Whose Education Is It Anyway?


Let’s strip away the propaganda, self-interest and cliché in the so-called ‘education debate’ and ask the important question: who and what are schools for? Depending on where you’re coming from, there will be different answers.

The basic answer, of course, is that schools are there for children to learn but what should they learn?



Are schools there as the first steps in a lifetime of learning to understand what it is to be human? Are they there to enable all children to eventually take their place as full citizens shaping the future of the world? Or should they be purely utilitarian teaching defined skills and competencies for a greater political end?

Most importantly, should schools decide at the end of primary school which pathway a child will tread in high school and beyond?

Neither parents nor teachers can properly make that decision. Children themselves change so much between the ages of 10 and 20 that it is absurd to have the 10 year-old deciding the 20 year-old’s fate. Yet the NSW State education system now has a policy of sending children to streamed high schools devoted to arts, sport or technology cutting off options in the interests of a marketing spin that makes it fashionable to go to a specialist school.

But the reality is that any school with ‘performing arts’ or ‘technology’ in its name (not just selective schools) is seen to attract a more socially select demographic. So parents can send their children to these schools feeling that they’ll avoid the ‘riffraff,’ while at the same time remaining sanctimonious about sending their children to a State school. I suppose it’s cheaper than moving to the leafier side of Sydney Harbour, where the schools are well-resourced and the people are ‘nice.’ So much for equality.

Thanks to Paul Batey  

I hate to say it, but one of the reasons for the growing popularity of non-government schools (in Sydney, at least) is that the best of these approximate the old-fashioned, 1960s-style, comprehensive high school where students with radically different abilities were taught together. In addition, there’s the bonus of the geographic and cultural mix. Students attending inner city schools come from the far reaches of the Sydney basin as well as the suburb next door.

This can be a pain for ferrying children to parties, and it does tend to encourage sleepovers, but it gets children out of their comfort zone. The boys and girls who travel to private schools from culturally homogenous areas such as Sutherland Shire socialise with students from Asian, Mediterranean, Indian, Islander, and Aboriginal backgrounds. And the ethos that underpins those schools does not accept racism.

The big bonus for the elite schools is that highly motivated teachers find that such schools are places where they can shine, as they are valued by their employer. When there are industrial disputes and the boss isn’t on their side (as in the recent Newington and Ascham disputes) the partnership that parents and students have with their teachers tends to benefit the teaching staff. It is a relationship based on cultural and intellectual equality between the teacher and the parent, which means that the teachers can only survive if they are at the top of their game, and there are significant expectations placed on the parents.

The other side of the story of ever-escalating fees for elite schools is that most of the money is going direct to those who teach and run the schools. The latest award negotiated by the Independent Education Union (IEU) will see teachers in the elite schools properly rewarded.

There’s a flip side to this which needs to be examined. If one group of teachers is being paid properly, then they have established a precedent which can be used by other teachers to lift their salaries to an appropriate level. Rather than attacking the independent schools for their high fees, it might be more productive to point out that they are charging something close to the real cost of education and the only reason that kind of money isn’t going to State schools is that experienced teachers are effectively subsidising education by accepting low salaries.

A good school opens doors that never really close. High Court Justice, Michael Kirby, who still remembers his days at Fort Street, recently said ‘I think what the school contributed [was]a belief that the world and our country were in a constant stage of improvement,’ and his education made him part of that improvement. Betty Churcher, former Director of the National Gallery of Australia, remembers a school where the principal had such faith in her that she completed high school despite her father’s opposition to female education. Recently, a teenager told me that his school had been ‘so much fun’ that he hadn’t even realised he’d learnt to read and write as he took control of his life. That was a State school in a disadvantaged region of South Australia.

The fun of good learning is one of those elements that people forget. Anybody who’s ever had much to do with children knows that magic moment when the light switches on, and the child, who had previously struggled, relaxes in the pleasure of understanding.

And parents? What do they want? Most want their children to be happy which for many translates as financial prosperity. They want their kids to achieve to the utmost of their ability. Sometimes, their expectations are more optimistic than realistic. Some try to live out their own ambitions in their children, while others may well see schools as an opportunity for their own networking skills. But I don’t think it’s too optimistic to say that most parents in most situations want the best for their child.

I’m not saying all parents are sensible and not all recognise talent. We all know stories of bright children, usually girls, whose parents see no value in their education. And the converse: the obsessive parent who sees no ill in their lazy, bullying child.

It’s fair to say that the commonalities of good schools cross all barriers of class, culture and even time. I’m starting to mentally paraphrase Tolstoy for education. ‘ Happy schools are all alike; every unhappy school is unhappy in its own way.’

But if students, teachers and parents can work in harmony why is this educational landscape of ours under constant reconstruction, and how come so many schools are unhappy?

This is based on talk given at a Fabian forum on 16 August at Gleebooks in Sydney.

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.