Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Fuck off

Independent schools hit hard by the loss of parental fees because of the COVID-19 crisis will ask state and federal governments for emergency funding if the situation does not improve within weeks.

The move comes as education authorities confirmed on Tuesday the class of 2020 would receive an HSC, and almost 75 per cent of public school children did their lessons from home as schools tried to minimise contact between students and teachers.

NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos condemned the move, saying it came as public schools were begging for soap and sanitiser, and a day after a $3.4 billion private school funding boost passed Parliament.

"At a time when our public schools are expressing deep concerns about a lack of resources ... the private school lobby shamelessly continues to seek to extract more and more and more from government," he said.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Not good enough!!!!

A father who walked away with a $650 fine and no conviction for bashing a teacher has prompted the Australian Principals Federation to push for mandatory sentencing of adults who assault school staff.

An anonymous principal, from a "very middle-class, eastern-suburbs" Melbourne primary school, said the verdict was "not even a slap on the wrist" and made him question whether it was worth reporting assaults on school staff.

“I write to share my frustration in what cannot be seen as anything other than an unbelievable lack of respect and protection for educators," he wrote in the federation's newsletter.

"This parent entered a school classroom, without any discussion whatsoever, punched a teacher in the face, then pushed him to the ground and kicked him.

"He then continued to behave in an extremely aggressive and threatening manner and the victim required medical attention.

"When the verdict was read out, a fine of $650, I shook my head and asked myself, 'what respect does our society have for educators if the consequence for assaulting a teaching professional is so insignificant?'."

APF president Julie Podbury said schools should be free of violence. "Principals want to see staff in school protected and feeling safe," she said.

The federation first raised the idea of mandatory sentencing four years ago, and Ms Podbury said this recent case had strengthened its resolve.

Victoria has mandatory sentencing laws for anyone who assaults and injures on-duty emergency service workers, such as police officers, paramedics and firefighters.

Mandatory sentencing for assaults on school staff goes beyond the recommendations of a taskforce on violence in schools.

However, the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia said it should be considered if "parental behaviour continues to worsen".

"Schools are communities, and awareness of this can make school staff reluctant to report incidents of violence to police when parents of students are the offenders," said the association's chief executive, Beth Blackwood.

"While at this point we would be reluctant to support the notion of a mandatory sentencing approach for acts of violence, if parental behaviour continues to worsen, it is an option that must be considered if we are to send a strong signal to the broader community."

The Victorian Education Department did not say if the government was considering widening its mandatory sentencing laws to include school staff.

A spokesman said "incidents of violence and aggression remain relatively rare in Victoria’s more than 1500 government schools" and "where necessary, the department works closely with the school to ensure the matter is appropriately reported to the police."

Official figures show each Victorian state school reports on average between one and two violent incidents a year. In 2018, about 2100 violent and aggressive incidents were recorded, with 200 of those leading to police involvement.

But Deakin University's Phil Riley, who runs a large and long-running survey of Australian principals, said reported figures did not reflect the problem.

"The claim that violence in schools is rare in Victoria is erroneous," Professor Riley said.

His most recent Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey showed almost one in two principals had experienced threats of violence, and more than a third had experienced physical violence. Women were more at risk, with 40 per cent reporting violence compared to 32 per cent for men.

Separately, a newly released global study, the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey, found 12 per cent of Australian principals reported that intimidation or verbal abuse of teachers or staff happened at least weekly. This was four times the OECD average.

The Australian Education Union, Independent Schools Victoria, and Catholic Education Melbourne declined to comment.

Exposing the tawdry myths about our bushfires


Here’s some of the myths we’ve heard about bushfires.


Sure, bushfires are part of Australia’s wild landscape and many species of trees and plants need fire to regenerate but, we need to look at what the experts say.

This year’s Australian bushfires were unprecedented for many reasons, the most obvious being there were more ferocious thunderstorms than we’ve ever seen before.

In the southern states most heavily impacted, the fires started much earlier in the fire season – in some areas, months earlier than normal.

The background environmental conditions – warm and very dry landscapes - combined to favour the generation and spread of bushfires.

Tragically, reports suggest millions of native animals have been killed by the fires – a much larger number than in any previous bushfire event.

The intensity and ferociousness of the fires in many areas were much greater than firefighters have experienced in the past and we must remember they are the experts with the relevant experience.

Fires were simultaneously spread across a much larger area of NSW and Victoria than at any point in the past – with some so called ‘mega blazes’ combining to really challenge firefighting experts.

Overall the fires have had far reaching and massive economic as well as human emotional impacts that far exceed anything we’ve ever experienced before and, in fact, a new national survey by the ANU reveals 80 per cent of all Australian’s have been affected one way or another by the bushfires – the largest ever.

RELATED: The biggest climate change myths debunked

RELATED: Rise in deadly fire thunderstorms linked to climate change


Connected to the first myth, lots of stories have circulated saying that climate has nothing to do with the bushfires experienced in the 2019/2020 Australian summer. This is nonsense.

Climate refers to the ‘long term’ average of factors such as temperature, wind speed, rainfall and humidity at a particular point on the land surface – say over Perth.

And by long term we mean over 10 or 20-year rolling averages.

This contrasts with ‘weather’ - the temperature or humidity outside your building right now. Weather varies quickly but climate takes longer to change.

However, the climate in Australia has been changing. For example, over the past 100 years, average Australian land surface temperatures have risen by about 1C, which is remarkable. Obviously, a warmer climate is a climate where fires can more easily start and spread.

The other big issue is that Australia is in the grip of a very significant drought.

Even with widespread heavy rainfall across large parts of Australia in early February 2020, the Bureau of Meteorology ‘s most recent drought, rainfall deficiency and water availability estimates released on February 6 show vast regions of Australia, over the past 22 months, have had the lowest rainfall records.

East Australia has seen record low rainfall the past three winters which has majorly contributed to the drought.

On top of that, others drivers of Australia’s climate intensified the drought and extreme heat over winter and spring, which was also conducive to horrible bushfire weather.

This all happened on top of a 1C warming trend.

Increasing temperatures and lower rainfall both combine to show how climate has an impact on setting the stage to favour bushfire occurrence.


Much misinformation has been spread in Australia and overseas this summer about arsonists being responsible for our summer of unprecedented bushfires.

Plain and simple – this is wrong.

While sadly it is true that every year a handful of fire bugs start fires - all mostly very small - less than 1 per cent of the land burned in NSW this year is the result of the work of arsonists. The figures are even lower in the other states and territories.

The vast majority of the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires were all started by dry lightning strikes including the largest mega-blazes in NSW.

In fact, NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Inspector Ben Shepherd said lightning was predominantly responsible for the bushfire crisis.

“I can confidently say the majority of the larger fires that we have been dealing with have been a result of fires coming out of remote areas as a result of dry lightning storms,” he said.

The Gospers Mountain “mega-blaze” and the Green Wattle Creek fire, which were both near Sydney, were ignited by lightning.

All the major blazes in the Snowy Mountains and South Coast which took hold on New Year’s Eve were also started by lightning. This includes the Dunns Road and Green Valley fires that burnt near the state’s south border.


This is rubbish. Hazard reduction or back burning is when the dry, dead vegetation that fuels fires is deliberately burned off by fire officials to reduce the overall effects of future or actual fires.

While important, a widely spread myth this season is that a green conspiracy has meant that fire officials have been denied the opportunity to undertake hazard reduction burns. This is just not true.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has clearly indicated that in NSW the fire authorities have managed to undertake about 90 per cent of their planned hazard reduction burns anyway.

Mr Fitzsimmons says the real issues is the available window of favourable weather conditions to undertake hazard reduction burns is now greatly reduced because of climate change, meaning less time is available to undertake burns.

And once fires of the scale and intensity of those we witnessed this summer take hold, hazard reduction burns are unsafe for firefighters and largely ineffective as the fire behaviour is so complex and extensive.

Aside from not being in power, the Greens don’t have anything in their policies to say they’re against hazard reduction burning.


When watching the devastating fires on TV it can leave you feeling powerless and unable to do anything.

But, this is not true and there are many simple things we can do as individuals, families, households and communities to mean the fires we have just experienced don’t become the new normal.

Being prepared is the key. Simple examples of things that can be done to ensure future bushfires are not as bad as those we’ve just seen include:

• Adopt or retrofit your property to make sure it’s more bushfire safe

• Clean out your property gutters and cut back vegetation several metres from your home to reduce the chances of fire catching alight

• Develop, talk about and act on a household fire plan

• Turn off gas mains/disconnect gas bottles

• Hose down/wet the side of house and garden facing approaching fire

• Fill baths, bins, buckets and sinks with water

• Move furniture away from windows

• Become a firefighting volunteer and be trained and learn how to fight and survive bushfires

For lots more simple and handy tips of things you can do, check out the Rural Fire Service Bushfire survival guide.

Professor Dale Dominey-Howes is the Director of the Asia-Pacific Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Research Group at the University of Sydney

Not just for rich schools

By Daisy Turnbull Brown

While politicians bicker over the idea of a “well-being budget”, schools are already spending theirs.

Well-being, mental health, resilience, suicide prevention – call it what you want – schools are running programs that promote student and staff well-being and are doing so without a specific budget.

Yet when Labor’s Jim Chalmers suggested a well-being budget like the New Zealand government has released, he was lambasted by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

We constantly hear about the mental health issues teenagers are dealing with. One in 14 children aged between four and 17 experienced anxiety in 2015. About half of young people with a mental health issue report being embarrassed to discuss it with anyone, or are afraid of what others think.

According to the Productivity Commission’s report on Mental Health, “under-investment in prevention and early intervention” is a key driving factor for the mental health issues we face, meaning that too many people live with mental ill-health for too long.

We are at a turning point for mental health in Australia, especially after the summer bushfires in which thousands of families lost their homes. We are seeing more honesty about the psychological trauma caused by the fires from Transport Minister Andrew Constance than we ever have before.

Chalmers’ argument that the GDP doesn’t “paint the whole picture” of Australia is similar to the argument that HSC results need to be considered in the light of deteriorating student mental health. We cannot have constant economic growth if our population is increasingly depressed and anxious.

Student mental health is fundamental to making Australia stronger, because students who are more resilient and optimistic perform better. It is not about choosing one over the other, it is about developing students of great intellect and character.

At St Catherine’s we track student well-being, as well as alumnae surveys on how prepared they are to manage university and work stress compared to the rest of their cohort. Over 90 per cent of our alumnae see themselves as aware of the benefits of positive psychology elements including mindfulness, growth mindsets and academic resilience.

However, well-being programs should not be the competitive advantage of some independent schools, but standard across all schools.

Rising inequality

From the ABC

When people overseas ask me about Australian schools, I tell them that we have some of the best schools in the world — but they are not for all of our children.

International reviews have proved that the Australian school system is one of the most unequal and socially segregated among the rich countries of the world.

This is not a recent finding. During the last decade, evidence from abroad and findings in our own studies have called for a change of course in policies — and the politics behind them — that drive school education in Australia.

Four elite private schools spent more on new facilities than the poorest 1,800 schools combined, an ABC investigation has revealed.

The question is: why do we continue to believe that schools will get better by doing things that all successful education systems have found to be ineffective?

Australian education used to be admired

Not so long ago, Australian education was admired by many countries as a forward-looking and inspiring model for them and others.

When the OECD's PISA study first appeared in 2000, all eyes were turned on the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia.

Sadly, today we are not anymore among those progressive and future-looking education systems that lead the way and provide good learning for all children.

Instead, we are seen as having a conservative, ineffective and outdated school system moving backwards in time.

The reason for Australian education to drop from the world class to the second league in international outlook is not because of declined student achievement in reading, mathematics and science in PISA and other comparative studies.

A more important reason is a steady decline in social equality and growing inequity in school education.

Evidence from the OECD that regularly compares the world's education systems shows that successful education systems invest much more in equity of education outcomes than we do.

In other words, they focus on the education of children with special educational needs, support child wellbeing and health in every school, and allocate resources and targeted help to schools based on their true needs.

World-class education nations don't do what seems to be our main strategy: Insist schools compete against one another, use toxic accountability measures to control and measure what schools do, and hold teachers as scapegoats for plunged education rankings.

Teachers and kids are not the problem

The top ranking education systems aren't there by accident

Hong Kong, Singapore and other high performing countries did not improve their education system by chance. They did it by design. And we can do it too.

Teachers are often the first ones to blame when we look for reasons why schools don't get better.

Therefore, solutions to fix the learning crisis often start there.

Recently school reformers have suggested that teachers should be allowed to use only evidence-proof teaching methods, they should be paid based on student outcomes, and that "superstar" teachers should be sent to teach in the most disadvantaged schools.

Indeed, there is a learning crisis in Australia. But it is not a crisis of students' learning and teachers' teaching in schools.

The real learning crisis is the education system's inability to learn — via existing evidence and from other education systems — how to improve teaching and learning in every school.

Students and teachers suffer from these systemic learning difficulties that we must fix before things overall will get any better.

One of the first things our education systems need to learn is that the most important factor in improving the quality of education is not its teachers.

Half a century of systematic research has shown that teachers account for about 10 to 15 per cent of the variability in students' test scores.

A similar amount of variability is associated with other school factors, such as curriculum, resources and leadership.

This means that most of the influence on students' educational achievement lies outside school — in homes, communities, peer groups and students' individual characteristics.

Make no mistake, teachers are the most influential part of school.

We should stop thinking that teachers have the power to overcome all those inequalities that many children bring to school with them every day.

'Astounding' data exposes the myth of the 'education revolution'

Thousands of public schools receive less public funding than similar private schools, an ABC News investigation has found.

As soon as we accept this fact, then we also understand that the majority of opportunities for improving quality of education are found in the system-level conditions.

Equity is the answer

Strengthening equity in education has become a common strategy in most successful education systems today.

These measures include high-quality early childhood education as a basic right for all children, preventive support for children and families in their health and wellbeing, allocating money to schools to offer individualised help to all children, and investing in teacher collaboration and professionalism to advance school improvement.

There is a lot to learn from around the world about how to build fairer and more inclusive education systems here at home.

But our education systems must be much better in learning how to do that.

Accepting that to continue using the same old policies that have taken us to this miserable situation is a bad idea would be a good start.

Then, we should adopt coherent education policies that are supported by evidence and research, rather than the current haphazard intervention efforts that are often rejected by world-class school systems.

Pasi Sahlberg is professor of educational policy and deputy director at the Gonski Institute for Education in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

They must be allowed to invest!

Peak private school bodies will be able to invest hundreds of millions of dollars from a special federal government fund for years - rather than hand it over to schools upfront - as long as they spend it before the end of the decade.

Guidelines released last month set out basic parameters for how managing bodies of the nation's private schools can spend the Morrison government's $1.2 billion "choice and affordability fund", announced in 2018 as part of a deal to quell Catholic schools' anger about a new funding model.

SO........Administrators can bank money until 2029. But let’s absolutely slam any public school that rolls over a dollar. Unbelievable!

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Funding furore

Public schools will not receive an extra cent.

Under Scott Morrison, 99% of public schools will not reach the minimum resource standard they need by 2023. This new bill is designed to ensure private schools aren't “disadvantaged” if they are "only" funded to 100% of that standard. Victorian public schools will only reach 90% of the SRS in that timeframe. Essentially, it would deliver private schools billions of dollars in additional funding as “compensation”.

While the bill might be designed to appear fair by taking into account the personal income of a family attending a school, it does not take into account a school's income, wealth or assets including alumni fundraising, trust funds and endowment funds. Incredibly, it doesn't take into account the fees paid to the school by parents!

The Morrison government already provides private schools with special funding deals, including the $1.2b ‘choice and affordability’ fund and $1.9b for school buildings and infrastructure.
The federal government’s own estimates show that this bill could see private schools receiving an additional $3.4 billion in Commonwealth funding over the next decade.

The Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee is conducting an Inquiry into the bill and we will work with other AEU branches around Australia and the federal office to make a submission as one step to resist what is a fundamentally an unfair law which provides extra resources to schools which need them the least.

Monday, 2 March 2020

No surprise here!

Non-government schools are set for a $3.4 billion boost over the next 10 years as the Morrison government prepares to rewrite the funding rules for the Catholic and independent sectors.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

ADHD And rural students

Children in rural areas are more likely to have developmental disabilities and are less likely to receive special education or early intervention services than children living in urban areas, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study from the center's National Center for Health Statistics found that almost 20 percent of children ages 3 to 17 in rural areas qualified for a developmental disability diagnosis, compared to roughly 17 percent of children who live in urban areas.

Using data from the nationally representative National Health Interview Survey, researchers explored the prevalence of 10 developmental disability diagnoses: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, blindness, cerebral palsy, moderate to profound hearing loss, learning disability, intellectual disability, seizures, stuttering or stammering, and other developmental delays.

About 11 percent of children living in rural communities were diagnosed with ADHD compared to roughly 9 percent of children in cities. Research has shown that children with ADHD were not taking their medication 40 percent of the time, which could make it difficult for them to focus in class and work with their teachers and classmates.

The study explored whether children had contact with a mental health professional, a medical specialist, or a therapist.

Despite the wider prevalence, children with developmental disabilities in rural areas were "significantly" less likely to have seen a mental health professional, therapist or had a well-child checkup visit in the past year compared to those with similar diagnoses who lived in urban areas.

Children in rural areas were also less likely to receive special education or early intervention services, which should be a point of interest for schools. A 2019 report from the federal Government Accountability Office found that differences in how states identify and evaluate students with disabilities may lead to significant disparities in the percentage of children served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Friday, 28 February 2020

So much for self governing schools in NSW

The government will take back control of schools and reduce the power of principals, admitting it had lost its ability to intervene in classrooms and keep track of more than $1.25 billion in Gonski money.

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell on Friday said she was unhappy with the way Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reforms – introduced by the Coalition in 2012 to give public school principals more power over their own schools – were working.

"It is clear that changes are necessary to lift results," she said. "It is time to rebalance LSLD, giving greater ability for interventions in instances where schools are seeing particularly concerning outcomes for their students."

There should be several layers of accountability to ensure principals' decisions were focused on student outcomes, Ms Mitchell said, but "[that] cannot happen across the whole system while we have a policy that totally devolves decision-making power to each local school".

"Everyone should have accountability in the chain."

The acting president of the Secondary Principals Council, Craig Petersen, said he would welcome anything that reduced unnecessary red tape, but principals were already held accountable for their decisions.

"If there was a change in what that looks like, it needs to be carefully considered to ensure we are not adding another layer of accountability into a highly regulated system of education," he said.

"It should be supportive, not punitive. The assumption should be that you are doing your best, rather than assuming teachers are incompetent and principals don't know how to run schools."

The president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Angelo Gavrielatos, said the union warned the government about the consequences of LSLD when the policy was introduced.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

About bloody time.

A school principal from a small town on Queensland's Gold Coast wins $6,000 in damages from two parents who wrote derogatory comments about her on social media, after a long and distressing defamation trial.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Nothing new about this

NAPLAN results released today show some country school kids are up to 27 per cent behind their city peers in reading, writing, and maths. After nearly seven years of the Liberals, too many Australian kids are failing to master the three Rs. 

Friday, 21 February 2020


Between 2013 & 2017, Australia’s four richest schools spent $402 million on new facilities and renovations, $37 million more than the 1800 poorest schools combined. 

Saturday, 15 February 2020


In the past few years the repetitive refrain has been that educational outcomes in Australia are stagnant; and the policy response has been to ramp up the focus on standardised testing.

It is not just the outcomes that are stagnant but the education debate itself.

The problem is that NAPLAN has moved from being a mechanism to check the pulse of one part of the education system, to being the reason that schools exist.

Improved NAPLAN results have become the purpose of education.

Despite the fact that it only deals with literacy and numeracy, NAPLAN has become the surrogate arbiter of educational standards in all aspects of education.

As more NAPLAN-based targets are set each year, the focus on the annual standardised test becomes ever more intense, and the education debate is narrowed.

And as it narrows, we ignore some of the big trends that are causing considerable damage to our education systems, including:

  • Inequitable educational outcomes – students in the bottom socioeconomic scale are falling further and further behind their more advantaged peers;
  • A socially segregated schooling system – the proportion of students who attend a socially mixed school is lower in Australia than in most other comparable countries, including Canada, New Zealand and the UK;
  • Downgraded systems of public education – through inequitable funding policies, public schools are seen increasingly as safety nets for families who can’t afford private schools instead of as the centre-piece of schooling provision;
  • An impoverished view about the role of education in the 21st century – the richness of education is reduced to a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, and the kinds of creative capacities needed for the future are ignored.

The response to these wide-ranging and damaging effects of current education policy cannot be addressed by simply modifying or even removing NAPLAN after a ‘review’.

The more we focus on NAPLAN in the name of lifting educational standards, the more we get away from what really constitutes a deep and enriching educational experience.

Clearly we need to expand our education horizons.

As more NAPLAN-based targets are set each year, the focus on the annual standardised test becomes ever more intense, and the education debate is narrowed.

And as it narrows, we ignore some of the big trends that are causing considerable damage to our education systems, including:

  • Inequitable educational outcomes – students in the bottom socioeconomic scale are falling further and further behind their more advantaged peers;
  • A socially segregated schooling system – the proportion of students who attend a socially mixed school is lower in Australia than in most other comparable countries, including Canada, New Zealand and the UK;
  • Downgraded systems of public education – through inequitable funding policies, public schools are seen increasingly as safety nets for families who can’t afford private schools instead of as the centre-piece of schooling provision;
  • An impoverished view about the role of education in the 21st century – the richness of education is reduced to a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, and the kinds of creative capacities needed for the future are ignored.

The response to these wide-ranging and damaging effects of current education policy cannot be addressed by simply modifying or even removing NAPLAN after a ‘review’.

The more we focus on NAPLAN in the name of lifting educational standards, the more we get away from what really constitutes a deep and enriching educational experience.

Clearly we need to expand our education horizons.

For the past 40 years education policy makers have been in the grip of a standardising educational narrative of which NAPLAN is just the most prominent feature. It includes school choice, competition between schools in an education market, narrowing the curriculum, and mistrust of educators.

Trump and DeVos lie...

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Trump singled out a child from Philadelphia who, he said, was “trapped in a failing government school.” In fact, the child attends one of the city’s most elite charter schools. Didn’t Betsy DeVos realize she had given $1.3 million to the self-same charter school in 2019?

President Donald Trump turned a Philadelphia fourth grader into a poster child for the school-choice movement Tuesday when he told the nation that thousands of students were “trapped in failing government schools” and announced that the girl was at last getting a scholarship to attend the school of her choice.

But Janiyah Davis already attends one of the city’s most sought-after charter schools, The Inquirer has learned. In September, months before she was an honored guest at Trump’s State of the Union address, she entered Math, Science and Technology Community Charter School III.

MaST III opened in the fall in a gleaming facility on the site of the former Crown Cork & Seal headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia, part of a charter network so popular that the school received 6,500 applications for 100 seats next year. Like all charters, it’s independently run but funded by taxpayers — meaning that Janiyah and the other 900 students at the school do not pay tuition.

How she landed in the audience during Trump’s prime-time speech Tuesday remains a bit of a mystery even to Janiyah’s mother, Stephanie Davis.

In an interview Friday, Davis, a teacher’s assistant who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, said she received a call several weeks ago from the principal at Janiyah’s former school, Olney Christian School at 425 E. Roosevelt Blvd.

After attending public kindergarten, Janiyah moved to Olney Christian for first through third grades. Tuition there is $5,200 for elementary students. She received a partial scholarship, Davis said, but it was still a struggle to afford. So Janiyah transferred to MaST III after she was accepted there last summer.

So the student was NOT attending what Trump and DeVos call a “failing government school.” She attended a private Christian academy, then transferred to a highly selective charter school. But she was singled out as Trump’s example of a student “trapped in a failing government school.”  Was she trapped in a a failing public kindergarten four years ago?

Friday, 31 January 2020

No library? What the actual fuck!

It has 17 storeys, science labs with panoramic views and abseiling window cleaners. But Sydney's new, $225 million high-rise high school has no library.

Rather than dedicating a room to the school's books and research resources in the form of a traditional library, the new Arthur Phillip High School in Parramatta, which opened this week, will have so-called iHubs for each year level on different floors.

Monday, 27 January 2020

They'll never lower fees. Why should they?

Just weeks after he became prime minister in August 2018, Scott Morrison announced an additional $4.6 billion in federal funding for non-government schools. “Our government believes that parents should have choice in education,” he explained. “The policies that we pursue as a government are about ensuring that choice for parents.” Just in case anyone missed the message, the extra cash was branded as the Choice and Affordability Fund.

As marketing, Morrison’s line may have worked; as public policy it simply doubled down on what was already an abject failure. Over the past twenty years, the Commonwealth has massively ramped up funding for non-government schools. And still, every summer, as reliably as Christmas and the Boxing Day Test, reports of steep increases in private school fees surface in the nation’s newspapers, along with stories of parents struggling to cope and principals struggling to explain. Now figures from the My School website, encompassing every school in Australia and incorporating all sources of revenue, confirms what the anecdotal evidence has long suggested.

The data for the seven years from 2011 to 2017, collected and published by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, reveals the sheer scale of the expansion of government funding to non-government schools. For context, between 2011 and 2017, inflation averaged 1.9 per cent annually, compounding to 12 per cent. Over the same period, recurrent government funding to non-government schools increased by around three times as much, with an average per-student increase of 37 per cent at Independent schools and 35 per cent at Catholic schools. Funding to state schools grew by just 18 per cent per student.

Despite the huge boost in public funding, private schools didn’t reduce their fees. In fact, the price of entry continued to rise rapidly. Between 2011 and 2017, the average tuition fee at non-government schools grew from $3600 to $4700. By 2017, fees averaged $2290 at primary schools, $5700 at secondary level and $8560 at combined K–12 schools. Private school principals and lobbyists often point to rising costs, but this increase equates to an average annual hike in tuition fees of 4.5 per cent, more than twice the rate of inflation.

What this makes clear is that more public spending on private schools has not put downward pressure on fees; it has merely compounded the resource advantage enjoyed by those who can afford a private school education. Net recurrent income per student increased by 29 per cent to just under $20,000 at Independent schools and by 33 per cent to more than $16,000 at Catholic schools.

When the Howard government presided over a substantial increase in federal funding to non-government schools at the start of this century, John Howard went on Melbourne radio to predict that fees would soon fall as a result. The headmasters of  Scotch College and Wesley College confirmed that fee cuts were imminent, and the executive director of the Independent Schools Council disclosed that many schools were “poised to move very quickly” to reduce costs to parents. Howard’s lieutenant, education minister David Kemp, claimed that “the new arrangements will particularly extend choice to low-income families.” “Choice in schooling is now a reality for working-class Australian families,” Minister Kemp told parliament.

Two decades later, the My School data reveals a very different story. Far from making school choice a reality for low-income families, the policies pursued by Dr Kemp and his successors have had the opposite effect. In 2018, 36 per cent of students at public schools came from the most disadvantaged quartile of Australian society. Only 17 per cent of students at Catholic schools came from the same group. The proportion of very disadvantaged kids at Independent schools was even less, at just 14 per cent.

In August, Haileybury College in Melbourne was identified by the ABC report as one of the four richest schools in Australia, which together managed to spend more on new facilities than Australia’s poorest 1800 schools combined. Haileybury clocked up over $100 million in capital expenditure between 2013 and 2017. At the same time, it enjoyed nearly 40 per cent growth in recurrent Commonwealth funding, an increase from $4300 to $6000 per student per year. Haileybury didn’t use the additional public funding to extend choice to low-income families: it increased its fees from $18,700 in 2011 to $22,700 in 2017. Unsurprisingly, the already small proportion of kids from disadvantaged families at Haileybury shrank even further: the proportion of children from the bottom half of the Australian population, according to income and educational attainment, collapsed from 16 per cent to 5 per cent in just seven years.

Haileybury might not be a typical non-government school, but it is representative of the national trend. The same pattern of rapid fee rises, declining enrolments from low-income families and substantial growth in taxpayer funding replicates itself throughout towns and suburbs across the country. Exactly the same dynamic can be found at St Bede’s College in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Mentone; or at St Gregory’s College in Campbelltown; or at Ignatius Park College in the Toowoomba suburb of Cranbrook: in all of these schools, fees increased despite steady increases in government funding, and the proportion of students from Australia’s most disadvantaged families decreased by half or more.

It may once have been plausible to claim that more public funding would improve choice and affordability. Today, such assertions amount to a refusal to face reality; or, worse, an attempt to obscure it. Federal governments have been conducting this experiment for two decades and the results speak for themselves. Twenty years since John Howard declared that private school fees would fall, we are still waiting.

Government funding has increased so much that non-government schools now enjoy similar public funding to state schools. By 2017, Catholic schools received, on average, annual government funding of $13,000 per student, while Independent schools received around $11,000 per student. That’s 81 per cent and 69 per cent respectively of the average per-student funding that goes to state schools. The difference narrows even further when we account for the much larger share of expensive-to-educate students at state schools (such as kids in rural and remote locations, and children with disabilities or from other disadvantaged groups). Comparing like with like, non-government schools receive around 90 to 95 per cent of the public funding that government schools do — and yet fees continue to rise rapidly.

Why don’t private schools cut their fees in response to this ever-growing taxpayer contribution? The most important reason is very simple. They don’t have to. Education is not like many other products in the marketplace: price is seen as a signal of quality, exclusivity is often a selling point, and the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding our children’s wellbeing leads parents to grin and bear high fees and even wear them as a badge of honour. And cutting fees generally could let in a greater number of disadvantaged students, who are typically more expensive to educate. So there’s rarely a business case for cutting fees. Fee reductions and improved affordability won’t happen until governments require it — by imposing caps on fees, demanding a minimum number of scholarships or creating an obligation to enrol local students, for instance.

If we really want to improve choice, it’s not enough to just keep handing over more taxpayer dollars. Non-government schools have to assume public obligations that are commensurate with the public funding they receive. In Australia, the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council has proposed a public charter that would establish a common regulatory environment for all schools in receipt of public funding. There are plenty of models to draw on: church schools are part of public systems in Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and other European countries. In New Zealand, religious schools were integrated into the state system over four decades ago.

We could draw on these examples to expand genuine school choice, while balancing it with other imperatives like equity, quality, efficiency and social cohesion. It’s possible to create free, inclusive schools that also reflect a variety of different worldviews. But first we need a government that really believes in choice in education — for all and not just for some. •