In our great "classless" society the public school system is fast becoming a repository for second-class citizens. Thanks to the Coalition's long-cherished 'principle' of "school choice", we now have a two-tier schooling system: one for those who can exercise choice and one for those who can't.
In his campaign launch speech on Monday, John Howard asked the Australian people to re-elect him so the Coalition can carry forward their principles on education.
On the eve of the 2007 election, there’s no better time for us all to put our 'principles' to one side and closely examine what is happening to education in Australia and what lies in store for this country’s future.
First of all, the Coalition does not have a distinctive approach to education. As in so many other areas of public policy, the Coalition's approach has been influenced more by neoliberal think-tank orthodoxy than the abundant research evidence already available from failed educational experiments overseas.
Take Howard's reference to "choice, high standards and greater national consistency". These values appear harmless enough and have proved attractive to parents. However research both here and overseas shows that real choice is only available to those who have the means to exercise it. Wealthier parents can afford the rising fees of elite private schools. Fear driven "aspirationalists" exercise what choice is left to them by driving their children across town to a "better" school. Typically this is a cheaper independent faith school.
Of course this applies only to the parents on the margins of good suburbs. Parents who live in socially-advantaged areas don't have to worry because they’ve already exercised "catchment choice". Needless to say, there are many parents who cannot do this. Housing unaffordability has put paid to that.
Parents on the wrong side of the last housing boom are restricted by locality and wealth to public schools that have been down-trodden by decades of economic rationalism.
This is not to say that public schools are inferior to independents. On the contrary, it is precisely because public school achievements and failures are visibly accountable that these institutions bear the brunt of criticism for any poor educational performance in Australia. To borrow from racing terminology, the Coalition’s principles place public schools in the widest barrier with the heaviest weight.
Public schools educate 70 per cent of our nation’s children. These schools must accept any in-area child whether their family can afford to contribute to their child’s education or not.
They educate the majority of kids who are hard to teach - newly immigrant English language learners and refugees, children with a physical, learning or psychological disability and the growing number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In fact, public schools take the kids independent and private schools reject. And these kids do not just have behaviour problems, they might also have severe learning difficulties or disabilities. Kids whose parents think they have choice, but end up being told to enrol their child at the local public school which has "more appropriate resources".
Public schools strive to ensure that as many of their students get through to Year 12 as possible - and offer a diversified curriculum to do it. Ironically, in doing so, public schools provide more choice to their students. Offering a broader curriculum costs more, but public schools must do it with far less access to funding.
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