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Public schools' charity case

  • 15 February 2013

Should public schools go out looking for private philanthropy? The question was sharply posed by the release earlier in the week of a survey of giving to and receiving by schools. It found, unsurprisingly, that the lion's share goes to non-government schools, the independents particularly.

The survey, sponsored by LLEAP (Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy), is just one sign that the push is on to get public schools into the philanthropic game. Another is Gonski, who devoted an entire chapter to the question of whether and how private effort — in kind as well as in cash — can be got to where need is greatest.

Gonski listed a range of philanthropic activities as well as agencies set up by or with the support of governments to encourage them, and to get business involved. The report recommended that the federal government set up a new body — itself to be philanthropic — to help schools find their way into this new and unfamiliar landscape.

This is all small beer by comparison with developments in the US and, particularly, the UK, seen by some as a warning that the philanthropy push, by intention or incomprehension, will encourage privatisation of public systems and the gradual shrinking of public effort based on a progressive taxation system.

Much seems to depend on the form of philanthropy involved. Some of the big UK partnerships of business, schools, government and philanthropy are a long way from Lady Bountiful and tax-deductible bequests. They can claim what appear to be spectacular successes in resurrecting failing schools in disadvantaged regions by building 'social capital' and triggering a 'multiplier effect'.

But these ventures come with risks too. What happens if a partner runs out of capacity or patience? Do these partnerships suffer from that old familiar in schools, innovation fatigue? Do they take more in energy and focus than they return in better schooling and better outcomes?

As well, some partners turn out to want more control or kudos than the schools are willing to cede. The government might be a pain to work for but at least it's a known quantity, and it's in there for the long haul.

There is also the risk of communicable diseases. Some years ago a performing arts school was set up with grants of $1 million from the Victorian government and $300,000 from the Pratt Foundation. It was not long before Richard Pratt was disgraced by revelations of price