Public education and the common wealth: Towards sustainable democracy
The 8th Henry Parkes Oration. Associate Professor Lyndsay Connors
Friday 29 October. National Library of Australia, Canberra
Download the full speech as a PDF.
[EXTRACT]… It is time to ask which of our many traditions we want to honour, to sustain and to advance.
We can afford to think about whether or not the interests of a modern democracy are best served by sustaining our commitment to a federal system of government.
But I do not believe we can sustain a democracy without a commitment to a high quality, public school system that provides a framework of equal opportunity for all our children and young people to learn.
Urgent action is needed to put to right the relationship between the two great legacies of Henry Parkes, public schooling and our national system of democratic government. For both are critical to our common wealth. Such action cannot wait for the general Constitutional reform that is widely agreed to be needed.
A great great grandson of Sir Henry Parkes remarked drily in a recent conversation that one form of homage to his forebear that was not needed was another statue.
So let me propose here that, rather than statuary, we now need statutory action.
The Commonwealth’s use of the powers it has gained through Section 96 of the Constitution has evolved to the point where it now provides almost 40 per cent of the nation’s public investment in its schools (Leaving aside the large, but temporary, Building the Education Revolution program). Yet this has occurred through a dysfunctional and irrational sharing of responsibility with the States and Territories in our federation. Statements such as the National Goals of Schooling read more like mission statements than genuine commitments to democratic ideals of schooling.
The time is right for a Henry Parkes Act.
What is needed now is legislation which provides that, in all its dealings with schooling, the primary obligation of the Commonwealth is to maintain and safeguard strong and socially representative public school systems that are of the highest standard and are open, without fees or religious tests, to all children and young people.
The problem is that the recent splitting by the Rudd Labor Government of the legislative framework for Commonwealth funding of government and non-government schools has complicated and arguably made even less transparent the Commonwealth’s financial effort across both sectors of schooling. Ironically, the Schools Assistance Act, itself enabled under Section 96 of the Constitution for the granting of funds to the States has now become the vehicle for the payment of funds directly to non-government school authorities only. Commonwealth funding for public schools is now provided through the broader Federal Financial Relations Act.
In these circumstances, and in the absence of an Australian Bill of Rights, a fine solution would be to use a stand-alone statute – a Henry Parkes Act – to set down the clear legal standard to be followed by the Commonwealth in all its actions relating to schooling, making explicit its primary obligation to public schools.
State and Territory governments would also need to incorporate this principle, either in their current Acts covering responsibilities for schooling, or by bringing in a stand-alone Act such as proposed for the Commonwealth.
Complementary legislation of this kind could follow from discussion and agreement between governments in national forums, especially the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Perhaps it is time to put the idea to that forum, possibly through the COAG Reform Council.
The enactment of such complementary legislation across the nation would be an important step towards restoring the vital connection between public education and the democratic federation envisioned by Henry Parkes.
Lyndsay Connors is Honorary Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. She is a member of the Council for the Order of Australia and is National President of the Australian College of Educators.
She has long been a forthright advocate for the equal entitlement of all Australians to high quality education and for a system of strong and socially representative public schooling that is open freely to all.