Opinion: Dollars – A Distraction in the School Wars

Opinion: Dollars – A Distraction in the School Wars

And so it continues in the school wars: sides are being drawn and trenches built over whether public or independent schools are the answer or not.

Too often the debate rages on about whether public money should be used to fund non-public schools. It is an either / or debate and it is a misnomer. ‘I give a Gonski’ is a false dichotomy. The actual David Gonski chaired funding model has not been implemented by anyone and it won’t be by any political body in the near future.

Funding is important to implement any systemic changes, but it is not the answer – only a means to a solution.

Whilst uneducated education commentators may rage, the key element that should be at the centre of the debate is ‘children’. What is it that our children need, and how can we best support those needs?

Pragmatically, we must accept that for real learning progress to be attained, the fundamental basis of our education system has to be completely re-imagined, and that too is not something that can be done, quickly or easily even in the timespan of the current generation of children being ‘formally educated’.

So are public schools the answer? In an ideal situation, yes, however, ABS statistics demonstrate that 35% of Australian school children attend non-government schools (not including selective schools which are basically fully publically funded private schools).

For many, the answer is no, public schools are not working and given the only real comparative statistics in achievement available, NAPLAN and Year 12 results, Independent schools get good results.

Public school advocates argue the tide has turned, with egression to independent schools having not increased in the last two years (unlike the last 40) – however, the assumption that this is because either public schools are improving or parents are having a ‘Satori’, realisation needs to be questioned.

There is just as much likelihood that parents are concerned about child safety in private institutions after the last four years of the Royal Commission into child abuse draw to a close. It will be interesting to note whether any of the current inquiries into abuse of disabled children in public schools will have a negative effect on public school enrolments.

This then leaves the question: ‘what do independent schools offer or do differently to achieve the results they do?’

Yes, it is suspected that many students are tutored, as it is suspected that there are many high achievers in the public school system.

The teachers in all systems are the same. They are equally as able, and as Professor John Hattie has continually noted in a multitude of studies, difference and variance in teacher quality is between classrooms, more than schools.

Independent schools do have better resources through funding, and this is an area that governments could deal with. Rather than remove funding from independent schools (which only harms children), provide proper facilities for public schools.

However once again we are left with the bifurcation that great facilities do lead to great results – many sports athletes can testify against this.

What Independent schools do create, through both carrots and sticks, is an attitudinal difference to education, both for the students and the teachers.

Yes, Independent schools can expel students, but that is a misnomer, as by doing so they lose part of their income. What is more important is the development of an ethos, of belonging and pride and commitment through intra-curricular activities, co-curricular activities and extra-curricular activities that are all mandated.

Teacher requirement for involvement in these additionally causes social connections between the learners and the facilitators. It is interesting to note that Union interference in independent schools is much less.

Teachers get additional wages for undertaking additional duties. Teachers are required to undertake a significant amount of additional professional development and have extended holidays to counter balance this.

So whilst the teaching cohorts in independent schools are initially the same in training as the public, they become inculcated into a culture of professional development, of commitment and success. Great working conditions lead to better trained workers and higher levels of achievement.

Are all independent schools better? No. Some public schools are able to achieve immense success. So many teachers in the public system are outstanding, but the independent schools can get rid of the bad ones, the ones that damage everyone. Perhaps the public schools should do the same. Perhaps the Unions should put children first.

Instead of arguing over whom should get what amount of money, lets instead look at what works, what needs to be changed so that all children get the education they deserve.

Learn from success first and then we can fight about how to fund it.


David Roy is a lecturer in Education and Creative Arts at the University of Newcastle. His research interests are in pedagogy and homeschooling, drama and arts learning, and dyspraxia and inclusion in Education.


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