For everyone Public education: the great instrument

Staff protest cuts to state schools 1980s Melbourne

The roots of the division between public and private schooling in Australia can be traced back to the first days of white settlement. Initially, early authorities intended just to reproduce the British system of education, in much the same way Australia inherited a Westminster-style parliament. But the colonialists soon realised that the British system couldn’t simply be replicated here, as the infrastructure didn’t exist.

In the UK, private schools are confusingly described as ‘public’ because, technically, they are open to any member of the public able to afford the fees. In the 18th century, universal education was still a bold concept, and there was certainly no such thing as a government school. If the poor received any education at all, it came from the charity of various Christian denominations.

Traditionally, private schools were all about teaching the privileged how to rule. If public education had a role, it was to train the masses how to serve.

But without the institutional foundations for private schooling in 18th century Australia, it was beholden on government to provide an education system. Indeed, when it comes to public education, we beat the Brits to the punch. As B.K. Hyams and B. Bessant note in their book Schools for the People?, state financial support for education “commenced in Australia at least 40 years before the first education grant of the British parliament in 1833, while the initiation of state-provided schools under Governor King anticipated similar developments in England by almost seventy years.”

In Australia, as in Britain, it was the labour movement that raised the demand for universal education – funded, but not controlled, by the state – even as it fought for parliamentary suffrage and the Eight Hour Day.

Students at Rainbow State School in north-west Victoria, circa 1900. Credit: Public Record Office Victoria

The link between state funding and religious schools – which remains a bone of contention today – was established early. From the start, the churches dominated government-funded schooling, with the colonial elite treating their own Anglicanism as a de facto state religion. The emergence of a more recognisable modern education system thus depended on the great democratic struggles of the nineteenth century. In Australia, as in Britain, it was the labour movement that raised the demand for universal education – funded, but not controlled, by the state – even as it fought for parliamentary suffrage and the Eight Hour Day.

On the other side of the divide, the more far-sighted industrialists recognised that a modern economy couldn’t function without a workforce possessing at least a basic education. As a result, the system of state schooling implemented in Australia evolved as a compromise between labour and capital – a product of pressure from below meeting pressure from above.

Understanding this helps explain the contemporary debate over schools funding. Universal education – that is, government-funded public education will always be a demand associated with labour, as well as the various social movements that recognise the danger posed by schools run as privately-operated businesses where quality is dictated by the consumer’s capacity to pay.

Private schools have become almost an oxymoron – not simply because the government pours billions into keeping them afloat, but also because modern education, by its nature, relies on public foundations.

Of course, the picture isn’t as simple as public versus private. The fact is that all sectors of the Australian economy now depend on the state far more than the politicians of the nineteenth century ever imagined.

One of the arguments frequently trotted out by private education advocates is that the public system would be overwhelmed and in danger of collapse if a large proportion of parents didn’t ease the burden by electing to go private. One of the facts this spurious claim ignores is the great dependence of so-called independent schools on public infrastructure. From the universities that train teachers to the roads along which school buses drive, the public sector carries the private sector – and not the other way around.

In truth, private schools have become almost an oxymoron – not simply because the government pours billions into keeping them afloat ($13 billion in 2015–2016, to be precise), but also because modern education, by its nature, relies on public foundations.

Most contemporary conservatives recognise the impracticality of a return to the entirely private model of 18th century Britain. Nevertheless, they see fee-paying schools as socially – and politically – important. It isn’t hard to see how the idea of elite schools reflects a core plank of free-market, neoliberal ideology.

Writing about the belief system that characterised his British grammar school, the novelist George Orwell wrote: “There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.”

The Liberal Party has to assume the tricky business of maintaining a façade of fairness while surreptitiously skewing its funding schemes to favour the private system – most recently through secret backroom deals that ensure some of our most affluent private schools continue to be grossly overfunded by the public purse.

Credit: Simon Kneebone/The Educator Australia

Most contemporary conservatives recognise the impracticality of a return to the entirely private model of 18th century Britain. Nevertheless, they see fee-paying schools as socially – and politically – important. It isn’t hard to see how the idea of elite schools reflects a core plank of free-market, neoliberal ideology.

Writing about the belief system that characterised his British grammar school, the novelist George Orwell wrote: “There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.”

Australia’s independent schools might not be so openly ideological. Nevertheless, as long as we maintain a scheme in which the rich can access facilities unavailable to the poor, it can’t help but continue a lesson about what ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak’ deserve.

Conservatives’ enthusiasm for directing taxpayers’ money to private schools reflects their contemporary preoccupation with fostering a culture war, highlighting the historical ties between universal education and the Left. The public versus private debate is merely old-fashioned and divisive, the argument goes.

Gough Whitlam’s 1972 announcement that “education should be the great instrument for the promotion of equality” would be anathema to modern conservatives. However, given the ongoing popularity of egalitarianism, the Liberal Party has to assume the tricky business of maintaining a façade of fairness while surreptitiously skewing its funding schemes to favour the private system – most recently through secret backroom deals that ensure some of our most affluent private schools continue to be grossly overfunded by the public purse.

Meanwhile, public education is being done on the cheap. The most recent figures show modern Australia spends a measly 3.2% of its GDP on schools. By way of analogy, in the mid-1820s the colony of NSW was already devoting one-eighth its revenue to education. While that comparison isn’t exactly assessing apples against apples, it does hint at how much the public system has been starved over many decades.

Of course, increased funding itself, while necessary, is by no means sufficient. The history of public schooling in Australia shows the necessity of re-opening a debate about education not simply as an economic good but as a fundamental – and universal – democratic right.

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