My beliefs about the role of education in a democratic society have guided my own education, my subsequent career and the way I conduct my life. I have worked locally, at a state and a national level to structure and implement programs, policies and projects designed to ensure children of all backgrounds and socio-economic circumstances have access to the cultural and social capital of affluent Australia. As I get within reach of my three score years and ten I ponder a number of my assumptions and therefore the strategies that I, and many of my colleagues, have pursued as educators. My first and most basic assumption is that a successful, democratic and egalitarian society is desirable, achievable and worth working for.
My second assumption is that a successful, democratic society in the current, and subsequent, centuries requires a population educated to a standard of high cognition – where every member can contribute ideas and creative solutions.
My third assumption is that education is the chief underpinning tool by which a successful, democratic society ensures its own sustainability and survival.
My fourth , and, it seems, the most shaky, assumption, is that the first three, and the values that underpin them, are at the heart of our society and its institutions. A couple of recent summary publications bear witness to the shakiness of that fourth assumption.
In his most recent article for Inside Story, Dean Ashenden suggests we have strayed into a narrative where education is a competition for students and funding, rather than a competition for achievement. As he often does, Ashenden gets to the crux of the matter – the unwillingness of the power elite to share their privilege.
It was Marx, I think, who observed that an endemic problem for what he called the ruling class in capitalist societies is that members of that class pursue their own interests at the expense of the long-term interests of the class as a whole.
Ashenden goes on to suggest that:
Gonski, in this view, can be seen as an effort to repair the consequent damage by reminding Australia’s elites (of which he is a prominent and constructive member) that schooling has tasks and responsibilities which go beyond privileging their own offspring. To that end he proposed a new class compact to replace Whitlam’s.
Also in a recent article in Inside Story, Andrew Leigh analyses some of the evidence both from his own early research and that published this year by Gregory Clark in The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Leigh’s analysis suggests that while social mobility in Australia is greater than in the USA, social status is still at least as hereditable as height. This is a useful analogy.
While genetics clearly determines much of our direction, we know that height can be influenced by nutrition and environment. If we believe in an egalitarian society and the importance of maximising Australia’s potential, we need to find the educational and environmental conditions that enable social mobility.
Leigh’s conclusion is indicative, but not overly optimistic.
How do we break the pattern? Part of the answer must lie in a fair tax system, a targeted social welfare system, effective early childhood programs, and getting great teachers in front of disadvantaged classrooms. We need banks willing to take a chance on funding an outsider, and it doesn’t hurt to maintain a healthy Aussie scepticism about inherited privilege. Yet Gregory Clark’s results also remind policy-makers that this is no easy nut to crack. Part of the transmission of social status occurs through genes. On top of this, people tend to marry those with similar levels of education; and researchers have also documented significant differences in parenting approaches among different social groups. Making the system a bit fairer is within our reach – but a complete transformation may prove elusive.
I stand by my first three assumptions. There have been recent studies by the International Monetary Fund that support the notion that attention to inequality can bring significant longer-run benefits for growth (Berg A G and Ostry, J D Inequality and Unsustainable Growth: two sides of the same coin?). and claim that: on average, across countries and over time, the things that governments have typically done to redistribute do not seem to have led to bad growth outcomes, unless they were extreme. And the resulting narrowing of inequality helped support faster and more durable growth, apart from ethical, political, or broader social considerations (Ostry, Berg, and Tsangarides Redistribution, Equality and Growth).
The problem, it seems to me now, is that as a public educator I have assumed a society that not only values but sees as essential, a high standard of participation and contribution by all, or, as Ashenden paraphrases Gillespie, a good system raises all boats and a bad one lowers them .
While it is a fine thing to think out, plan and implement educational practices that support this end, the effort is as best piecemeal if the most powerful institutions and individuals in the country are working to continue the status quo.
One of many small examples can be found in the debates about assessment. Don Watts, in an article in Professional Educator, October 2013, Vol 12, Issue 5, p 14-16, entitled “The changing purposes of schools” is critical of what he calls the system of complacency built into the primary schooling in Australia. He argues cogently for testing systems that identify difficulties early and provide a ‘catch up’ loop – an additional year of teaching to create ‘learning confidence’. Geoff Masters, on the other hand, advocates reform of assessment thinking and practice, within the context of broader educational reforms. His solution is more organic but also argues for the use of assessment to improve the learning of individuals:
The time has come for the reform of educational assessment. We need to use it to understand rather than to judge learning, and make it an integral part of effective teaching and learning, rather than something that stands apart from, and follows, teaching and learning (Masters, Geoff, ‘Education assessment in the 21st century’ in Professional Educator, May 2013, Vol 12, No 2, pp15-16).
These are reasoned, evidence-based, intelligent responses. We could, and no doubt will, spend much of our professional lives putting similar ideas into practice. This is our job, and we must not stop. Thinkers like Watts and Masters deserve our attention.
In the meantime, however, many of us (sometimes the same ones) who already have access to power and privilege, will vote and conduct our lives in ways that ensure power devolves to our own families, our own ‘tribe’, sharing only where it does not threaten change.
What we need to do to make a difference, is to think hard about our society, its beliefs and values – and to use all our education to ensure these are publicly explicit, debated, shared – and embedded in our education system for every child in the country.
At stake is more than education.