What are your thoughts on the state of education funding in Australia currently?
We spend far too much money on kids who don’t need the kinds of luxurious resources that they are surrounded by. That wouldn’t bother me in the least if it was only private money that was going to them. But it isn’t – it’s large sums of public money as well. I’m talking about millions of dollars going to schools that charge upwards of $20,000 per year in fees. That’s ridiculous. It’s a waste of money. But you’ll never get a politician to say that.
Why do you think elite private schools continue to receive government funding despite the fact many of them are doing financially well?
I think there’s been a whole lot of myths propagated, which include that somehow putting great wads of money into private schools saves money on education. Then there’s parental choice. People argue that every child should be entitled to public funding regardless of where they go to school. I counter that argument by saying, well, they are – every child is entitled to a place at their local public school and that place will be fully funded regardless of who their parents are. But if you decide to walk away from that fully funded public place, you can’t then expect to take the funding with you.
The President of the New South Wales Secondary Principals' Council said in a recent statement that school success is more than a NAPLAN [National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy] score. Are you an advocate that competitive performance measures shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of educational outcomes?
I think that diagnostic testing done by teachers inside schools to see which kids are struggling and which kids need extra help is a really good idea. But I think when you start to use those diagnostic tests as some sort of measure of teaching and learning and of the relative merits of different schools, then I think you’ve completely lost the plot. They weren’t designed to do that, and that’s not what they do.
I don’t believe that education is a race to the finish in which the winner kids get the top marks and the other kids are losers. That’s not the way I see education but unfortunately when you’re dealing with 30 years in Australia of commitment to neoliberalism, and to the idea of the market deciding everything, and competition being the highest moral value there is, you can’t escape from winners and losers. And my argument is, I don’t want any child to be a loser.
The United States recently passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires looking at not just academic factors but also student engagement. In terms of the way forward for Australia, what do you think needs to happen in terms of policy and funding?
First of all, we have to pass the full Gonski [educational funding reforms]. The full Gonski says that every school has to reach a minimum resource standard and that the schools that are below that standard will have the money spent to bring them up to that standard. It will also give extra loading to students with real evidence-based needs.
It is a funding system that for the first time in a very long time in Australia will fund all Australia’s kids as if they actually live in the same country, and it will also fund kids according to their real needs. Previously, the only federal needs-based funding scheme only went to private-school students, which is a bit like having a hunger-relief program for the well fed.
The thing that we know works – because we’ve seen it in places like Finland – is to stop looking at education as a way of churning out little achievers or little worker bees, but to look at education as a system which enhances a child’s well-being – so that what we’re really looking at education to do is to help develop the whole child, and to work with parents, in support of parents, and alongside parents in bringing-up well-rounded, thoughtful, well-educated and stable, sane citizens.
We don’t need to ramp the pressure up. We don’t need to talk about hitting benchmarks in literacy and numeracy. It’s so clunky educating kids like that. We don’t need to constantly measure and compare students against one another. We need to trust our teachers to know which kids need extra help and which kids are doing well. We’ve lost any faith in the teaching profession, and their ability as professionals to see what’s going on and put in place remedial teaching is necessary.