Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

The Great School Fraud

Tuesday July 3, 2007

The Howard Government has consolidated the social divide in education in Australia by increasing the privatisation of schooling and promoting competition to determine who gets what in education. It is all based on fraudulent claims.

Private school enrolments increased by 22 per cent during 1996-2006 compared to one per cent in government schools. The number of private schools increased by 168 while government schools decreased by 186.

Privatisation was backed by a massive funding boost for private schools. Productivity Commission figures show that between 1999-2000 and 2004-2005, Federal funding for private schools increased by $1584 per student compared to an increase of $261 per government school student.

Total funding by all governments for each private school student increased by over 30 per cent compared to 10 per cent for government schools for much of the period since 1996.

The Federal Government now exerts unprecedented control over school education. It has increased control over curriculum, teaching, assessment and reporting. It plans to extend competition by introducing league tables of school results.

Its funding powers ensure state and territory government compliance. Direct funding of government schools increased this influence.

Increasing privatisation, competition and federal control has been assisted by three great frauds perpetrated by the Howard Government.

First, it asserted a crisis in Australian education. Dr. Kemp as Education Minister claimed that one-third of students could not read or write adequately, a claim repeated ad infinitum by his successor, Dr. Nelson. The current Minister, Julie Bishop, claims that over 30 per cent of 15-year old students are functionally illiterate.

This is rebutted by international and national test data.

The Programme for International Student Assessment shows that 15 year-old students in Australia have amongst the best average results in the world. Only Finland has significantly higher average results.

Australia has the second highest proportion of students at the highest reading proficiency level (15 per cent) compared to the OECD average of 8 per cent. Only 12 per cent of Australian students are not achieving expected literacy standards compared to 19 per cent for all OECD countries.

National tests show that 90 per cent or more of Year 3, 5 & 7 students achieve the national literacy benchmarks. International and national test data also show that Australia has high science and mathematics outcomes.

These results suggest that the foundations of curriculum and teaching in our schools are very solid.

The second fraud is that increasing competition between schools will improve student achievement. This premise is based on selective evidence.

The weight of international research studies which take account of differing social composition of schools is that privatisation and competition between schools does not improve student achievement. At best, the evidence is mixed and this is not a secure basis for policy conclusions, let alone the transformation of an education system.

Competition between government schools tends to re-distribute students and increase disparities in school results rather than improve outcomes. New forms of public schools have not delivered on the claims of market advocates. For example, student outcomes in US charter schools tend to be lower than in traditional public schools.

Internationally, student outcomes in private schools and government schools are similar and competition from private schools has little to no effect on student achievement in government schools. The results of the much-vaunted voucher experiments in the United States and elsewhere are mixed.

Many studies demonstrate that markets in education tend to contribute to standardisation rather than innovation and diversity in classroom practice and curriculum. Marketing and promotion of schools appears to be a more common response to competition.

The third fraud is that school choice helps low income families. The largest increases in Federal funding have gone to Independent private schools, which are the best-resourced schools with the largest proportion of students from high income families. Private school fees continue to increase by much more than the rate of inflation.

The Government’s policies are directed at protecting privilege in education rather than assisting low income families. It ignores the most fundamental issue facing Australian education – the large achievement gap between students from high and low income families.

Australia has a high quality, low equity school system. Socio-economic inequality in school outcomes for 15-year old students is amongst the largest of the high-income OECD countries. There is a large gap in Year 12 completion rates for low and high SES students, which has increased markedly in recent years.

The former Director of Education at the OECD, Professor Barry McGaw, has stated that Australia’s education system is consistently conferring privilege on those who already have it and denying it to those who do not. Professor Margaret Vickers of the University of Western Sydney says that secondary schooling has become increasingly segregated and unequal.

Yet successive education ministers have dismissed claims of an education social divide. Dr. Nelson said that the well-documented influence of socio-economic factors on student achievement is a “statistical artefact”. Private schools do better, he said, because they have brighter kids, not because they have a greater percentage of enrolments from higher income families.

The experience in Chile, Denmark, England, New Zealand, Scotland, Sweden and the United States is that market-based policies tend to exacerbate social and racial segregation in schools.

Large inequalities in school outcomes breach the Australian value of a “fair go for all”. It means privileged access for some to higher education, higher income occupations and positions of influence in society. It means greater health and other social problems for many and a general skill level below its potential. The social divide in education also breeds social and racial intolerance and division.

The Prime Minister is fond of deflecting criticisms of his school policies by labelling his critics as consumed by “class envy”. The fact is that the Howard Government has implemented the most discriminatory, class-based education policy in recent memory.

Trevor Cobbold is spokesperson for Save Our Schools and the author of the Great School Fraud recently published by the Australian Education Union. It is available at

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