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Issue 574, 5 October 2007 - All unions should back the Greens

Passionate case for public education

The long-term damage done by the Howard government can be measured in many different ways. But as you'll read in The Stupid Country, what the federal government has done to public education has limited the life chances of hundreds of thousands of working class kids since 1996.Retired NSW public high school principal Chris Bonnor has teamed up with Jane Caro, a long time advocate for public education, to go through the ways Australia's public education system is being dismantled.

The goal socialists say kids deserve-equality of outcome: for example the same percentage of the poorest kids at uni as of rich kids-has always lost out to the less demanding goal of equality of opportunity. This idea meant free entry to education and reasonably equal resourcing of schools.

However without recognising that poor kids typically start well behind the average in confidence and support, this policy goal only made a small difference to a person's life chances.

But even this perfectly possible goal has been junked by the Liberals' insistence on promoting private education for the well-off instead of reducing disadvantage for kids in poor households through better public schools.

Labor has gone along with this shift in thinking-Rudd has already said he won't reduce federal funding to elite private schools.

Yet the claim that private schools produce a better quality student doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Bonnor and Caro show that the better results that non-government schools achieve on average in Year 12 exams is because private schools can select and restrict who they enrol. They can refuse to enrol 'problem' students, whereas public schools by definition must take all students, no matter their poverty, lack of support or isolation.

When this is taken into account the improvement achieved in private schools is about the same as in public schools.

The statistics are startling: "While two out of three students from privileged backgrounds get to university, among disadvantaged students the proportion is only around one in five. Poorer students are less able to convert their talent into the same end-of-school exam results and university entry scores."

Rather than a significant academic advantage, private school families expect the social network and learnt sense of privileged right will help give their child a leg up in life.

The Stupid Country locates free, quality public education as a key to general prosperity and promoting democratic values. It makes a passionate claim for putting public education at the centre of public policy.

While there is some sense that there was a "golden age" of public education (without ever saying when it was), most of what they propose is supported by better results for disadvantaged students in other OECD countries, most notably Finland.

One of the great struggles under a Rudd government will be to reverse Howard's perverse policies that have extended the class disadvantage in Australian school education. There is a lot to be done.

Bruce Knobloch

The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education
by Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro

UNSW Press