How schools funding became such a problem

Wednesday 13 June 2018

Andrew Hamilton, Eureka Street

When I was a child Archbishop Mannix came yearly to a local church fete. Through his speeches ran two recurrent themes. One was the wrong suffered by Ireland at the hands of the English; the other was that suffered by Catholic schools at the hands of the Australian government. Decades later, in the days of Brexit and Gonski, the same songs are being sung. Why this is so deserves reflection.

Class Wars: Money, Schools and Power in Modern Australia, Tony Taylor's superb study of the funding of Australian schools from the time when Menzies first aided Catholic schools until today, explains how school funding has come to pose such an intractable problem for governments. It is also a lament for so many lost opportunities to build an educational framework that would open opportunity to all Australians, especially the most disadvantaged.

Taylor identifies the elements that have complicated decisions about school funding. It has involved many mutating conflicts. The Catholic decision to establish its own schools without public funding took place in a poor and minority church where most Catholics were of Irish descent, and regarded the government schools as de facto Protestant.

Many of those who opposed the funding of Catholic schools, too, were secularist in their philosophy. After Mannix took a strong stand against conscription, sectarian divisions made any discussion of state aid bitter and unproductive. Catholic schools got by through Catholic sisters and brothers' gift of their lives. But Catholics resented what they saw as the injustice of it all.

By the 1960s the social division between Catholics and others had lessened; children of the baby boom had put huge pressure on all kinds of schools; Catholic schools now needed to pay lay teachers; the educational curriculum was increasingly seen as inadequate.

The advocates for government, state and Catholic schools were becoming divided by a common appeal for justice. Catholics believed that parents had the right to government aid for educating children in schools of their choice. Social activists, especially in the ALP, believed that justice demanded giving priority to the underprivileged. Defenders of independent schools claimed that justice demanded support for aspiring parents who sent their children to good schools.

The Goulburn Catholic School strike in 1962 focused attention on this multifaceted crisis. Soon afterwards the Menzies government provided funding for some science facilities and some scholarships in all schools. In contrast to those who see this simply as a response to Catholic need revealed in the Goulburn strike, Taylor argues persuasively that Menzies saw it as an occasion to neutralise the Catholic vote and also to support the independent grammar schools that educated the children of natural Liberal Party voters.

Our speakers share their stories to open ears across Australia – in classrooms and workplaces, to

‘It is difficult not to share his anger that Commonwealth government education funding has increasingly benefited those already favoured rather than the disadvantaged.’

These two desires were expressed also in subsequent decisions about Commonwealth funding made by the Coalition government. They wedged the ALP, whose executive was locked into total rejection of funding for any but government schools.

These goals also guided later Coalition governments, most notably through the strategic thinking of John Carrick and the ideological zeal of David Kemp. Howard's assurance that no one would suffer as the result of any changes has locked in the policy. The success of its policy can be seen in the relative growth of schools and funding going to the different kinds of schools: in the years of the Howard government, for example, the recurrent funding of independent schools rose twice as much as that of government schools.

Whitlam, Hawke, Rudd and Gillard, who tried to address the needs of the most disadvantaged students and to introduce independent adjudication of funding, were hampered by ideological differences within the party and by ineffectual administration. They also faced strident criticism in the name of traditional values of curriculum changes and innovation. This introduced a further polarity between innovation and tradition to complement that between Catholics and Protestants.

Gillard did ease through Parliament the Gonski reforms based on sector blind funding based on need. The Coalition, which initially bitterly opposed it, later co-opted it in a watered down form. It had won general support but was heavily criticised by some Catholic leaders for its perceived unfairness.

Taylor tells this complex story well. It is difficult not to share his anger that in a society in which the welfare of individuals and the good of society depend increasingly on access to good education, Commonwealth government education funding has increasingly benefited those already favoured rather than the disadvantaged. It has proved impossible to create equal opportunity for all children in our school systems.

It is easier to see why this been so than to imagine it being changed. That would require bipartisan support for a policy in the face of deep and mutating ideological divisions. The Catholic school system was founded to implement a Catholic as distinct from a secular vision of education, the latter being default protestant in colour. This debate later opened a further conflict between socially conservative and socially reformist views of education, and between meritocratic and needs based approaches to funding.

The division was further entrenched by the effective advocacy arms of each school system, each fortified by a strong sense of the justice of its cause and armed with supporters to enlist. As any umpire knows, it is easier to control a football game when there are two teams on the field than three. When one is excluded it can play a spoiling game in the hope of playing itself back into the game. As a result any proposal for needs based funding administered by an independent body was watered down by a thousand amendments and qualifications by weak governments.

Another effective obstacle to change was the promise by the Howard government that no one would be worse off in any change to an existing system biased in favour of independent schools. Such a promise has become de rigeur in almost any controversial change at election time, and is generally adopted by the opposition. It naturally leads to paralysis in policy, because any change to a more just society must entail winners and losers. Governments that have recourse to it abandon their service of the common good.

Behind the funding question lie deeper questions about education itself. The focus on funding leads naturally to the assumptions that the important educational questions are economic, that the point of education is to prepare people who can contribute to economic growth, and that the only evidence relevant to educational success is quantitative. Many of those who focus on values in education may also oppose need-based funding, but their concern for values is legitimate. We should all be concerned to ask what kind of society our education system encourages.

Finally, the focus on education funding can encourage the assumption that increased funding will of itself address inequality of opportunity. It will certainly have good effects. But many factors contribute to educational disadvantage and so to its alleviation. They include parenting, articulacy and interest in ideas in the home, early childhood learning programs, peer group pressures and social stratification dividing schools from one another. Many flow from inequality in society. If inequality is not addressed as a priority, public support for needs-based funding will drop and its effectiveness will be compromised.
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