Education is a central issue in the campaign for the 2 July 2016 federal election. This is a good thing – good for Australian parents and their children, good for teachers and schools, and good for the future of our nation.
The importance of education is reflected in the prominence it’s given by the two major parties. Their focus is not only on funding, although this is a crucial starting point. Beyond funding, they spell out what their commitments mean in practice. With this sort of detail, undertakings to advance the wellbeing of our young people go beyond mere words.
It’s also welcome that, even before the election campaign was underway and despite their substantial differences, the two major parties agreed on two things: the crucial role of non-government schools in the Australian education system, and continued government support for those schools.
It’s worth reflecting on this bipartisan support, if only because of the myths that often obscure discussion about education.
That support has been an established feature of Australian education policy for over half a century. The myths, unfortunately, have not caught up with the reality.
Bipartisan political support for Independent and other non-government schools was reiterated by senior figures from the two major parties in March 2016, when they addressed the Independent Schools Council of Australia and the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia.
Education and Training Minister, Simon Birmingham, representing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, referred to the Coalition’s long-standing support for non-government schools, starting in the 1960s under then prime minister Bob Menzies.
He referred to the principles underpinning Commonwealth funding to non-government schools, involving choice, need and diversity.
He acknowledged ‘the key role that the independent school sector plays in securing a world-class education for our young people’, and he debunked the ‘myth’ that students in non-government schools receive more government funds than students in government schools.
For Labor, Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, called for an end to the ‘tired old debate’ about school funding. He, too, acknowledged that the Commonwealth commitment to non-government schools goes back to the Menzies era.
‘There is no turning back from this reality,’ Mr Shorten said, adding that it was time to ‘draw a line under the ‘‘public vs private” debate’.
Mr Shorten also referred to the diversity of Independent schools, saying that this was just one reason they were a ‘central part’ of the community they served.
Of course this agreement on basic principles doesn’t mean the two sides agree on major areas of policy. Both have issued detailed and comprehensive platforms that spell out clear areas of disagreement – on levels of funding, for instance.
More details will no doubt be announced between now and the election, including by the Greens, other parties and independents. Voters, especially parents of school-age children, have a lot to think about.
Without commenting on those polices in detail, I want to highlight what Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) sees as core principles in any discussion of school education.
We stress the choice and diversity that independence creates, and the innovation this allows.
Choice should be available to all families. To enable this, every student should receive a reasonable basic level of government funding.
To exercise choice, parents need access to a diversity of schools, so that they can find the school that best meets the needs of their children.
Independent schools increasingly provide that choice. Far from fitting a stereotype, they reflect the rich diversity of Australian society. There are 209 Independent schools in Victoria, educating more than 132,000 students – that’s 15 per cent of all Victorian students.
Those schools share diverse values and beliefs, with 22 different affiliations and approaches to education.
The smallest enrols just 13 students; the biggest more than 3000. They teach students with all levels of ability, including those with individual needs.
Our schools are testament to the commitment made to education by parents who pay fees that, nationally, save governments approximately $4.3 billion a year.
Based on the major parties’ policy platforms, we are confident the Commonwealth will continue a direct funding relationship with Independent schools.
Beyond that, our hope is that all sectors of school education – Independent, government and Catholic – will have clarity, consistency and long-term commitment in funding, whichever party forms government after 2 July 2016.
Implementation of policy should be informed by expert knowledge and based on consultation with educators from all school sectors. This means that decisions related to teacher education and promotion, certification of principals and the school curriculum must be based on research, evidence and the needs of students.
Beyond reasonable requirements of regulation and accountability, we are wary of interference in schools and the imposition of onerous red tape that undermines independence and inhibits innovation.
We recognise that there are limits to what teachers can reasonably be expected to achieve in the classroom, and that there is a distinction between the roles of teachers and the rights of parents.
Our school curriculum is crowded; we should recognise the multiple tasks and responsibilities already imposed on teachers and principals before we impose new ones.
Whatever the complexion of the new Australian government, ISV is committed to maintaining a respectful, consultative, cooperative and professional relationship with all levels of government, with ministers and with government departments.
The welcome focus on education is evidence that our political leaders recognise that education policy concerns all students, whatever school they attend.
All students, in whatever school, are entitled to a reasonable level of government support, with additional funding to recognise specific individual needs.
All sectors of education contribute to the wellbeing of our young people and our nation.
Recognising this, it would be a good thing if we moved on from stale debates and artificial divides.