Australia’s unequal education system is leaving scores of young people in the dust. The failure of Australian schools to provide as many as 20% of 15-year-old students with “the [mathematics] skills required to participate adequately in the workforce” was highlighted in a report released in May by the Australian Council for Education Research.
This follows comments earlier in the year by OECD education chief Andreas Schleicher, who singled out Australia for its sharp decline in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study that compares outcomes in mathematics, science and reading between OECD states.
These dire results are a consequence of decades of inadequate funding, school closures and amalgamations, and policies favouring elite for-profit private schools over state public schools. Government funding for private schools has grown at more than twice the rate of public schools since 2001. By some estimates, total government spending on private education already outstrips public education, and this disparity is set to grow.
Many public schools are now forced to cope with staff shortages, crumbling infrastructure and swelling class sizes. Overworked teachers have less time and ability to focus on individual pupils, and many are slipping through the cracks.
This has been a social disaster, especially for students from poor backgrounds who rely on the public education system. Studies have consistently demonstrated a strong link between socio-economic status and performance in school. New research from the Centre for Policy Development revealed this year that a “schools hierarchy” is developing, with disadvantaged students being concentrated in under-funded public schools while more well-off students are increasingly travelling outside their local area to attend private or selective-entry schools.
In the face of these alarming findings, Malcolm Turnbull announced in March his intention to end federal funding for public schools. This would pass the full burden for public primary and secondary education onto the states, while continuing federal funding for private schools. Although this was framed as a proposal to give the states more autonomy, in reality it is part of the Liberal Party’s agenda to defund and gradually dismantle the public education system. For them this is seen as a step towards total privatisation, aimed at creating profitable new outlets for capitalists to invest in.
The Labor Party used the recent election as an opportunity to attack the Liberals on the issue of education, but they too prioritise private profits over the majority of students who attend public schools. Both federal and state Labor administrations have presided over cuts to primary, secondary and tertiary education, while the much-lauded Gonski funding model is designed to entrench government funding for private schools.
To fix Australia’s broken education system we need to fight for quality education as a basic right rather than a commodity for sale to those who can afford it. Making public education free, from kindergarten through to tertiary level, would lift a significant financial burden from working families who struggle to make ends meet.
Paying disadvantaged students an allowance to attend school would provide further stability, giving them a real opportunity to concentrate on and complete their studies. Moreover, democratically planning the curriculum with genuine input from students, teachers and parents would allow it to stay engaging and up-to-date, in contrast to the archaic, exam-driven structure imposed by unaccountable bureaucrats today.
On top of all this, we need major public investment to build new schools for the future, and ensure that existing ones are properly equipped to deal with a growing population. This would create thousands of new jobs in construction, teaching, IT and other support roles.
All of these measures could easily be paid for with the billions of dollars that big corporations avoid paying in tax every year. Taking key sectors of the economy into public ownership would provide the necessary resources for the transformation of not just education but all of society.
None of the major parties support a program anything like this. We need to build a mass movement of students and workers to reject the big business politics of Liberal and Labor, and demand a free, fully-funded public education system as part of a socialist society that can provide for all.
By Jeremy Trott