Whose ladder of opportunity, Mark?


‘The next great challenge is to put up a ladder of opportunity for all.’ Who said that?

Or this “ ‘to gain a foothold on the ladder of opportunity‘.

John Kerry, and Tony Blair.

You thought it was Mark Latham, didn’t you? Not a day seems to go by in this election campaign without the opposition leader parroting the phrase ladder of opportunity. Like last Friday for instance, where he smugly told the media that he never wagged school because he was ‘climbing the ladder of opportunity.’

What Kerry, Blair and Latham all have in common – and it manifests itself in the ladder of opportunity – is their belief that the role of government is to reward those in society who practice the conservative values of ambition, thrift, hard work and initiative.

Mr Latham told the ALP faithful at the party’s annual conference in February this year that the ladder of opportunity ‘comes from who I am and where I’ve been. When I was young, my mum used to tell me there were two types of people in our street – the slackers and the hard workers – That’s where the ladder of opportunity comes from. I believe in it because I’ve lived it. I believe in ambition and aspiration. I believe in the powerful combination of hard work, good family and the civilising role of government services. I say that economic aspiration is good and social mobility is even better – all Australians climbing the ladder of opportunity.’

This is a philosophically barren and staggeringly simplistic view of humanity. It is a view you’d expect from capital C conservatives like Margaret Thatcher or George W Bush – for whom ‘good versus evil’ and the ‘deserving and non-deserving poor’ are core beliefs. But not from the leader of a so-called progressive political party.

The reality is that Mark Latham is an exceptional case. Most people he grew up with in western Sydney didn’t get to go to university. According to ACOSS, only 15 per cent of children from low income families attend university.

In case you think that Mr Latham’s neo-Victorian conservatism is just rhetoric then think again. One of the centrepieces of the ALP’s education policy, launched last Friday by Mr Latham and the Education Spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin, is Responsible Behaviour Agreements. These will be signed by parents, students and teachers and include a commitment to attend school regularly and to maintain good discipline.

It’s a sign of Mr Latham’s naivete that he believes a piece of paper signed by parents – and subsequently lost in the thicket of paperwork sent home each day by schools -will do the trick if Johnny is a naughty boy.

Like so many of Mr Latham’s ideas this one is not original. The British Tory government of John Major first implemented it in the mid-1990s. And the current Blair government uses Home-School Agreements to tackle non-attendance and disruptive behaviour at school.

The evidence so far from Britain seems to suggest that this legalistic approach – big on the ‘stick’ but not the ‘carrot’ – has had little impact on truancy and disruptive behaviour in schools. On 10 February this year the Blair government announced it was reviewing the measurement for school absenteeism, because it had failed to fulfil its pledge of reducing truancy by 10 percent between 2002 and 2004.

And disruptive behaviour is getting worse in British classrooms. The BBC reported on January 7 last year that one third of teachers in the UK will quit the system the next five years, citing unruly behaviour as one of the major reasons for their decision. Amanda Haehner, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, reported ‘an increasing lack of respect for authority, with more defiance, more confrontations, teachers having to ask and re-ask before pupils co-operate.’

Ms Haehner appears to understand some basic facts that politicians like Mr Latham and his British New Labour colleagues do not. Ms Hahner points to ‘an overriding need for society to think about the type of places schools should be. We need to have a very hard look at education as a whole, rather than in a piece-meal way. In the end, you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn.’

Banging on about the importance of education as a first step onto the ladder of opportunity, and walloping parents with the big stick of an Agreement, might play well in the electorate and with talk back radio hosts. But you can bet your bottom dollar that if Mr Latham’s policies see the light of day, the statistics on truancy and disruptive students will remain bleak.

For a disruptive child, signing an Agreement will be as useless as standing in front of Education Minister Brendan Nelson’s flagpole and mindlessly singing the national anthem each day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.