Forget bakers, why can private schools be bigots?

By | Education | No Comments

BEFORE we get in a tizz about whether bakers are allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples, we should ask why taxpayer-funded schools can refuse to employ them or educate their kids.

The Bill likely to create the mechanics of implementing Australia’s decision to support same-sex marriage is the one proposed by Liberal senator, Dean Smith. The so-called Smith Bill allows churches to refuse to marry same-sex couples. And many in the Parliament appear to accept that this is a reasonable exemption to Australia’s anti-discrimination laws.

Those laws vary a little according to where you live but generally prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, marital status, pregnancy, religious belief, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity.

Marriage in a church is a religious service and the argument is that it is unreasonable to require the delivery of that service when it does not conform with the religious beliefs of the minister performing it.

But some law-makers want to significantly extend the reach of the exemption. Liberal senator James Paterson, for example wanted to see the exemption extended to anyone supplying goods and services to a same-sex wedding, such as florists, bakers and musicians.

Many legislators, including the Prime Minister, are not persuaded that extending that exemption to anyone involved in a same-sex wedding is reasonable. They argue it is a massive overreach which makes a mockery of laws against discrimination. And yet we have already gutted those laws when it comes to education.

Unlike Government-run schools, privately-run schools are largely exempt from the provisions of Australia’s discrimination laws. Under Federal law, a religious school can discriminate against employees, contractors and students on the basis of their “sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy.”

Even harsher provisions are present in some state laws. In New South Wales, for example, all private schools (whether they claim to be religious or not) can refuse to teach or employ people on the basis of marital status, sex, disability, transgender or homosexuality.

In Australia ‘private’ schools are taxpayer funded, often to a level which equals or exceeds their public school neighbours. Those schools are in the business, and make no mistake it is a business, of delivering education services to a third of Australian children. They collectively employ around 146,000 people (almost 40 per cent of Australia’s education workforce) and yet are legally permitted to say and enforce things like: “staff, parents and students of Grace Christian School seek to honour God by … ensuring that sex occurs only within a monogamous marriage, and that we abstain from … homosexual activities.”

If you want a job in, or your child educated in, a very large chunk of the Australian education system your protections against discrimination are non-existent. Your tax dollars are funding institutions which can legally discriminate against you. And yet the debate of the day is whether a baker can refuse to supply a cake to a same-sex couple.

The nation’s attention is now firmly focused on the rights of same-sex couples, so let’s use that opportunity to remove the ridiculous protections afforded to the taxpayer funded businesses we call private schools. That is where ‘religious freedom’ can really bite, not at the local cake-shop or florist.

Also published at RendezView

We can’t afford to means test schools

By | Education | One Comment

Last week the Centre for Independent Studies, a right-wing think-tank, reheated one of Tony Abbott’s most memorable policy blunders and again called for means testing public education. The only problem is that it’s already been done and is failing miserably.

In Australia, there is no such thing as private education.  We have a system where the taxpayer funds all schools but some of them charge fees on top.  In essence, that is voluntary means testing.  Those with the means sometimes choose to pay extra to add to the taxpayer funding being spent on their child.  By any measure, voluntary means testing has been a disaster and there is nothing to suggest it would be improved by making it mandatory.

According to an analysis of MySchool published last month, a middle class public school in Australia costs taxpayers $11,044 a year per child.  At the catholic school across the street taxpayers are forking out $10,915 and at the Independent school next door they are paying $10,785.  In the slightly less well-off suburb down the road the public-school costs $12,165, the Catholic costs $12,375 and the independent comes in at $11,567.

The parents who choose to submit to voluntary means testing (at the Catholic and Independent schools) will be tipping in anywhere between $3,000 and $25,000 a year on top of the taxpayer funding.

Their extra contribution clearly does not save the taxpayer money.  It just means the community as a whole is paying more to educate those children than would be the case if they simply attended a government run school.

The extra dosh also doesn’t improve the academic outcomes.  Studies have repeatedly shown that when comparing demographically matched kids, all that extra cash buys exactly nothing (except more assets for private organisations).

But ‘means testing’ does significantly degrade the performance of our top performing kids and the education system as a whole.   According to the OECD, this rolling failure is driven in no small part by the segregation of our education system into the haves and the have-nots.

The OECD has been studying the relationship between equity of access and academic performance in its member states since the turn of the century.  It has concluded that the most successful school systems are those that increase equity and limit school choice.  If everybody participates in the same system, everyone’s focus is on making that system better. It should be no surprise then that Australia’s performance on the OECD’s measures of achievement and equity have been consistently sliding while we continue to segregate our schools.

Welfare is a direct payment that benefits only the recipient.  It should be means tested to ensure it is allocated only to those who actually need help. But education is not welfare.  Societies that educate their children do better than societies which don’t.  And societies that educate all their children do better than those that only educate the rich.  Yes, individuals benefit directly from having an education but society as a whole benefits far more from having literate, numerate, employable taxpayers.

Our current system tells us adding a co-payment doesn’t save the taxpayer money, harms performance and destroys equity.  The definition of insanity is doing more of the same thing and expecting a different outcome.  Let’s not be insane with education co-payments.


Also published by The Courier Mail

Students will suffer as private schools chase top of the table

By | Education | 3 Comments

AUSTRALIAN private schools are gaming results league tables to get an edge over their competition.

Valuable taxpayer funds are at stake for the school, but often it is the students who are paying the real price.

In the 1870s, Australians collectively decided we needed a free education system.

Gone would be the state-funded, church-run schools that delivered education only to the privileged few. The broken system of church run-education would be history. Well, at least, it would no longer be subsidised. At the time we knew that the only path to a prosperous future was an equitable education system. The only way for society to prosper was to ensure all of us were educated.

A new order was established. The protestant schools retreated to a rump, educating only those who could afford to pay the full freight. The Catholics opted out entirely and offered an (often) impoverished education in accordance with the dictates from Rome. The rest of Australia set about building one of the most impressive education systems the world had ever seen.

There was no competition between schools. There was no marketing. If you were Catholic, you went to the local parish school. If you were well off or religious (and not Catholic) you went to the local protestant school. And both of you paid your own way. Everybody else just went to the local public school.

That didn’t stop the rent-seeking. Many generations of church leaders repeatedly made the argument for government subsidisation often under the guise of “school choice”. The punter was entitled to government funding, they argued, even if they had opted to have education delivered by someone other than the government.

But the argument was stoically resisted. The churches were told their students opted out of a free public service (as was their right), but it did not entitle them to compensation.

The dam broke in 1964. A generation of politicians caved into the temptation of using school funding as a vehicle for pork barrelling. And once the pork was out of the barrel it couldn’t be shoved back in.

Every year since then, the amount of taxpayer funds channelled to the private sector has inexorably increased. As a result, the sector has almost doubled in size.

So now we have “school choice”. There is a vast array of choices and that selection is getting vaster by the day. The trouble is, with choice comes, well, choices. And to “help” us with those choices, schools need to invest in marketing.

Marketing comes in many forms. It might be that flash billboard. Or it might be that ad on the bus or in the paper. But the most insidious form is the one that doesn’t look like marketing and doesn’t cost a cent, the league table.

Ranked lists of schools are based on the percentage of the cohort who took the university eligible subjects. They are easy to manipulate — if you are entirely without conscience.

Let’s say you have a cohort of 100 students and 10 of those are heading for a top range score. If all 100 kids sit university eligible subjects, your rank percentage for those kids with the high scores will be 10 per cent. But if just the right 20 sit the subjects, you are looking much more respectable at 50 per cent.

That difference could easily bump you from the bottom of a league table to the very top.

All a school needs do is convince the kids who won’t make the school look as good, to pick different “pathways”.

As one teacher wrote in an exposé published last week: “these children’s futures are held to ransom for PR opportunities”.

Parents don’t want our educators focused on manipulating their position in a league table.

We want them focused on how they improve the lot of every single student in their care.

The sooner we shut down the notion of privatised delivery of government funded education (and the marketing that entails), the sooner we can begin to claw our way back to the top of the list of the world’s best education systems.


Also published in The Courier Mail

Tablets: Weapons of mass distraction in the classroom

By | Education | No Comments

They cost a fortune and cause havoc at home and yet more and more Australian schools are insisting that younger and younger children be equipped with personal computing devices at school. And even though children (and many educators) love them, there is growing evidence that, far from helping our kids, these devices are likely to be the source of serious harm.

As many of us get our kids ready for school this year, we’ll discover a new and very expensive addition to the booklist. Many Australian schools are requiring that children come equipped with their own personal gaming device, sorry, their own personal computer, for use at school.

It’s a story being repeated in the countries whose education systems are failing even faster than ours (the US and the UK in particular). Like Australia, those countries, guarantee the right to a free education.

Schools can’t technically require a parent to purchase the expensive devices. But, like Australia, the peer pressure on students and parents alike means that almost everybody has one.

Now, however, some parents are pushing back because they say the devices are a distraction in the classroom and almost impossible to police at school and at home.

The push to require younger and younger children to use computers is driven by the simplistic argument that they will be ‘left behind’ if they don’t. Since computer use will inevitably be required in whatever career they choose, the earlier they start the better, or so the story goes.

The same argument could be made for driving a car, but oddly very few schools are integrating driving lessons into their preschool programs.

The reason is obvious, people will get hurt and the potential benefits are massively outweighed by the risks. There is nothing to suggest the equation is any different for personal computing devices in the classroom. And even putting aside the patent absurdity of teaching students to use tech that will be obsolete by next Tuesday (let alone when they graduate), schools have so far been blinded by the flash of the new.

Increasingly parents are demanding to see evidence that schoolroom devices deliver educational results. And while there is evidence of benefit for repetitive learning when a computer is shared by a small group there is a surprising dearth of evidence for personal devices in class. Worse, evidence of direct harm is accumulating rapidly.

Because of the enormous cost of doing it properly, controlled trials are pretty rare in education. But scientists from the MIT Department of Economics have recently published exactly that. They randomly divided the entire first year of a US college introductory economics course into 3 groups. One group had unrestricted access to tablets in class. The second group could use them but they had to be flat on the desk. And the third group had no access at all.

The results were significant. The students who had no in-class access to devices consistently outperformed all other students by almost two per cent.

And while that doesn’t sound mind blowing, falling behind two per cent in just one semester can accumulate to quite an academic disaster if it’s multiplied by the 24 semesters of education most Australian kids get through.

Interestingly the results for each of the groups who had access were the same. It didn’t matter whether the students had open slather access or strictly controlled access, their performance was impaired.

Add that evidence of academic harm to the accumulating pile of health (especially psychological) impacts (such as increased aggression, e-bullying, ADHD and psychosis) and there are very real concerns about letting these devices into classrooms. It is one of the reasons that one of the world’s best education systems, Finland, bans personal devices in the classroom and it could be part of why many Asian school systems with relatively low computer use are pulling away from us academically.

As Dr Nicholas Kardaras (author of Glow Kids) put it, ‘If screens are indeed digital drugs, then schools have become drug dealers.’ Schools shouldn’t be encouraging in-school (and at-home) use of devices designed purposefully to encourage procrastination. And they certainly shouldn’t be doing it on the say-so of the local iPad dealer.

We do not need our schools to become part of the problem. We do not need our schools to be dealers in digital distraction. And most of all we do not need to throw up more barriers to equitable access to education.

But we do need our schools to demand proof of significant benefit before they become the unpaid salesforce of multinational computer companies. And most of all, we need them to hit the pause button while they figure it out.

First published by The Courier Mail

To have world-beating students we need world-beating teachers

By | Education | One Comment

Australia’s exam results are in and they are not pretty. Our education system continues to slide backwards while the rest of the world races forward. Worse than that, the gap between the rich and the poor stubbornly persists and grows. And that is the real tragedy because it tells us that we are actively destroying the one thing that could save our economy when the coal runs out – intelligence.

In Australia it is an undeniable fact of education statistics that socioeconomic status predicts academic performance. On average, the children of low-income parents do not perform as well academically as the children of high-income parents.

Earlier this year the Grattan Institute analysed the 2015 NAPLAN results and put some hard numbers around that assertion. They found that high scoring Year 3 students from the lowest income quintile are almost 2 years behind their peers (with identical starting scores) from families in the highest income quintile by Year 9.  They all started out as potentially great Australian thinkers, but just six years later, that potential had been severely inhibited in the kids without money.

Too many academic writers are willing to put that down to better breeding (whatever that may be), but the reality is that it’s a symptom of an ineffectual (and dysfunctional) education system.

Another way of saying this is that in Australia, your home life has more impact on your learning than what goes on at school. In many cases, school has become an interruption to learning rather than a cause of it.

Genetically, IQ is not influenced by a person’s socioeconomic status but it’s a testament to the failure of our education system that here, academic performance is. Here, the size of the numbers in your parents’ bank account determines your academic success not the size of the numbers on your IQ test.

We could save everybody a lot of anguish if we simply handed out final results based on an income test rather than an academic test. The result is not likely to be materially different to those we get now. And that would be true no matter which school system you chose.

The job of a good education system is to, well, deliver good education – to everybody. A good education system should be blind to any disadvantage. It should ensure that students perform to their full potential regardless of their home environment, where they live or their parents’ jobs. In the countries that are putting us to shame, that is exactly what their education system achieves.

In the latest round of OECD tests (PISA), 9 of the 14 countries that beat us in science (for example) had systems in which economic disadvantage is barely a factor. A poor student in Macao or Hong Kong was three times as likely to perform well as that same student in Australia.

Australian taxpayers fund education because countries that educate their children do better than those that don’t. And yet we are happy to pay for a system that is so broken that it consigns most of our children to the learning rubbish heap. That is a tragedy for them but it is a disaster for Australia. We can’t afford to waste potential like that. It is the educational equivalent of shutting three out of every four of our businesses and farms. If for no other reason than naked self-interest, Australia needs desperately to fix its highly inequitable education system.

We won’t do that with charity. We already spend more on education than most of the countries who are flogging us.  We won’t do it by making it harder to become a teacher. And we certainly won’t do it by giving every school a new library or a better cricket pitch.

We will do it by copying the one thing that all the high performing countries do. We will ensure every teacher in every school is better today than they were yesterday. We will do that using proven systems of mentoring and peer review. We will no longer throw teaching graduates into classrooms and give them 4 days a year of lip-service ‘professional development.’ We will monitor their every move and help them ensure the next move is a better one.

The systems that outperform us by a country mile are systems designed to make sure the teachers keep learning too. For people with a passion for teaching, this would be heaven on a stick. A true professional would eat this up. Someone who just wanted a secure job with good holidays and shorter-than-average hours would be less inclined to apply. It’s a system designed to attract only professional educators and make them even better at their job as they go.

Do that and we will truly have the foundation for a school system, and kids, that can beat the world.


Also published in The Courier Mail and the Huffington Post

How to fix our plummeting Maths and Science results

By | Education | 2 Comments

The results of the latest international benchmark tests are now in.  Once again the picture is not a pretty one for Australia.  Once again there will be much hand-wringing.  And once again nothing will change.

Every four years since 1995, Australia has participated in an international benchmarking test in science and maths (TIMSS).  Last year, 6,057 Australian Year 4 students and 10,338 year 8 students took part in the latest round.   Australia’s performance on all tests was mediocre (at best) and showed no significant improvement since 1995.  Meanwhile many other countries have significantly improved.

The scores are divided into 5 bands.  Just 5% of our year 4 students managed to perform at the highest level (let’s call that an A) in maths.  But 50% of Singapore students (for example) perform at that level.  By year 8, 7% of Australian kids get an A, but 54% of Singapore do.

The story is no more palatable in science.  Just 8% of our year 4s would get an A in science while 37% would in Singapore.  Just 7% of our year 8s get an A, compared to 42% of Singapore’s year 8s.

Overall, Australia has dropped 5 places in Year 8 results since 2011 and 10 places in year 4 maths results (our year 4 science was already terrible in 2011).

Of course, these results have been politicised within seconds of release.  The Labor Party says they show we need to spend more on schools and the Government says we need to fix up teaching.  Both statements are right as far as they go.  Unfortunately, based on previous performance, putting out a press release is as far as either party will go.

We can fix Australian education.  But to do it, two important vested interests, the rent-seeking private education providers and the teaching unions, need to leave the field of battle.  And it would be good if they took their political patrons with them.

Australian taxpayers give $12 billion a year to private education providers.  That amount is growing very rapidly and is a big contributor to the rapid rises in costs of Australian education.  It does not go towards better classrooms or teachers for the children who need it most, rather large chunks of it are spent on marketing to secure the next round of bums-on-seats based funding from the taxpayer.

The other incessant driver of cost increases is smaller class sizes driven by teaching unions.  Once again billions are spent and not a cent of it goes towards improving teaching or facilities. Meanwhile, the countries flogging us in TIMSS have been leaving class sizes at levels last seen in Australia in the 1960s and using the money that saves to focus on what goes on in those classes.

In those countries there’s a constant and pervasive culture of teacher-performance mentoring – not monitoring, mentoring. Teachers are treated like the professionals they are. They’re not abandoned in their classrooms to sink or swim, they’re constantly watched, receive constant feedback from acknowledged experts in teaching and must repeatedly demonstrate their capabilities. The career path keeps the people with the expertise at the coalface helping to bring others along. Good teachers are not promoted out of the classroom, they’re given progressively greater influence over the effectiveness of other teachers. Good teachers are used to breed more good teachers.

Systems like this have been in place in Finland since the mid-1990s, and are being progressively implemented in China, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore. They’re now starting to bear fruit as all of these countries race ahead of Australia.

Australia’s version of all this is very ordinary by comparison. In 2013, the OECD conducted a detailed survey of all OECD teachers. The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) revealed that while Australia certainly has teaching and mentoring programs, most new Australian teachers reported that they received little or no constructive feedback from the programs, it was rarely based on classroom observation and, as a result, it was disconnected from student learning. Most teacher professional development consisted of attendance at one-off courses and wasn’t part of any longer term collaborative research program.

Any incentive to improve is severely lacking. Ninety per cent of Australian teachers said they’d receive no recognition (and they’re not talking about pay) if they improved the quality of their teaching or were more innovative in the classroom. Nearly half of all teachers felt that appraisal of their work was merely a box-ticking administrative exercise and had little, if any, impact on what they actually do every day.

This mentoring and professionalism stuff is all well and good, but all this time away from class, researching and watching others, would cost a packet. The students don’t disappear. There still has to be someone in the classroom, but with their teacher off ‘gallivanting’, more teachers need to be employed to cover the classes. The interesting thing is that each of the high-performing school systems actually costs less than the Australian education system and considerably less than the OECD average. And it’s not because the teachers are poorly paid. When all the economic adjustments and fiddles are made to ensure we’re comparing apples with apples, teachers in some of these systems earn more than Australian teachers and have careers that allow them to earn even more if they’re effective.

The high-performing countries aren’t extracting the cost of teacher mentoring from teachers’ salaries, they’re getting the money by keeping class sizes high. The average Shanghai teacher is working with a class of 40 children, whereas the average Australian teacher has only a little over half that many rascals (23) to deal with.

The combined effect of privatising our schools and caving in to union demands on class sizes is to make the entire system much more expensive while not meaningfully improving anything about the delivery of education.  Both things can be fixed.  But both things require more political will than either side has shown until now.

If we want to keep reading headlines about how far behind Australia’s education system is falling behind, then the path is clear.  Keep doing what we’ve done up until now.  But if we’d rather not pick of the paper in 2020 and read we are now dead last on TIMSS 2019, then now would be a good time to do something about it.

Stop public cash for private schools

By | Education | 4 Comments

The education Minister thinks some private schools are over-funded.  He’s wrong.  They all are.

According to the latest figures we have available, Australian taxpayers spend $12 billion a year propping up the businesses we call private schools.  That is more than we spend on unemployment benefits and sickness allowance combined and it is about 12 times as much as we spend on the ABC and SBS.  And that’s just for recurrent expenses. We also generously hurl another billion in their direction so they can build capital facilities that taxpayers don’t own and are not permitted to use.  Since most of these businesses are also tax exempt those numbers are just the tip of our generosity.

The spin masters employed by these private businesses often run the line that they are doing taxpayers a favour by taking their money.  They point out that while it does cost taxpayers $9,327 per student per year to educate one of their clients, it would cost the government $13,783 to do it in a government-run school.  My goodness golly gosh they’re generous, they’re saving us $4,456 per student. Except they aren’t.  More than half ($2,386) of that ‘saving’ is notional because it is for depreciation of the school assets owned by the public schools.  The school doesn’t see a cent of it in its operating budget.  Not one teacher is paid with it.  Not one book is purchased with it.  But that notional expense is included in the calculation for the government-run school and not for the privately-run school.

Once you drop that accounting trickery out, the gap narrows considerably.  In 2014 it cost the taxpayer just 18% less to have the child educated ‘privately’ .  And that gap has been closing very quickly.  In 2009 it was 28%.  At that rate of progress it should cease to exist at all in the next 5 or 6 years.

Even though are getting relatively less and less government money, it is the government-run schools taking on the more challenging task educationally.  They teach 7 times as many students classified by the ABS as living ‘very remotely’ and 4 times as many students classed as being ‘remote.’ When it comes to children with special needs, once again it is those same schools doing the heavy lifting, educating 3.3 times as many children with a disability as their ‘private’ brethren.

And unlike government-run schools, privately-run schools are largely exempt from the provisions of Australia’s discrimination laws. They are permitted by law to pick and choose who they will and will not be bothered trying to educate.   In New South Wales for example they can refuse to teach (or employ) people on the basis of marital status, sex, disability, transgender or homosexuality.  Queensland is less discriminatory.  Here schools can only pick and choose on the basis of not liking someone’s religion.

But let’s not fall into the trap of arguing about the pennies and ignore the pounds.  The real question is why is the taxpayer contributing anything all?  The taxpayer provides a fully funded secular system open to all comers.  People can choose not to use the system, but if they choose to opt-out why does the taxpayer owe them anything?  If I choose not to take the bus to work, I don’t get to ask the government to buy me a car.  If I choose not to use a public swimming pool, I don’t get to ask the taxpayer to build me one.  If I choose to employ a security guard I don’t get to send the taxpayer a bill for the police time I am saving them.

Meanwhile our results in benchmark tests continue to slide.  Our rankings on international comparative tests have been dropping like a stone.  We now rank 14th (out of 32 OECD) countries behind Poland, Germany and Vietnam.  Worse, analysis of the numbers shows it is the private schools which are letting us down the most.

Usually when taxpayers subsidise something it is to gain a collective benefit.  We subsidise child care because the government wants parents to work.  We subsidise medical treatment because we want our population to be healthy and we subsidise local manufacturing because we want to keep those skills in Australia.  There is however no reasonable justification for the extraordinary public funding of private choices in Australian education.  It doesn’t save money, it doesn’t improve results, it divides our education system along class lines and it entrenches legally justified discrimination.

So, Minister, let’s not fret too much about who is on the ‘hit-list’ and who isn’t.  Let’s put them all on that list and get on with using that $12 billion a year to fix our education system.

Also published in The Courier Mail

Time to de-fund private school system

By | Education | 2 Comments

Want to save the taxpayer $11 billion a year?  De-fund the ‘private’ school system.

Malcolm Turnbull is digging around in the back of the couch looking for loose change tax savings while the Australian taxpayer pours billions into our privately run education system.  If things are really that dire, perhaps it’s time to seriously contemplate the Sacred Cow (or is it Elephant?) standing in the middle of the room.

In 1963 (and for the century before that), the Australian taxpayer contributed nothing to private education. This was very intentional choice.  We had decided that the taxpayer funded, church run system we had before that was an inequitable, rolling disaster which educated only the rich and everyone else be buggered.

We thought that probably wasn’t a solid foundation for new egalitarian nation, so we purposefully decided to wrest control from the various churches and instead fund a high quality, public, secular, free education available to everybody.  You could opt out but that was a choice you made, and paid for, yourself.

Some people did opt out.  If you were Catholic (and listened to the Pope’s edicts on education) you sent your kids to a Catholic school.  You paid the freight yourself and hoped for generous donations from nuns who worked for room and board, the Church and congregations.   And if you were filthy rich you might also get your chequebook out and pony up to the high-end (usually protestant) equivalent.  But neither of you would be getting a penny from the taxpayer to assist you with your choice.

A very similar system operates today in the US, UK, New Zealand and well, pretty much everywhere else.  It is also the system we use for most other public services.  If I choose not to use public transport, I don’t get to have the taxpayer buy me a Porsche.  If I choose not to rely on the police for security, I don’t get to bill the taxpayer for a security guard.  And if I prefer not to use a public pool, I don’t get help to build my own.

But now in Australia things are very different.  Because of our designed-to-fail Federal-State funding system and constant pork-barreling by both sides of politics, the taxpayer has been steadily tipping more and more into the ‘private’ education sector.

Now the taxpayer pumps an eye-popping $11 billion a year into schools run by private entities (about 10 times what we spend running the ABC and about the same as we spend on unemployment and sickness benefits).  And that does not count the charitable tax breaks and exemptions most of them also enjoy.

Besides operating expenses, that money is splurged on private assets like swimming pools, libraries, computer labs and sports fields, the likes of which most public schools can only dream about.  And sometimes, as with the recent case of the Malek Fahd Islamic School, apparently not spent on education at all.

But there is something even worse than spending $11 billion a year buying other people swimming pools and hypoxic simulated altitude-training environments (that you’re not allowed to use).  And that is doing it while delivering a worse result than when you didn’t spend any money.

Consistent testing tells us a modern Australian student is performing at a level about a quarter of a year behind their 1964 peer.  And if that’s not bad enough, that same student is now more than two years behind the highest performing school systems in the world.  All Australian schools performed terribly in the latest round of international comparative tests. But our best private schools did even worse than everybody else. The rest of the world has rushed forward while we have drifted backwards.

Not only have taxpayers gained nothing for their extraordinary generosity, they have ended up with a system in deep trouble.  But we knew that would happen.  It’s one of the reasons we stopped doing it the first time around.

Defunding the private education sector is not something you could do next Tuesday afternoon, but it is something that could be easily implemented with appropriate notice.

It would not destroy the religious education sector and it would not overwhelm the public sector.  But it would slowly reverse the exodus of easy-to-teach kids, cost less, restore equity and likely improve everybody’s results.  How do I know?  Well, we’ve been there, done that and bought the T-Shirt, once already.


Also published in The Courier Mail

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Don’t fall for marketing spin when it comes to public v private education debate

By | Education, Media | 2 Comments

WHAT better way to frame the public vs private school debate, which is back on again thanks to recent research by the University of Queensland, than with a solid footy metaphor.

One of my sons plays AFL for a local suburban club in Brisbane. It’s a good club. They take masses of kids in every year and give them an excellent grounding in the game. Some take to it and some don’t but they all learn more about footy. Every few decades someone from the club even makes it to the AFL.

This pretty good club also has a senior team which wins the local Brisbane comp every so often. But I am reasonably certain that if they were to take on Collingwood or Geelong (or even the Brisbane Lions) they would be completely decimated.

Everybody knows this. Everybody accepts this. And nobody suggests that this means my local club is a bad club. We all know that the professional AFL club has (literally) spent millions recruiting a team full of A-List players. Did the AFL coaches make those players brilliant? No. They recruited players they already knew were brilliant from clubs like ours.

We quite happily accept that this is how sports work. But when it comes to another area of skill acquisition, suddenly we turn off our common sense and gullibly accept self-interested marketing.

In Australia some schools choose their student body. These schools are overwhelmingly fee-receiving ‘private’ schools and they target their marketing at high income parents (which, unfortunately in this country correlates with academic performance).  To egg the pudding they also top up the better-than-average kids with proven performers using academic scholarships. Then when these kids perform exactly the way their family income and results would predict they might (wherever they went to school), they use those results as marketing fodder for the next generation.

These schools are the education equivalent of Collingwood or Geelong (or even the Brisbane Lions). But when my local public school is compared to the Really Flash Grammar School in a league table suddenly RFGS is great school and my local is rubbish. The comparison is no more reasonable than comparing my local football club to a professional sports club, but it is what we do every time we look at a league table of schools arranged by average NAPLAN score.

The only reasonable way of comparing my local club with Collingwood is to measure the value it adds. Player A had these measurable proficiencies at the start of the season and improved them by this measurable margin by the end. It doesn’t matter whether the player is in the worst of the under 8s or the next Gary Ablett. A good coach should be able to get measurable improvement from every player.

This is no less true in schools. The performance which matters, the only criteria that should matter, is the measurable gain in student performance. This means measurable gain for every student. It means moving every child forward every year. It does not mean showering praise on schools whose only claim to fame was ensuring they selected the right kids in the first place.

Fortunately in Australia we have a public database of student gain (yep, it was news to me too). We can all visit a free government website (, plug in the name of any school and see whether students at that school have achieved more, less or the same as the rest of the nation between each NAPLAN test.

But be careful. You’re in for some surprises and might not like what you see. You might find that the local high school that everyone says is populated by yobs is adding value in significant leaps and bounds. You might find that RFGS is subtracting value for its $30k a year fees. And you might find the opposite.

What you will definitely find is that there is no correlation between how much people are (or aren’t) paying to attend the school and whether it is likely to add value. So do yourself a favour, don’t be a victim of slick marketing. Find the schools that are adding value and let student gain be your yardstick (not the number of BMWs in the parking lot). Do that, and you are sure to make an excellent choice for your children’s education.

Also published in The Courier Mail

Image courtesy of digitalart at

Why copy US university system? It’s the world’s worst

By | Education, Media, Print | 2 Comments

Australia has one of the highest equity, best performing Tertiary education systems in the world.  Now the government wants to toss that model in the bin and copy a system which is comprehensively failing to deliver benefits for its students, employers or taxpayers.  Please tell me we aren’t about to destroy our higher education system because our Education Minister really, really likes Americans.

Just like taxpayers in every developed country, Australian taxpayers help fund higher education with direct payments to Universities and low interest loans to students.  We do that because the benefits to the country in having highly educated people generally outweigh the costs.  And in Australia we get especially good value for money.  We are one of only 5 OECD countries where public benefits (higher taxes and reduced welfare) are higher than the costs to the taxpayer.

When it comes to taxpayer contributions to higher education, Australia is the the 7th cheapest country in the OECD (just ahead of Columbia, the US, Japan, the UK, Korea and Chile). Here taxpayer funds cover just 45.6% of the cost of Tertiary education, way below the OECD average of 69.2%.

We may be cheap but our higher educators are kicking some pretty serious goals when it comes to the outcomes that matter.  Our graduates have the 5th best literacy proficiency in the OECD (on par with the best in the world, Japan, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden).  We’re only 12th best in numeracy, but that is still well above the average for the OECD.

Even when it comes to research, our bargain basement Universities are up with the big spenders. We are second only to Sweden in the percentage of GDP devoted to University R&D.   And we are spending proportionately three times as much as our neighbours in the cheap seats, Chile.

We manage all of that with one of the most accessible and equitable university sectors on the planet.  Here, 17% of school leavers entering Higher Education are from the lowest quartile of the population. And that rate has been steadily climbing, up from 15.7% in 2006.  In the US, the trend is very much in the opposite direction, dropping from 12% in 1970 to just 7% now.

We have a cheap-as-chips, high performing tertiary education system, but now the government wants to make us even cheaper by shaving a fifth ($1.7 billion a year) off the taxpayer contribution.  The only way to do that and still have a higher education system is to ask the students to contribute even more.

If the funding cuts were the only changes being proposed then we would justifiably fret about whether taxpayers really would get monkeys if we pay (less) peanuts.  Yes, it would cost the individual more to get the education they want and yes, that may impact on the number of people likely to want to do the things Australia needed them to do. And yes that may result in lower tax collections, more debt and more welfare.

But none of it would be immediately catastrophic.  And any damage could be easily reversed if it started to look ugly.  If only the same could be said for the other little change the Minister for Education wants to make.

As a bit of a sweetener for the G8 (Group of Eight largest universities in the country), the Education Minister has decided to allow tertiary institutions to charge whatever they like and the government will still pick up its part of the bill.  And it’s worked. Instead of G8 Vice-Chancellors baying for the Minister’s blood over the huge cuts, they are thinking of electing him Pope (or something).

The Minister has done this because he wants our University system to be market driven just like the US.  He feels that is the only way to get our Universities in the top 100 in the world (as determined by just about everything but the quality of the students they produce).  And if that’s the goal then copying the US is probably as good a way as any of doing it.  It’s just a pity it will destroy Australia’s high equity, high student outcome, tertiary education system in the process.

Just like the privatised US Health system the privatised US higher education system is a case study in market failure.  Even though US citizens and taxpayers spend more on universities than any other country, the US comes in 15th out of 34 OECD countries when it comes to educational attainment.

It is a system divided into outrageously expensive premium universities (which is the prize our G8 are eyeing off) and a large swath of cheap back to basics institutions.  Neither the expensive few, nor the rest, produce desirable outcomes for the student population.

American college graduate academic performance is abysmal and sliding fast.  An Australian graduate is almost twice as likely to get a job as their US counterpart. But it will personally cost the US graduate 4 times as much and the US taxpayer 50% more.

This is what happens when you destroy equity in an education system.  Do we really want to copy that?

First published in The Courier Mail

Image courtesy of patpitchaya at

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