When Tim Hawkes, Principal of The Kings School, proposed that the well off middle class who choose to send their children to government schools should pay extra for doing so, I, like many, shrugged and thought, 'typical' .
But now that both Gerard Henderson, Director of the Sydney Institute, (SMH, "Well off get a free ride from tax payer for children's education," 20 March 2012) and emeritus professor Don Watts, the former Vice chancellor of both Curtin and Bond universities (Education Review March 2012) have joined the chorus I think it is time that we had this issue out.
Education in the compulsory years is set up to be exactly that – compulsory – the democratic right of every child. In fact it is one of the few services provided by Government that is defined as compulsory regardless of circumstances. In a recent speech to the Sydney Institute, Minister Garrett makes a similar point 'School education is unique in public policy terms because it reaches into every household in a way that is manifestly different from other forms of Government'
It is compulsory because the people, through their Government, commit to the goal of universal quality education, not just as an individual market good, but as an essential social or public good – in the public interest. This is because the benefits of education to each individual aggregate to strengthen communities, the polity and workplaces. That is to say the universal provision of a comprehensive, sequenced, quality exposure to knowledge, understandings, values and experiences is provided in order equip all future citizens, workers, parents, and community members to contribute to our social democracy and our economy.
As early as 1869 Henry Parkes articulated this vision
…We are endeavouring to supply the means of sound instruction to those who, in a very few years, are to constitute the strength of the country…a Public school system in any country is an essential part of its institutions in the large sense ofgovernment politics. It is part of the policy of the country. It is part of the intention and action of the Government; part of the very life of constituted authority. He went on to say that, Whatever may be our form of Government … Let us by every means in our power take care that the children of the country grow up under such a sound and enlightened system of instruction, that they will consider the dearest of all possessions the free exercise of their own judgment in the secular affairs of life, and that each man will shrink from being subservient to any other man or earthly power.
My father was a passionate educator and so I imbibed this understanding – in a way that I often take for granted. But I do think it is widely accepted. This is why, at first, I did not think this middle class fee proposal merited a response. I assumed that it would be dismissed by most and I also assessed that implementing it would be very tricky. Would Australians stand idly by when families who refused to pay the fees are penalised? How can you make individual parents pay for something that they are required to have and that is in everyone's interest? The reality is that all taxpayers benefit from a good school system not just individual parents.
But I am now convinced that responding to this sort of talk matters- it demands a robust critique.
It matters because pushing well-off families out of the public sector would lead to higher concentrations of disadvantage in government schools and we already know that schools with high concentration of the poor do worse even when controlling for the effect of the individual student demographics. And remember that this could be the impact even if the Government did not try and implement the policy. It would just require this idea to become part of the populist rhetoric.
It matters because, any further movement of the middle class out of the public system could lead to reduced government expenditure and reduced services in government schools because of the loss of articulate voices in support of public education.
It matters because, if schooling comes to be seen solely as a private good, we are really looking at a very grim social vision – a pre industrial vision. A vision that is incompatible with the whole enterprise of Australian nationhood. It matters because this kind of thinking takes us even further down the neoliberal market model of schooling.
We are already global outliers in this respect. For there would be almost no other comparably developed country in the world where this statement would be considered as anything but extreme neoconservative babble – even in the US. Our funding regime for Government and non-Government schools is highly irregular in global terms. Australia sits around the middle of OECD countries ranked in terms of per capita investment in schooling. But this obscures the bifurcated elements of the funding relative to other countries. Our funding to Government schools is very near the bottom, at third lowest. But our funding to the non-Government system is near the top of the list, at fourth highest. But this uniqueness is not apparent to most of us – our set up is the water we swim in.
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