A real education revolution - what does it take?
17th December 2010

In the comment piece below and on the Drum Unleashed I argue that a real education revolution involves school choice, including vouchers/tax credits and school autonomy.

School choice the real revolution

There is an alternative to the Rudd/Gillard education revolution; an alternative that embraces autonomy, choice and diversity in education and where the influence of government is minimised.

Under such a system schools would be freed from provider capture, where teacher unions, bureaucrats and politicians unduly influence and control what happens in the nation’s classrooms.

While such models exist overseas, whether so-called charter schools in the US or city academies in the UK, it is important to recognise that Australia’s non-government school sector also exhibits many of the characteristics of such a market-driven system.

Australia has a tripartite system of education, involving government, Catholic and independent schools. It’s also the case, compared to other OECD countries, that Australia has one of the highest percentages of students in the non-government sector.

Approximately 34 per cent of students attend Catholic and independent schools and the figure rises to above 40 per cent at years 11 and 12. Parents are voting with their feet and over the years 1998-2008 while enrolments in non-government schools grew by 21.9 per cent, the figure for government schools flat-lined at 1.1 per cent.

While non-government schools accept a degree of oversight and regulation, when compared to government schools, they have a high degree of autonomy in areas like staffing, financial matters, curriculum focus and determining how to best meet the needs and aspirations of their communities.

As a result such schools, when compared to government schools and even after adjusting for the socioeconomic profile of their students, achieve the strongest results in areas like literacy and numeracy testing, year 12 results and students gaining tertiary entry.

The European researcher, Ludger Woessmann, after analysing the characteristics of stronger performing education systems, measured by performance in international tests, concludes that factors explaining success include school autonomy, competition between schools and parental choice.

Research in the US also concludes that non-government schools, especially Catholic schools, are successful at strengthening social capital; defined as the relationships and bonds that tie communities together and promote reciprocity and social cohesion. In part, this is because schools and their communities share a common mission and parents have made a conscious decision to choose such schools for their children.

A recent Australian survey investigating racial discrimination and abuse in schools also found that Catholic schools are more successful in creating a tolerant environment where the incidence of discrimination is less than government schools.

Instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all model of education it is vital that diversity is encouraged. Once again, the non-government sector provides a model that is worthy of emulation. Such a system includes schools with a range of different educational philosophies, including Montessori, Steiner and Erasmus schools.

While the majority of such schools are religious in nature there are also secular schools and, as previously mentioned, schools are free to embrace a range of educational philosophies, including the more traditional, academic and disciplined view of pedagogy to approaches that are more child-centred and less structured.

It is also important that governments support school choice by ensuring that non-government school parents are not financially penalised because of where their children go to school. Critics like the Australian Education Union argue that the current SES funding system is inequitable and unfair and, in the context of the Commonwealth review into funding, have mounted a well-orchestrated campaign to force governments to reduce support.

In the US, many states have introduced a voucher system where each student attracts a government subsidy and the money follows the child to whatever school is chosen.  Another approach to funding is to allow school fees as a tax deduction, thus, making it easier for more parents to make the choice.

While not exhibiting all the characteristics of a pure voucher system, as detailed by the US economist Caroline Hoxby, it is the case that Australia already has a de-facto voucher system in the sense that non-government schools attract Commonwealth and state government financial support for the students they enrol.

Instead of denying non-government schools funding and trying to integrate them into the government school system, as has been suggested by the previous ALP Victorian minister for education, Bronwyn Pike, such schools deserve to be properly resourced and allowed to continue to function without government interference.

All schools, both government and non-government, must be given the freedom and flexibility to manage their own affairs and, while some degree of oversight is important, the role of government should be minimised. Similar to the way Catholic schools operate and based on the principle of subsidiarity, as far as practicable decisions should be made by those most affected and those closest to the school.

While critics like the AEU like to portray such a model of education as representing a neo-conservative, economic rationalist attack on schools, of interest is that Karl Marx expressed similar views in an 1869 speech titled ‘On Education’ and delivered to a meeting of the International Working Men’s Association.

Marx argues that government should have minimal control over education, when he states, “Education might be national without being governmental. Government might appoint inspectors whose duty it was to see that the laws were obeyed, just as the factory inspectors looked after the observance of the factory acts, without any power of interfering with the course of education itself”.

In opposition to a state mandated, detailed curriculum pushing a politically correct ideology Marx also argues, “Nothing could be introduced either in primary, or higher schools that admitted of party and class interpretation. Only, subjects such as the physical sciences, grammar, etc., were fit matter for schools. The rules of grammar, for instance, could not differ, whether explained by a religious Tory or a free thinker”.

The above is an extract taken from an essay published in ‘The Australian Polity’ Summer 2010-11 – published by Kevin Andrews, MP.



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A real education revolution - what does it take?
17th December 2010
In the comment piece below and on the Drum Unleashed I argue that a real education revolution involves school choice, including vouchers/tax credits and school autonomy.School choice the real revo...

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