Exodus! screams this newspaper article.
Official figures released yesterday showed 66.4% of the nation’s 3.4 million full-time students were at government schools last year, falling from 66.8% a year earlier and 70% in 1997.
In Victoria, which has the second highest proportion of students in non-government schools after the ACT, just over 35% of students, or 297,970, now go to non-government schools, compared to 262,948 a decade ago.
It’s articles like this one that have me holding my head and whimpering “wrong way, go back!…” I’m not referring to the government schools, but the State and Federal governments who should be supporting them. Given the level of neglect, they are actually surprisingly good, if you have the opportunity to look beyond the media hysterics and private prejudices. Sixty-six percent, as a letter writer pointed out the next day, would be seen as an overwhelming mandate if it was a government majority. And given the onslaught of scare propaganda we’ve had from the private schools, their advertising companies and their lobby group, telling us we really don’t cut it as parents unless we can cough up the money for private, I’d have expected the “independents” to do better, quite frankly.
Girlchild is starting year 11 and Boychild is in year 5. So for the next two years I’ll have my youngest in the pointy end of primary school, with the associated decisions to be made about secondary school, and my eldest at the much pointier end of VCE. My mood gets gloomier by the day as I contemplate the lack of an actual, well, revolution, post-November ’07.
I’ll just gloss over the perfomance of our State government, which according to this quite incredible headline a few weeks ago, has increased in popularity, apparently. Evidently Victorians have no wish for social justice, vital infrastructure (as opposed to, for instance, car races and encouraging more imports), environmental survival – or decent public education. Teachers in Victoria are paid 10 percent less than their counterparts in NSW and other states, which makes life interesting for parents of kids on the Vic/NSW border.
Not that I had immensely high hopes for fundamental changes from the Federal government side, leading up to the election. Since then, I’ve heard Julia Gillard stating their intent to improve the dire situation of higher education, which is pleasing, but their attitude to secondary schools seems to be “don’t say anything that might frighten the aspirationals.” Pre-election, I heard Rudd declaring in a radio interview that he (hand on heart) wouldn’t think of getting in the way of a parent and their “choice” of education, and expertly deflecting the question of whether the government should continue to fund private schools. Since then, he and Julia Gillard have been talking up the national curriculum and a computer on every desk- nothing about the relative funding of public education and the death spiral that’s resulting.
It’s the weasel word choice which makes me recoil every time I hear a government or private lobbyist pronouncement. It’s the deliberate misinterpretation of “choice” which has our education system becalmed in a third-rate system.
A commenter on a post by Mercurius Goldstein at LP, The true story of the Education Revolution, demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with this “choice” shibboleth:
I think there is an unecessary prejudice against [a voucher system] amongst the Left. The last time I was in a left-wing political organization (2 years) discussing these aspects of policy the issue of choice was met with an obtuse insistence in bolstering up the public system. The person bringing up choice was not advocating a voucher system merely bringing up his own experience. He grew up in a small town with two schools: a “working class” Catholic school and a non-functioning state high school. He said: if I’d gone to the public school I’d be unemployed.
The response was a condescending request that he not show up to the Education policy discussion the following night!
It’s the commenter and his friend who are obtuse. This isn’t choice; this is the absence of choice. Or, the kind of choice we call “Hobson’s”. Attend Catholic or private school and have a job, or a substandard public school and be unemployed.
Families who are sacrificing beyond their means to send their kids to private schools, or families who are sending their kids to cheaper private schools of dubious quality, aren’t really exercising choice – they’re being railroaded. They’re straining their family lives and increasing their debt risk because, with the combination of genuine poverty in the public system, plus a “values” moral panic, plus the guilt and fear being whipped up about children competing with each other for jobs and tertiary places, they feel they have no choice. (Just as an aside, how much of the “sacrificing” that the lower and middle income families do consists of getting even deeper into the debt trap? What will happen when the credit party ends, as there’s every indication is about to happen? What impact does the debt have on the rest of their lives?)
If you read the first linked article in the paragraph above, and you’re a parent and you live in Australia, did you find it as disturbing as I did? Without actually having a child enrolled at a government secondary school, you’d think only the most poverty-sticken misfits and sad cases would stay there. Fortunately for me, when I go to fundraising meetings at Girlchild’s school, I meet some awe-inspiring parents and teachers (as well as some very nice and, yes, brainy kids.) It’s a very good school. I have no fear that Girlchild will miss out on a tertiary place because of the school she attends. But one day, out in the workforce, will a HR person scan her CV and cross her off the short list simply because of the
hotbed of drugs and crime Government school she went to?
What should the Rudd government do about it? The fact that responsibility for education mainly falls on the states, but is tinkered with by the Feds, doesn’t make things any easier. But teacher salaries need to be increased. Hugely. The teacherly career path needs to be made attractive to gifted individuals again. The SES system needs to be scrapped and the richest schools weaned off their government subsidies. That money, and more, needs to go to the public system. We need well-paid teachers, buildings and grounds which are in good repair, decent libraries and other facilities such as science labs (yes, computers, of course, but they’re not the be-all.) Long story short, we need to make the notion of choice a reality, and that can only come from restoring the public system so that it’s an excellent and viable alternative. In every suburb. Oh, and to achieve this, we need to kiss goodbye to this fetish for tax cuts (Federal) and yearly budget “surpluses” (State).
Cue the screams of “But but but, that would mean more tax!” Yes quite. It’s a matter of priorities; instead of insisting on tax cuts and upper-class welfare payments to elite schools, the new Federal government should be biting the bullet and doing the infrastructure spending that the previous government wouldn’t do. And they should be prodding their state counterparts to wake the fuck up and do the same.
I think there’s a silent majority of parents out there who would rather pay a few hundred more in tax every year than go into debt for ten thousand plus, per year, per child, and before incidentals. Or who, at least, would be amenable to the idea if the picture wasn’t so distorted by advertising and media panic.
But, you know? this isn’t going to happen. Not only has education failed to score its own category in the 2020 talkfest, but the move to private schools has been reframed now by the media as white flight. Because, you know, parents aren’t worried about public schools because their most able peers are being poached or scared off, the facilities are worn and grubby and the teachers underpaid. Nothing to do with any failure of government policy. It’s because they’re all so racist, don’t cher know.
Crossposted at Road to Surfdom