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Jane Caro on reopening schools

May 7, 2020 •

The Prime Minister is arguing that school closures are leaving the most disadvantaged students behind, and he’s calling for schools to reopen. Today, Jane Caro on how the political debate over coronavirus is reframing the inequality in education funding.

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Jane Caro on reopening schools

218 • May 7, 2020

Jane Caro on reopening schools

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

The Prime Minister has made reopening schools a priority of his response to coronavirus.

Part of his argument is that school closures are leaving the most disadvantaged students behind.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Those kids who, you know, like some others, don't have the same opportunities at home to be able to learn at home who could lose a whole year…

Archival tape -- Tehan:

... and it is the children ultimately in the end, and those most disadvantaged, who are suffering. I think it’s time…

RUBY:

The federal government says schools are safe to re-open, but not all states agree.

Archival tape -- Tehan:

The question to Dan Andrews is: sure, take a sledgehammer to defeating the coronavirus, but why are you taking a sledgehammer also to your school system...

RUBY:

Today, Jane Caro on how the political debate over coronavirus is reframing the inequality in education funding.

**

RUBY:

Jane this is a story about schooling, and Covid-19. But it's also a story - underneath all that - about disadvantage in schools. Can you take me to the beginning of that story?

JANE:

The history of Australian schools funding goes right back to the 1970s and I'm afraid Gough Whitlam, who brought in recurrent funding to private schools.

Australia funds, publicly funds, private schools more than any other country on the planet. There's daylight between us and any other country, and we're there. We're one of the lower funders of public schools with public money.

We don't fund education in Australia for educational reasons. We fund it for political and class-based reasons and religious, too, I'd have to say.

RUBY:

Jane Caro is an author and public education activist, she wrote about schools for The Saturday Paper.

JANE:

John Howard introduced a funding scheme which was called the SES funding scheme; Socio Economic Status Funding Scheme. And that basically looked at the addresses more than anything else of where kids in private schools lived. And so if you were a boarding school with lots of kids coming from places like cotton farmers, kids from Moree, you got heaps of money because your kids were being judged as if they were the poorest kids in Woree rather than the richest kids in Moree, which is quite extraordinary.

It was a completely corrupted idea, and I always described it as being like a hunger relief program for the well-fed. That scheme was fought very hard by activists, by the unions, by teachers, by all sorts of people, because it was so grossly unfair.

RUBY:

Okay so that is John Howard’s SES scheme, which was in place until Labor gained power and attempted to shake up the education system through the Gonski review. Let's talk about that. What was Gonski trying to achieve?

Ok so Jane, that was John Howard’s scheme, the SES. Labor then came in with a policy of reform - which was Gonski. Jane, I know that people have been trying to explain what happened with Gonsky for the last decade, but can you just give me the stripped back version of what Gonski was trying to achieve?

JANE:

Well Gonski was a pretty sensible approach. It was a needs-based, sector-blind scheme and that’s what it set out to be. It set out to look at the needs of students in reality.

They set up a minimum resource standard, which was a benchmark at which all schools needed to be funded so they could do the job properly. Not to excess, but just so they had adequate funds for the job they were being asked to do.

And also it had loadings for designated disadvantage. So if you had a lot of kids who were actually really disadvantaged - rural, remote, indigenous, low SES with a disability, or from a non-English speaking background, there were a whole lot of definitions of what constitutes educational disadvantage - Then you would get loadings for that because you would be recognised that you were doing a tougher job. That you had kids who needed more money spent on them to bring them up to the standard. We no longer recognise that.

RUBY:

What do you mean that we no longer recognise that?

JANE:

What Malcolm Turnbull's government did was they basically took the rhetoric of Gonski. It was very clever. It was some sophisticated, clever stuff. They took the rhetoric of needs-based and sector-blind. And what they did was they legislated an 80/20 split.

But as the funding is divided entirely on sector - call me a crazy old fashioned woman who thinks the English language actually means something - it’s clearly going back to being a sector-based needs-blind scheme.

RUBY:

Right, and has anything changed under the current government under PM Scott Morrison?

JANE:

Since Scott Morrison's selection last year, well, he hasn't changed anything in legislation. But during his almost twelve months in power, he has basically gifted over that time approximately. It's estimated by the teachers union about five billion dollars extra to private schools exclusively.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Our government believes that parents should have a choice in education...

JANE:

Some of that has been drought relief. Some of it is being called about the fires. Somehow public schools and public school communities are uniquely immune from feeling any of those effects.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

From 20/20/20 the Commonwealth will transition to a new method of calculating how non-state schools are funded, and that will make the education system fairer and more equitable.

JANE:

But it is added up to about five billion dollars on top of their already outrageously generous public funding.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

To support schools during the transition, the Commonwealth government will provide over the medium term, 3.2 billion dollars to support students, parents, and teachers of non-state schools.

JANE:

We now have a situation where virtually all private schools are funded above the minimum school resource standard and it is not expected that any public school will meet the minimum resource standard in any time in the foreseeable future.

And quite frankly, our national leaders turning their faces away from the neediest kids in this country, and for them to turn it back when it suits them, is really it...as you can hear from my voice, I find it gobsmackingly appalling and hypocritical in the extreme.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Jane, the prime minister Scott Morrison has directly addressed parents and teachers, calling for face-to-face schooling to resume... What kind of approach has he taken to try and convince the public that schools should re-open for all students?

JANE:

He has decided he wants all schools to go back, using the line that disadvantaged students are being left behind by the lack of online access. You know, lack of ability to be taught face to face. That it’s more damaging to them than it is to other groups of more advantaged students.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

It’s a choice that they may have. Some more than others. But we know for some families and students this won’t be possible.

JANE:

The way that Scott Morrison approached this, what was to try and guilt public schools into returning by finger-wagging them...

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And their education - what they learn - is at great risk of suffering this year. This will particularly be the cases for families who are disadvantaged and on lower incomes.

JANE:

… about how, by not being in the classrooms, they were letting the disadvantaged children down.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

It’s so important that children are able to keep physically going to school, particularly for these kids.

JANE:

Charging schools and not an extra cent to the public schools that are dealing with the poorest kids. The kids who are furthest behind the 8-ball. How did he talk about their disadvantage?

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

It is even more essential for those vulnerable students who we know won’t get an education at home. It’s a sad reality, but we know it’s true. And we need to face it.

JANE:

He has tried to blame and shame and guilt them, which I think is outrageous. But what has he done for the private schools? He has offered to give them 25 percent of next year's funding early. Approximately $3.25 billion.

Scott Morrison and Dan Tehan have shown about the same level of interest in disadvantaged children up to a week or so ago as their previous colleagues have, which is precisely none, none at all. No interest in disadvantaged students until suddenly it became convenient for them.

RUBY:

Ok so those are the tactics that the government is employing here - but what’s the bigger picture? Why does Scott Morrison want schools to fully reopen?

JANE:

Yeah, look, I think it's economic, isn't it? They know that if they get schools back, then employers will start to put pressure on workers to go back. And they're hoping that they can sidestep a terrible economic cataclysm, really. And I do understand that's a terrible thing, and that, yeah, if we could avoid it it's a good idea.

I think it is an economic problem that they're trying to solve using schools. And this happens all the time - it would be nice if one day we tried to solve an education problem using schools but I’ve yet to see it happen?

And the other difficulty I think with that is that they're not being honest about it. I think had Scott Morrison come out and said, look, we've got we speak recession staring us in the face, we need to do something about it, there might’ve been more sympathy. Instead, he cried crocodile tears over disadvantaged kids.

And also, I think, to be honest, there's a political motivation as well. And I think schools are sick and tired of being used for economic and political purposes rather than for what they're intended, which is to educate the next generation.

RUBY:

Jane, do you think this stoush over the reopening of schools under the threat of Covid-19 has revealed anything to us about our education system? I’m asking I suppose if there are any lessons that you’re hoping that can be learned from this situation

JANE:

I'm hoping this is revealing to people that no, the problems have not been fixed and in many ways have been exacerbated. And if that happens, then focussing in the way that he did that Scott Morrison did on schools has been a bit of an own-goal. And that's a good thing. We need more attention to be paid because the kids who aren't getting what they need to be able to catch up with their peers - this is something that will dog them for the whole of their lives. And they are the kids that then become problems for us all in terms of not being able to be properly employed, not having the opportunities that they would otherwise have. And we are wasting their potential, their talent, their abilities. And, you know, we really can’t afford to waste that.

We’re ruled at the moment and have been for some time by a clack of private school boys. Who, not only did they all know each other, their fathers all knew each other. You know, it's this awful privileged class that we've developed and it's… have a look at Australia! It's not doing us any good.

We're not where we should be after 28 years of uninterrupted growth. We really aren't. We don't have a society that we ought to have after that level of prosperity. Certainly, if we've got kids still getting left behind, who aren't getting the minimum resources against their education that are needed for their teachers to do an adequate job, then… what was the point of all that prosperity?

RUBY:

Jane, thanks so much for your time today.

JANE:

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today:

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has called on businesses and workers to adopt better sick leave processes to protect the health of the community.

Kelly said that most recent outbreaks of Covid-19 in Australia related to workers coming into work when they were sick.

His comments were made just days before the National Cabinet is set to review Australia’s economic and social restrictions.

**

US President Donald Trump has announced he’s winding down the taskforce leading the country's coronavirus response despite evidence the pandemic is still raging.

More than 71,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, and more than 1.2 million have been diagnosed with the disease.

President Trump said quote - “our country is now in the next stage of the battle” against the virus and “now we are reopening our country.”

**

And NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance has abandoned his bid to enter the federal Parliament, less than a day after his by-election campaign began.

The by-election was sparked by the resignation of Labor’s Mike Kelly.

Constance was seen as a strong candidate after he rose to prominence during the bushfire crisis.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

The Prime Minister has made reopening schools a priority of his response to coronavirus, and part of his argument is that school closures are leaving the most disadvantaged students behind. Today, Jane Caro on how the political debate over coronavirus is reframing the inequality in education funding.

Guest: Author and writer for The Saturday Paper Jane Caro.

Background reading:

How schools have become political pawns in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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218: Jane Caro on reopening schools