In 1986, while working in the Equal Opportunity Unit of the South Australian Education Department, Margaret Wallace and I conducted a consultation with women about their schooling. We visited schools and talked to mothers of students. One woman’s response has stayed with me and continues to influence the way I think about education. Let’s call her Linda.
Linda was in her 20s. She had children at an Elizabeth primary school. She had grown up one of ten children. To make ends meet, her mother kept the children until they were 15. At 15 they had to make their own way in the world. Some of her siblings went to live with relatives, others found live-in work. All left school. Linda, from memory, found a job and went to live with an aunt.
Linda was very clear. She told us that what she learned from her schooling was that “It doesn’t have to be like this”. She learnt there were alternative ways of seeing the world, solving problems, resolving difficulties – creating change. This didn’t solve all her difficulties, but led her to make different decisions about her own life. She was clear about what she wanted for her own children, and she was very involved in their school.
Ross Gittens, the Economics Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, is a long way from Linda’s world but his Buntine Oration at the Australian College of Educators Annual Conference in Sydney on 13 July 2011 made me think once again of Linda’s words.
Gittins argues that Australia’s future job growth will, and should, be in the services sector.
All these jobs require high levels of education, and success at the highest level requires good quality education at every level, starting with primary school. We’ve had considerable success at raising the level of educational attainment in Australia, especially among women. Where have these better-educated workers gone? Overwhelmingly, into the services sector.
Rather than protecting jobs in declining sectors, Gittins argues, we should be embracing a world dominated by service sector jobs and gear our economy to that future, aiming for the most capable, value-adding labour force we can manage.
And education, he points out, is a very significant part of the service sector. Putting resources into education is an investment in exponential growth.
Gittins is saying to Australians, especially Australian educators, “It doesn’t have to be like this”. We don’t have to be caught in the mining versus manufacturing argument. There is another way of viewing the future.
His most useful contribution, however, comes at the end of his address and is the one we are most likely to ignore. After all, his message about the need for a highly educated population is one educators are bound to like.
At the end of a paragraph advocating more decentralised decision making he slips in I believe that, were the politicians to find educationalists keener to propose improvements and more amenable to change, you’d end up less encumbered by ‘reforms’ that make no sense to you.
Touche. Our profession, for all our belief in helping others to see ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, is resistant and blind to the notion that education itself might not have to be as we have constructed it. In particular, we are very reluctant to give up the structures that enable us to blame governments for educational shortcomings. We cling to models and structures that helped us grow as an industrial nation but may well inhibit us becoming a sophisticated, value-adding knowledge society.
Maybe we have stayed dependent too long. It’s time we put our own house in order and began to look at our profession and our industry with the recognition that ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’ so we can create an educational future that helps our students, our country, and our planet.