How can we make schools more equitable?

I work in an independent school in Australia. That was never the plan, but it’s how things worked out when I made the  move with my family from England ten years ago. Independent schools here are contentious. Unlike independent schools in England, they are given a subsidy by the Federal Government which they then supplement with fees. By contrast, public schools are fully funded by the relevant state government (this is a simplification). Another key difference is that schools that would be in the state system in England, such as Catholic and Anglican schools, are independent in Australia, with the government fully funding only secular schools.

There is no doubt the funding situation is confused and confusing and it is certainly not my area of expertise. There are those who think all government subsidies should be withdrawn from independent schools and the money redirected to public schools. Many parents would then not be able to afford independent schools and so would opt back in to the public system. The increased investment in public education, coupled with a greater buy-in from middle class parents would, so the theory goes, lead to more equitable outcomes.

I am not sure about this. Some of this extra investment would have to cover the additional students in the public system. And at least some of the money currently paid by parents in fees would be likely to go into mortgages as middle-class parents buy property in the catchment areas of what they perceive to be good public schools and this, perversely, could drive greater segregation by geographical area. This is a lesson I draw from London and those areas around highly regarded public schools in Melbourne.

But let’s assume that we could get more money into public schools. What would be the likely effects?

Here is where it gets tricky. Some argue that we are already spending record amounts on education, whereas others claim the current system shares these gains in spending unfairly. I do not know enough to make the call on this and please comment below if you think you can. What I do know is that, from 1999 to 2010, the UK government invested an additional 5.1% per year over and above the rate of inflation in government schools and the dial did not shift at all when measured in terms of relatively objective international assessments.

I will always welcome more money for schools. If the Australian government decide we need a post-COVID-19 Keynesian stimulus then they should consider investing in public school infrastructure. However, I am under no illusions that spending more money on schools will necessarily lead to enhanced outcomes.

Equity is about fairness. We could spend exactly the same amount on every school child, right down to the last cent, and still have a deeply unfair system. Equity is about teaching pretty much all children to read, and about ensuring children are exposed to a curriculum that prepares them for life but also for academic pathways, should they choose to follow them. Equity is about reducing barriers to appreciation of, and participation in, the arts. It is about valuing the humanity of all young people by giving them as many options as possible to pursue their own vision of the good life.

If we increase spending on education, but not in a way that affects any of these goals, we are wasting money. And the bus drivers and nurses whose taxes pay for this increase have a right to ask why we are doing this.

One of the bad ideas that prevents us from making progress on these goals is fundamentalist worship at the altar of differentiation. The logic is that all children, whatever their needs, have an inalienable right to be in a classroom with their peers at all times. If they cannot access the content, then this is to be mitigated through ill-defined forms of differentiation which may or may not involve employing a teachers’ aid. And anyone arguing otherwise is in violation of state law, federal law, various United Nations conventions and the Treaty of Versailles. In this model, it is the role of a teacher to stay up to all hours designing lessons from scratch that cater to all these perceived needs, real or imagined, like some pedagogical Sisyphus.

Response to Intervention, where students are withdrawn for small group or individual explicit instruction interventions, is at odds with this philosophy, even though small group work on basic academic skills, or even social skills, seems logically warranted – if a child cannot read, it seems reasonable to try and fix this first before we proceed. This philosophy views the present state of students as a given to be accommodated, and emphasises this by attaching labels to these states such that a student comes to believe that he or she is an X or a Y type of child, incapable of doing what they would probably be quite capable of doing with the right instruction and in the right environment. These labels are emphasised in the understandable hope they will attract resources, but any such resources deployed in the middle of a classroom pitched at an entirely inappropriate level are largely wasted.

So with the best of intentions, we exacerbate inequity.

The solution is obvious to me. We need schools with a much more systematic approach to initial reading instruction, to explicit interactive teaching and to classroom management, coupled with a knowledge-rich curriculum. The vast majority of students will thrive and limited resources may then be directed to those who do not thrive through appropriately targeted interventions that do not bind the hands of those who are intervening.

And yet I see approximately zero chance of such a solution being enacted at scale in the Australian education system. Moreover, I could be wrong about all of this and such a solution may not work. Or I could be partially right but wrong in some important ways.

So, what we really need is a means to try some of these ideas out in individual schools; to experiment; to innovate. We need to seek to determine proof-of-principle. Adrian Piccoli’s idea of the state fully funding independent primary schools may be partway to the solution, although I worry about the extent to which he wishes to regulate them in return.

Because what we need are lots of little independent schools, trying their own thing, forming coalitions together and exploring new ideas, with their teachers free to talk and debate as professionals.

If the politicians want to pursue equity – which is a noble aim – they need to set their teachers free to figure out the route.

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2 thoughts on “How can we make schools more equitable?

  1. John Pierry says:

    Lots to tackle here, but what constitutes a “highly regarded public school in Melbourne” has changed substantially since the ousting of the Kennett government in 1999. Northcote HS has a tightly held catchment area now but in the early 2000s you wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. Even public high schools in leafy suburbs like Hawthorn and Camberwell had terrible (and deserved) reputations before they became what are now referred to as “turnaround” schools.

    Since that time, I have seen a similar pattern with schools in quite disadvantaged areas do the same thing. They are surrounded by low-fee private schools that, recent history shows us, many of which are actually badly run. I say history shows us, because a number of them have closed due to financial mismanagement. The parents who send their children to those schools are not in a position to up stumps and move to the proverbial middle-class leafy. While it’s a small sample size, I personally know of families whose children attended said private schools before they closed, and subsequently enrolled at the local state school, and enjoyed their time there.

    The current pandemic is going to show us in real-life flesh and blood case studies exactly what does happen when families can’t afford the private school fees and send their kids to the local state school, because I can assure you they won’t have the means to sell up and buy into the “zones”. I might go back and have a look at what happened the last time this occurred, which was the GFC in 2009 / 2010. If memory serves, I recall a lot of stories of families moving to government schools for financial reasons and being pleasantly surprised. Plenty of time has passed for proper longitudinal as well as qualitative studies to have taken place. And the GFC was small fry compared to now.

  2. Michael says:

    G’day Greg,

    Another thoughtful piece – thank you.

    I don’t have a definitive answer to any of this. However, I would like to share the following statistics. All of the below is based on the financial data presented on the MySchools website. This is publicly accessible and so can be checked.

    When state and federal funding is combined, my (allegedly overfunded) Catholic independent school saves the taxpayer $3511 per student compared to the government high school down the road. If we were forced to close and all our students were relocated into public education it would cost approximately $5 million extra to educate these kids.

    In essence, I disagree with the theory that lowering the funding (and therefore the student numbers) in private education would add investment to the public system. I think that it would do the opposite. As our parents pay taxes towards public education AND school fees towards private education, they are effectively subsidising the public system.

    I think that this fact is often missed when people decry government funding of non-government schools in Australia.

    Cheers!

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