A comment – as I negotiated customs at Sydney Airport with a large party of students on their way to visit our sister school in Korea – keeps swirling round in my mind.
The official scanning bags engaged me in small-talk asking where we were headed. When I explained our excursion was to Korea to visit our sister school she said, “you must work at an upper-class school”. The “c-word”, as many of you would agree, historically, was not much used in Australia, especially while making small-talk but I suspect that this is changing. I explained that we were a proudly comprehensive school like most students attend in Australia. She didn’t believe me, “no, you must be an upper-class school” to be going on an overseas excursion to Korea.
I hesitated to blog about this small incident but I just keep thinking about what it means in the context of what else I know about Australian education and societal attitudes. Schools appear to be increasingly using techniques employed in advertising to ‘brand’ themselves as providing a particular product in the education ‘market’. By definition, some brands to not convey the same status or prestige. Parents are making choices about the schooling they want for their children, conscious of the apparent choice on offer and the enhanced status such decisions about education may bring.
Often, as you know, it is challenging to distinguish between the perception of the brand and the reality of the experience. Sometimes brands with a lower profile offer better value for money – or are morally and ethically sounder choices to make.
What do Australians want for their children? Happiness, health, opportunity and a good education would be the answer for most. I trust, if the question was slightly re-phrased to, what do Australians want for other people’s children? the answer would be the same.
Should you really have to buy education just like any other product? Have Australians really said ‘yes’ to that? What if you do not have the personal resources to do so in a competitive market place? What is the unfolding impact of such clear commodification of education on opportunity for children? What happens in a democracy when the market controls all spaces – including art, academia, sport – and politicians are courted by all for financial gain (as recent ICAC hearings have brought into sharp focus)? What happens when democratically elected political leaders cannot have these conversations as they will be personally undermined by vested corporate interests?
How much have the all-encompassing market-based philosophies that have taken root since the 1980s changed the nature of our society and and core democratic values? Has our historical fondness for egalitarianism in Australia truly dissipated or are citizens just starting to realise that we run the danger of losing what made Australia a ‘paradise’ in the eyes of others for more than a century?
A must-read book for Australian educators is Marion Maddox’ new tome which has a great deal of hard data that shows how funding results in bastions of privilege being supported from the public purse. There is abundant data to suggest that decisions made by politicians in the last few decades are resulting in Australian children being grouped increasingly by socio-economic or religious background in our schools in what is effectively, as Maddox effectively details, an assault on egalitarian ideals.
Democratic societies need to be careful about making all decisions based on perceived market value. It may well lead to many knowing the price of a good education but not its collective value in both maintaining and extending a just, civil society where all children have opportunity. The ‘Gonski’ recommendations recognised that funding of our schools needed to be fairer. Polling, and this gives me great hope that our national values remain sound, indicated that a majority of Australians agreed.
There is much I could say about these issues in the context of the challenges for Public Schooling but will save that for another, more considered, post. What I do know is that Australian students need to learn more about other nations in Asia. We need to make friends, contacts and understand the cultures of our nearest neighbours. It is an opportunity that all our children need and I’d suggest it should be a national priority for all, not just those who attend “upper-class schools”.
Maybe you would like to wade in with some thoughts, perceptions and challenges for me to consider before I write another post about the issues raised in this one?
Featured image: creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by jonthor6