Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Review: The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education, by Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro

Why are private schools called 'private' when they receive substantial government funding? Why are public schools considered the lesser option out of private and faith-based schools? Which types of schools deserve government funding the most? What are the consequences if some sectors receive more government funding than others? These are the sorts of questions raised in Chris Bonnor and Jano Caro's provocatively titled, The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education.

Bonnor and Caro's main concern with Australia's current education system is that we are perpetuating social and class divisions through our current arrangement of schools. For, Australia has the highest funded, but least regulated private school systems in the world. This is placing increased pressures on the public school sector, which is highly regulated yet is struggling to keep up with policy demands and the ability to cater to the diverse needs of students enrolled in them. Bonnor and Caro propose that our system is so unsustainable that more and more public schools will be forced to close down in the coming years, meaning that free access to education will become less and less available. Is this the sort of future we want for our country?

Before unpacking this idea further, Bonnor and Caro explore how Australia has come to this predicament. They suggest that an unwarranted hysteria has been created about the quality of Australia's education system, which actually isn't as bad as it's been made out to be. However, politicians and the media have incessantly played on the fears and anxieties of parents, who are made to feel increasingly uneasy about their role as caregivers and the security of their children's futures. These fears are so influential that just as 'you can't hear terrorism without thinking war, you can't hear public schools without thinking they need to be fixed' (p.44). All the while, the private school and faith-based sectors continue to flourish. 

Federal politicians in particular have been adding fuel to the fire of debates regarding who most deserves federal school funding, often defending their financial support of private schools (public schools are state funded). John Howard's encouragement for schools to be free markets - where parents are entitled to choose where to send their children based on whether they're willing or able to pay school fees - and the supposed lack of values prevalent in public schools sewed the seeds for the current generation of parents concerned about how to ensure the best futures for their children.

But is it really that bad if parents who can afford to send their children to private schools do? Absolutely, Bonnor and Caro argue. After all, a successful and prosperous society relies on all citizens having access to quality learning, as well as learning how to live and work alongside a diverse range of people. Public schools help this cause as they 'build the social capital and the social bridging that keeps our society and communities together, and create a stable and prosperous society' (p.224). As Bonnor and Caro point out, this is why the public education system was created in the first place - to ensure that everyone had equal access to quality education, no matter what their personal circumstances were. '[T]hey are the best way we have found to help overcome the inevitable inequalities that are visited upon all of us at birth' (p.168). Unfortunately our governments don't seem to support these same values.

Not only is the deterioration of our public education system bad for the fair and cohesive development of a nation, but Bonnor and Caro also suggest that it is a poor economic choice for parents to send their children to private schools. Interestingly, they claim that private schools don't actually offer students any advantages in terms of achieving high results compared to if the same student attended a less prestigious school. While comparisons of end-of-school results may cause people to argue otherwise, the fact of the matter is that there will always be different trends in results of private vs. public schools when the former hand-picks students and/or has students attending the school from (generally) more privileged backgrounds. They also site research which claims that high-achieving students aren't actually that disadvantaged from being in classes with lower-achieving students, whereas there are many benefits of the latter being in environments with the former. The perks of private schools simply tend to appease the anxieties of parents wanting to send their students to a school with a particular reputation and a particular demographic of students, rather than having any definitive benefits for student outcomes.

The issue with all of this isn't that private and faith-based schools exist in the first place, because they do and they are here to stay. The issue is the social divisions they are creating, which is all funded by the public purse. Neither private schools, the people that work there, nor the parents who send their children there are necessarily to blame for our unravelling education system. Rather, it's our governments and politicians who have a lot to answer for, as they have continued with this unsustainable model. For, as Bonnor and Caro point out, 'Governments should be making sure that public schools are so well resourced that there is no need for parents to feel they must sacrifice their time, energy or standard of living to access decent education' (pp.116-117). Unfortunately this hasn't been the case.

Therefore the purpose of this book is not to pit each system of schooling against each other. Instead it unpacks the myths and sheds light on the issues which have become highly politicised by the media, so that Australians can start an informed dialogue regarding how we can improve our education system. Given that the most successful education systems in the world are cooperative, rather than competitive in nature, these are the models we should look for inspiration. For, the latter is proving to be detrimental for the success of our students and nation as a whole.

Overall, The Stupid Country is a highly insightful exploration of how Australia's education system has become what it is today and the consequences of these decisions. I've only just scratched the surface of the many compelling issues raised in the book, which itself is only an introduction to them. Thus The Stupid Country is a very important read if we are to understand what changes should be made to better our education system, so that Australia does not become the stupid country.

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