Public education torn by free-market ideology

by Be Bonham

Australian public education has never recovered from the reintroduction a generation ago of state aid for non-government schools, according to Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Sherington.

“The state-aid campaign was originally based on the principle of social justice for poorly funded Catholic schools. But by funding all schools, the actual reintroduction of state aid had the immediate potential to disadvantage public schools and ultimately to create a state-subsidised school market,” Professor Sherington told the first colloquium in the Education Heresies series.

Professor Sherington said the idea that introducing market forces into education provision was part of a wider movement in the 1970s away from protectionism as a mechanism for ensuring the public interest, in favour of the idea that the free market would bring economic growth in the interests of all.

“Government schools were founded on the principle of providing an educational ladder for those of merit and talent whatever their family background,” Professor Sherington said.

“The state-aid question thus became a defining moment in the move away from the public-school ideal formed in the 19th century.”

Professor Sherington said the idea of a market in education, although increasingly pervasive, had been an illusion, except in areas of high-population density and relative prosperity.

He said local public schools were often still the only education options in many rural areas and, meanwhile, the market-driven idea of ‘choice’ had, in fact, fostered social disintegration and competition.

“In the rise of the idea and ideal of the market, the universal ideal of public education has been weakened and thus marginalised,” Professor Sherington said.

“John Winston Howard, who helped to enshrine choice [as a philosophy to justify state funding for non-government schools], used to talk of public schools as the safety net. We well know that many comprehensive public schools have become ‘residual’, teaching the difficult students no other school will take.”

Yet, according to Professor Sherington, for their first 150 years, public schools in Australia were generally recognised, at least by parents, as being more efficient and more focused on teaching standards than faith-based schools.

“A mere century ago, many saw public education as the real solution,” he said.

“It was not values neutral [as claimed by Prime Minister John Howard in 2004], but values laden with potential for almost all.”

Professor Sherington ended by outlining the signs of social change he has observed recently in middle-class attitudes towards public schooling, particularly in respect to primary schools, and by expressing his hope that these signs were a prelude to better times for public education.