Dr Ken Boston, a former director-general of the NSW Department of Education and Training and former director-general of school education in South Australia, says the Gonksi panel’s job was “not to cut up the cake” between independent, Catholic and public schools.
“It was to recognise that every child who goes to any of those schools deserves a fair go, and that’s the way the funding should flow.”
Boston believes an important point about the difference between public and private schools needs to be made far more prominent.
“Public and private schools do very different things, and unless we understand that difference, we lose the narrative about the importance of public education,” he says.
“It goes back to [American political scientist] Robert Putnam who talked about building social capital, and said there were two ways to do it: bonding and bridging.
“Bonding refers to relations among people who are like each other in terms of families, ethnic groups, languages, social class and religious affiliation.
“Bridging refers to relations built up between and among people who initially might be greatly divided by culture, religion, and the social and economic means at their disposal.”
Australian private schools are generally founded on cultural and religious affiliations, and are very good at bonding – at confirming and strengthening existing identities, says Boston.
“Now, that’s all very well, and I’m not criticising bonding as an aim. But the purpose of public schooling is broader.
“Public schools are good at bonding in the sense that they respect the cultures and communities they draw on. But our public school classrooms have essentially always been bridging devices for building social and economic strength through teaching young people common values and principles of justice, and the means of understanding different points of view and getting on well with each other.
“We need to keep talking about public schools as the only universally accessible institutions we have for accomplishing and enhancing bridging as well as bonding in local communities. For laying down the foundation for our future reserves of trust across classes, religions, cultures and so on.
“That isn’t prominent enough in our discourse. We have somehow accepted that public education is a cheaper way of getting an education which would be better if you could pay for it. And that’s nonsense.”