The Ombudsman’s report on a school breaching the rules around school donations is exposing the complex inequalities in the state system and the real cost of running schools.
It is understandable that schools are struggling to cover costs from the operations grant. The cost of modern equipment such as digital technology is huge and the schools are also having to make invidious choices between paying sufficient school support staff and making their school look better than neighbouring schools to keep attracting students.
Some of this can be tracked back to the less inspiring consequences of the “Tomorrow’s Schools” model of the last few decades. Schools are now self-managing, which is great in terms of community participation but has led to a level of competition that costs.
Competition undermines educational collaboration between schools and it also forces schools to market themselves and present themselves as the best of the bunch. Free marketers call this “choice” because they ignore the social context and social impact of competition in what should be a public good environment.
What happened to free local quality public schools? They do still exist but it’s a struggle. I have visited schools who don’t play the game. Some schools limit donations or do not put any pressure on families who cannot afford to pay.
I know of one decile two school who refuses to charge for anything but work as a community to fundraise for school camps. They bulk-buy cheap stationery at sales and they reject the idea that any child should ever be excluded from any school activity because their family cannot afford it.
There is sufficient inequity and exclusion outside school so there is a strong argument for schools being places where equity is fundamental to the culture and practice.
However, the norm has moved a long way from equity between and within schools. Some students in the same high school get a trip to Paris and others have never been to the beach. In some schools students with learning disabilities are welcomed and empowered whatever the cost and at some families are counselled to go down the road because the school is avoiding the costs of inclusion.
These inequities are a reflection of the growing social and economic gaps between our citizens. Hence why the Greens have launched our school hubs policy, which strengthens the relationships between local schools and communities and funds some vital services and programmes such as a school nurse, free after school programmes and school lunch. We also plan to pay a coordinator who can work with each community to develop a school hub based on what they need. This may not solve the problem of unaffordable donations and resource disparity but it can help build community based schools where teachers are not having to be social workers as well as teachers.
There is no simple answer to the Ombudsman’s report, except a huge increase in operations grants, which is not likely. But we need to have the hard conversation – what does free quality public education look like? And what would our country look like if there was a Government commitment to reducing inequity in education rather than fostering it?