Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, education was the means to which anyone could transform their lives. In the near future if you want your child to attend university they will need to attend a private school or one of the few selective high schools in the country. If your child is likely to go into a trade, they will go to a public high school.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire and Teaching to Transgress by Bell Hooks, texts written twenty years apart, came to similar conclusions. Education is the key to social, economic and personal change, which can transform into political change. Hollywood, too, has mined this notion to great and dramatic effect. Think of The Freedom Writers, The Step It Up franchise and To Sir With Love (though not Hollywood) – all of which present education as a transformative tool.
In Australia in the 70s and early 80s, this was the operating paradigm for public education. Not that every class and every school transformed every student, nor to say the curricula was perfect, far from it. The idea that a student, no matter what their background, could become almost anything they wanted was a key guiding principle and, more importantly, the education system reflected this. Sure, there wasn’t the diversity of subjects offered at some public schools now and Australian History only touched on Indigenous Australian History and remote indigenous education was beset with similar problems that still plague education in the remote communities. Still there was the belief that a student could achieve Year 12 and go onto university, and the resources to support this ambition were there.
Two separate educational models operated within the post-primary state school system, technical schools and high schools. Technical schools (tech schools) were focused on the trades and arts; although you could pursue an academic stream, there were less academic subjects to choose from. If the tech school where I grew up (Diamond Creek Technical School) was anything to go by, tech schools were less formal in the way teachers and students related, more relaxed in their approach to student behaviour (not to say there was no behaviour management, just that it was less punitive and had fewer petty rules), and more student driven. High schools, on the other hand, were more academically focused, had fewer trade and arts options, were more formal (with more petty rules and punitive punishments), and teacher driven. Both systems seemed to be well resourced. I went to a high school where we had modern textbooks, a reasonable library and so on. Computers hadn’t become mainstream at this stage so that wasn’t an issue.
This system seemed to work well enough. Students with different learning styles and ambitions were catered for by one of the two educational models available. There was no stigma attached to going to the tech school, although students who went there had a reputation of being ‘tough’. This was as much to do with the fact that they didn’t have a uniform and the more open policy on appearance (long hair, piercings, smoking, etc) than any predilection to violence.
In the mid to late 80s, some educational bureaucrat with a rudimentary understanding of Marx and no experience working in an actual high school decided that the tech/high school option was creating stigmatised students and perpetuating a class system. With a stroke of a pen tech schools were deemed to be unsound and were either closed down or rebranded as high schools, thus losing their trades/arts focus and their differentiated leaning styles curricula.
Suddenly almost everyone was at high school. Formality and academia were the rules of the game. At about this time the apprenticeship system underwent a radical change. No longer could someone leave school at fifteen and go into an apprenticeship with the local plumber. The education system now drove the apprenticeship model to the point that the actual work component of an apprenticeship came secondary to the educational component.
Fast-forward twenty years. There’s a tradesperson crisis in the country. There are not enough qualified tradespeople for positions available. The incorporation of trade skills into a formal educational setting has meant that many students who would have gone into a trade to get out of school have left school and gone onto the dole or unskilled positions.
High Schools have failed to match increasing enrolments with increasing resources so many are drastically under-resourced and overcrowded. Successive governments have pushed the line that students shouldn’t leave high school unless they are going into employment or further study. Therefore, schools are full of students who don’t want to be there, have nowhere else to go or no inclination to leave and don’t care about passing or failing. They still move to the year above and no-one’s going to tell them to leave. In many respects high schools have become a holding camp for teenagers, a glorified childcare facility where education is a bonus rather than the modus operandi. This is not to say teachers don’t try, they do, damn hard. But what can be done when three-quarters of the class never bring pens or books to class (or won’t open them even when you supply them)?
Even if you do get a class or group of students who want to work, chances are the textbooks will be over twenty years old. (My first year teaching, six years ago, I taught Year 11 Social Geography. The available textbook talked about the Berlin Wall like it still existed, the ‘Communist threat’ and didn’t mention HIV.) On top of this, computer access requires weeks of notice and half of them don’t work.
In short, the loss of tech schools, the removal of the apprenticeship system from tradespeople and the pressure for students to stay in school at least until Year 12 has resulted in a large cohort of disengaged students whiling time away noisily and disruptively at high school.
In a belated attempt to increase students taking up trades (so arresting the crisis in tradespeople) and to reengage the mob of disengaged students, the Howard Government began to push VET in schools, a line now being pursued by the Gillard Government. The senior school I teach at, on the outer perimeter of Darwin, has an extensive VET program, which is expanding next year. The high school 15 kms further out is selling itself as a VET school. VET in schools has become the next big thing.
All of which sounds great. What’s happening, though, is that public high schools are becoming the technical schools of the 70s and 80s and private schools are taking on the role that public high schools once had. In the not too distant future, if you want your child to go to university they will need to go to a private school, or one of the few selective state schools in the country. If your child is inclined to the trades they will go to a public high school.
A recent report from the OECD ranks ‘Australia third lowest among 28 countries in funding for public schools but fourth highest in funding for private schools’. With the increase of VET in schools and the abysmal state of public school funding, it’s guaranteed that what little money is available in public schools will be funnelled into VET programs, leaving the more academically inclined subjects to die a slow death. The new Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, a man who was incapable of overseeing a home insulation program but is now responsible for education – one of the most crisis ridden portfolio’s in government – was noncommittal when asked about the funding formula for schools.
In fact the only ALP leader who talked about the inequity in the school funding formula was Mark Latham and he was howled down for implying a class system existed in Australia. It’s unlikely Gillard will touch the sensitive issue of school funding, so public schools will continue to get ground down under Labor’s jackboot while private schools get a helping hand.
At my school, Rudd’s much mooted ‘computers for every student’ rollout has well and truly stalled (and friends tell me that some public schools in inner city suburbs in the southern states have computers for every student, but most don’t). Of course, you need fewer computers if your school is a VET school.
There’s one more piece in the jigsaw: ‘The OECD countries have increased funding for tertiary education by 40 per cent in the past 15 years but in Australia funding for universities has remained the same.’ Universities are gradually increasing the allocation of places to full-fee paying students or students who can pay HECS upfront to cover the shortfall, making the university admission highly competitive for school leavers.
The long-term reality for future education in Australia is that the best way to get into university will be to go to a private school (with resources and subjects that significantly increase your chances of gaining admission) and be able to pay HECS upfront. Going to a public school (unless it’s one of the few selective high schools which are primarily urban based and uncommon) and deferring your HECS payment will significantly decrease your chances of getting into university.
In essence, the rich will go to university and the poor will go into trades, unskilled or semi-skilled employment and, in most cases, their children will also go to the same sort of school and the cycle will continue. Education will cease to be transformative. It will no longer be a door into a new world – that door is slamming shut. It will perpetuate the class system by allowing the rich and powerful to maintain their hegemony over the majority of citizens.
The irony of this is that by the time Gough Whitlam dies education will be in the same position it was when he gained power. Education will no longer be equitable and free, it will be inequitable and expensive. One of the greatest reforms in Australian political history will have died, killed in part by the party he presided over. What a sad thing for him to see, and a tragic reality for us.