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Better results from a classless education system

Michael Furtado |  15 March 2012

Blackboard dollar signThe Gonski Review isn't just a new way of 'doing' school funding. It opens up new ways of linking school funding with improved life chances, a key factor in school reform. With more parents sending their children to non-government schools, the government must address the implications of this for all Australia's school-children.

It would have been easy simply to deregulate funding and invest it to reflect trends in school enrolment. However, the school results picture isn't simple.

While some government schools don't achieve good results, others do. Similarly, when equivalent school results from the public and private sectors, broken down by socio-economic status, are compared, some state and Catholic schools do exceedingly well.

Finally, the socio-economic profile of non-government school students is generally higher than that for state school students, so poverty and disadvantage are inescapable factors in Gonski's attempt to reconfigure school funding for the next 50 years.

What the figures additionally show is a long 'tail' of poor achieving students at one end, while Australia's top performers do not do as well as top performers in other countries. The reasons for this are complex: Australia has the largest non-government school sector in the world, whereas Finland, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore have almost no private schools, while Canada's Catholic schools do exceedingly well, but unlike Australia, and similar to New Zealand's, are public schools.

Indeed, every single Catholic school in New Zealand, such as Baradene — a sister school to Sydney's Kincoppal-Rose Bay, which charges $23,514 p.a. — is part of the fully-integrated, fee-free public education system. There are no private Catholic schools in New Zealand and a handful of unfunded independent Catholic schools in other countries. Australia's Catholic school model is a distortion from the norm, insofar as fee-requirements are conditional on enrolling in them.

Also, Asian countries at the top of the table have selective secondary schools, whereas Australian differences are defined by wealth exclusion and class (i.e. socio-economic) differentiation. Even among predominantly Western countries there are vast cultural differences: Finland has a culture in which teachers are regarded as being on a par with doctors, whereas Australian teachers feature lower down the scale in salary terms, being about the equivalent of social workers in socio-economic status.

The political ramifications of any funding policy linked with an anti-poverty program are therefore far-reaching and deeply controversial if they are to be effective. It has ramifications for enrolment patterns, accountability, student entitlement and teaching methods. It is in these four areas that Catholic schools will be called to make the greatest changes and have the most effective impact.

While Gonski has said no school will lose funding, elite schools, most of them independent and some of them state-based and selective, will get a smaller proportion of total funding, while schools that are lagging behind will get more. In addition, the Commonwealth has flagged its preference to amalgamate the dual system, whereby it is responsible for funding mainly private schools and the states responsible for state schools, to a uniform funding model across the entire range of schools.

Gonski's framework is based on acknowledging student and school needs in all schools, regardless of sector, and funds an aspirational outcome, rather than just costs. Such a principle is totally consistent with Catholic school provision, which is need-based. To this end, Gonski recommends that funding come in two parts. The first would be a standard amount per student. The second would consist of added loadings, intended to address disadvantage of various kinds.

Smaller and remote schools would attract extra funding, as would Indigenous students, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students with limited proficiency in English, or a disability. While big-city elite schools would get less in relative terms, because they have fewer poor, black and disabled students, most state and Catholic schools would benefit according to this model. Wealthier state and independent schools could not hide behind the false binary of public versus private schools.

Gonski also recommends that government schools, special schools and disability loadings should be fully funded, while other non-government sector payments should be based on the anticipated level of a school's private contribution. This would create the opportunity for fully-funding non-government schools that are prepared to educate student demographics similar to that of state schools. Catholic schools should welcome this opportunity to proclaim their mission to serve the poor before all others.

What is striking in the research Gonski cites is the correlation between the performance of a child and the average socio-economic status (SES) of all the students that attend such schools. In other countries, including 'high equity' countries like Canada and Finland, where the social mix is less pronounced than in Australia, such an effect would not be evident. In Australia it is quite pronounced.

The figures show that the movement of a bright child from a low SES school to a higher SES school in Australia undermines the quality of the remaining student body in the low SES school. The gain to the child who moves is offset by a loss to his or her fellow students who stay behind, reinforcing the process of social stratification. And, for all Australia's claims to nurturing an equitable society, home address is a key marker of school enrolment and a predictor of results and student life chances.

In other words, the Australian system encourages a ghettoisation of schools; the more privileged parents withdraw their students from the public system, leaving behind a concentration of kids whose need for school support services is high.

This reflects not only on elite private schools and on Catholic schools, but also on state selective schools in some states like NSW. Australian schooling is marked for its social differentiation. No other developed country tolerates this. It counters the rationale for equitable school provision.

Compared with other nations — particularly those whose performance is at the top of the table — Australia has a higher concentration of disadvantaged kids in disadvantaged schools, and a lower proportion than in other countries of kids who attend schools where there is a mixture of social and economic backgrounds.

For instance, 60 per cent of the most disadvantaged Australian students are in schools whose SES ranking is below the national average. This is higher than in all similar OECD countries, and the OECD average. Moreover, Australia's performance in mathematics and reading has declined since 2000. Australia was one of only four OECD countries to have experienced such a decline.

Worse, scores usually improve as countries become wealthier, yet Australia's decline comes against a backdrop of rapid economic growth. Clearly the private-versus-public divide along social-class lines hides a much more complex reality.

The report charts the drift: more children of well-off, well-educated family backgrounds attend independent schools; more 'average' kids go to Catholic schools to replace the bright ones who've moved to the independent sector; and disadvantage gets concentrated in the public sector.

However, the highest SES Catholics now attend state and independent schools and the proportion of non-Catholics in Catholic schools has increased inexorably, thereby contradicting the impression that Catholic schools educate Catholic children.

Statistical projections suggest high-aspirant students from well-off backgrounds would do as well at state schools. Indeed when Gonski's survey controlled for students' background, there was no significant difference between the educational value-added effects of state and private schools.

Given that Catholic and independent schools tend to produce better results than government schools, one would expect to be able to demonstrate that the non-government sector adds more value to a student's education.

In other words, taking a student from a government school with a mediocre record of performance and putting them into an independent school, you would expect to see better results after controlling for the effect of the student belonging to a higher socio-economic cohort. Bourdieu's research, on the cultural capital private and state-selective schools are thought to invest, argues that this makes a difference to the student's education outcomes. However, the evidence does not bear this out.

At the other end of the SES spectrum, where the education ethic is not as strong, and where more resources might make a greater difference, such resources are lacking.

What happens when there is greater equity in a school system? The report produces some arresting evidence. It poses the question: is it possible to have school systems that are both highly equitable and high performing? The answer is that the best performing school systems in the world, as well as the fastest-improving, also are marked by higher levels of equity.

The Coalition accuses the Commonwealth of waging class warfare between the public and private sectors. This kind of absurd rhetoric would return Australia to the Catholic Bishops' Joint Pastoral of 1879, which condemned modern education as founded on 'immorality, infidelity and lawlessness' and precipitated the fierce sectarian conflicts that helped abolish state aid, instead of seeking to accommodate it, as Whitlam did a century later.

Now is the time to build on the achievements of the past.

Michael FurtadoDr Michael Furtado is honorary research advisor at the University of Queensland. He was education officer — social justice, Brisbane Catholic Education, and did his doctorate on the funding of Catholic schools. He has taught in the Catholic, independent and state school sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom.


Michael Furtado

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Submitted comments

Congratulatios Michael and congratulations Eureka Street for this article, which is somewhat at odds with conventional Catholic rhetoric. Let's hope we all persevere in this trend.

Jim Jones 16 March 2012

In the 1970s there was a very neat survey of the effect of different schools on children from the same background. I cannot remember whether it was a CEO or State schools project. Some migrant peasant Greeks from the same areas settled in a disadvantaged area (? Richmond) with children going to a disadvantaged school, and some in a disadvantaged pocket of a middle-class area in Box Hill, with children going to a middle-class school. The children were tested in Grade I and Grade VI with the Peabody Picture Vocabulary test and a draw-a-person test for intellectual development and a test of achievement. Grade 1 children were on average the same in both schools. Grade VI children in the middle-class school were more advanced than those who went to the disadvantaged school. The Greek surnames of the children were the keys to their identity. There were no Greeks there before the post-war migration. I do not know if this study was ever published. It could be found out if it was CEO or the Education Department. It was the idea of one person, an officer with supervision of these areas.(Name ? Graham). I participated as schools psychologist.

valerie yule 16 March 2012

Well done Michael for a comprehensive report on the Gonski review, which was a great initiative by Julia Gillard. This review was necessary because of the poor state of our education system, which has resulted in 46% of our population being illiterate plus 80% of people having a poor knowledge and understanding of philosophy (especially moral philosophy and ethics), history, literature, science, the performing arts and the visual arts. This poor state of our education system is not just about money. The best schools are a mixture of government schools, catholic and other private schools and the distinguishing factors are the quality of headmaster management, recruitment of quality teachers and active involvement of parents.

Mark Doyle 16 March 2012

So why do parents send their children to Catholic schools? For many, it is the hope of a special 'something' being transmitted - the cultural and spiritual legacy of Catholicism. In the end, beyond academic results, ideas and worldviews matter. These are not 'measured' in the Gonski report.

Skye 16 March 2012

On most points, especially the social justice ones, a balanced article. But that 2nd last par? Where did that come from? As far as I've noticed the 'class warfare' jibes have attended to the medicare rebate issue (and are justified there). A history lesson is needed here. The sectarian divide in the late 19th century was very real and was primarily the result of fear on the part of the British colonial government that the Irish would rise up against them. Catholics were a poor underclass at this time. Mannix's great achievement, the Catholic education system in Australia, received NO government funding until well into the 1970s yet due to the dedication of the Catholic community grew to fulfill its role of putting Catholics into the professions - a social justice achievement if ever there was one. The success of the Catholic system also pulled the State system up by providing competition.

ian 16 March 2012

Yes Jim Jones, Michael offers an interesting perspective, which is why he is not appreciated within the Catholic system. But look beyond the Catholic system, and apply it to all those other ghettos of non-education with all the other Christian denominations and other faith schools. Time to cut education free of all ghettos, and get back to the 1870 cry- free, complusory and secular. We only have the compulsory element left.

janice wallace 16 March 2012

As an agnostic, I have to applaud Dr Furtado for his balanced and honest appraisal of both Gonski and educational data. One point. In saying that there is no support for the argument that moving a stufent from an underperforming school to one where the 'cultural capital' (in Bourdiew's terms) is high, he refers only to the movement of a high SES student. One suspects that the cohort effect on a low SES student who moves might be different.

Bill Hampel 16 March 2012

Skye, If Catholic parents want that "something special" that they perceive they won't get from a State school, that's fine. But what I object to is the taxpayer funding it. If you don't like the taxpayer funded State system, be prepared to pay for it yourself.

Mike H 16 March 2012

Nice article. It makes the point well that Australia ,in-spite of its self-perception, is quite a strikingly divided society in terms of opportunities ...though more along relatively flexible socio-economic lines than the more rigid English-type class system. In education, Catholic schools have evolved to look after the children of the financially middle class , whether Catholic or not; indeed their religious nature is rather incidental especially given that its human output is not reflected in church membership later on. The divide in Healthcare is similar but with a somewhat different mix: 60% public and the richer 40% private: this time the Catholic hospitals are very much in the richer group`s service with again clientel having very little to do with religious affiliation. The historic failure of the Gonski report is that no one will take action on it , because it is too expensive at a time when government needs to spend less for a while and anyway needs to spend on other things more: instead of taking on vested interests by suggesting the current pie should be divided differently it wants a bigger pie, with another $5billion to avoid upsetting anyone, and it aint going to get it or anything like it! Such is life...as in healthcare we will muddle through.

Eugene 16 March 2012

A terrific article Michael. SOME independent schools routinely "encourage" less academic students to leave their schools before VCE, ensuring their results remain consistently high. To the outside observer, this gives the false appearance that somewhow this school is extraordinary. Whilst it is true independent schools generally have more financial resources, they certainly don't have better(nor worse) teachers than state schools, and the high results are a false indicator of the school's excellence.

Natalie 16 March 2012

Eugene, when you say that no one will act on the Gonksi review you are not quite right. In return for the document Gillard has rewarded Gonksi with a job running the Costello sovereign wealth fund, instead of Costello, the man the whole board thought should run it.

You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

If this were an 'Asian' country we'd call it corruption and decry it.

Andy Fitzharry 17 March 2012

To reflect on some responses to my article: Mark's comments make sense in a context in which diverse providers are encouraged to compete equally for funding.

The twin hallmarks for state-aid in a democracy are an open-enrolment policy and freedom of school-choice. This provides the best solution to problems of inequity and monopoly.

Skye's special 'cultural and spiritual' something cannot be disentangled from the teaching on the Catholic school, which explicitly states that it is 'first and foremost' for the poor, otherwise a false spirituality would obtain.

State-aid settlements in every European country with a Catholic population of similar size to Australia's, were reached on condition that Catholic parties support the provision of a diverse public education system with a number of competing alternative educational philosophies, thereby giving the contemporary pluralist polity an egalitarian and liberal-democratic school provision rationale.

Incidentally, Eugene, all state-aided UK schools are fee-free: no independent UK school is state-aided.

Ian is correct about the anti-Catholic rhetoric of some C19th Australian state-school pamphleteers. However, Archbishop Vaughan's blanket condemnation of public education proponents was equally intemperate.

Because independent schools charge fees and select state-schools effectively debar low-SES students from enrolment, cultural capital theory hardly applies in Australia, Bill.

Michael Furtado 18 March 2012

A clever attempt at humour, Andy! Better that than accuse David Gonski of being a class-traitor, which is one of the jibes that Peter Karmel had to endure. And while we're about it, let's belittle Gonski's three other co-reviewers, Kathryn Greiner, Carmen Lawrence and Peter Tannock, all of them proud products of an Australian Catholic education.

Michael Furtado 18 March 2012

Thank you Michael for your extra comments that I have just caught up with. You are quite right to point out, that whereas in the UK the class divide is at least self supporting, where as in Australia we have the extra-ordinary situation of very major social inequalities being heavily subsidised by our government, and one has to say to some extent aided and abetted by the RC Church.

Eugene 21 March 2012

Thank you Michael for your clear insights into the educational needs of Australia's poorest students. I hope more in our nation will be able to appreciate the educational inequity supported by our current funding model.I agree with you that for all Australia's claims to nurturing an equitable society, home address is a key marker of school enrolment and a predictor of results and student life chances.This must change.

Robert Van Zetten 21 March 2012

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