The state of education

When I returned to Australia from England last year, two things struck me immediately about education. The first was the gulf between the public primary school our children had left behind in London and their new one in Sydney. The commitment of the staff was the same. Everything else—buildings, open spaces, resources, staff levels, curriculum, parental involvement, access to sport, music and drama—was so much better in Australia that it was almost painful to make the comparison.

Paradoxically, it became apparent that middle-class Sydney parents were suffering a crisis of confidence about the state system. Defections to private schools have already begun among our children’s peers, even at kindergarten level. A neighbouring primary school which offers an ‘opportunity class’ (OC) for high-achieving students in years 5 and 6 is packed to the rafters. But it was the flight from the comprehensive secondary system that was most striking. The word comprehensive may have English connotations, but it is necessary to use it because the kind of schools increasingly being sought by worried middle-class Australians cannot be defined simply as ‘non-government’.

A couple of years ago, friends told me of the secondary school options for their daughter. ‘All we want,’ they said, ‘is a normal school for a normal kid’. When the time came, however, they considered five schools: a public school specialising in the arts; a single-sex public school several suburbs away; a quirky private school; a Catholic school; and even a hugely expensive top-notch establishment.

I wondered why they had not considered the standard public school almost literally across the road. Was it the academic standards, or the social mix? Perhaps the principal had not impressed them, or the facilities were inferior? I was amazed to discover that the thought of checking out the school had not even crossed the parents’ minds. It wasn’t simply that it had a poor reputation—it did not even intrude on the view of their peer group who swapped anxieties about secondary schools.

In fact, I have found almost no parents who have even considered the local state secondary. We live in one of the safest Labor seats in the state. Attendance at the demonstrations against the Iraq war was virtually compulsory. Yet belief in the concept of the local, truly comprehensive public school, is dying a death among the liberal middle class here.

The evidence is not just anecdotal, of course. In the past 30 years, the proportion of NSW children attending private schools has increased from 22 to 32 per cent, figures mirrored in other states. But that is only half the story. For an increasing number of public school children now attend an institution which selects students in one or more ways: by academic ability, by proficiency in an extra-curricular activity such as music; or by gender. In NSW, only half of all secondary students now attend a non-selective public school.

The trend is rapidly extending to primary schools. NSW public primaries have lost more than 6,000 students in the past two years, mostly to the small new schools ambiguously labelled as ‘Christian’ (in fact Protestant evangelical of various stripes) and to high fee-paying private schools who are recruiting earlier and earlier.

I am sure my views on education differ from those of many Eureka Street readers. However, you don’t have to send your children to a public school to be concerned about the crisis that appears to be threatening them. It is obvious (and confirmed by studies worldwide) that public education can fall into a downward spiral of low achievement and demoralisation if it becomes a system of last resort, catering only for those who do not have the resources to escape it.
Australia has certainly not yet reached that stage.

But while our overall standards compare well with the rest of the world, Australia scores worst in comparative research (such as the Programme for International Student Assessment studies of the OECD) on equitable outcomes—those at the bottom are getting left behind. This clearly has consequences for society as a whole. Sydney Morning Herald commentator Paul Sheehan has aptly called schools ‘the hammer and anvil of culture’. It is in no one’s interests for what is still the largest single sector of the school system to become a workshop where debased metals are turned into cheapjack tools for building a divided nation. To become more like England, for example.

Why have so many parents (not exclusively middle-class, but predominantly) lost their nerve when it comes to public schools? We know that John Howard thinks it is because the schools are ‘too politically correct and too values-neutral’. Mark Latham, in his 2001 book What Did You Learn Today? put it down to their ‘homogeneity and inflexibility’. Others point to the perceived academic success of the non-government sector. However, a study in 2000 for the Centre for Independent Studies found that the major consideration for prospective private parents was ‘not differences in academic standards and curriculum, but issues of discipline and order’.

Leaving aside religious conviction, I believe the most useful way of thinking about such choices is in terms of advantage. The rhetoric is about ‘choice’ and ‘diversity’ of schools, but increasing choice for the better-off inevitably restricts it for everyone else (a point rigorously dissected in Adam Swift’s recent British study, How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed). In fact, whether consciously or subconsciously, the motivation of many parents is to give their children a hand up the ladder, as Latham himself might put it.

I would go further and argue that it is not always an actual advantage that parents are seeking, but a perceived advantage. In some circles a failure to avoid the local public school is regarded as a poor reflection on the parents—they have not exerted all their energy and resources to ‘do the best for their children’. That would help to explain why the parents I know would not even visit the local public school to see for themselves, and why the clamour to escape the local comprehensive appears to have no particular target. Private, religious, selective, single-sex, specialist—as long as the parents can point to any aspect of their chosen school that marks it off from the lowest common denominator, then they have done their job. They feel the need to be doing something—almost anything—that demonstrates an intent to gain advantage. Exactly what that advantage is, or even whether it actually accrues, is not the main point.

I have listened with mounting incredulity to stories of the desperate measures taken by parents to get their children into the desired schools: the child who never showed up at birthday parties because his weekends were taken up with coaching classes; the eight-year-old who told my son that ‘the most important thing about school is getting into an OC’; the portfolios of 11-year-olds’ work painstakingly compiled for applications to single-sex schools; the parents willing to move house for a year into the ‘right’ catchment area. It seems to me this kind of behaviour has its own dynamic, quite separate from the actual condition of public or private schools, which remains to be adequately analysed. It cannot be described as ‘doing the best for your children’—it is more like an extreme neurosis.  

Two of the many possible reasons for this state of mind are worth highlighting. As family size decreases, parents have more resources to put into each child, and that may be a factor in promoting an over-protective and altogether too precious attitude. A study by the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria found that many who chose private schools ‘thought their child was not only unique but vulnerable and in need of special care: they were shy or quiet or fragile or sensitive, and in a large and vulgar school would be damaged or lost to sight’.

A second is the emergence of ‘parenting’ as a skill that can be learned, an idea which has grown along with the increasing role played by fathers in child-rearing (mothering, of course, was always ‘instinctive’) and which is fostered by the bookshops’ groaning shelves of manuals and the ‘Good Parent Guides’ of the broadsheets. The main outcome of this trend is anxiety, and the desire to enlist whatever help is available to achieve the status of ‘good parents’. In response to John Howard’s statement on values, Hugh Mackay suggested that one reason parents chose private schools was that they ‘want the school to do the values job they can’t or won’t do themselves’.
Unfortunately for those people who might want to halt or slow the flight from public education, neither of those reasons suggests an obvious policy direction. The broad consensus is that ‘doing the best for your children’, whether through paying fees, moving house or almost any other means of getting them into a ‘better’ school, is justified. Any suggestion that it is not would be political suicide.

With the prime minister spruiking for the private sector, and favouring it with lavish Federal funds, Labor is trying hard not to fall into the trap of appearing ‘anti-choice’ or of identifying itself with the perceived shortcomings of state schools. So its support for them, in NSW at least, has taken the form of mimicking their non-government counterparts. As well as promoting selective public schools, Bob Carr promised last year an extension of the ‘gifted and talented’ program to every state high school, in an explicit bid to keep wavering parents in the system. This followed the report into public education by Tony Vinson, whose most important recommendation (according to Vinson himself) was to ‘provide advanced educational opportunities for talented students in all public schools’.

It is easy to see why the ALP might favour this approach. Just as Mark Latham has stressed ‘opportunity’ and ‘aspiration’, it must enlist voters who instinctively reject the language of egalitarianism and anything that smacks of welfare.

On the other hand, you have to wonder whether pandering to the preciousness or the ambition of the middle-classes is the best way to sustain the core virtues of a public education system. Bob Carr, in promoting the ‘gifted and talented’ program, cited his own experience at Matraville High, where he was forced to do woodwork and technical drawing, rather than being allowed to pursue his obvious gifts for languages and history.

From a policy point of view, however, he is the perfect example of the redundancy of spending money on such programs. Those it is aimed at are precisely those who need it least, as his own career amply demonstrates.

By contrast, money spent to improve standards of literacy among disadvantaged children at an early age has demonstrable social benefits in producing economically productive, law-abiding and engaged adult citizens. So it has been good to see Mark Latham reading to young children in the early days of his leadership. It would be even better if he could find ways to honestly promote the egalitarian and social benefits of comprehensive public schools, rather than sacrificing them to the often neurotic desires of the middle classes. 

Mike Ticher was chair of governors at a north London primary school for two years. He now works as a writer and editor in Sydney. Photography by Bill Thomas



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