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Issue #1644      June 25, 2014

School choice – a free market theology

I am a teacher and educational researcher. I have taught and consulted in over 80 public, Catholic and independent schools in Victoria, NSW and the UK over a period of 18 years. I am also a graduate of the Melbourne Business School, having studied management, economics and marketing. I am here as a public education advocate and have been a member of and broadcaster for the Defence of Government Schools organisation (DOGS) since 2006. I introduce myself and describe my background in this way to let you know that the ideas put forward in this talk are derived from an arguably informed perspective.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced the federal government would spend $70 million to help up to 1,500 public schools become independent by 2017. This amounts to about $40,000 per school, in other words, small change. Pyne, and the government he represents, are doing this because:

One day [he says] I’d like to see every public school having a level of autonomy and independence that means that student outcomes are student-first priority.

Nested in this seemingly nonsensical statement is a belief in free market fundamentalism or, as I term it, free market theology.

What is free market theology?

I am not describing the term as a positive economic theory of the behaviour of supernatural beings or deities but as an unquestionable belief that free markets provide the greatest possible equity and prosperity, and that any interference with the market process decreases social wellbeing. In Australia, this can be summed up in a simple belief:

Private is good, public is bad.

This translates into the practical world of education funding as “Private schools are good, public schools are bad – so let’s make public schools act like private schools.”

John F Kennedy once said that “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie ... but the myth” because belief in myths allows “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought” [Kennedy 1962]. Both the Coalition government and the Labor opposition are enjoying the comfort of the myth that school autonomy in budgeting and staffing leads to better student outcomes while ignoring the discomfort of mounting evidence against that. There is evidence that school autonomy has no relationship with student outcomes, while leading to both increasing corruption and higher levels of social, cultural and racial segregation. Mr Pyne’s ideas are an example of pure free market theology overlayed on an education system.

For an education system to be effective it must be accountable, effective and efficient – in that order.

Three systems

In Australia, we don’t have an education system – we have three school systems. I wish to look at each of these three to determine if they are accountable, effective and efficient. Efficiency is a first-order value in the world of free market theology and believers state that efficiency leads to effectiveness. Accountability is more often expressed as “more red tape” and dismissed as an irrelevant irritant that wastes resources and time ...

I. The state school system. Takes all comers. Free (sort of), secular (sort of), and compulsory. It is taxpayer-funded and encourages/demands small parental contributions. The state system educates the vast majority of kids, including the vast majority of disadvantaged, disabled, the brightest and the Indigenous. This system still educates a bit over 60 percent of the population. On the whole, accountable, effective and efficient. Government schools have a weakened central bureaucracy in many states, but remain accountable at all levels and efficient due to low levels of government support. Pyne’s reforms will weaken state-based educational institutions and create an even weaker school political voice in Canberra, and state ministers (especially in Victoria) do not actively advocate for their state education systems. That is left to parent groups, the teacher unions and activist groups like the DOGS.

2. The Catholic system. Taxpayer funded. Parental contributions. Exempt from all anti-discrimination laws, enrol whom they choose, sometimes the poor and needy, but as a matter of “charity” rather than from inclusive values. The Gonski review highlighted this as a statistical reality. The Catholic system unaccountable to taxpayers (average time between audits for Catholic schools approximately 50 years). A large, effective, centralised Catholic bureaucracy opaquely transfers government funding from school to school. Historically ineffective at educating all, and not interested anyway. Sectarian. Inefficient (and as their “existence” is a result of religious belief, they are by and large tax exempt, and lower levels of direct government funding are supplemented by tax exemptions). Also, there is a duplication of school places leading to system-wide waste. There is NO suggestion by Mr Pyne that any Catholic school should be “autonomous” or “independent” and it is noted that Catholic education representatives only signed up to the Gonski reforms under the condition that both their administrative processes and funding levels remained untouched! They are politically very powerful and their lobby groups are well resourced – in part with taxpayer’s money.

3. The (in)dependent system. Taxpayer funded. Parental contributions. Functionally unaccountable, the wealthiest of these schools often possess vast undeclared capital assets procured over time. No financial data has been available since 2011 on the Myschool website. The least wealthy of these schools are funded at the same level as the state schools down the road, are dependent on government funding and would cease to exist without it. Many low fee (in)dependent schools are religious in nature (Exclusive Brethren, Scientology, Shia, Sunni, Jewish and various forms of proselytising Christian) and are deeply resistant to curriculum that questions their belief systems. They are ineffective and inefficient (see Catholic schools above). Added to this, they are not only exempt from anti-discrimination legislation but the wealthy (in)dependent schools are attractive to the aspirational middle class and also actively discriminate by parental income and are in what has been described as an “arms race” of facilities building, which generates further inefficiencies. They are politically very powerful and their lobby groups are well resourced – in part with taxpayers’ money.

So, if we go back to the free market idea that “Private is good and public is bad”, we can see Mr Pyne’s path to improvement of the public education system is making public schools like the (in)dependent schools by breaking them up, cutting them loose from support and making them compete with each other for pupils to “better serve the needs of their communities”. He believes that competition between state schools will raise the tide of achievement and all schools will do better.

The trouble is that his free market ideas are false: demonstrably and dangerously false.

Free market theology has already been applied to education systems in various countries around the world and it has not demonstrated any benefit. To quote from Trevor Cobold, a former member of the productivity committee and member of the Save Our Schools organisation:

Pyne has made grandiose claims about the research evidence on school autonomy. For example, he has said that “all the studies indicate that the more autonomous a school, the better the outcomes for students”.

At the launch of the Coalition’s plan, he released a document containing a series of quotes from several studies which he said supported school autonomy. It cites a range of sources, including the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the Productivity Commission, the Grattan Institute, the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission, and the Gonski report. The Federal Department of Education has also cited World Bank research.


BUT, the evidence presented by the Minister is highly selective and misleading.

The evidence from the 2012 PISA study contradicts Mr Pyne and is unequivocal and compelling:

PISA shows that school systems that grant more autonomy to schools to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments tend to perform better than systems that don’t grant such autonomy ... In contrast, greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall performance.

The report found no statistically significant effect of greater principal autonomy over budgeting and staffing.

Pyne also selectively and misleadingly cites several Australian reports. He cites a finding of an evaluation of IPS in Western Australia by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education [2013] that while some principals support the program, and believe it will lead to increased student outcomes, there has, in fact, been NO improvement in student outcomes.

Mr Pyne also deliberately misquotes the Gonski review and recent World Bank research to support his arguments. Each of these studies found that school autonomy had no significant effect on student outcomes. There is not one example cited by Minister Pyne that supports his argument. Mr Pyne is demonstrably wrong.

While federal ministers misquoting research to further political and ideological agendas is nothing new, there is a more dangerous aspect to Christopher Pyne’s school autonomy agenda.

In the UK there is mounting evidence of “independent” government schools being hijacked by religious and cultural groups to further their own ends.

In the UK, “independent” government schools are called “charter” schools, being self-governing and locally autonomous. Unlike Australia, the UK still has centralised accountability mechanisms and schools are regularly inspected by an organisation called OFTSEAD to determine school effectiveness. Recently, 25 schools in Birmingham were inspected by OFSTEAD and six of these schools were “failed” and put in special measures as evidence was discovered that particular religious teachings were pervading the curriculum and there was gender segregation in classes. It was found that a religious group had populated these six charter school boards and administrations with its adherents. Following the “failing” of these six schools, there is now much debate about religious intolerance and racism, but the problem would not have arisen in the first place if these schools had been as directly accountable as their non-charter school neighbours.

Similarly, in the US, there is a re-segregation of races in many US states. The rise of the charter school movement in New York State as a leader in creating “independent” state schools has led to “apartheid schooling”.

UCLA’s Civil Rights Project has been tracking national trends. Surprisingly, it found that “New York has the most segregated schools in the country ... Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.” The UCLA report repeatedly uses a term that is now common in academic circles studying resegregation: “apartheid schools”... those schools with less than one percent white student enrolment. The report continues, “Across New York City, 73 percent of charters were considered apartheid schools and 90 percent were intensely segregated (less than 10 percent white enrolment) schools in 2010”.


While Australia is not either the UK or the USA, and our government-funded (in)dependent system already caters for and funds religious and cultural groups to set up segregated and “apartheid” schooling, the trend to extend this process to “independent” state schools has implications for Australia’s religious and cultural tolerance into the future.

The most effective way to foster and promote social, religious and cultural tolerance is to educate children from diverse religious, SES and cultural backgrounds together, not to separate them out at a young age based upon their parents’ religion, income or background. Children separated out in this way are less likely to gain an understanding of “other” children whom they never come into contact with in the course of their educational lives. Creating “independent” state schools accelerates the progression of educational apartheid in the only school sector that, up to now, has the mandate to educate all children in a free, secular environment.

Finally, autonomous state schools will be forced to compete and not cooperate with each other in the marketplace for “good quality” students, or the market place jargon “input quality management”. In the educational free market that Mr Pyne envisages, enrolling and teaching academically poor students in autonomous state schools will become an exercise in “risk management and/or harm minimisation”. The pattern of schools supporting and encouraging the diagnosis of behavioural disorders in academically poor students to attract the funding that such disorders bring will necessarily accelerate.

Over the last ten years, Australia has progressively “marketised” and privatised school education and, at the same time, our education system is falling behind the rest of the world. While correlation is not causation, in the end, education is a cooperative, not competitive activity, and the free market principles should have no part in the education of children.

In education, public is good and private is bad.

The fight that public education advocates are involved in now is not just a fight for resources but a war of ideas. It is a battle between enlightened self-interest and financial self-interest. Well-resourced public schooling that is free, secular and open to all is enlightened self-interest in action. Free market theologians and believers see no role for enlightened self-interest, only the financial self-interest of parents forced to compete with each other to “do the best thing for their child” in a totally unaccountable, deregulated education market that has both winners and losers. While free market advocates now have the ascendency, there are indications that the parents of Australia are starting to wake up to problems inherent in Mr Pyne’s radical free market theology.

The Beacon

Next article – Has US-UK war for oil detonated the “new Iraq”?

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