SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Vouchers for schools - giving parents choice
, December 3, 2005
More choice for parents in schools would benefit the disadvantaged, writes Kevin Donnelly.So how to ensure that students, regardless of socio-economic background, achieve to the best of their ability? In Britain, the Blair Government's white paper Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, released in late October, shows one way.
In allowing schools more autonomy in staffing and curriculum and giving parents the freedom to choose between government schools, the intention is to pressure schools to be more responsive to community needs, as opposed to what teacher unions and public servants may want to supply.Straitjacket
In the words of Tony Blair, there is a need "to escape the straitjacket of the traditional comprehensive school and embrace the idea of genuinely independent non-fee paying state schools. [The white paper's goal] is to break down the barriers to new providers, to schools associating with outside sponsors, to the ability to start and expand schools; and to give parental choice its proper place."
Reform, the cross-partisan British think tank argues that the Blair Government does not go far enough because it does not propose to introduce vouchers, so that the funding can follow the child, nor allow profit-making companies to manage schools, but the white paper abandons much of existing practice.
Historically in Britain, local education authorities control schools, and schools that under-perform continue unchallenged. Under the new set of proposals, not only will the role of local authorities be reduced but also, where there is parental demand, it will be easier to establish new schools that better reflect community needs.
In comparison, the recent Victorian government white paper Review of Education and Training Legislation
represents a more traditional approach to managing education. Whereas the Blair initiatives push the boundaries, the Victorian white paper stays on safer ground.
Victoria's white paper fails to deliver on using results to rank schools in terms of performance, giving parents greater freedom to choose between schools and allowing private providers to manage schools.
Although the education rhetoric under the Bracks Government is couched in marketing clichés such as "best practice", "performance and development culture", "transparent reporting" and "multiple pathways", the reality is that the system is unresponsive and bureaucratic.
The result? In Victoria and across Australia, such is the level of parental dissatisfaction with government schools that non-government enrolments have grown from 22 per cent in 1980 to 31 per cent in 2004; at years 11 and 12 the figure rises to 39.5 per cent.
Similarly, the ACT Government's response to public schools losing market share also demonstrates a singular inability to think outside the square. ABS figures show government school enrolments dropped from 68 per cent to 59 per cent between 1984 and 2004.
Commonsense suggests that if students are going elsewhere, it's logical for governments to examine why and to do something to turn the tide. Not so with those responsible for education in the ACT.
Instead of addressing the reasons parents are voting with their feet, the official response is just to get government schools to have a marketing strategy, hold open days and circulate promotional material.
As to why Victoria, and education systems across the rest of Australia for that matter, have failed to adopt more school reform, the reasons are easy to find.
As the publication of Going Public: Education Policy and Public Education
in Australia suggests, teacher educator organisations such as the Australian Curriculum Studies Association are opposed to opening up the education system to market forces.
The Australian Education Union is also a staunch critic of parental choice in education. The union consistently argues against government funding to non-government schools on the mistaken basis that independent schools only serve the elite and that state schools are more effective in promoting social cohesion.
In a paper titled Defend Public Education Against an Arrogant Federal Government
, the AEU's South Australian president Andrew Gohl argues that parents should not be allowed to "choose where to send their children and where to spend their education dollar".Presumptious
Not only is Gohl's argument presumptuous - suggesting that teachers and public servants, and not parents, know what is right for children - but, by stifling innovation, state schools are denied the ability to compete against better performing non-government schools.
Notwithstanding the $33 billion committed to schools (2005-08), Gohl also argues that the Howard Government may want to "eliminate funding to the entire education sector - public and private" and that innovations such as funding vouchers will "create a growing divide between the well off and the poor".
Ignored is the US experience where community-managed charter schools established in low socio-economic areas with high black American populations have been successful in strengthening community ties and raising standards.
Also ignored is the evidence from the US, summarised by Mark Harrison in his book Education Matters: Government, Markets and New Zealand Schools
, that vouchers have been instrumental in improving parental satisfaction and student performance among disadvantaged groups.
The AEU appears unaware of the research carried out by the English academic James Tooley, from the University of Newcastle, demonstrating that independent education, especially in developing nations, is a key factor in raising standards among the poor.
Tooley has spent some years researching the effectiveness of government and non-government schools in the poorer areas of the world, and he concludes that the research "both from India and from other developing countries, suggests that private education in general is more effective".
Finally, the Australian situation, where wealthier parents can afford non-government school fees or the cost of buying a house next door to a high-performing government school, is one already characterised by inequality.
If the teacher union and Labor state governments are serious about equity and social justice, then logic suggests that vouchers, where more parents are given the financial ability to choose, and charter schools, where the local community manages the school, should be introduced.Opposing change
Those opposing change, such as the AEU and many teacher educators, generally characterise as right-wing those pressing for more competition between schools, making school results public and rewarding better performing teachers.
Although the label does apply to some advocates of school choice, such as the American economist, Milton Friedman, the same cannot be said of Andrew Leigh, a Canberra-based economist who served as an adviser to the federal ALP from 1998 to 2000.
At the recent Australia and New Zealand School of Government conference in Sydney, Leigh argued that "progressives in Australia had adopted a conservative approach to reform" and, given the fact that literacy and numeracy scores are falling, Australia had to follow the reforms introduced in England and the US.
Contrary to the AEU and its argument that any reforms will harm those children already most at risk, Leigh also argues that "if we block innovation in Australian education, those who suffer will be children in the most disadvantaged schools".
- Kevin Donnelly, author of Why Our Schools are Failing, is director of Education Strategies and a government adviser. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, November 5–6, 2005.