Former NSW Education Minister and Director of the Gonski Institute for Education, Professor Adrian Piccoli, is challenging the status quo of Australia’s school system, in a bid to achieve greater equity for students.
Piccoli believes the existing structure, funding model, and underlying regulatory framework is doing a disservice to low socio-economic status (SES) students, with increasing numbers of high SES pupils funneled into non-government and selective public schools.
He proposes a model in which all schools – government, Catholic and independent – are funded using the same formula, with a view to wiping out cost as a barrier to school enrolment.
A more equitable system, he argues, will have positive flow-on effects for school graduation rates, nationally, as well as the broader economy.
“The current multi-sector school structure in Australia is decades old and I’m not sure it is still fit for purpose,” said Piccoli ahead of the Sydney Morning Herald Schools Summit.
“The world of work is changing rapidly with the skills gap widening every year, yet the school system isn’t really keeping pace. As a result, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are still not able to access the education they want and need to flourish and ultimately lift them out of a cycle of poverty.
“We keep looking for those macro-level reforms that will lead to school improvement, but I think this one has been largely overlooked,” he added.
In Australia just five per cent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are attending advantaged schools – ranking Australia as the fourth most segregated education system in the OECD. The statistics are a sharp contrast from countries like Japan, where only nine percent of the variation in student performance can be attributed to socioeconomic background – five percent higher than the OECD average.
In Japan, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to grow up to be better off in adulthood. And, importantly, its school system is higher performing than that of global peers, with a graduation rate of 96.7 percent.
Like Japan, Piccoli does not think Australia’s three-tiered system should be abolished. Instead, that each tier becomes more accessible.
“For example, there is still a demand for Catholic schools. But if children from that religious denomination cannot attend a Catholic school for financial reasons, then that’s a problem,” he said.
“Likewise, there is still a need for the unique offerings that independent schools have, such as science or music specialisations, for example. But if students with aptitudes towards those subjects cannot enrol because of cost, then we are doing these children a disservice.
“Ultimately we are also harming the economy, by perpetuating cycles of poverty,” he added.
A further side effect of the existing set up is the right for fee-charging schools to reject enrolments, on the basis that students with behavioural difficulties or low academic achievement may impact the learning environment. Piccoli hopes that an even funding and regulatory system could prevent this, removing independent and Catholic schools of their right to refuse students.
“At the moment, students that are rejected from independent and Catholic Schools are generally absorbed into the government school sector. I would like to see this change – and I think a tax funded system has the power to do that. In exchange for equal funding would be the requirement that students cannot be excluded,” he said.
Piccoli admits that a reform this drastic would not happen overnight and that various complexities would need to be resolved.
“I’m a former Minister and I know how hard it is to challenge deeply entrenched structures,” he said.
“At the same, I realise that we can only get the results we want if we create this kind of structural reform.”
Piccoli says finding the funding is possible but admits it may be a challenge in the current climate.
“This reform would cost several hundred millions of dollars – a small amount when you look at the potential education, social and economic impact.
“Having said that, budgets are stretched and we realistically might not be able to effect meaningful change within the next few years or so,” he added.
Despite positive feedback for his proposal so far, Piccoli expects a degree of resistance.
“I imagine the public education lobby would not support this initially. But I think that, soon enough, there will be a realisation that this is exactly the kind of change it’s been fighting for, for decades,” he said.
“Likewise, we can’t just flick a switch and expect schools, teachers and parents to accept the new model. I expect there to be some resistance from those that are happy with the way things are, on a personal level.
“The point here, though, isn’t about personal circumstances. It’s about lifting Australia’s education performance – something that I believe can only be achieved through creating a more equitable system.
“The facts are there. The overseas success stories are there. We need to create a system where all students have access to high quality education and are given a chance to achieve success. We can’t continue to invest increasing sums of money in a system which is inequitable and ultimately, isn’t working as well as it could,” he concluded.
Professor Adrian Piccoli is Former NSW Minister for Education and Director of the Gonski Institute for Education. Join Adrian for a high level debate on this issue at the Sydney Morning Herald School Summit – held live at the ICC and virtually on February 17, 2021.
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