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Issue #1590      April 24, 2013

Education privatisation agenda

The $14.5 billion “Gonski” package for state and private (church and other) schools failed to gain one signatory at last week’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting. State and territory governments walked away from the table, seeking more time to consider and play politics. The plan is to cut university funding to help pay for the extra dollars for schools. The government is to contribute an extra $9.4 billion over six years, conditional on significant reforms to public education and an extra $4.1 billion from the states.

If implemented, the “Gonski” reforms will lay the foundations for a voucher system and create the basis for privatisation of state schools and the entry of the for-profit corporate sector.

“I am launching the biggest changes to school education in our nation for 40 years,” Gillard told a press conference. That is true. But what a contrast in philosophy and the nature of changes to those of the Whitlam Labor government in the early to mid-1970s!

The Whitlam government increased education funding at all levels on a massive scale with a focus on innovation, equality and need. The references to “equality” and “need” were not just fine-sounding rhetoric. University fees were abolished and the expansion of technical and further education (then given the name TAFE) provided gateways for the most disadvantaged, including non-English speaking migrants, Indigenous Australians, women, early school leavers, the unemployed and older workers to re-enter the education system.

There was a marked philosophical shift that focused on the broader development of the individual, not just producing narrowly skilled workers for employers. The public education system was free at all levels. While by no means perfect, it was about education in the full sense of the term, not just passing numeracy and literacy tests.

Since then successive governments have starved public education and the promise now of more funding and greater equity is, not surprisingly, very popular with parents, teachers and the wider community. But not so well publicised or understood are the other elements of the package and their consequences.

The federal government’s extra $9.4 billion is to be phased in over six years – 2014 to 2019 – plus annual indexation of 4.7 percent. This will be funded in part by $2.3 billion in cuts to tertiary education over and above the cuts announced in the mid-year financial statement. The other cuts will be revealed in the May budgets.

Another $1 billion will be sourced from the non-continuation of some existing education programs. Details of just how the additional spending will be phased in are still to be released. When considered on an annual basis, the amounts do not sound so impressive.

The states on their part must contribute one dollar for every two dollars from the government – a total of $4.1 billion over six years. They must commit to no further cuts to school funding, to an annual three percent indexation of the extra contribution, and sign a new National Education Reform Agreement which includes “national school improvement reforms.”

These reforms include:

  • principals given greater powers and autonomy
  • each school to have an improvement plan
  • higher entry standards for teaching profession
  • measures to improve teacher quality
  • ongoing training and support
  • annual performance assessment of teachers
  • personalised learning plans for each student
  • students to have access to Asian language classes.

There is no mention of paying all teachers a salary commensurate with their responsibilities as professionals and the complexities of their occupation.

The new system could see schools and teachers bogged down in anything but teaching and much of the additional funding soaked up by a host of new requirements and structures including: Empowering Local Schools; Australian Curriculum; School Improvement Plans; Safe School Plans; National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy; National School Improvement Assessment Tool; National Safe School Framework; Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency; Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership; Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority; Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework; and Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

And there is the MySchool website for parents to shop around on the education market for the “best” product, finances permitting.

Voucher system

In line with the Gonski report, the government has adopted the concept of a Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) which provides a base amount of funding per student. The SRS has been set at $9,271 for primary school students and $12,193 for secondary school students for 2014, when the scheme is set to commence. It will be indexed by 3.6 percent annually.

There will be an additional loading attached to students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, Indigenous students, students with a disability, students with limited English proficiency, small schools, and in relation to school location.

Public schools will receive the full SRS from governments. Non-government schools will receive a proportion of the amount per student which will be determined according to an estimated capacity of a school community to make private contributions.

The loadings will apply at all schools, which means that a private school would benefit from the loading attached to an Indigenous student or a student with a disability or low proficiency level in English. There are no obligations on schools to use that funding to benefit the students it is attached to. It could be spent on anything – even a chaplain.

The money will be provided to school education authorities (Catholic, state, etc) who will then distribute it to schools.

The allocation of funding to a student, as against allocating the necessary funds to a school on the basis of its needs, has similarities with the neo-liberal casemix model for hospitals where a set amount is paid for each procedure. It is what is known as a voucher system.

Any additional funding is welcome by under-funded, under-resourced state schools, but the base rate, even with all the loadings, will do little to reduce the gross inequalities when compared with the rich private schools where $25,000 or more is spent per student.

The fact that the government will continue to give these richest schools millions in handouts every year and index those donations is criminal.

British model

The plan takes another step towards giving public schools greater autonomy to hire and fire and undermine teaching conditions. It is creating the framework for the gradual unwinding and eventual destruction of the public education system as we know it. There are strong parallels with the publicly funded “free schools” and transformation of public schools into “academies” in England.

Academies are semi-independent of state authorities with greater freedom over finances, curriculum and teachers’ pay and conditions.

“Free” schools can be set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities and voluntary non-profit-making groups. They are publicly funded in the same way as academies and based on the charter school system in the US. About 10 percent of all state schools in England are academies or “free” schools.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has strongly condemned the system of academies and “free” schools. Staff and parents are denied any say in the conversion of state schools into academies. The NUT says that the “new academies program has nothing to do with social justice, but rather it will entrench social divisions creating a school system of the ‘best and the rest’.”

This system, “coupled with the plan for new schools run by private providers, will undermine the structures of state education, including national pay and conditions”, the NUT warned.

Last year Britain’s Education Minister Michael Gove removed the requirement that teachers be qualified. Already 10 percent of teachers in free schools are unqualified.

Privatisation

In February this year, the government’s privatisation plans for the public education system in England were revealed in leaked Department of Education documents. “Free” schools and academies will be allowed to become profit-making and completely detached from government control and academies even be sold to the private sector.

This is where Gillard’s “education revolution”, now rebadged as a “National Plan for School Improvement”, is headed. Right down the same privatisation path. The voucher model establishes government (state and fed) contributions to funding which is attached to the individual student.

The conditions being placed on state and territory governments include greater school autonomy and devolution of the public education system. A number of state governments, in particular the Victorian government, are well down this path. School autonomy over hiring and firing of teachers and their payment is a key element of the privatisation agenda.

The media have focused on the extra funding of schools and the cuts to universities to help fund the “Gonski” reforms. They serve as an effective smokescreen, diverting attention from the big picture of privatisation. It should not be forgotten that Gonski is a leading, pro-privatisation business figure, not an educationalist or progressive.

Counter-productive cuts

That is not to suggest extra funding is not needed in state schools or that the cuts to universities should not be opposed. They should be; they are nothing short of criminal. In fact they expose how insincere the government is in its claims of equity and wanting to see more children go on to university.

The federal government has set the example of robbing one sector of education to pay for another with the savage cuts to higher education. If the states and territories come on board, then watch for more big cuts to TAFE, hospitals and other vital public services.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is strongly opposed to the cuts which come on top of previously announced $2 billion in cuts. Some of the largest universities will lose over $50 million over a two-year period.

These cuts will hurt the most disadvantaged and affect the quality of education.

As the NTEU points out, the easiest way for universities to respond is to cut staff and courses, further casualise employment and increase class sizes. The proposed conversion of student Start-up Scholarships into HECS style loans will have a serious impact on the most disadvantaged students.

The union points out that for a student studying a three-year accounting degree, the measure will amount to a debt of $6,000 on top of a $30,000 HECS debt for tuition.

Mat Golding’s cartoon on the NTEU Dumb Cuts website sums it up with Tertiary Education Minister Craig Emerson saying, “We’re making drastic cuts to tertiary education to help give our kids the best chance of getting a tertiary education.”

Oppose the cuts

Visit the NTEU campaign website (dumbcuts.org.au), sign the petition and urge your friends, work colleagues and family to do likewise.

Contact your MP and state Senators, email the Prime Minister, Tertiary Education Minister Craig Emerson, Higher Education and Skills Minister Sharon Bird and School Education Minister Peter Garrett. This can be done through their websites, writing to them at Parliament in Canberra.

Let them know the cuts are not on. That tertiary education needs an increase in funding. Remind them of that Whitlam did 40 years ago, that Whitlam increased university funding and abolished fees. You might like to make a few suggestions as to where the money comes from:

  • Cut funding to rich private schools
  • Slash military spending by 10 percent
  • Increase corporate taxation by one percent
  • A genuine super profits tax on mining and finance sectors.

Defend public education

Finally, it is time to reassess the Gonski privatisation agenda, and demand additional funding for state schools without strings attached. TAFE and university fees should be abolished, additional support staff provided in schools, and teacher numbers and salaries increased. Funding to private schools should be gradually phased out. These simple reforms would go a long way to improving the quality of education in Australia.   

Next article – Editorial – Maduro’s victory in Venezuela – lessons in social change

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