Whose Education Is It Anyway? Part 2


Last week, I ended my first piece in this series by asking, ‘ 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?’

One of my favourite school principals says he does ‘a lot of talking’ to parents, to students and to his staff, working through problems without hectoring and always delaying rushes to judgement.



A lot of it, I think, comes back to avoiding those rushes to judgement.

I’ve written about this in an essay ‘Going Private’ for the Griffith Review, but one of my daughters was tipped into what can only be described as a Season from Hell after her primary school which still promotes itself as ‘caring and sharing’ rushed to judgement. At the time, I was a single parent on a pension and it was deemed unrealistic for me to expect my child to learn to read. And so she and other children at her school who were at the wrong end of the socio-economic scale sank. The only thing that rescued her, other than my bloody-mindedness, was that I was able to remove her from that toxic environment to a private school, which gave her intensive tuition (at no extra charge). She later graduated from university.

It’s part of human nature to make judgements. But it’s also the underlying belief of many that schools can’t make a difference that garbage in equals garbage out.

It’s a lot easier to blame socio-economic factors than to accept that teaching methodology could be flawed. Sadly Australia is one of the small and nasty group of countries where the parent’s socio-economic status really matters when looking at achievements of children. This is not something to be proud of, and it needs reversing.

Schools don’t exist in a vacuum. From the 1940s to the 1970s there was a general consensus that it was in the national interest to lift the educational standing of the entire population, that education was a common good and that it could transform lives. These were the years when Baby Boomers and those who just preceded them were often the first members of their families to attend university. Schools were crowded, understaffed, and there were always jobs for teachers. In the warm glow of the post-World War II economic boom all things seemed possible.

Fashions change. The oil crisis of 1973 and its accompanying hyper-inflation led to a new respect for economics. And I don’t mean the previously favoured Keynesian theories that had guided the world through generations of prosperity. The new breed believed that short-term pain leads to long-term gain. (Keynes once said, ‘In the long-run we are all dead’ which is something people should tell their financial planners.)

The economic understanding that Australia adopted, and still runs on, is best called Gradgrindism, in honour of the anti-hero of Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times who, ‘With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, [is]ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to’.

What I find really bizarre is not that our banks and businesses adopted the Wildean aphorism of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, but that our educational institutions did as well. And we can’t blame the conservatives alone for this. It was the Hawke Government and the ACTU who celebrated the price of training instead of the value of learning or maybe they just couldn’t tell the difference.

So what’s this got to do with schools? Monetarism and education should hardly be best friends. But sadly, they are. As one scholarly article put it, the teacher unions’ ‘incorporation under the ACTU has resulted in a micro-economically focused human capital construction of education, including teacher education, taking priority over earlier professional discourses.’ I think this means that the education unions also enthusiastically moved towards seeing the world in fiscally measurable outcomes. It wasn’t just education. Even the arts adopted the term ‘arts industry’ so that they could fit into the brave new world of Gradgrind.

It’s true that the Howard Government’s policies built on previous Labor follies have resulted in a society going backwards so fast that the educational landscape of the 1950s is beginning to look like an unachievable utopia, and that the malignancy of this Government, backed by the dogma of commentators like Kevin Donnelly, has made both State education authorities and teachers overly defensive. On the other hand, the Howard Government and its cronies were only able to get traction in the first place because of longstanding problems in schools.

Australia is peculiar in that, despite its size and our scattered population, State education has always been governed by a centralised bureaucracy. This puts us in marked contrast to the United States, Canada, and the UK.

Bureaucracies have their own dynamic in many cases, like virtue, administration is its own reward. Large, impersonal bureaucracies easily forget their purpose and are proof of the universal nature of Newton’s Third Law in the case of education, the ‘equal and opposite reaction’ to the bureaucracy being the rise of the Australian Education Union (in NSW called the Teachers’ Federation). For many years in the absence of a proper professional organisation and with State departments bent more on controlling than enlightening the union had to wear two hats: simultaneously supporting the industrial claims of its members and upholding professional standards. The result has been a significant fudging at the edges when it comes to professional standards.

To further complicate matters, for many years senior educational bureaucrats were themselves former teachers who took their inculcated attitudes to the highest level of public policy.

The losers were children and their interests.

Unions must fight for conditions and salaries sometimes they find themselves having to defend the incompetent and the indefensible. In recent years, with governments finally becoming concerned about teachers’ ongoing professional education, the contradiction between the industrial role of the union and its earlier goals to have teachers treated as professionals has come into sharp relief. You can’t simultaneously aim for high professional standards and fight to keep the duds in a job.

In the process of researching a book I am writing, I asked a number of people the question: ‘Who are schools for?’ Some of the problems I am talking about are encapsulated in this reply from the principal of a large Sydney high school:

State education is an enormously important element in creating a just and democratic society and I am justifiably proud of what the system can offer our students at XXXX High. There is procedural fairness and natural justice that underpins all the policies under which we operate whether with staff or students; there is a serious commitment to professional learning; there is public accountability and reporting that is fundamental to a quality organisation.

This answer was sent to me on 15 July, this year. Thinking that the principal may have simply misunderstood a fairly straightforward question, I wrote again, using these words: ‘ How do you as a principal work to ensure that the school works in
the best interests of its students? What do you do when the needs of students and teachers collide?’

As yet, I have received no reply.

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

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