An Interview with Kevin Donnelly: Educational Issues in Australia

Feb 14, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Kevin, let’s start simple—Are some schools better resourced than others—do they have more supplies, materials, books, etc ? And how would this impact learning?

Australian schools are divided into 3 sectors: government controlled and managed, those in the Catholic system and those described as independent. Non-government schools enroll between 34 to 44 percent of students and not all schools receive the same level of government funding or parental contributions. The reality is that while government schools are guaranteed an equitable level of government funding, on average about $13,000 per student, non-government school students only receive about $6,000. It is true, though, that some non-government schools are better resourced than government schools as they are able to charge fees, often as large as $20,000 to $25,000 a year per student.


One argument is that success or otherwise at school is determined by the level of funding and the belief is that kids from poor homes attending disadvantaged schools will always do worse than kids from wealthier families and better resourced schools.

I don’t believe it is as simple as argued – there are many reasons why children do, or do not succeed at school.

  1. Now, some schools seem to achieve better results—do they have better teachers, better parents, better resources, or perhaps more intelligent students?

Instead of believing that socioeconomic background (or wealth) determines better results I’d argue, based on Australian research, that there are many other equally as important factors that lead to strong educational outcomes. These include student ability and motivation, having a quality curriculum and high expectations, effective teaching and a supportive school culture and environment (such as discipline). Home background and the impact of parents are also very important.

3)      Let’s randomly select ANY classroom in Australia- it is a nice country- I have been there and enjoyed my time there- But in any classroom- are the students ALL equal in terms of intelligence, aptitude, learning propensity, motivation, background knowledge or skill level ?

Having taught for 18 years and been a parent, I don’t believe that all children have the same ability, intelligence, motivation or aptitude for learning. While its politically incorrect to argue such is the case, the reality is that it is wrong to force all students into the one educational strait jacket and to expect that all will achieve at the same level. Some students have an academic bent, some prefer technical subjects or music and the arts and not all are equally intelligent.

  1. Any parent can enter any school and almost immediately get a “ feel “ for the climate- some schools are places of business, organization, cleanliness, and order. In other schools there is chaos and confusion, and adolescent necking and making out in the halls. Does this reflect the educational leadership of the schools , the parents, or both ?

Parents are their child’s first teachers and they have the responsibility to teach them civility, respect for authority and to begin their education. At the same time, if teachers fail to engender respect and if the school environment is slack and ill disciplined then you cannot expect students to do well.

  1. Some individuals seem to feel that there is a secret society lurking behind some curtain with the aim of oppressing the lower classes and maintaining the social structure. Who are these “Wizards of Oz “ that lurk behind these screens with these nefarious aims ?

Our one-time Victorian Premier (Joan Kirner), who argued from a Marxist, sociology of education perspective, believed that education was a tool used by the capitalist class to exploit and disadvantage the working class. She argued that academic studies, examinations and a belief in meritocracy were smokescreens to mask exploitation and class differences. Much like Bowles and Gintis in the US and M F D Young in England the argument is that the ‘left’ must transform society by taking the long march through the institutions – including education.

  1. In many countries, there seems to be a good deal of social mobility and upward mobility. Is this due to education, opportunities, the economy or something else?

Based on OECD research it appears that some countries have greater social mobility than others. The UK, for example and compared to the Scandinavian counties, has low social mobility and a greater incidence of disadvantage associated with low socioeconomic status. Of interest is that one OECD report suggests that Australia has a high level of mobility due largely to our health and education systems.

  1. Both private and public or governmental and nongovernmental schools provide opportunities for children- but are all opportunities equal or is it that children are not all of the same level of intelligence?

While the idea of a bell curve and intelligence is politically incorrect in education circles, I believe that not all children are equally intelligent or motivated or have the same abilities. It’s also the case that, in Australia, research suggests that non-government schools are more effective than government schools in getting students to achieve at higher levels than what otherwise might have been expected. To use the jargon, Catholic and independent schools are more effective at value-add.

8)      Even in any classroom in ANY country- there are individual differences- some kids are good at maths, some reading, some spelling, some writing, some problem solving. Can the schools somehow equalize all of these skills and abilities and make them all the same?

Good schools and good teachers can help students achieve stronger results than what otherwise may have been expected but, as already mentioned, not all children are equally capable or motivated. While there might be a minimum level of standards that all students are expected to reach, especially in English and mathematics and other subjects that make up the core curriculum, it’s impossible to get all students achieving at the same high level.

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