Saturday, 2 May 2015

Pyne strikes again

Story from Jane Caro from The Drum

Christopher Pyne has had a sudden rush of blood to his head with a grand gesture for some Indigenous students. But here's an idea: let's really address the gap rather than throw money at a select few.

Those in the know are warning that funding for education in the forthcoming federal budget will be painfully tight, but that hasn't stopped Minister Christopher Pyne experiencing a sudden rush of blood to the head.

The self-proclaimed Mr Fixit has decided to apply his powers to the appalling achievement gap that bedevils Indigenous students. Well, he has decided to "fix it" for a fortunate few of them, anyway.

Pyne has announced a $5 million windfall to private boarding schools that enrol more than 50 Indigenous students. In these cash strapped times I bet those schools can hardly believe their luck. Particularly as there are many providers of excellent educational programs, some who even schlep them out to remote communities, who are currently biting their fingernails wondering if their longstanding, highly effective offerings will survive this budget.

Federal politicians on both sides have a particular fondness for the grand gesture when it comes to "fixing" Indigenous education.

In 2008, then PM Kevin Rudd suddenly bestowed $20 million on the Indigenous Education Foundation. This gave a few fortunate kids scholarships to attend prestigious private schools - most of which charged very high fees and were already luxuriously resourced. Seven years later, I wonder how that gesture turned out and what effect it had on closing the gap? Particularly as things would seem to be getting rather worse than better at the moment. But perhaps I am being unfair and the results of that investment will take time to reveal themselves. Maybe it gave a few kids more chances than they would otherwise have had. I certainly hope so, anyway.

To be fair to Pyne, his $5 million is not as grand a gesture as Rudd's, and it has at least some strings attached in terms of the number of kids involved. However, as it is the defining characteristic of private schools that they can choose their students, by deciding to privilege those providers Pyne has very much limited his gesture's scope.

It is also worth mentioning that both Rudd and Pyne's generous offerings require the chosen few Indigenous kids to leave their community, family and everything familiar behind. I hesitate to mention that we've already been down the road of taking Indigenous kids away from home to help them, and, if memory serves me correctly, it didn't turn out too well. But, hey ho, perhaps this will be different.

Spoiling the good news somewhat was the concurrent announcement by the NT Education Minister, Peter Chandler, that his Government would be cutting $12.8 million from public schools while giving an extra $8.6 million to the territory's private schools. How wonderful it must be to be an Australian private school with so many governments falling over themselves to give you more dosh.

Trouble is, it is hard to see how this largesse to the private sector is going to do much to help close that pesky gap. You see, 85 per cent of Indigenous kids don't attend private schools - boarding or otherwise - they go to the schools governments love to take money off. You know the ones; the schools that are open to all comers. The schools that have an actual legal obligation to shoulder the responsibility of educating all Australia's kids, regardless of who their parents are, or where they live. Those obligations are why they're called "public".

How do we know 85 per cent of Indigenous kids go to public schools? It's in the Gonski Report. Remember that? That thoroughly researched, rigorous review of education funding that recommended money follow evidence-based disadvantage? It developed a very good, sector blind formula. It was so good it was greeted with enthusiasm by all sides of the often fractious education debate. That in itself was quite an achievement.

But our Federal Government and increasingly state governments (I'm looking at you, Daniel Andrews) want to bin it. Gonski would give more money to public schools, you see, because the overwhelming majority of disadvantaged kids (including Indigenous kids, see above) attend them, for perfectly obvious reasons. And we can't have that, not in today's Australia. That just wouldn't be fair! Giving more money to needy kids! Honestly, where's the logic in that? It's much too costly anyway. Much better to generate a bunch of good headlines by giving money to a select few and look like your doing something useful.

(Although, of course, there was that recent research that revealed private schools spend $3 billion more than public schools to achieve the same result.)

And let's not even mention the fact that $5.9 million of the cuts to public education in the NT will be coming from pre-schools. I guess it's important we sort our kids into winners and losers as early as possible. How else would we know who to throw grand gestures at?

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