Imagine a race where the runners with the highest level of material, technical, physical, social and emotional advantages were given a huge head start, while those who were struggling with basic survival were placed way behind the starting gate. Welcome to the Australian education system – and COAG's one serious chance to redress the inequities.
The mountains of evidence amassed by the Gonski review amply demonstrate that gross social and material inequity is a fault line along which Australian education systems have increasingly fractured. On the one side are schools which educate disadvantaged students and have low levels of resourcing, mainly government schools, but also a small number of Catholic and independent schools. On the other, there are super-resourced schools which regularly spend twice as much per student, in addition to benefitting from historically accumulated infrastructure and privilege.
In the face of this evidence, there is both a social and a moral obligation to redress these inequities. The government has undermined its own worthy intentions by promising no school will lose a dollar. Is there not room to consider that the most privileged and endowed schools in the country could do with less?
A Four Corners reportage on schools last year showed images of Knox Grammar students sitting in a state of the art auditorium, worth several million dollars, juxtaposed with an assembly of government school students sitting on a concrete floor in an aluminium shelter-shed. Schools such as Knox boast outstanding facilities, including creative and performing arts centres, cutting-edge information technology and science laboratories, manicured sports fields, school-owned eco-resorts for outdoor education, and international tours and community service programs. In our extensive visits over many years to government schools serving disadvantaged communities, none of these facilities have been in evidence.
We have seen students denied internet access because their parents could not pay levies; classes without viable computer access, without sufficient textbooks; and photocopying budgets insufficient to supply the resources needed for effective teaching. In addition, the appalling conditions of and in many government school buildings, notwithstanding the recent building program, have been well documented.
Those who believe that super-resourced schools should not lose a dollar have to accept that this implies that disadvantaged students in schools with third rate resources are getting what they deserve, that the priority of an additional gymnasium in one setting is greater than funding basic educational equipment and resources in another. Government schools are increasingly expected to raise funds from parents for even essential items, and many have no capacity to do so. Disadvantaged schools do not benefit from the collective weight of powerful and influential parents who can organise massive fundraising activities, in league with old-boy and old-girl networks. Investments made in infrastructure, programs and facilities compound over time, exacerbating the inequities with those who have so much less.
Wealthy schools select their students in highly strategic ways. Many schools in low-socioeconomic areas now have extremely high representations of students from non-English speaking backgrounds, traumatised refugees with interrupted schooling, and students with learning disabilities, physical impairments, behavioural disorders, numbers of dysfunctional and abusive families and generally deprived social backgrounds. In prestige schools, these students are excluded, or invited to leave.
The point is, that if you are born into a middle-class family, with well-educated parents, you have already won the educational lottery. The idea that you would then claim the same resources as the disadvantaged students mentioned above is not just socially divisive, but immoral. Super-resourced private schools have per-student income double that of government schools, along with a historical accumulation of luxurious grounds and facilities.
The sense of entitlement when you only experience the best carries with it the assumption that others do not deserve the same treatment or conditions. We argue that this sense of entitlement is in reality an accident of birth. The flipside of the argument for private schooling as the right of those who work hard to exercise choice, is that children in disadvantaged government schools with poor facilities are actually getting what they deserve.
The last time Labor proposed a more radical change (in 2004), they were so burnt by the powerful lobby of wealthy private schools, and their supporters, that this time they have placed "continuity and certainty for all schools" above the moral and social justice imperatives screaming from the review. The points made by this lobby about class warfare, injustice, and loss of choice, are the same arguments being presented now and with the same motives. The added new tactic this time is to divert attention from funding towards teacher quality as a prime factor, as if the two could be separated. In fact, every argument made recently to explain the advantage in teacher quality of Asian schools, rests upon a huge, and additional financial investment, to teacher education, teacher supervision and monitoring, in-service and mentoring and personnel management. Teacher quality is certainly a prime factor, and getting and keeping the best will cost money.
Change can only come when we stop treating the current status quo as normal. It is not normal or acceptable that disadvantaged students are concentrated in the least resourced schools. It is not normal or acceptable that choice is the preserve of those on healthy incomes. It is not normal or acceptable that one group of students has access to world-class facilities while another makes do without even basic educational equipment. Australians have a choice now about whether to accept the status quo as inevitable, knowing that it entrenches the poor educational outcomes of socially disadvantaged students, or whether to place political pressure on governments to take bolder steps.