The community has come out in support of public education but the challenge now is to maintain this active support into the future.

Maurie Mulheron

At the time of writing, 86,803 people had signed up to the I Give a Gonski email list. The list is growing daily, particularly in the other states and territories that are yet to sign the agreement.

Due to years of solid campaigning, the issue of schools funding has risen to the top of the national political agenda, a place where it always should have been. Our job was to awaken the sleeping giant of community support for public education. We did. Our permanent task is to never let it fall asleep again.

On the Sunday after NSW signed the Gonski funding deal with the Federal Government, I went for an early morning walk near where I live on the south coast. I found myself drawn to a small park a few kilometres from home, opposite Coledale Hospital. In the centre of this grassed reserve that overlooks the ocean is a dramatic stainless steel sculpture, called Comradeship, meant to represent a winged sailing boat. It was created and placed there to honour a local history teacher, Mike Dwyer, who died in 2001 after a long battle with cancer.

Mike had campaigned for years for a fairer funding deal for public education. I treasure a photograph taken many years ago of Mike and me handing out leaflets about funding in the middle of Bowral shopping centre one Saturday morning. Mike was quite ill by that stage, but there he is propped up by his walking stick, offering leaflets, balloons and stickers to passers-by. And smiling.

As I reached the sculpture, I looked down at the plaque that had been created by local teachers, and saw another photograph of Mike’s face; as always, smiling. I found myself speaking aloud, “Well you might smile today, Mike Dwyer, we got Gonski.”

Mike was an extraordinary teacher. With his history class, he created a bush tucker garden at the school, having sought advice from local elders. But every few weeks, the class would arrive at school to find that their garden had been destroyed over the weekend by vandals.

Mike led a class discussion about how to solve the problem. Virtually every deterrent suggested enthusiastically by the class required some form of extreme violence. After some time Mike suggested another solution. The class agreed but was not really sure if it would work.

The next double period the class followed Mr Dwyer’s plan and painted the tops of the tomato stakes, which were dotted throughout the newly planted garden, in black, yellow and red stripes. A simple sign was created at the entrance, “Please respect”. From that day on, the garden was never vandalised again.

After he told me this story, I asked him what made him think of the solution. Once again, Mike smiled. “I reckon every kid would have been taught in school, at some point, the importance of respecting Aboriginal culture.” Mike’s faith in humanity was unshakeable.

One of his abiding concerns as an educator was the residualisation of public schools. He argued passionately against simplistic structural solutions such as the creation of selective and specialist schools believing that these only created false hierarchies that would always see the local comprehensive public school regarded as a lesser choice. Based on empirical evidence, he showed that what essentially happens is that the new structures drain existing schools of their social and intellectual capital, thus exacerbating the decline.

Up until his death, he was completing his PhD on the subject. His early research, which I was privileged to read, is still utterly relevant today. Before he died he told me that his fervent wish was for a young student to pick up the research again and complete the job.

Mike Dwyer was just one of tens of thousands of community activists, principals, teachers, parents and caregivers who knew that the fight for a fairer Australia began with a more equitable funding deal for our public school system.

While it is important to thank and congratulate all those who contributed in small and large ways to seal the Gonski deal, let us never forget that they were all building on the work of those who agitated before them. It will be up to the current generation, and the next, to keep the giant awake by understanding the complexities of the funding system, to know what there is to defend and what must still be gained.

If you ever find yourself driving south to Wollongong, avoid the expressway. Take the coast road instead. At Coledale, if you have the time, stop at the Mike Dwyer Reserve and walk over to the Comradeship sculpture. Read the plaque and maybe return Mike’s smile in honour of all those who have made a contribution.