performance of 15-year-olds in 76 countries. Australia ranked 14th, behind some surprising places, such as Poland, Estonia and Vietnam.
A unique system
We’ll get to the likely reasons for this shortly. First a little background on our unique school education system.
Sometimes, for cultural or historical reasons, countries develop systems in particular policy areas that are peculiar to them – in both senses of the word. Think of Japan’s sentimental protectionism of its agricultural sector or the United States’ crazy gun laws. They have their roots in the culture – in one case the urge to self-sufficiency and in the other to self-defence – but have maintained outsized political power long after they’ve been shown to be harmful.
Australia’s school system is like that. It is peculiar to us. Schools elsewhere are one thing or the other: they either run on government money or they run on private money. Only in Australia can they get funding from both sources. Elsewhere, if parents decide they want an elite education for their children, they pay elite money. Nowhere else in the developed world do the taxes of people on modest incomes help support schools to which they could never afford to send their children.
National peculiarities tend to be rooted in cultural or historical contexts, and the story of how the Australian school system came to be this way began as a cultural one, rooted in the sectarianism of 60 years ago. Catholics wanted their own schools but state governments, which were responsible for all education funding, were reluctant to fund them.
“Catholic schools in the UK and Canada and New Zealand are considered public schools, because they receive public funding and don’t charge fees,” says Laura Perry, associate professor of education policy at Murdoch University.
But not here, so Catholic schools in Australia were poor. In 1964, the conservative government took some pity on them and provided some direct, one-off grants.
Recurrent grants began under the conservatives in 1970. At first, as a flat rate per non-government school student, but in 1974 the Whitlam government extended the largesse to state schools and also introduced special targeted programs for disadvantaged schools, special education, teacher professional development and innovation.
It remained the case, however, that state governments were the major funders of state schools and the federal government the main funder of non-government schools.
And it grew from there. We need not go into all the subsequent policy shifts, but one big one deserves mention.
That is the so-called socio-economic status (SES) funding model introduced by John Howard’s education minister, and leading light in the Institute of Public Affairs, David Kemp.
It purported to ensure needs-based schools funding, but in practice greatly increased the money going to private schools, particularly elite private schools.
By the calculation of Perry, and Emma Rowe of Deakin University, per student funding for private schools went up by $1584 between 1999 and 2005, compared with $261 per state school kid.
The figures are worth noting not only because they highlight the inequity of the Howard government’s approach to schools funding but because they coincided with another significant development in Australian education.
Sliding down the rankings
At the same time as these payments were increasing, Australia started to drop down the international education rankings.
Kemp and others on the conservative side of politics attributed this to inadequacy in the state school system and suggested things could be improved by greater “choice” in schooling – read: more private schools.
One new senator, in his first speech in 2007, had this to say:
“I believe that choice is also a major piece of the puzzle of providing the best education to young Australians. Families who can afford to choose between an overly bureaucratised government school and a responsive private school have voted with their feet in recent years. They have shifted en masse from the public sector to the private sector. Thanks to the policies of this government, more parents have been able to afford that choice.”
He went on to suggest a voucher system, to enable even more to shift out of the government sector. That new senator was Simon Birmingham.
A few months after Birmingham’s speech the government changed and so did the rhetoric, but the trajectory of funding for government and non-government schools continued to favour the latter.
As Perry and Rowe note: “Overall, total public funding (federal and state) has increased at a greater rate for private than public schools. Analyses of data from the Productivity Commission showed that total public funding has increased by 9.8 per cent for private schools but only 3.3 per cent for public schools over the last 10 years.”
The last Labor government did, however, take a more evidence-based and less ideological approach to determining the reasons for Australia’s slide down the educational rankings.
In 2010, then education minister Julia Gillard commissioned a major review of school funding conducted by an “expert panel” chaired by businessman and philanthropist David Gonski. In November 2011 it produced the so-called “Gonski report”.