Dean Ashenden writes in Inside Story (28.7.16) about the policy legacy of federal Labor’s decision fifty years ago to support public funding of non-government schools. Amid the contemporary school funding debate, the author argues, this legacy is still misunderstood.
‘In July 1966 a special federal conference of the Australian Labor Party voted, in dramatic circumstances, to abandon its opposition to “direct state aid” for non-government schools. The decision was seen at the time, and often since, as a radical reversal of Labor’s historical attachment to “free, compulsory and secular” education; as the beginning of the end for Australia’s “oldest, deepest, most poisonous debate”; and as the harbinger of a great leap forward in Australian schooling. Each of these estimates is half-right at best.
‘By 1966 Labor governments had been dispensing state aid for a decade or more. One state (Queensland) had been doing so ever since 1899, and another (New South Wales) since 1912. Labor had gone to two federal elections (1961 and 1963) with significant offers of aid. And while it is true that the 1966 decision led directly to the famous Karmel report of 1973, with its new deal for schooling, it also led to serious deformities in the structure of the schooling system – deformities that generated significant educational and social difficulties, and frustrated their solution.
‘… Both sides of politics are aware of structural problems in the school system. The Coalition has focused on dysfunctional governance arising from the involvement of two levels of government. Labor’s concerns, larger in scope and spirit, concentrate on the (closely related) problem of complex and counterproductive distribution and use of funding. Neither seems aware of the importance of student selection and exclusion, of the consequences of the fee/free distinction, or of the relationship of all of the elements … to each other.’