This morning I got an email from a friend whose daughter went to the same orientation day my granddaughter did, as they both will be starting their secondary schooling at the local public girls’ school next year. We live in a fairly affluent neighbourhood (in Abbott’s electorate as it happens) and the public school mentioned has, relatively speaking, a fairly high standard of education. It could be that, given the choice, both these girls’ parents might have enrolled them in private schools, but there wasn’t the choice, and there’s a lingering whiff of anxiety that a shortfall of funds has disbarred them from the best sort of education. Yet neither of these girls could be considered disadvantaged. Nor do I believe that forking out a king’s ransom each year would necessarily provide them with good schooling. I’ve learned enough about private girls’ schools from the experience of another granddaughter to disabuse me of that. But where your own children or grandchildren are concerned, there’s always that lingering whiff. It’s that old dilemma we've been forced to face – which should win out, principles or parental love? – even though on many counts it’s a false one. There’s nothing to say that what a kid gets at a state school is, ipso facto, inferior to that from a private one – it depends very much on where she is and the family she comes from. The actual advantage of a private school lies in the confidence it may engender or the connections it can provide. As for protection from sex and the like – well there’s little of that, if a particular North Shore private school I’ve had dealings with is anything to go by.
I went to a pretty wild school myself, a West Los Angeles public school with such a huge student body that our classes were staggered, with half of us starting and leaving a full hour earlier than the other half. The school’s objective was to foster what was called ‘social adjustment’ over any academic consideration, mirroring in its philosophy all the resolute conformity of those Cold War years. We had good teachers, but they were cowed by the loyalty oaths and the threat of McCarthyism, and the best I can say about this not-so brilliant education is that I made a lot of friends, a few of whom I’m in touch with to this day, and that I managed to survive it with my intellectual curiosity intact if what work habits I acquired were, on the whole, deplorable. But for all that, we were taught foreign languages, which is more than most Australian public schools do today, and our teachers were members of a respected profession.
All the recent shock horror over how Australian students are falling behind in the OECD ratings has stirred up a lot of these memories, and it’s started me thinking about education in general. What its purpose should be and why the way it’s gone about these days is short-changing many of our youth. I’d like to deal with the narrow partisan politics first, get them over and done with. How anyone can possibly argue that the ideology of ‘choice’ hasn’t done real and lasting damage is beyond me. The Howard government (whose reprise we're experiencing minute by minute since last September’s rout) skewed overall spending on education heavily in favour of the well-to-do, so much so that we find ourselves in the pickle we’re in now, with ‘independent’ private school students doing okay, but the many disadvantaged dragging the scores down. The unfortunately-named Gonski reforms of Gillard’s government were formulated to correct this, but in a bid to get them accepted Gillard herself promised that no school, however well-favoured, would lose a penny. So on one side of the party divide we had ideology masking class interest; on the other, a lack of the political courage to persuade the public of the need to stop funding the advantaged.
The current government has argued (if one can make any sense of its position from the flip-flopping it’s engaged in this parliamentary term) that it isn’t funding but ‘teacher quality’ that’s at issue. But how is that to be improved, other than paying teachers more and giving them a better education, and how can this be done without costing the government – that is, us – more money? So the real question is, do we think the money would be worth it?
As long as the question applies to individuals alone, perhaps it wouldn’t, so long as parents who can afford it are willing to pay for their children’s private education, and setting aside the question of whether such a purchase really does deliver what it claims to. But if we apply the question to society, to Australia as a nation, as a whole, the answer is clear. Then spending on education is not a drain on federal budgets, but an investment, at least as necessary as any investment on infrastructure, on ports and roads, and arguably more so. If our country is to withstand the contraction of the long mining boom, the challenges of climate change, and its full conversion to a tertiary economy, its most valuable asset will be the minds of its population. Seen from this angle, spending to achieve excellence in all our students is not a mere option but nothing less than an absolute necessity.
But how to go about this? There are places other than America in which to look for models. Gillard’s holus-bolus adoption of Joe Klein’s New York system, in which testing and tables play such a large part, I believe was mistaken; this particular model has been criticised since and most famously by Diane Ravitch, one of its principal architects. Many people look to Finland’s as a better system to emulate, even though the size and relative homogeneity of Finland’s population make its system difficult to transplant to a federal one like ours without some adjustment, though Finland too has immigrant students and makes ample provision for them. Its essence, however, is eminently transportable - better pay and education for teachers, greater autonomy for them, respect for their profession, in a basically public system. A system in which equality is the by-word and special teachers are available when they’re needed, and in sharp contrast to the test-based, market-influenced one failing students in the US, features of which are copied too unthinkingly here.