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Education policy: stuck on a dirt track to nowhere

By John Töns - posted Monday, 12 April 2010

One of the features of Australia’s education policy at every level of government is that it starts with a budget and then endeavours to fit in the competing demands of various stakeholders. The result is an uneasy compromise lacking vision.

The reason for this is partly historical. For much of our recent history education was seen as a privilege; the real learning one did to be a productive part of the community was done on the job. For those without more than some rudimentary grasp of literacy and numeracy there were still jobs to be had. However, during the last 40 years or so all that changed. For the first time education was emerging not as a privilege but essential to a modern economy. An uneducated workforce represents a brake on the economy. Today we need a workforce that is literate and numerate, a workforce that understands the scientific method and one that is familiar with information technology. The fact that a well educated workforce committed to lifelong learning is essential to both the maintenance and ongoing development of our economy suggests that there are some principles that should be at the heart of all education policy.

Our politicians and bureaucrats know this but, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no attempt to identify a set of first principles that should provide the framework for all education policy. At the very least a set of principles would give us a basis for preferring one set of priorities over another. Establishing a set of principles would create a genuine education revolution not merely one that is a product of a marketing campaign.


Two principles seem to be implicit in our understanding of what an education policy should be based on:

  1. education should be free for all; and
  2. education provisions should be consistent with the demands that are placed on the workforce.

The first principle is essential for any modern economy. We need to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to be well educated. In the main, arguments for equality of access are couched in terms of social justice, however, one can just as easily make an economic case for ensuring that education is free. The overall capacity of a 21st century society to provide a high standard of living for its members is determined by the level of education achieved by its members. Any systemic educational disadvantage rebounds on all members of the society.

Australia does not currently invest in free education. Governments are busy disentangling themselves from the task of having to provide education - this is reflected in the way in which private education is being encouraged. The argument that people should have the right to choose what sort of school their children attend camouflages the enthusiasm whereby states seek to reduce their education budgets. Is there a necessary contradiction between free education and parents who wish to have some choice in the sort of values that shape the school ethos? Clearly we would not want tax payers to subsidise schools that do not follow the national curriculum but apart from that caveat all schools that follow the national curriculum should be fully funded.

What this would mean is that those private schools that charge a tuition fee would either have to remove their fees in order to receive full government funding or receive no government funding.

In short we should be aiming for a dual education system in which private schools are genuinely private and public schools are 100 per cent free. This may well mean that we will have a number of church schools which will choose to be part of the public school system.


For some this will represent a fundamental attack on the secular nature of Australian society. However, there are nations such as the Netherlands where such a dual system is part of the fabric of the education system. The reasoning behind such a dual system is simple. Given that education is compulsory we have to ask whether or not it is reasonable for parents to ask that the set of values that they deem important are supported by the school ethos.

The decision by the Whitlam government to win the Catholic vote by providing funding for private schools has meant that there has been an explosion in small schools many of which struggle to provide the sort of education that is required. To turn the clock back and deny funding to all non government schools would mean that there would not be sufficient schools to cater for all students. However, we do need to ensure education is free and so the only option that can achieve this is to provide 100 per cent funding for those schools that undertake not to charge any fees and which are able and willing to conform to the standards that can legitimately be demanded of any school.

The second principle demands that governments take account of changes in workforce participation. Two things stand out at either end of the education spectrum. Tertiary education is no longer a luxury, it is essential: whether it is vocational training delivered through TAFE or academic education through the universities there are few occupational areas where some form of tertiary training is not a prerequisite. Given its significance it is essential that we return to the provision of free tertiary education. At present the vast majority of students although enrolled full time probably spent as much time in paid employment as they do on their studies.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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