In pursuit of excellence, an odd dogma has become common in Australian education policy across the past two decades: if education could only act more like a marketplace, excellence would prevail.
Emphasis on school choice and the subsequent competition between schools isn’t a homegrown Australian idea; it has been influenced by the global education reform movement dominant in the UK and the US since the 1990s. But it seems like Australia has stronger faith in the power of a marketplace than many other countries. Public policies at federal and state levels encourage parental choice in pursuit of individual educational excellence by offering attractive financial support to non-government schools.
Go figure. During the past decade, according to the 2021 Report on Government Services, combined Commonwealth and state government funding for private schools increased by more than six times that for public schools. At the same time, private school fees have tripled since 2000. As a result, the proportion of students in government schools has declined and the independent school sector has been slowly growing.
Everybody wants to be excellent. Schools pursue excellence, and parents seek excellent education for their children. Consumers in the marketplace are happy when they get bang for their buck. The 2021 Australia Talks National Survey found that 92% of parents at independent schools were satisfied with the education their child was receiving. And yet, research shows that public schools do as well as private schools after differences in students’ socio-economic backgrounds are considered.
But happy clientele in the education marketplace doesn’t guarantee a good education for every child. The cost of the pursuit of individual excellence in Australian education – rather than a systematic excellence that would provide high-quality education for all – has been gradually eroding equity of education.
Transforming Australia’s education systems is a moral obligation for a country that calls itself an ‘education nation’.
As is often reported, many international organisations, including UNICEF and the OECD, rate Australian education as unequal and highly segregated, leaving too many children behind. At the same time, the overall average performance of Australian students compared with their peers in other countries has been slipping during the past two decades.
The pursuit of individual excellence at the expense of social equity in education creates the wrong priority. This is one conclusion of reading the Gonski Review, that landmark analysis of the state of Australian school education that’s now a decade old. The Gonski Review – which soon became a political debate rather than a deeper probing of the Australian education system – suggested that schools be funded to ensure that differences in students’ learning outcomes are not primarily the result of their home backgrounds (income, wealth, power or possessions). It recommended a nationwide needs-based school funding model, such as that in place in many other OECD countries, including Canada and Finland.
The main finding is this: There can be no national educational excellence without stronger equity of outcomes. Australia should accept – as many nations acknowledged a decade ago – that equity and excellence are inseparable. What’s surprising is that there are still some people who refuse to accept that educational equity is something to worry about.
The simple solution requires us to stop doing things that are not linked to improved teaching and learning. Keeping consequential school accountability, standardised testing and a narrow focus on academic curriculum in the driver’s seat of education policy is not just unnecessary, it’s also harmful to building the professional trust in teachers and schools that is one condition for moving forward.
More complicated, but equally crucial, is to accomplish bipartisan political consensus on the values and principles upon which school education is based. This includes a shared understanding of the purpose of education and how it serves to create a stronger national sense of ‘common good’. This is not a radical ask. All high-performing education systems have succeeded not because one side won an ideological confrontation but because all have reached out to one another for agreement. We need political will to honour earlier commitments and professional skill to transform education administration so that it relies more on the expertise of schools and their communities.
Transforming Australia’s school education systems is not only mission possible; it’s a moral obligation for a country that calls itself an ‘education nation’. Both history and science underscore that trust in teachers as professionals is the way to educational equity and excellence.
That evidence is clear – and the road ahead should be too.
This is an excerpt of a much longer essay published in Griffith Review 75: Learning Curves (February 2022). Copies can be purchased at griffithreview.com.