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Public schools deserve support now more than ever

By Michael Kirby - posted Thursday, 22 May 2014

Like about 70 per cent of Australians of my age, I am a product of public education.

As I came to understand them, the aspirations of public education were togetherness, helping one another, imbibing the principles of the ''fair go'', and aiming for excellence, but never forgetting the communitarian values of a place when the mind and heart were still fresh and open. A place that did not depend on parental wealth and the differences that can bring, nor on religion and the divisions that can cause. Nor on political, social or other distinctions. Public education remains one of our greatest achievements, so I would like to outline my 10 commandments for its supporters in 2014.

1. It is counter-productive to ignore the 2013 Australian federal election, to go on as if nothing has happened and that all that is needed is to get everyone signed up to the Gonski report and its objectives. The new government has the power and responsibility to manage the federal role in education until the next election. Public education supporters must accept philosophical differences, but attempt to influence new policies in this government.


2. There are important supporters of public education on the conservative side of politics. NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli is an outstanding example. There are many others. Wisdom suggests reaching into the strong seam of support for advancement in education by hard work and merit that is a recurring theme on the non-Labor side of politics.

3. Many current leading politicians did not attend public schools. They can hardly be blamed if they are not much aware of the ideals and achievements of public education or if they fall victim to stereotypes. Every effort must be made to invite members of Parliament (federal and state) to visit public schools. There they will witness the often desperate needs of the teachers and students in that sector.

4. As a result of federal funding in the separate sectors of public, private and Catholic schools, we are now locked into a non-merit and non-need basis for funding schools. Most of the heavy lifting falls on public schools. They have most of the children from indigenous and multicultural backgrounds (with special linguistic and social needs) and most children with disabilities, learning and behavioural difficulties. ''Weeds in the Pope's garden'', as some of them are unkindly called, end up in public schools. A ''fair go'' will ensure more, and not less, support for this unavoidable residual role of the public school system.

5. Parents have a right to select religious and private schools for their children. But many in Australia will understand the competing need, as well, for a secular principle. Educating separately every Muslim and Catholic schoolchild can have some downsides. Homophobia and transphobia have a very serious effect on many young people's educational opportunities and on their personal confidence and well-being. Some religious schools insist on teaching that gay students are disordered; even that they have an ''inclination to evil''; and must keep any minority sexual orientation to themselves. Fair and enlightened citizens will understand the special role that public schools play simply by being secular.

6. We live in an age where economics dominates our political debates. The OECD in Paris has now identified the effective trajectory of Australia's educational trends. It has pointed to the decline in our country in real equal opportunity for students of socially deprived backgrounds. They need extra help. This means extra funding.

7. The opportunity costs of failing to properly resource our public schools will partly fall on the students themselves. Eventually, however, they will fall on our country. On a new Nobel Laureate such as Elizabeth Blackburn or Peter Doherty. Both are proud products of public education. We cannot afford to lose such talent.


8. Public schools in Australia increasingly offer specialised opportunities for special talents and needs. NSW selective public schools regularly top the school achievement rankings. They are the flagships of public education. Specialist musical and sporting schools tap particular talents, cherished in Australia. Public schools should speak more about the excellence of their scholars. Those who have benefited from public education, on both sides of politics, should speak up for the education they received.

9. Because most of our new migrants attend public schools there is a special, democratic reason to remove the underfunding of that sector and to repair the particular challenges it faces in outcomes. Underfunded schools will produce underachieving citizens. The local public school is the crucible for our future population. It is in the interest of all citizens to ensure that there is no Australian underclass.

10. Advocates of public education must face the fact that nothing good (except sometimes love) comes for long without cost. Increasing financial support proportionately for public education in Australia may require new taxes or levies, call them what you will. As a nation, we should be willing to provide that support to public schools.

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This is an edited extract of Hon Michael Kirby's speech to Public Education Foundation Awards and first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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About the Author

The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG is a former justice of the High Court of Australia.

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