“An upper-class school”

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.

Reflective questions

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?

New book

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

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5 Comments

  1. Interesting and not always in ways I’d imagine. Normally, we are roughly in agreement; here, probably less so. My main concern is that you bring together disparate ideas to make a coherent whole that does not, for me, totally hold together. Let me deal with my concerns in order:

    a) school ‘branding’. Today schools are very much a brand and this is reinforced by the current market ideology that has swept the ‘Western’ world since the late 1980s. School marketing, as a concept, started to develop around that time. However, you suggest it is a recent phenomenon and I doubt that. Schools have always been noted for certain ideas and ideals. Leaving aside the long tradition of schooling in Europe, Australia can also lay claim it. One of my first books coming to Australia was a version of Manning Clark’s history tomes. I was stuck by his notion of “convictism” and its influence on the provision of early education in the fledgling colony. The first public schools were set up for the soldiers’ families and free settlers. They were, largely, fee paying (albeit small fees) and Protestant. Soon, the Catholic system started schools for the children of convicts. Yes, such divides are disappearing, but I haven’t seen a school system with so many different and strong ‘flavours’ as we have here. It is so entrenched that I believe it has held back many vital reforms e.g. National curriculum. Is this not branding?

    b) What is value for money? Whose values and whose money? Having been in the unusual situation of working in both the most “elite” (financially and academically), public and private schools (internationally) and mainstream systems I find that phrase hard to define and harder to defend. To link it to a moral or ethical compass is even harder. Are you suggesting that if I sent my children to a private school that I am making a moral judgement that might be less sound than if I sent them to a local public school? Ironically, I’ve done both and chosen on the grounds of suitability for my children. I can think of few parents who would appreciate their private decisions be taken within a public framework of morals and ethics (which you really need to define if you are going down this path);

    c) What are egalitatian ideals? I find it amusing that I move from a country linked with class stratification (but which shows less of it on a daily basis) to a nation that prides itself on its equality (and yet demonstrates the most clear strata based on postcode!), I get your point – that in buying in to the market system we are being divided into segments to commodify but that is far from issues of egalitarianism.

    d) As a field scientist I am all in favour of wider experiences. I wish it were more widely accepted in all schools. I would love to take week-long trips. Education outside the classroom is so much more important than inside. Virtual trips are no substitute! Research backs this time and again. Your students will gain so much more life-experience in one week overseas than 1 month in the classroom. There is nothing like standing on a mountain to appreciate mountain processes (translate for other experiences!). What I do find, having worked in both public and private systems is that in the private system there is far less impediment to going. The red tape involved in the public system is breath-taking. The need to cover classes, find lessons etc. so mitigates against going out that it rarely happens. Parents, often with limited educational experiences themselves, might see less value in being away from the classroom. The difference is not public/private but ease and acceptance. Let’s mandate outdoors education in any form in public schools, fund it appropriately and see the differences melt away.

    • Darcy Moore:

      Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed comment, Paul. I will do my best to respond to your points:

      a. I am mostly talking about perception. The customs official’s comments inspired the post and it was me thinking aloud. Yes, branding has obviously been going on for a long while but now, in our media saturated environment, is much more pervasive than ever before. If you look at data about school systems since the 1980s (read Maddox’ book asap) you can see how dramatically patterns have changed with where students attend school, especially in the major cities. It is avery dramatic societal change, revolution even and Mr Howard’s funding formula accelerated this from ’96.

      I should also say, if you look at education in the late 18th century in the new colony, Reverend Richard Johnson attempted to educate all, regardless of background including the Aboriginal population. He was greatly discouraged by the those ruling the colony. Jackie French talks passionately about the pattern that was established and I will ask if she can post a response here.

      b. I am talking about taxpayers money mostly but articles like this show that investment in our children’s educations variy considerably and inequitably (as Gonski reported): http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/elites-open-wallets-in-education-arms-race-20140419-36xnd.html
      “In 2012, NSW independent schools spent $2395 per student on capital works, with Catholic schools spending $1074 and public schools $747, according to the latest figures from the federal website.”

      c. Not sure what you mean. I can see from the data provided over many years that there is a growing divide in our nation as in the USA that should be addressed (as Gonski noted but has not been funded to anywhere near the extent the panel recommended)

      d. Agreed.

      Basically, I am a pluralist but am concerned that our democratic institutions are damaged if our children are divided along sectarian, socio-economic and unfair lines. I believe that democratic societies must provide opportunity for all children if we are to maintain our freedoms. Policy matters.

      Read Maddox’ book. :)

  2. Ronda:

    “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.”

    I think that most people want other people’s children to be happy, healthy, have opportunities and a good education…just not as much as THEIR children, however. I’d also argue there’s a growing number of people who, fed by the rhetoric of the hypercapitalists such as Rinehart, believe that other people’s children really don’t deserve those things because they are inherently lazy and stupid.

    Reading commentary online, watching social responses to issues like asylum seekers and economic issues like welfare and affordable housing, watching high level corruption go relatively unchallenged and simply interacting with humanity in a supermarket (or talking with parents in parent-teacher interviews) is making me think that the ‘me and mine first’ mentality is rapidly overtaking any egalitarian values we may have had in this country and, in fact, globally.

    I really don’t see any way that you and I and the average person with a conscience can change our current trajectory. I think we’re on a swinging pendulum that’s going to painfully hit its pivot point in 10-20 years, whether it be through economic collapse, some kind of revolution, or environmental devastation. We can’t sustain this culture of me, me, me greed and competition. But unfortunately I think education will be one of the things trampled underfoot as people try to scramble and claw their way to the top.

    • Darcy Moore:

      Thanks Ronda. I share many of your concerns but am not despairing at all. Do what you can, where you can. ‘Average’ people are what makes a democracy. There’s more of us average types anyway…and we can make a difference. :)

  3. An interesting post Darcy. As I mentioned, my very regular public high school in a regional town takes students on overseas trips every 1-2 years, using as far as I know a combination of fundraising, group discounts and parent/student saving. It’s not that hard and I suspect a lot of public schools do it.

    As for your other questions, I do worry there is a large movement of “everything for me nothing for anyone else” in Australia. A very self-centred movement that seems to rely on the abandonment of society as a concept, and if you don’t believe in society then you don’t believe anyone else deserves an education (which is a crucial foundation of a strong society) and then each to his own to pay for their child’s education. I hope this isn’t where we’re going, but you have to wonder.

    My school is interestingly placed — with no other high school in reasonable distance of our town, we get nearly all the local students. While some may go to private schools, the financial gap to send your child away to a distant boarding school is far greater than a Sydney family who may send their child to one just by catching a different train. So I think we get a far greater spread of students here and our school has done better as a result. We represent the community partially by default, but partially because we draw from the whole community and have benefited from that. This is partially luck and partially design, but I see the community as benefiting from that.

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