Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
In the build up to Education Nation (#EduNationAu), The Great Debate, a showdown about public versus private education, was billed as one of the headline acts for the event, featuring two speakers who typically take opposing views. Dr. David Zyngier (@dzyngier) was arguing for the side of public education against Dr. Kevin Donnelly (@ESIAustralia) who was, of course, arguing for the side of private education.
As promised on Twitter, I have recorded and included here the full audio of the debate. The only editing done to it was to bring the audio levels roughly into alignment as some sections, particularly during the questions from the floor, were rather quiet in the recording.
The Great Debate was structured as follows:
Dr. Zyngier opened by talking about the negativity towards public schooling being a product which began with the Fraser Government in the 1960s, who introduced public funding for private schools, creating a sense of entitlement and privilege for the few and is an anti-democratic notion. Public funding of private education has continued since then and has resulted in a constant expansion of the private education sector.
Dr. Zyngier then invoked Joe Hockey, currently the Australian Ambassador the United States, who, as Treasurer in 2014, was quoted in the media as saying “…everyone in Australia must do the heavy lifting. The age of entitlement is over, the age of personal responsibility has begun…” but, in fact, the public funding private education is about to outstrip public funding of public education vis-a-vis the funding per student amount.
This constant growth in public funding of private education has, Dr. Zyngier argued, resulted in a growing perception of private schools as being better and played a role in the residualisation of public schools. There is now a growing disparity between funding and this should be seen and felt as a national shame as there are significant consequences for our children. There is a widening disparity in resourcing for students at different ends of the socioeconomic status (SES) scale.
The priority for the Government should be full public funding for public education to help ameliorate the lottery of birth which resulted in parents having a choice, however, the choice was only available if parents could afford the choice. Stephen Dinham (OAM) was then quoted as having said that “It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons.” Rresidualisation feeds further residualisation, was the message I was hearing at this point.
Dr. Zyngier at this point changed tack, asking the audience who had flown on a long-haul flight overseas, and who had travelled by economy class, business class or first class. There were fewer hands up for the higher classes of course, and Dr. Zyngier made the analogy that as those who choose to fly in business or first class do not expect those in economy class to subsidise their flight, why should those who choose to send their children to a private school expect the rest of us to subsidise that choice. I am not entirely sure the analogy is a valid one, given that airlines are a business and education is an investment in the future.
I am not entirely sure the analogy is a valid one, given that airlines are a profit-based business and education is, or should be seen as, an investment in the future. It also seems a stretch to me to argue this point, particularly given that, as Jamie Dorrington, the Rethinking Reform MC remarked, that the airlines would likely argue that the upper-class prices, in fact, subsidise the economy class prices.
Dr. Zyngier argued that this is in fact what does happen in Australia, with public funding of private schools acting as a subsidy for the lifestyle choice of the parents and that we have the highest level of privatisation of education in the OECD. Dr. Zyngier continued by pointing out that countries in the OECD such as the United Kingdom and the United States, though they have privatised education institutions, and perhaps some of the most well-known educational institutions in the world, do not give any public funds to those private education institutes whatsoever.
In closing, Dr. Zyngier made two points; firstly, he noted that Australia has been reported by the OECD as having very high student achievement results as well as significantly different learning achievements between the students at either end of the SES scale, which should be concerning to us all.Secondly, and his final point, we need to come to an agreement about what it means to have a public education system, which, to me, sounds like a national conversation about the purpose and goals of education. Maybe I am just hearing what I want to hear, though.
At this point, Dr. Donnelly took the podium to make his arguments and opened by listing off the adjectives typically used to describe him; misogynistic, homophobic, and extremist and proceeded to share some of his background with the audience, revealing that he grew up in Broadmeadows, Melbourne, as a child with a father who was a member of the Communist Party, whilst he and his brother were members of the Eureka Youth Movement, which he indicated was the Youth Communist Party, and that he had “…a good Catholic mother” which resulted in, as I can only imagine, some interesting discussions at home. He then commented that he did not want to be antagonistic or vitriolic today, which, I daresay, caused some disappointment amongst the audience
Dr. Donnelly then spoke about how Australia has a tripartite education system and that this arrangement has had consensus from the major parties for some years now, and he quoted then Minister for Education Julia Gillard as saying that “…I am committed to parents’ rights to choose the school that is best for their child.”
Dr. Donnelly, remarkably, called Gonski funding a myth and said that needs-based funding had been around a number of years, which generated a number of raised eyebrows in the room. He went on to comment that the ten-year period from 1998 saw a significantly large increase in enrolments in the private education system, and that those enrollments were predominantly in the low-fee paying schools, and that while this voting with their feet movement had slowed down since 2008, the Catholic and Independent education systems received little overall funding in the 2012/2013 budget from the Government.Additionally, argued Dr. Donnelly, high-profile schools such as Kings and Melbourne Grammar are, in fact, outliers in regards to the education fees and resourcing. and that the Australian Education Union
The Australian Education Union should be arguing, commented Dr. Donnelly, not necessarily against the stances of the parties regarding the Gonski funding model, but against those states who did not ever sign off on it. He continued by noting that Julia Gillard, then Minister for Education, signed off on twenty-seven different agreements with various state education bodies, which means that there are at least twenty-seven different funding models in place.
Dr. Donnelly then broached the argument from critics of private education that private schools only get the good kids, or those with high academic ability, and discussed research that demonstrates that the SES status of a student’s family only contributes approximately fifteen to eighteen percent of the academic variance and that the Government has spent billions of additional dollars on education without seeing the expected growth in learning outcomes. He also argues that the public selective schools, selective for academic or sporting or any other reason, are a contributor to the residualisation of public schooling, but that they do not get mentioned, with private education being an easy target
A paper by the OECD which Professor Geoff Masters (@GMasterACER), CEO of ACER (@ACEReduAu), quoted in a recent paper which indicates that Australia is second only to Denmark in regards to intergenerational mobility and that another OECD report from 2008 ranked Australia as one of the most socially mobile countries.
Dr. Donnelly closed out his opening arguments by calling for a move away from the acrimonious debate and to look at high-performing schooling systems and ask what works there that might work for us in Australia, with a move towards a decentralised education structure with increased school autonomy and choice to create the flexibility and diversity in our schools to encourage schools to be innovative.
At this point, Jamie Dorrington asked Dr. Zyngier for his rebuttal comments, however, I will leave the rebuttal from both Dr. Zyngier and Dr. Donnelly, as well as the questions from the floor, for you to listen to, as I would like to explore what we have already heard in a bit more depth.
From conversations with a few people in the room after The Great Debate, there was a feeling that no-one was actually going to change their mind based on any arguments presented today, and that there were going to be a large number of Donnelly-haters and people in the room who would support Dr. Zyngier purely based on what Dr. Donnelly has previously written and said in the media, and who would not actually be interested in hearing what he was saying. I have also heard that someone was told by their Principal they would not be given permission to attend Education Nation purely because Dr. Donnelly would be speaking.
Irrespective of what you think of Dr. Donnelly, this sort of closed-mindedness is not healthy for education debate in Australia. That sort of thinking creates an echo-chamber, where you hear only what you want to hear which creates a stagnant environment and does our students a disservice. Dr. Donnelly (and Dr. Zyngier, for that matter) made some very sensible comments today.
I do not advocate, let me make it clear, for all of Dr. Donnelly’s views. Personally, I am still working out what my own views are on a range of topics related to education, and trying to work out who I am as an educator and where I fit in the scheme of things. This means that whilst I have made my mind up about some areas, I am open to hearing ideas from all quarters. I engaged in the Twitter conversation that was going on during The Great Debate (you can actually my laptop keys at one point in the audio!) and the reactions I was seeing were a range of adjectives between positive and negative, but I saw some that attacked the man and not the argument which is shameful and contributes nothing.
Dr. Zyngier, as I mentioned, also made some great points in his argument.
Both men threw out numbers, statistics and made references to research with no citations provided. Neither man changed anyone’s mind. The debate, though interesting, and generating a lot of interest, contributed nothing to the overall debate about education in this country. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr Donnelly when he said that “we need to move on from this debate and its acrimonious nature.” The discussions about the impact of a child’s SES background depends on which research you read, is what I drew from that facet of this argument.
We need to move on, there are important issues that need to be addressed.
If you have missed any articles in the Education Nation series, you can find them here.