Education Nation | The Great Debate

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

In the build up to Education Nation (#EduNationAu), The Great Debate, a showdown about public versus private education, was billed as one of the headline acts for the event, featuring two speakers who typically take opposing views. Dr. David Zyngier (@dzyngier) was arguing for the side of public education against Dr. Kevin Donnelly (@ESIAustralia) who was, of course, arguing for the side of private education.

As promised on Twitter, I have recorded and included here the full audio of the debate. The only editing done to it was to bring the audio levels roughly into alignment as some sections, particularly during the questions from the floor, were rather quiet in the recording.

The Great Debate was structured as follows:

  • Opening remarks from Dr. Zyngier followed by Dr. Donnelly.
  • Five minutes of rebuttal from Dr. Zyngier followed by Dr. Donnelly.
  • Question and Answer which were asked in a turn-about fashion to Dr. Zyngier and Dr. Donnelly:
    • Two questions submitted prior to the event
    • Questions from the floor.


Dr. Zyngier opened by talking about the negativity towards public schooling being a product which began with the Fraser Government in the 1960s, who introduced public funding for private schools, creating a sense of entitlement and privilege for the few and is an anti-democratic notion. Public funding of private education has continued since then and has resulted in a constant expansion of the private education sector.

Dr. Zyngier then invoked Joe Hockey, currently the Australian Ambassador the United States, who, as Treasurer in 2014, was quoted in the media as saying…everyone in Australia must do the heavy lifting. The age of entitlement is over, the age of personal responsibility has begun…” but, in fact, the public funding private education is about to outstrip public funding of public education vis-a-vis the funding per student amount.

david-zyngier_education-nation-2016-sydney-400hThis constant growth in public funding of private education has, Dr. Zyngier argued, resulted in a growing perception of private schools as being better and played a role in the residualisation of public schools. There is now a growing disparity between funding and this should be seen and felt as a national shame as there are significant consequences for our children. There is a widening disparity in resourcing for students at different ends of the socioeconomic status (SES) scale.

The priority for the Government should be full public funding for public education to help ameliorate the lottery of birth which resulted in parents having a choice, however, the choice was only available if parents could afford the choice. Stephen Dinham (OAM) was then quoted as having said that “It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons.” Rresidualisation feeds further residualisation, was the message I was hearing at this point.

Dr. Zyngier at this point changed tack, asking the audience who had flown on a long-haul flight overseas, and who had travelled by economy class, business class or first class. There were fewer hands up for the higher classes of course, and Dr. Zyngier made the analogy that as those who choose to fly in business or first class do not expect those in economy class to subsidise their flight, why should those who choose to send their children to a private school expect the rest of us to subsidise that choice. I am not entirely sure the analogy is a valid one, given that airlines are a business and education is an investment in the future.

jamie-dorrington_education-nation-2016-sydney-400h-400x300I am not entirely sure the analogy is a valid one, given that airlines are a profit-based business and education is, or should be seen as, an investment in the future. It also seems a stretch to me to argue this point, particularly given that, as Jamie Dorrington, the Rethinking Reform MC remarked, that the airlines would likely argue that the upper-class prices, in fact, subsidise the economy class prices.

Dr. Zyngier argued that this is in fact what does happen in Australia, with public funding of private schools acting as a subsidy for the lifestyle choice of the parents and that we have the highest level of privatisation of education in the OECD. Dr. Zyngier continued by pointing out that countries in the OECD such as the United Kingdom and the United States, though they have privatised education institutions, and perhaps some of the most well-known educational institutions in the world, do not give any public funds to those private education institutes whatsoever.

In closing, Dr. Zyngier made two points; firstly, he noted that Australia has been reported by the OECD as having very high student achievement results as well as significantly different learning achievements between the students at either end of the SES scale, which should be concerning to us all.Secondly, and his final point, we need to come to an agreement about what it means to have a public education system, which, to me, sounds like a national conversation about the purpose and goals of education. Maybe I am just hearing what I want to hear, though.

kevin-donnelly_education-nation-2016-sydney-400h-400x300At this point, Dr. Donnelly took the podium to make his arguments and opened by listing off the adjectives typically used to describe, including misogynistic, homophobic, and extremist and proceeded to share some of his background with the audience, revealing that he grew up in Broadmeadows, Melbourne, as a child with a father who was a member of the Communist Party, whilst he and his brother were members of the Eureka Youth Movement, which he indicated was the Youth Communist Party, and that he had “…a good Catholic mother” which resulted in, as I can only imagine, some interesting discussions at home. He then commented that he did not want to be antagonistic or vitriolic today, which, I daresay, caused some disappointment amongst the audience

Dr. Donnelly then spoke about how Australia has a tripartite education system and that this arrangement has had consensus from the major parties for some years now, and he quoted then Minister for Education Julia Gillard as saying that “…I am committed to parents’ rights to choose the school that is best for their child.”

Dr. Donnelly, remarkably, called Gonski funding a myth and said that needs-based funding had been around a number of years, which generated a number of raised eyebrows in the room. He went on to comment that the ten-year period from 1998 saw a significantly large increase in enrolments in the private education system, and that those enrollments were predominantly in the low-fee paying schools, and that while this voting with their feet movement had slowed down since 2008, the Catholic and Independent education systems received little overall funding in the 2012/2013 budget from the Government.Additionally, argued Dr. Donnelly, high-profile schools such as Kings and Melbourne Grammar are, in fact, outliers in regards to the education fees and resourcing. and that the Australian Education Union

The Australian Education Union should be arguing, commented Dr. Donnelly, not necessarily against the stances of the parties regarding the Gonski funding model, but against those states who did not ever sign off on it. He continued by noting that Julia Gillard, then Minister for Education, signed off on twenty-seven different agreements with various state education bodies, which means that there are at least twenty-seven different funding models in place.

Dr. Donnelly then broached the argument from critics of private education that private schools only get the good kids, or those with high academic ability, and discussed research that demonstrates that the SES status of a student’s family only contributes approximately fifteen to eighteen percent of the academic variance and that the Government has spent billions of additional dollars on education without seeing the expected growth in learning outcomes. He also argues that the public selective schools, selective for academic or sporting or any other reason, are a contributor to the residualisation of public schooling, but that they do not get mentioned, with private education being an easy target

A paper by the OECD which Professor Geoff Masters (@GMasterACER), CEO of ACER (@ACEReduAu), quoted in a recent paper which indicates that Australia is second only to Denmark in regards to intergenerational mobility and that another OECD report from 2008 ranked Australia as one of the most socially mobile countries.

Dr. Donnelly closed out his opening arguments by calling for a move away from the acrimonious debate and to look at high-performing schooling systems and ask what works there that might work for us in Australia, with a move towards a decentralised education structure with increased school autonomy and choice to create the flexibility and diversity in our schools to encourage schools to be innovative.

Retrieved from on 11 June 2016.


At this point, Jamie Dorrington asked Dr. Zyngier for his rebuttal comments, however, I will leave the rebuttal from both Dr. Zyngier and Dr. Donnelly, as well as the questions from the floor, for you to listen to, as I would like to explore what we have already heard in a bit more depth.

From conversations with a few people in the room after The Great Debate, there was a feeling that no-one was actually going to change their mind based on any arguments presented today, and that there were going to be a large number of Donnelly-haters and people in the room who would support Dr. Zyngier purely based on what Dr. Donnelly has previously written and said in the media, and who would not actually be interested in hearing what he was saying. I have also heard that someone was told by their Principal they would not be given permission to attend Education Nation purely because Dr. Donnelly would be speaking.

Irrespective of what you think of Dr. Donnelly, this sort of closed-mindedness is not healthy for education debate in Australia. That sort of thinking creates an echo-chamber, where you hear only what you want to hear which creates a stagnant environment and does our students a disservice. Dr. Donnelly (and Dr. Zyngier, for that matter) made some very sensible comments today.

  • We need to move this divisive debate.
  • There are greater areas of importance to learning outcomes that we can address far more productively.
  • Parents have a right to choose the school for their child based on any range of reasons.
  • Public selective schools play a role in residualisation

I do not advocate, let me make it clear, for all of Dr. Donnelly’s views. Personally, I am still working out what my own views are on a range of topics related to education, and trying to work out who I am as an educator and where I fit in the scheme of things. This means that whilst I have made my mind up about some areas, I am open to hearing ideas from all quarters. I engaged in the Twitter conversation that was going on during The Great Debate (you can actually my laptop keys at one point in the audio!) and the reactions I was seeing were a range of adjectives between positive and negative, but I saw some that attacked the man and not the argument which is shameful and contributes nothing.

Dr. Zyngier, as I mentioned, also made some great points in his argument.

  • We need to reach an agreement as a nation about what it means to have a public education system, which sounds, to my ears, like he was on the same page as Dr. Donnelly.
  • Residualisation feeds residualisation
  • The focus of Government education funding should be public education.

Both men threw out numbers, statistics and made references to research with no citations provided. Neither man changed anyone’s mind. The debate, though interesting, and generating a lot of interest, contributed nothing to the overall debate about education in this country. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr Donnelly when he said that “we need to move on from this debate and its acrimonious nature.” The discussions about the impact of a child’s SES background depends on which research you read, is what I drew from that facet of this argument.

We need to move on, there are important issues that need to be addressed.

Staff Development Day Term Three

“Do not underestimate the difference that you can make. You may be the only connection that a student makes during their schooling.”
– Jason Baldwin. Acting Director, Public Schools, Central Coast

Welcome back everyone, and my thanks for your understanding as to my break of last week. This article, and the next few articles, will focus on the staff development day that was hosted by Gosford Public School as a joint day between the members of the Gosford City Learning Community. Having had two nights of solid sleep over the weekend to catch up from my week in Canberra, I felt reasonably caught up on sleep and ready to go for a new term. Fortunately, my school, as with many schools, scheduled a staff development day for Monday of Week One this term. Staff from my school attended a joint event with the other schools that are part of the Gosford City Learning Community for a day of learning that was primarily focused on teaching boys. The welcome remarks were made by Mr John Anderson, Principal of Gosford PS, who offered an acknowledgement of country.

Following Mr Anderson was the acting Director Public Schools, Jason Baldwin. He delivered some interesting remarks about how schools are changing, offering some statistics that were both eye opening and disturbing. In 2009 there were 16,524 students living in out of home care, which had jumped to 18,300 by 2013. Similarly, the number of students with a disability has risen sixfold since 1987 and suicide is now the leading cause of deaths amongst teenagers, statistics which are more than a little disturbing. He closed by reminding us that we cannot underestimate the impact that we can have on a student, and that the connection we form with our students may be the only connection that that student forms throughout their schooling. This statement echoes, very strongly, the sentiments I spoke about in my Graduate Address and which are further articulated in my Teaching Philosophy.

We were then introduced to advertising guru and outspoken proponent for public education, Jane Caro who was delivering the keynote address under the title The strength of public education today. While I am familiar with Jane from her time on The Gruen Transfer and from following her on Twitter (@JaneCaro), I have not had the pleasure of hearing her speak previously and so was looking forward to hearing what Jane had to say.

Jane opened with a congratulation to Adrian Piccoli. As the current Education Minister in the NSW Government, he made the (apparently) shocking move to actually visit the country which is consistently ranked highest in international benchmarking regimes such as PISA and TIMMS to see what we could learn from their education system. What came from that was the discovery that back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the majority of the Western world was deciding that academic excellence should be the central concern of public education, Finland decided to put student well-being as the central concern.

Fast forward to the current global education climate, and there is a trend by the Western countries who adopted academic success as their keystone to plateau in international benchmarking tests, whilst Finland, which placed student welfare at the centre of their education system continues to grow. Jane commented that “it is the easiest thing in the world to create a highly educated elite…but the most difficult thing to do is to create a highly educated general public, and public education is the only institution that shoulders the burden of educating the general public” This is an interesting point to me, as most countries have a highly educated elite, whether it is the highly developed countries, or the tin-pot dictatorships, or the countries in between, they all have a highly educated elite. Where the difficulty ensues is in creating a general public that is highly educated.

You may question why society needs a highly educated general public when there are so many occupations that are highly important to a functioning society that do not appear to require more than a minimal education. Jane answered this unasked question by her statement that “public education is about democracy. If you are going to trust your citizenry with the body politic, then you must educate them. It is for this reason that public education is indivisible with democracy.”

Jane continued to speak about the importance of public education, decrying the current Government’s attempt’s to roll back the public education system, and turn it into a welfare system of last resort, and pointing out that this is a radical thing to do, but that the Government calls itself conservative. Jane also pointed out, on the back of a point regarding the recently leaked Education FUnding Green Paper, that if wealthy parents are required to pay more for access to public education, than they would have every right and expectation to demand for greater focus for their children, and that this would come at the cost of other children.

Jane touched on the low morale amongst many in the public education sector, both staff and students, indicating that she didn’t think it was too much of a surprise that morale is considered by some to be lower than ever, and that cynicism is ever-rising, framing it as being the result of swinging-door politics. A Government will introduce an education program that is designed to lift, for arguments sake, literacy levels amongst young students, and it produces results, raising the hopes of both staff and student. Unfortunately, when the government changes, they de-fund that program in favour of something else, dashing those same hopes that have just recently been raised. Once broken, hopes take longer to revive and students (and teachers) take substantially longer to re-engage. Hope can only be raised and subsequently dashed, before cynicism, and for some, bitterness, sets in, hearkening back to the old adage, once bitten, twice shy.

Jane next touched on the public v private debate, indicating research (un-cited during the keynote, but given Jane’s background, I trust that she can produce the report) indicating that students from comprehensive public schools, once they attend university outperform their private or selective schools colleagues by an average of five marks, and on top of that, are more likely to complete their degree and to graduate. Jane added that her theory for this, with some tongue-in-cheek, is that those students coming from a comprehensive public education background find it easier to transition from one under-funded and under-resourced institution to another under-funded and under-resourced institution. On contrast, those students who attend university from private or selective schools are transitioning from well-funded and well-resourced institutions to an under-funded and under-resourced institution and subsequently find it more difficult to adjust to this new scenario, not having previously encountered anything like it.

Jane posited, continuing along this train of thought, that we have a generation of parents who fear three things:

  1. The world is harder and tougher and less safe for their children;
  2. Competition for places in jobs is now global, not merely local or even state-wide or national and lastly;
  3. They fear their own parenting.

Jane related stories from deciding which schools to send her own children, two daughters, to. She was told, outright, but a private school that if she sent her two daughters to a public high school that they would end up on drugs and other assorted and equally outrageous results of public education. Jane indicated that she sees private education as being fear-based, and leveraging on the three things that parents fear.If you send Little Johnny to the Local High School, he will end up on drugs, in Juvenile Detention, but if you send him here, to this safe well-funded and well-resourced private educational institution, than he will succeed in life.

Is that not what all parents want for their child’s life? Success and happiness? Private schools are about parents fear of not doing the best, or of not doing enough for their children. Public schools, Jane counters, are about hope, because in a public education system every child has potential, irrespective of their background of socio-economic status. Jane commented that if you, as an educator, regardless of your position on the hierarchical ladder, can soothe a parents fear and anxiety about their child, then this will flow-on to reduce the child’s fear and anxiety, which will then affect the classroom and the learning outcomes of our students.

Jane closed with two final points. The first was that social media and online news sources now have more influence than mainstream news sources such as radio, television and newspaper, particularly in anything that we are emotionally invested in, which includes education. Finally, Jane elucidated that our classroom’s are often seen by students as an oasis of normalcy and lucidity in a chaotic world and that we can strengthen that sensation, which often is then reflected in our students learning outcomes by making a promise to our students: “there is nothing I can do about what happens outside of the school. But I make a commitment to you that everything that happens in the school, you will be given the reasoning. You might not like it, but you will understand it.”

Students, and indeed many adults (I include myself in this), often find it easier to engage with or buy into something when the why of that thing is understood. You may have heard students ask “why do we need to learn this?” If you can outline the why, and not merely state that it is part of the curriculum, but why it will be useful for them in life, than you will likely find that they engage more willingly and more deeply in the learning process.

Jane ended her speech there, and answered a few questions from the floor. I found Jane to be highly engaging to listen to, and to speak with a lot of common sense. Her rhetoric was engaging without being superfluous, and I would encourage you to take the opportunity to hear her speak, should it present itself to you.

Thank you for reading as always, and I would like to hear from anyone who has thoughts on the public v private education debate, particularly around the points that Jane mentioned as indicates in this article.