Synod: What I would have said … Education

On the first day of the 2013 meeting of the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, the Synod heard about the mistakes that led to the closure of Acacia College and left the Church tens of millions of dollars in debt. ACA College Logo Final

A great deal of the discussion was about the failures in governance that happen when there is no single point of accountability. Many suggestions for improving these were made. What wasn’t mentioned in the report from the consultants with which the Synod was presented was whether any of the problems were caused by trying to set up a highly-resourced private school on a low-fee basis, or indeed whether the Uniting Church should be setting up private schools at all.

So a few of us on the floor of Synod asked that question. Others then immediately replied by defending the involvement of the Uniting Church in private schools on the basis that: (a) private schools run by religious bodies are permitted under the Australian constitution; (b) Uniting Church chaplains do a great job; (c) religious people are less able to be involved in the state school system so private schools allow us to reach children to whom we otherwise wouldn’t be able to teach the faith; (d) children at Uniting Church schools get less government funding that children at government schools. None of these defences addressed the findings of the Gonski Report that Australia has an inequitable system or recognise that many Uniting Church congregations are now very much involved in state schools through programs like breakfast and homework clubs. Nor did they answer the concern of some of us that we as a Church are involved in the privileging of some schools and students over others. So a minister from a very low socio-economic area and I wrote a proposal.

It didn’t make it to the floor of the Synod meeting, but I think it’s a fine proposal, and I hope that the Standing Committee deals with it – in the midst of selling off our sacred tennis courts.

That the Synod resolves:

To ask the Standing Committee to convene a committee to explore the best way in which the Uniting Church can use the resources of congregations, agencies, schools, presbyteries and the Synod to identify fresh expressions of ministry in the educational context, and to contribute to the education of Victorian and Tasmanian primary and secondary students in a way that ensures that “differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions and that all students have access to a high standard of education regardless of their background or circumstances”. (Review of Funding for Schooling Finding 17, p. xxxi.)

Rationale

The educational questions facing the Church are ones both of equity and of missional approach. The landscape in this sector is changing, and with it the opportunities and style of ministry the Church has traditionally exercised. This provides the Church with opportunities for new expressions of ministry to be envisioned and explored.

The Gonski Review (Review of Funding for Schooling, December 2011) talks about equity in education as a moral imperative: “Ensuring that all Australian children, whatever their circumstance, have access to the best possible education and chance to realise their full potential can also be considered the moral imperative of schooling. In countries such as Australia, this moral imperative goes beyond the legal obligation of governments to provide the opportunity for schooling for all children that is secular, compulsory and free. Governments must also, through addressing the facets of disadvantage, ensure that all children are given access to an acceptable international standard of education necessary to lead successful and productive lives.” (Gonski, p. 106)

This moral imperative is not currently being satisfied in Australia: “For the 2009 PISA [OECD Program for International Student Assessment] cycle, despite being among the top-performing countries overall, Australia was classified as a country achieving only average equity. This means that the link between student background and educational outcomes is more pronounced in Australia than in other comparable high-performing OECD countries.” (Gonski, p. 106)

The Uniting Church could contribute to the moral imperative of equity in education in a variety of ways: through congregations providing breakfast programs and homework clubs; through existing Uniting Church schools ensuring that students can enrol regardless of their economic background; through the Synod advocating for the reforms coming out of the Gonski Report in the same way that it advocated for the NDIS. There are potentially many other ways in which the Uniting Church could contribute. While churches may have less opportunity than previously to share the gospel through Christian Religious Education classes in public schools, they may now have a greater opportunity to share the gospel through acts of practical care and support that ensure all children can participate fully in the education system. The Uniting Church has many resources that could be used if this is made a priority in the life of the church.

Proposed Proposal Speech

What I would have said, if I’d had the chance …

This proposal arises from the discussion we had about Acacia College on Saturday; and the various contributions to that discussion reminded us of why it’s so hard for us as a Synod to discuss issues of education. There are fourteen Uniting Church schools in the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania; as a Church we’re part of the independent school system. This means that discussions about the provision of education more generally can be taken as a challenge, or even an attack. So it’s important to say what this proposal is not about.

This proposal does not question the worth and importance of the work of chaplains in Uniting Church schools. The ministry of chaplains in Uniting Church schools, like the ministry of chaplains in hospitals, prisons, universities, aged care facilities, and other workplaces, is valuable. There’s no question about that.

This proposal does not deny that many Uniting Church individuals and families are involved in Uniting Church schools and commit a good deal of their time, talents, and resources to those schools – as teachers and other staff, parents, board members, and students. We’re not denying the contributions made in good faith by Uniting Church members to Uniting Church schools.

This proposal does not challenge the right of Australian parents to choose to send their children to independent schools rather than government schools, even though in practice this ‘choice’ is primarily available to those who are more-than-averagely well-off.

This proposal does not disagree that children at Uniting Church schools, like children at all independent schools, receive less financial support from the government than children at government schools, although that’s probably because government schools cater for more disadvantaged students than independent schools and so need more money.

What this proposal does seek to do is recognise that some schools in Australia raise funds to enable their students to go overseas, while other schools in Australia raise funds to enable their students to have breakfast. It recognises that at some Australian schools students have access to swimming pools, media centres and fully-functioning theatres, and that at other Australian schools students barely have access to a library. It recognises that some Australian charities are asking donors to ‘sponsor’ an Australian child to provide them with necessities like school bags, complete school uniform and school books. It recognises that Australian children can have very different experiences of education depending on their background and the school they attend, and asks what the church can do to help change that.

The Review of Funding for Schooling, aka the Gonski Report, wasn’t perfect, but it did provide a very useful snapshot of primary and secondary education in Australian. It found, for example, that “the key dimensions of disadvantage that are having a significant impact on educational performance in Australia are socioeconomic status, Indigeneity, English language proficiency, disability and school remoteness,” and that it’s the government school sector that caters for the largest proportion of educationally disadvantaged students. Disadvantage is not spread evenly through the government, Catholic, and independent sectors.

This isn’t to say that independent schools don’t also cater for disadvantaged students. Gonski found that while the government school sector caters for the largest proportion of disadvantaged students, the Catholic and independent sectors cater for 21% of students with a disability and 15% of indigenous students.

But Australia does have an education system in which, to an unacceptable extent, a student’s background determines their educational outcomes. We have an education system in which not all children are given the same access to the sort of education that a wealthy country like Australia should be able to provide.

What can we as a Uniting Church, as congregations, schools, agencies, presbyteries and the Synod do to support the aims of the Gonski Report; especially the desire to ensure that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions and that all students have access to a high standard of education regardless of their background or circumstances? How can we ensure that our Uniting Church schools are open to disadvantaged students: students from low socioeconomic backgrounds; indigenous students; students whose parents don’t speak English; students with a disability; and students in remote parts of Australia? How can we find new ways to minister and serve students in an education system that might be less open to us providing Special Religious Instruction but potentially more open to us providing food and uniforms and help with homework? How can we support those students in Australia’s schools that most need support? This proposal seeks to set in motion a process that will help us answer those questions.

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2 Responses to Synod: What I would have said … Education

  1. Phillip Burtt says:

    Dear Rev Doc – I’ve been watching the blogs with interest and I don’t think there is a family in the outer growth areas of Melbourne that would disagree with your sentiments. In an area such as Mernda/Doreen where the current 5-19 year population is now over 5000 and expected to rise to 11000 in the next 5 years parents have been left to take the education future of their children into their own hands. The state and Catholic primary schools are at double their design capacity. the nearest state secondary school (10km) away is at capacity. There is a recognised need for 3 more primary schools and 2 secondary schools in the area in the next 5 years. The state has just announced opening of a secondary school in 2015 – but only years 7 and 8. Acacia was filling that need. in 2010 Acacia started with 120 students. In 2012 it had 520. There 690 enrollments for 2013 (this year the Seventh Day Adventists have 45 students on that site). This year Acacia would have made a modest surplus but for the ineptitude of head office. The cause of Acacia’s problems was not the number of staff or the iPad program. The problem was that the UCA did not invest any equity into the project – the land at least should have been gifted – and insisted that all the $36.6m remain as debt. The problem is that the UCA could have sold assets to equitized half the debt and received an on going financial and social dividend over the next 30-50 years and chose not to. The problem is that the synod was too heavily influenced in the decision to closed Acacia by particular individuals who insist that low fee school cannot work and refuse to acknowledge that no start up school makes a surplus for at least the first 5 years. The result now is that the ordinary members of the UCA have to sell assets to pay of the NSW Property Fund loan instead of owning an outstanding $50million (50 year) investment in the outer north producing ongoing financial dividends and, more importantly, huge social and mission dividends.The families of Mernda and Doreen have been left in a worse position with a valuable community asset going to waste.

    • avrilhj says:

      Looking at the whole situation I’m a little puzzled as to why Aitken College, which is also low-fee and in a growth area, seems to be going well, while Acacia College failed. One low-fee Uniting Church school is working well; so why didn’t the other manage it?

      I imagine that the Synod couldn’t ‘gift’ Acacia College to the community because the church doesn’t have that sort of resources. Which is why congregations are going to have to sell property to pay the debt – the Synod doesn’t actually have a spare $40 million or so to invest in a school. And if it did, why in that one growth corridor and not all the others around the place? And my question, why as a Church should we prioritise education over, say, feeding the hungry and housing the homeless? If we did have a few spare millions that’s where I’d want them to go – in emergency relief and housing.

      I hadn’t heard that the Adventists only have 45 students on the site. That doesn’t surprise me; I don’t know anyone who sent their children to a Uniting Church school who would be equally happy to then send their children to an Adventist school. A very different theology and ethos! In a perfect world the government would have bought the site, and I’m not sure why it didn’t if the need for schools in the area is so great.

      I imagine that one reason the Church felt able to close the school was that even with local schools at double their design category children are still getting an education. And I’ve just moved to Williamstown from the Macedon Ranges so while I appreciate the appeal of a school within walking or cycling distance, I know it’s not actually necessary. Ten kilometres to travel to high school doesn’t seem too far – I used to leave home at 7.15 am to get to school for an 8.30 start, and as I drove around the Macedon Ranges in the early morning I saw the current generation of school children waiting at bus stops in the same way I used to wait at train and tram stops.

      This morning I had to read the Moderator’s letter to my congregation, and we started talking about whether the building we call the ‘Coffee House’ on our block, built 99 years ago as the Sunday School and now used for the Young Families Worship, might go. So this isn’t a situation is which anyone is happy, and congregations are going to suffer as much as the Acacia families. As we were reminded at Synod, congregations that will have to sell property without getting anything for it shouldn’t be angry with those involved in the Acacia project. Hopefully those involved in Acacia College won’t be angry with the Uniting Church, either.

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