Could fully funding every primary school in Australia fix inequities in the education system?
Adrian Piccoli cuts a fascinating figure for one of Australia’s foremost authorities on educational inequity.
A lawyer and farmer from the western interior of NSW, Mr Piccoli, who served as the state’s education minister between 2011 and 2017, became one of the most prominent conservative proponents of needs-based funding for schools after the implementation of the federal government’s Gonski reforms in 2013.
His support provided bipartisan credibility to a model that had been rubbished by Western Australia’s then-education minister, Peter Collier, who criticised the federal government’s intervention in the WA education system.
Having left politics in 2017 to join the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW Sydney, Mr Piccoli has continued his support of needs-based funding for schools.
In July, he authored a brief that proposed a dramatic solution to funding inequity, suggesting that all primary schools across Australia should be fully funded, regardless of their affiliation to a church or not-for-profit organisation.
In return, they would be precluded from charging fees or selectively enrolling students, thereby empowering parents to choose their children’s school.
While controversial, Mr Piccoli’s idea is not without merit.
Australia’s two-tiered system ostensibly gives parents choice as to how their children are educated. In practice, private schools can effectively limit the students they enrol to those whose parents can afford to pay the fees.
Further to that, private schools can suspend or expel students who misbehave, as the schools are not legally required to enrol students in their respective catchment area.
“When you charge a fee, you automatically exclude potential students who can’t afford the fees,” Mr Piccoli told Business News.
“Non-government schools also have the legislative right to reject any applicants.
“Parents can choose their schools, but non-government schools can also choose the students they take in.
“If you’re willing to pay $50,000 a year but your child is swearing at teachers and throwing chairs around, it’s likely that student won’t last very long in that school.”
Mr Piccoli is keen to point out that these issues are not isolated to the private school system.
For one, public schools can often mirror the inequities of their surrounding suburbs. That means public schools in affluent suburbs such as Claremont, Swanbourne and Ardross are likely to provide more attractive employment opportunities and better resources, while more marginalised suburbs may struggle with an overwhelmingly disadvantaged cohort of students.
That feeds into a bigger issue, Mr Piccoli said, where the best personnel were informally sorted into schools that, generally speaking, did not need the resources.
“You’ll find the most experienced staff tends to be in the schools that need those staff the least, like independent schools, where they’re good places to work because teachers aren’t dealing with behaviour issues,” he said.
“There’s an expectation that if you don’t behave in those schools you’ll be suspended or expelled; they’re easier places to teach, which makes them more attractive places to teach, and [they] receive more applicants.”
Mr Piccoli is cautious how this model may sound to parents and stresses it would still support a role for fee-paying schools in Australia’s education system.
However, he said private schools would not receive federal or state government funding, following the independent school model in Canada, which preserves the right of a school to be run privately without interference from the federal or provincial governments.
If implemented, that could save the state government the $441 million currently spent on private and independent schools, according to the Department of Education’s latest available annual report.
“If a parent wants to spend [up to] $50,000 a year on their children’s education, which is fair enough, they would in this case not attract any government funding,” Mr Piccoli said.
“They would have the extra resources and be able to do all of the extra things they do, they just wouldn’t get any government funding.
“If they want to reject someone because of their behaviour, they’re entitled to do that, but they’re not going to attract government funding.”