Guest writer - The original funding model for non state schools - a political history

From Goulburn to Gonski, Or to Hell and Back! Talk of Gronski and school funding (particularly at election time) fills me, and I guess many other grey hairs, with a strong feeling of déjà vu. Today it is perhaps too easy to overlook the political ferment that accompanied the battle for “State Aid”, too easy because the outcome of that battle provides the context for Gonski, and in fact every subsequent debate over school funding. Even reformers like Gonski tread carefully through the minefield of federal funding for sectarian schools, thus limiting a bridle on the amount of “reform” that can be achieved. The “Goulburn Settlement” that followed the battle for “State Aid” (i.e. that the federal government would directly fund church schools) is still the context for educational reform today, even as every other aspect of Australian society has radically altered.

The issue of federal funding for sectarian schools emerged in a society that was very different from today’s multicultural pluralist society. Traditionally Australia had been a sectarian nation. On one side of this divide were the protestant churches and their congregations organized by the Australian middle class with a strong emphasis on their Scottish and English heritage, serviced educationally by state primary schools and by a handful of full fee paying independent schools, and on the other side of the divide was the Catholic Church (with its mainly working class and Irish congregations) with its fee paying church schools. Only a handful of government high schools existed, and most (like Fort Street or Perth Modern) were academically select. Of course only 5-10% of the population were expected at this time to complete high school.

The political system reflected this divide. At Federation the founding fathers had left education a state responsibility, thus sidestepping the sectarian issue in their drive to federate. In instead they emphasized federal control of defense and immigration, confident that both Catholics and Protestants would support a constitutional system designed to protect a “White Australia”. From then on Protestants dominated the non-labor parties and opposed “State Aid” to religious (mainly Catholic schools) on sectarian grounds. Of course at this time most Catholics voted Labor, but Labor opposed state aid for ideological reasons, and even strong leaders like Chifley shied away from the issue for fear of provoking sectarian conflict within the ranks of the labor movement.

Still “State Aid” simmered along as an issue in the post-war period as the number of Catholic school children grew, thanks to the baby boom and growing Catholic immigration, and as the cost of educating them also grew. However, during the 1950’s the Cold War and the creation of the DLP soon brought the issue to the boil. What triggered it to boil over was the Goulburn School Strike of 1962. This “strike” began when NSW School Inspectors demanded that Our Lady Primary School in Goulburn build a new toilet block, or cease to enroll students, Archbishop O’Brien of Goulburn informed the Education Department that the Archdiocese did not have the funds to build a new toilet block and appealed to the state ALP government for aid. The government said yes and began to change its policy when the federal executive of the ALP stepped in and forced NSW to withdraw its offer. This issue and others were of course famously brought to a head inside (and outside the Kingston Hotel) where the “Faceless Men” stamped their will on the ALP, and gave Prime Minister Menzies (Presbyterian/Scotch College) the ammunition to load his electoral starter’s pistol.

The 1963 Federal Election was fought on the issue of the “Faceless Men”, and Menzies wooed Catholic voters with the promise of “State Aid” for their votes and their DLP preferences. The result was game changing; the new Liberal policy delighted the DLP and encouraged thousands of Catholic voters to change their votes. The Liberals picked up 10 seats. Liberals across the country took note, and over the next five years the State Liberal Parties followed suit, and each in turn triumphed at the polls; Sir David Brand in WA (1965), Sir Robert Askin (NSW) 1965, Steele Hall (SA) 1967, Frank Nicklin (Qld) 1967, and Sir Henry Bolte (Vic) 1967. Even in Tasmania Sir Angus Bethuane was able to topple a long standing ALP government and form that state’s first Liberal administration with the promise of state based “State Aid” legislation. By 1968 for the first time since before the First World War there were no Labor governments anywhere in Australia.

Labor’s new leader Gough Whitlam now had to act, and in a series of battles he took on and defeated those Labor activists who preferred to put ideological purity ahead of electoral reality. At one stage he even resigned as Labor leader and demanded the party back a platform that included state aid for church schools. His victory in 1968-69 over Dr Jim Cairns and his left wing supporters paved the way for the successful federal intervention into the Victorian Labor Party in 1970, the 1972 Federal Election victory and the eventual creation of the Australian Schools Commission in 1973. By this time as the federal money flowed into church schools, as more staff were hired, more toilet blocks, science blocks and school halls were built a new consensus on education funding was entrenched in Australia. This is the consensus that Gonski addresses, and indeed tries to redress, even today.

The battle for “State Aid” addressed some of issues related to school funding within the sectarianized Australian school system of the 1950’s and 60’s, but fifty years on this “Goulburn Settlement” of 1962-72 is creaking at the joints. As the federal government spreads it influence into issues like curriculum development, student enrolments, teaching training and professional development, and Australia begins to move towards a more nationally integrated education system the role of sectarian schools in education is an issue that no party is prepared to re-assess. A new stasis much like the one that existed pre-1962 appears to have taken hold. The mantra of parental choice rules, and it is seemingly a given that the federal government should subsidize parental choice at almost any cost. Gonski is often cited as a major “reform”, but it fails to address this, and it would appear that even if Gonski were adopted it would not challenge the status quo. The challenge then is how to build a fully funded national education system on the basis on a political settlement that favours the maintenance of a semi-independent sectarian education sector.