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Don't "privatise" our public schools

Opinion

If public schools are forced to operate like their private counterparts we will lose much that is valuable about our public education system, writes Alan Reid.

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Most of the public discussion about the Federal Government’s recent decision to finally embrace a needs-based approach to schools funding has focused on the quantum of funds it delivers.

This is an important question given the disparity of resources that exists between Australian schools. But it is not the only question.

The next stage of the debate will focus on how the extra money will be spent. The government has appointed David Gonski to lead a review of the evidence about how to maximise educational outcomes and report back by the end of the year.

No doubt the review recommendations will suggest a number of approaches that will become requirements if states and territories are to receive additional Commonwealth funds. If this is so, then it’s important to understand the best evidence about how to achieve educational quality.

Already some commentators have seized the opportunity to push their favoured agenda. For example, Kevin Donnelly recently argued for teaching approaches based on rote learning and memorisation, inside a market-driven system where vouchers are used to facilitate choice and competition between autonomous schools.

There is not the space here to make the case that teaching approaches developed in the 19th century are not suitable to prepare young people for their lives as workers and citizens in the 21st century.

But I do want to argue that any attempt to make public schools behave more like private schools, through strategies such as school choice, vouchers and public school ‘autonomy’, must be strongly resisted for at least two reasons.

First, there is substantial research evidence showing that although privatising public systems might improve educational outcomes for a small, select group of students, results decline overall.

Second, privatising public schools will diminish the unique qualities and benefits of public education which derive from it being a public good.

These are dangers that must not be ignored. What can be done?

…local and international research demonstrates that the greater the social mix of a school, the better the academic outcomes.

Starting with the premise that public education is a foundation stone of our democracy, strategies are needed which reaffirm that every local community in Australia is entitled to well-resourced, secular, socially diverse and inclusive public schools that provide a quality education, free of tuition costs, and open to all.

Funding all Australian schools according to need is an important first step in that direction.

But it’s not enough on its own. Adequately funded public schools that are forced to act as though they are private schools competing in an education market lose the power of their public characteristics.

So a second step involves establishing an Australian community consensus about the unique qualities of public education – qualities that must be protected and nurtured, rather than diluted through a trend to privatisation.

South Australia has recently taken an important step in this direction. The Education Minister’s Public Education Advisory Committee (PEAC) has developed a statement which outlines the foundation elements and characteristics of public schools.

It is the first time in South Australian and perhaps Australian education history where there has been an attempt by a public system to describe what lies at the heart of public education. It is a manifesto setting out what South Australians value about public schools and what must be protected and enhanced.

The statement describes six distinctive characteristics of public education – quality, community, diversity and cohesion, democracy, equity, and collaboration and trust. Each characteristic adds value to the quality of the educational experience, and would look very different under a more privatised public system.

I’ll take one characteristic – ‘diversity and cohesion’ – as an example.

Since public schools exist in every local community and are accessible to all, they are microcosms of that community, reflecting a rich diversity of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.

There are a number of benefits that flow from diversity being stitched into the fabric of every public school. For a start, local and international research demonstrates that the greater the social mix of a school, the better the academic outcomes.

But beyond academic outcomes are the rich social and cultural learnings which accrue from students doing the hard work of learning from and through the diversity that is part of the daily life of a public school. This experience serves to stretch personal horizons beyond the familiar, encouraging the capacity to appreciate and respect difference, even while it contributes to enhancing the cohesiveness of a multicultural society.

How better to prepare young people for an increasingly global and mobile world? Can this important educational outcome be realised if students are cocooned from diversity as happens in more homogeneous educational settings?

And yet this diversity would be diluted if Australia embraced educational ‘choice’ through market-based approaches and vouchers in its public school systems. Countries like the UK and the US have adopted such policies and are now facing an increasing social and cultural stratification of their public schools. This must not happen to public education in Australia.

We are better placed to protect a characteristic such as ‘diversity and cohesion’ if its benefits are identified and understood, and policies and practices are consistent with it.

In the same way, each of the other characteristics of public education described in the South Australian Statement on Public Education delivers benefits which enable individuals to reach their full potential, while promoting the common good.

An important challenge for the Gonski Review Mark 2.0 is to recognise that enhancing the quality of public education cannot happen by privatising public education. Rather, policy and practice should be directed at identifying and protecting the important public characteristics of the precious community assets we call public schools.

Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia, and Chair of the Public Education Advisory Committee in South Australia.

The Statement on Public Education can be found here.

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