In the 60s, we were a more communitarian, compassionate society. Public education was in its golden period. We acknowledged then that education was the way out of poverty and disadvantage for any Australian kid. We knew we were dishing up a world-class education through our public schools and people who wanted to send their kids to a private school were welcome to do so and they paid whatever it cost.
One of the scandals of contemporary Australia – compared with that period – is that we’ve now got this crazy system where every year the federal government is paying billions to discourage parents from using public education; billions to support non-public schools with public money. This is a national outrage. In the early 60s, it was just unthinkable that public money would be spent on non-public schools.
The other thing was that we saw ourselves as a broadly middle-class society and, in that period, the dream of egalitarianism was still alive and well. Most Australians would have said that we aimed to be an egalitarian society. Public education was the greatest symbol of that, but there were many other symbols.
The critical thing [was that] our sense of belonging to local neighbourhoods and communities was palpable.
The mantra of people who defend the so-called market-based education system is ‘choice and competition’. Now what has choice and competition done for us?
We’re now talking about education funding as a significant and deliberate source of social divisiveness and inequality.
I had a moment of truth … when I was being shown around a private girls school in Sydney and my guide drew my attention to the ‘door furniture’. (In case you’re not familiar with the jargon, the door furniture is the handles.)
I had to admit they were very attractive door handles. And this person said, ‘We don’t want the girls to feel that the school is shabby compared with their homes.’ I thought there was no risk of that. In fact, I thought maybe these girls could do with a bit of shabbiness.
I know of another private school in Sydney that recently spent over $25 million on a new hall. Where did the money come from? ‘Oh, it was government money – we’ve been saving all the grants and there was virtually no need for an appeal.’
There are schools that have million or multi-million-dollar operating surpluses incorporating millions of dollars they get from the government.
Choice sounds like such a terrific word, doesn’t it? ‘We must offer people choice’, as if this was the toothpaste market.
But we’re talking about an education system in which we have things like NAPLAN and an increasingly national curriculum. We don’t really want choice in terms of what kids are taught; the choice is about the size of the playing fields or the quality of the door furniture.
[In terms of] the social/cultural consequences of this… if in the 60s, we saw public education as the symbol of the egalitarian dream, what will we say about the egalitarian dream in a society where those 12 billion dollars are going into creating this spurious concept of choice?
Obviously, we’re now talking about education funding as a significant and deliberate source of social divisiveness and inequality. Our public education system is no longer the proud symbol of our egalitarianism that it once was.
To fix it, I think it’s a 20-year program. I think we need to announce today that there will be no – not a dollar – of public money going into the private system. [We should say:] ‘You’ve got 20 years to prepare yourself for this, so don’t say we took you by surprise.’
The question is, who’s going to sustain a 20-year program? But that is the only solution.