Forward to the past

Maurie Mulheron

There was a time when the only schools that existed were faith-based which served to educate the elite. Most children were denied formal education. We call it the nineteenth century. It is quite clearly an age for which our Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, feels some nostalgia.

But unfortunately for the Minister, late in the century some bothersome governments intervened, and legislated for all children to be educated “side by side” as Sir Henry Parkes said in free, universal and secular schools.

Pyne’s speech at a Christian Schools Australia function in Canberra in late May reveals his real attitude towards public education. He argued that the Abbott Government had a particular responsibility to private schools that it does not have for public schools.

Warming to the theme, and before a very receptive audience, the Federal Minister went further:

“Having talked to the Prime Minister about this matter many times, it is his view that we have a particular responsibility for non-government schooling that we don’t have for [state] government schooling.

“The emotional commitment within the Federal Government is to continue to have a direct relationship with the non-government schools sector. I think the states and territories would prefer that as well.”

Public school teachers would respond by saying we have an emotional commitment to the needs of all children. It is why we remain committed to the Gonski deal.

Pyne’s comments, however, reveal much about the ideology that underpins so much of what this government is doing.

The fiction that there is a budget crisis that prevents the Government from fully committing to the six year Gonski funding deal is exposed. The funds will dry up after 2017, not because of a lack of money — after all, roads and jet fighters are funded well beyond six years — but because the Federal Coalition does not believe that the Federal Government should have anything to do with public schools.

But there are a few exceptions. Pyne does want to interfere in the curriculum, dismantle the public school system by bullying states into introducing ‘independent public schools’ and allow public schools to employ unqualified teachers just as private schools can.

Pyne wants the best of both worlds: hand the responsibility to fund public schools back to the level of government with the least capacity to raise revenue, the states, with the Commonwealth retaining responsibility for funding non-government schools. At the same time, of course, he does not want to reduce his capacity to interfere politically.

Clearly there is a deep antipathy towards public schools held by the Abbott Government. Pyne’s comments only reflect the sentiments expressed at other times by Coalition members including Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Many teachers will recall Abbott’s comments from August 2012 in a speech before a meeting of the Independent Schools Council of Australia where he not only criticised the needs-based, sector-blind Gonski model but went much further revealing his support for private schools over public education. “So there is no question of injustice to public schools here,” he argued. “If anything, the injustice is the other way.”

It seems extraordinary that it has come to this. Backward looking, sectarian and discriminatory attitudes from a Minister and Prime Minister who would ignore the needs of more than two-thirds of Australian children enrolled in public schools.

Proponents of universal, free, compulsory and secular education did not deny faith but rather argued its proper place was in the home and the church. Public education was developed almost a century after the Age of Enlightenment which saw scientific observation, logic and rational debate challenge dogma and doctrine.

From these tenets, which included the belief that knowledge should not only be sought but also shared, grew a political movement for public education systems for everyone, coupled with the need to educate the masses for the Industrial Age.

But opponents of the 1880 Public Instruction Act were hostile from the beginning. The Catholic Church argued against public schools as they would become “seed plots of future immorality, infidelity, and lawlessness”. As I read Pyne’s comments to the Christian Schools Australia gathering about his “emotional commitment” to religious schools, the parallels became too obvious.

So, dear readers, fasten your seat belts, glance into the rear vision mirror as we rush forward to the past.