Seeing Gonski in perspective

teese_thProfessor Richard Teese



This is a version of a talk Professor Richard Teese of the University of Melbourne gave at the Ideas and Society event, Education in Australia: The struggle for greater equality on Friday May 25, 2012.

How we relate to the recommendations of the national review of school funding depends on how we construct the long history leading up to it.  More than forty years have elapsed since the last major review, but a still longer time frame is needed to help position ourselves to respond to the review and to a government that wants still more time to decide its own response.

If we start the clock at the end of the Second World War, we will capture two major trends in the social demand for schooling that run like a contrapuntal movement through the next sixty years.  One trend is the great transformation in the use of school by the population at large, but especially working-class and lower middle-class families.  More and more children from these backgrounds continued their schooling beyond the compulsory minimum.  More and more found their way into the final years of school.  They had to.  For after the mid-1970s, they were increasingly excluded from the full-time labour market.  They had become economically dependent on completing school.  In older parlance, we would describe this as popular demand for extended secondary school.  Basically it was a demand for access to hitherto-inaccessible opportunities.

Working against this trend was a different social force.  As more and more space was ceded to newcomers in upper secondary education, the advantages that the once-exclusive occupation of this territory by more educated middle strata were put under pressure.  Advantage had to be found in high performance (not simply participation), in transition to university (not just completing school), and eventually in post-graduate over under-graduate degrees, as these too came under siege.  The search for advantage has been a search for opportunities to differentiate—to occupy the most profitable areas of the curriculum by occupying the most powerful sites within the school system (private, but also public).

Governments have designed policies to satisfy both the popular demand for access and the middle-class demand for advantage.  They have pursued high completion rates in school, but also championed “choice”.  They have cleared away exams from the middle years of secondary school, but sanctioned a hierarchical curriculum aimed at academic discrimination in the senior years.  They have played to multiple audiences.  But some audiences they have pleased more than others.

The demand for advantage has been satisfied.  In Year 3, the children of university-educated parents are two years ahead of low-SES children in basic literacy and numeracy.  They widen the margin over stages of schooling.  They generally finish school.  They take more demanding subjects in senior school and often get high marks. They patronize the sandstone universities.  In their schools, failure has been extinguished.  Their success has been institutionalized in curriculum and school system.

The demand for access has not been satisfied.  Low-SES students frequently dropout, they are channelled into vocational tracks more often, they take more demanding subjects much less frequently, and score poorly when they do.  Hobbled by the severity of academic competition on a grossly unequal playing field, they are 2.5 times less likely to make it to university and 5 times less likely than high-SES students to enter a sandstone institution.  Their failure has been institutionalized.  It is routine and predictable from year to year.  This is true even though we rarely see it in all its starkness because a tight lid is kept on data, other than measures of literacy and numeracy.

If this is a depressing picture, we should also acknowledge that real progress has been made, but over many years and in the most difficult circumstances.  We have extended opportunities to low-SES children, but too often we have not converted these into outcomes.  By contrast, we have extended educational advantage to already socially-advantaged families, widening their options (private, public) and above all producing predictable outcomes.  That has been our priority.  We have paid for middle-class choice at the expense of working-class quality. We have drained the funds needed to redress social disadvantage into schools that enjoy the greatest social advantage.

So successful have we been that when an individual child fails to profit by every advantage that money can buy, the school in which this random departure from the norm of global excellence is sued for breach of contract and ends up in court.  How could such a case be brought, if it were not for the global success routinely produced by a school that boasts no failure?

The outcomes logic that governs the funding of advantage is meant to neutralize chance.  But the opportunities logic that governs the funding of access exposes children to chance and boasts no more than a chance.

Over time the demand for access has migrated into a search for more than chance, more than opportunity.  Children from poorer homes must succeed because they, too, must be competitive.  Their parents want outcomes, only they do not have the means to get them, and their schools struggle with the “unrealistic” nature of what the parents want.

Can we reconcile these conflicting and evolving currents of demand?  This was the challenge set for the funding review, a challenge made all the harder by the political commitment that no private school should be a dollar worse off.  Our first step should be to extend and transform “access” into “outcomes” for low-SES families—those who most depend on education. Almost all of the schools that serve predominantly these families are public schools.  So their transformation is fundamental.  This requires a co-ordinated, national effort.  Without this, we will continue to pay for a two-year achievement gap, along with all the consequences that flow from this.

But if we do re-build our public school systems, we will also reduce the anxiety of middle-class parents and the flight to the safe haven of the private school whose fortification generates failure in public schools in the first place. We do not have to shut down the drive for competitive advantage.  But we can reduce its force and mitigate its effects if every public school is well-resourced and high performing.

Richard Teese is professor and director of the Centre for Research on Education Systems in the University of Melbourne.