A clarion call to restore education to its higher purpose

One of Australia’s most influential educators is calling for Australian schooling to reclaim its place as the nursery for citizens and democratic renewal in what might be described as a common endeavour for the public good. 

Professor Alan Reid AM, Emeritus Professor of Education with the University of South Australia, has written an honest and thought-provoking essay for the Whitlam Institute’s ‘Perspectives’ series.

In the essay, Federalism, Public Education and the Public Good, Professor Reid challenges the foundation of Australia’s public and private education systems – which are focused on competition rather than collaboration, and individual rather than public benefit.

“In Australia, public and private schools are all, to varied extents, funded from the public purse – and therefore should all have the greater good of the Australian public as their primary purpose,” says Professor Reid.

“Unfortunately, the current education agenda – which seeks to pit school against school through NAPLAN style tests, and reward and punish teachers through performance-based pay – makes it impossible for schools to work toward this altruistic goal.”

In his essay, Professor Reid presents three main purposes of education policy and practice: 

  1. To enable individuals to develop their abilities to the fullest so that they can reach their potential, live enriching lives, pursue opportunities and further their life’s ambitions.
  2. To prepare young people to be competent contributors to the economy as workers.
  3. To prepare young people to be active and competent citizens in democratic life.

According to Professor Reid, it is the extent to which schools place emphasis on these individual, economic and democratic objectives, and the interrelationships between these objectives, that determine the extent to which schools are working toward the ‘greater good’.

“Australia’s current education system favours those school communities which are already replete with cultural and financial resources, whilst further disadvantaging those without,” says Professor Reid.

“If schools had the best outcomes for all students as their goal, it would be pointless for some schools to be working to advance their individual interests at the expense of other schools.

“True public schools are not independent, they are networked. They cooperate to build a quality public education system overall, not compete to create a system where there are shining beacons of success sitting alongside schools which are struggling or failing.

“The failure of one school should be the failure of all. Unfortunately, this is not the case when schooling systems are constructed around choice and competition.”

Professor Reid’s essay, Federalism, Public Education and the Public Good, is the latest to be published in the Whitlam Institute's ‘Perspectives’ essay series.

The Whitlam Institute within the University of Western Sydney is a leading national centre for the dialogue and debate on public policy – it is a bipartisan think-tank for the people, working to ignite debate, strengthen discussion and enrich policy development in Australia.

Director of the Whitlam Institute, Mr Eric Sidoti, says the Perspectives series is designed to encourage creative, even bold, thinking and occasionally new ways of looking at the challenges of the 21st Century.

“Professor Reid’s thoughtful essay challenges us to consider ‘public education’ as being much more than government-owned education and to appreciate that the ‘public good’ is not served solely by ‘public schools’,” says Mr Sidoti.

“There is a freshness to the conceptual framework that he offers. It would be a mistake to see this paper as an abstract reflection – on the contrary, the implications are real and, in the context of current debates, quite immediate.”

The essay provides a pocket history on the nature of the Federal Government’s involvement in private and public schools – from Federation, to the Howard Government policies of 1996-2007 and the wide implications of the Rudd/Gillard Governments’ ‘Education Revolution’ policies since 2007.

Through his analysis, Professor Reid offers a valuable insight into the ‘public’ nature of Australia’s school systems – how they are funded; how they operate; and how they interrelate with each other.

The Perspectives essay is the result of an ARC supported Federalism and Australian Schooling project – a collaboration between the Whitlam Institute within the University of Western Sydney, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, and the Foundation for Young Australians.