Inside Story

A “self-fulfilling, rolling disaster”?

A new narrative for Australian schooling would accept diversity and competition, but competition for achievement rather than for students or money, writes Dean Ashenden

Dean Ashenden 5 March 2014 3144 words

Free, compulsory and secular? Tasmanian primary school children at morning tea, circa 1951. Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

Taking God to School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education?
By Marion Maddox | Allen & Unwin | $29.99

Free Schools: How to Get a Great Education for Your Kids Without Spending a Fortune
By David Gillespie | Macmillan | $29.99

A History of Australian Schooling
By Craig Campbell and Helen Proctor | Allen & Unwin | $45

THREE new books about schooling, the first a polemic, the second a polemic disguised as a guide for parents, and the third a scholarly history – all dwell on that uniquely Australian mistake, the three-sector system of government, Catholic and independent schools. In doing so they (and this review) illustrate one of the reasons for regarding it as a mistake. We spend so much time and political energy talking about this second-order problem, from irreconcilable points of view, that we can neither concentrate on nor agree about matters of genuinely educational importance.

Marion Maddox’s Taking God to School is the starkest illustration of the point. A senior academic and a team of researchers have spent much high-quality intellectual effort in exposing what everyone already knows, sort-of: that governments have aided and abetted the rise of fee-charging religion-based schools and hence the decline of free and secular state schools, and have smoothed the path of religion into the state schools as well.

This is not to suggest that Maddox’s excellent efforts are beside the point. Unfortunately the reality constructed by the sector system makes them very well directed indeed. The most startling and troubling of Maddox’s exhaustively documented revelations concern the dark and fringy kind of religion which suffuses some small independent schools and (as a recent incident in Victoria illustrates) some federally supported programs in government schools. Governments allow and subsidise schools that teach creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution (and obligatory for the truly faithful) and advertise as their first priority the training of “soldiers” to “do battle for the Lord in a world which rejects his laws and dominion.” Such content and objectives are conspicuously absent from the National Goals for Schooling on which all Australian governments have agreed. Less egregiously, but still unacceptably, church-based schools work the angles, including using religious exemptions to implement discriminatory employment and enrolment practices.

Almost as offensive, to Maddox’s mind, is the use of public funds to help create and expand church-based schools that charge as much to let a child through the gate for a year as some people can earn over the same period.

Maddox is particularly well placed and qualified to rage against these iniquities. She has research degrees in both politics and theology, is a practising Christian, and is a product of both state and independent schools. Her independent alma mater, she reports with eloquent fury, boasts an indoor eight-lane fifty-metre heated pool (with a learn-to-swim area, an “international water-polo field” and both one- and three-metre diving boards), a drama theatre with red-carpeted steps deep enough to either lounge on or place chairs, and a “free-standing two-storey music block, home to the music curriculum that takes over the Sydney Opera House for its biennial concert” – all subsidised by state and federal governments via capital grants, recurrent funding and tax-deductible donations from prosperous old scholars.

Maddox argues that these nominally Christian schools have become instruments of intimidation, a means by which parents are convinced that if they’re not paying till it hurts they’re not doing the best by their children. In the name of “choice” these schools contribute to the wasteful and socially undesirable duplication and triplication of provision. These are matters to which we will return.

Maddox notes that as Australia has become less religious, its schooling has become more so, a paradox fuelled, she suggests, by governments’ love affair with outsourcing. It is also a dialectic: schools are a key site of “blowback” against rising irreligion. More consequential for Maddox’s argument and conclusions is her focus on exposé, and on religion rather than on who has used it, and what for. That focus leads Maddox to pass lightly over the workings of selection in government schools (some of which are in effect fee-free private schools), and to urge a return to “free, compulsory and secular” schooling – a return, that is, to an age that never was, and in which “secular” was in part a sectarian weapon in the struggle between the Catholics and the rest. Maddox closes with the injunction, “Let us reclaim the secular.” Secularism, she insists, is not a rival to religion, as some advocates of religion like to say, but “a way of going about things that enables people with as many different voices as possible to participate in public life.” Even with that crucial caveat, Maddox’s battle cry could, for reasons discussed below, easily lead us deeper into the cul-de-sac in which the politics of schooling has been trapped for much of the past couple of centuries.

DAVID GILLESPIE is, if anything, even better placed to make his pitch than Maddox is hers. A father of six children, with no educational interests or doctrines to defend, his declared purpose is to show other parents how he and his wife managed to find great schools for their brood without going broke. To that end, Gillespie speeds with amazing dexterity across a vast body of research about what makes for successful schooling – research which, he points out, is frequently esoteric, of questionable quality and needlessly replicated as well as inconclusive or downright contradictory. Gillespie’s cool, sceptical eye (he was a corporate lawyer) allows him to see more clearly than most of us who have spent a lifetime trying to figure out how schooling does and should work, although it should also be noted that he was much aided and influenced by research commissioned by the Gonski review and conducted by a consortium led by the Nous consulting group.

Gillespie’s conclusions, in no particular order, are as follows. Teacher unions can take much of the blame for ever-decreasing class sizes which have inflated costs without improving outcomes, for protecting bad teaching, and for declining parental trust in state schools. A good school system should be able to overcome any disadvantage irrespective of home environment. There are good and bad big schools and small schools, single-sex and co-ed schools, and high-fee, low-fee and government schools. Raw scores don’t matter, value-add does. “Charter” schools, aka “independent state schools,” might fix some schools under some circumstances but they can’t fix the system and may actually make it worse. Teachers make all the difference to kids, and principals make all the difference to schools. Teacher qualifications don’t matter, teacher skill does. Teachers need less contact time, a culture of mentorship, and encouragement to continuous improvement. They should gather and give constant feedback on student performance. Learning to learn is important, and so are extracurricular activities (music especially). Languages other than English should form part of every kid’s diet, and phonics is essential to learning to read. Technology can make a real difference but often doesn’t. Homework policy doesn’t matter much, but effective communication with parents does. Streaming is bad for all concerned (but “acceleration” for kids in areas where they are exceptionally able isn’t). Don’t hothouse your preschool kids, and don’t waste money on tutoring when they’re older. Once your kids are in a primary or secondary school don’t move them unless you absolutely have to.

It is a mark of Gillespie’s independence of mind that no reader will agree – or disagree – with everything in that list. I would quibble with quite a bit of it (more on the grounds of what isn’t there than what is), but it’s the best short summary of do’s and don’ts (most derived from the “effective schools” literature) that I’ve seen. It should be compulsory reading for every teacher education student. In fact Free Schools could replace large slabs of many teacher ed reading lists, not least because Gillespie’s ultra-egalitarian prose means that prospective teachers would actually read and understand it.

Gillespie’s tour d’horizon does indeed provide a lot of useful and extraordinarily well-supported advice for parents. But there are several catches to his claim that if they take that advice and put in a bit of leg-work all will be well. For one thing, there may be a lot of schools on the map but that doesn’t mean that the kids can be got to them and/or that mum and dad can afford fees where applicable and/or that the school will or can enrol them, a set of realities established by a recent Grattan Institute study of a typical suburban milieu (a study not referred to by Gillespie, by the way). For another, even those whose location and/or means permit “choice” don’t necessarily buy and read books, or otherwise acquire the skill and tenacity to get it right – or, as I can testify from personal experience, they do, and still get it wrong. At least some of those who can “choose” don’t really care about the things Gillespie really cares about. A third problem: to the extent that Gillespie’s advice plus the federal government’s MySchool website plus hundreds of thousands of dinner party and barbie conversations do their work, the problem which “choosing” is meant to address is thereby exacerbated.

That, to his great credit, is a reality Gillespie is willing to confront. He reports that he has been a student in the Australian education system for most of his life, but until doing the research for the book “had no real understanding of how the different components of that system work or how profoundly broken it is.” Parents shouldn’t be in the choosing position in the first place, he insists. They’re victims of “a chain of unique events in our educational history” which has issued in a “self-fulfilling, rolling disaster” in which everyone is forced to look out for themselves, often at the expense of everyone else. “I want everyone who reads this,” he says, “to know who is pulling the levers and why.”

Gillespie can be accused of heroic and hyperbolic generalisation, and as discussed further below he hasn’t really grasped who is pulling the levers and why, but he has nailed the big and often fudged workings of a complicated, opaque system. What we are really doing, he says, is “streaming our entire education system… creating a multi-tiered system that not only entrenches disadvantage at the bottom but weakens the entire system.” In the upshot we have “high levels of inequity, social division... and worse outcomes for everybody.” The evidence from around the world, Gillespie argues, leads to a simple conclusion which we have so far been unable to act upon: a good system raises all boats and a bad one lowers them.

The story of “a chain of unique events in our educational history” is told in greater detail and at a much lower temperature by Craig Campbell and Helen Proctor in A History of Australian Schooling. With its plain title, plain prose, and a design unfortunately evocative of a 1960s school textbook (lots of headers in large font, low-res photos of static subjects) this looks and in many respects is a conventional history, document-based, organised horizontally by periods, vertically by theme, subdued in tone, cautious in explanation, slow to judgement. It is also unprecedentedly broad in scope, a model of compression and synthesis, and invaluable.

There is much more between these covers than was dreamed of in the philosophy of the educational historians of a generation or two ago: daily life in the classroom as well as the big politics of funding and governance; a history of childhood and adolescence (and of these two categories) as well as the experience of teachers and teaching; the rise of kindergartens and early childhood education as well as primary and secondary schooling; the intentions (announced and otherwise) of governments and policy-makers but also the actual and often very different consequences; local and particular realities as well as state and national events. The authors even attempt an account of the education of the young in pre-European Australia.

For all that breadth, and for all their scrupulous detachment, Campbell and Proctor are obliged to provide a detailed account of the construction of various mechanisms of “differential provision for different populations” from the earliest days of settlement to the present market-like arrangement. On this last they venture a carefully guarded conclusion. “It is difficult to see how a consumer-driven allocation of enrolments can operate without creating hierarchies of schools, children and youth,” they say, adding that the attempt to do so represents “a major challenge facing those policy-makers… concerned with both equity and choice.”

I WOULD like to close by trying to shed further light on the origins and nature of the “self-fulfilling, rolling disaster” and on where a solution, or a less damaging system, might eventually be found.

The Karmel/Whitlam scheme, which inaugurated the current market-like form of the “rolling disaster,” was a deal, a compact. It was obviously a settlement between church and state, and between Labor and the Catholics, but it was also a deal between classes. It allied that large section of the working class which is of Irish origin, alienated by a long experience of dreadful treatment at British hands, with groups at the other end of the social and economic spectrum. The pivotal moment came late in the struggle over the Karmel proposals when Whitlam bowed to the demand, advanced through an obstructive Senate, that all non-government schools should get the new largesse, the toffs and the impoverished parish schools alike. The historic objective, supported and perhaps engineered by the bishops, was to have both state aid and religion-based schooling seen as a right, not a privilege.

Karmel’s complex design for that settlement – funds from three different sources distributed in three different mixes to three differently run sectors – put the sectors and schools in a zero-sum competition with each other for customers and money. Naturally enough, in this new scheme of things, those best placed to compete competed best, and vice versa. An unforeseen consequence was that schools for the non-Catholic working class, the government schools, were stuck with bureaucracies, made slow and clumsy by decades of quasi-monopoly. Teacher unions, as much victims as villains, were thereby dealt a poor hand, which they proceeded to play badly.

It was Marx, I think, who observed that an endemic problem for what he called the ruling class in capitalist societies is that members of that class pursue their own interests at the expense of the long-term interests of the class as a whole. These latter include maintaining a legitimate, coherent and stable social order, a task in which, as Campbell and Proctor show, schooling has come to play a large part. Australian elites, permitted by Karmel and encouraged by so-called neoliberal ideas that arrived in Australia at about the same time, have pursued their individual interests at the expense of the collective with an élan documented in each of the volumes noted here.

Gonski, in this view, can be seen as an effort to repair the consequent damage by reminding Australia’s elites (of which he is a prominent and constructive member) that schooling has tasks and responsibilities which go beyond privileging their own offspring. To that end he proposed a new class compact to replace Whitlam’s. Its failure reveals several things. First, that there is widespread support for an approach of the Gonski kind; neither the problem nor the hope of a solution will go away. Second, that the elites among whom Gonski moves will need some more bad report cards from the OECD before they will agree to a shift in strategy. And third, that the compact itself, and particularly its regulatory content, needs more thought by all concerned – teacher organisations, the Catholic Church and the Coalition party room, among others.

Some starting points. Teacher organisations, long identified with the defence of one sector (including its indefensible aspects), could shift their focus to advocating a universal public system (or as near to universal as can be got) in which some schools will be secular, others not. That would press the Australian branch of the Catholic Church to accept that things have moved on, and that it should agree to guarantees accepted elsewhere, including (as Maddox records) in New Zealand. It would permit an end to the invidious circumstance in which some parents pay fees and others in the same or similar circumstances don’t. Either all pay on the same means-tested basis, or none do – or at least none who patronise a school willing to play by rules limiting how much can be spent and how much they can cherry-pick students at the expense of other students and schools. Too hard? Vide the AFL.

The Karmel funding maze, which does much to make the sector system opaque and intractable, could be simplified by shifting to Gonski’s “national schools resourcing body” or to a quite different division of labour between the Commonwealth and states, perhaps along lines suggested by the Grattan Institute.

A new narrative for schooling would accept both diversity and competition – but competition for achievement rather than for students or money, and on a level playing field, within common rules. It would pay more attention to education, less to machinery. It would see schooling’s economic contribution as indirect, social and supportive rather than instrumental and individual, as the means by which the social cohesion and legitimacy necessary to prosperity is achieved through universal access to a rich scientific, artistic, material and intellectual culture. It would offer a less snakes-and-ladders interpretation of “equality of opportunity” and “ability” than was provided by Karmel or Gonski, and more emphasis on “educability.” Equality, which has carried much of the load in the struggle with unrestrained liberty, would get more help from fraternity.

Nothing would put hopes such as these more quickly to rest than a suggestion that we “reclaim the secular” root and branch – that is, tell the Catholic Church that it has to get out of the schooling business – although lurks and loopholes exposed by Maddox should be closed, and, forewarned by developments in the United States, marginalising the cranks should be a priority. •