School Is Out!

Journalism, Opinion

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”                 – Mark Twain

I’ve often quoted Mark Twain in jest. Now I’m realising his words are worryingly applicable. Never before have we been so economically and culturally invested in education… and never before has it been failing at the rate it is today.

Source: Data from Board of Studies NSW

Source: Data from Board of Studies NSW

In Australia, approximately 15% of children drop out of school before they sit their High School Certificate. For a country that spends close to $80 billion on education every year, that’s a pretty appalling failure rate.

Why are close to 1-in-6 Australian children giving up a free education and an average 20% wage increase?

Why, when education was voted the fifth most important issue at the last election, are the Australian public accepting of this dropout rate?

"Which issue is most important to you personally in this election campaign?"

Election issues. Source: ABC VoteCompass 2013

And most importantly; why do most kids have a tremendous appetite for learning, which dims as soon as you start to educate them?

That’s what Sir Ken Robinson, education and creativity speaker, asks in his famous 2006 TED Talk How schools kill creativity.

His answer is that our schooling system is hopelessly, completely and utterly out of date. It’s a model designed in the 19th century to meet the needs of industrialism, but in the 21st century it is failing to educate our children.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ken when he was over in Australia speaking at the 2014 EduTECH conference in Brisbane and produced this story for Weekend Sunrise. But due to time constraints and other factors, I didn’t get to include many of the big issues currently facing Australian education. Here’s my take on some of those issues, using Ken’s arguments.


Education Funding

In 2012 the Gonski Report found Australia had one of the world’s largest gaps between high and low performing students. It suggested an increase in funding that focused on equity, with additional money for schools with disadvantaged students.

The Gillard government – which commissioned the report – used it to implement the Better Schools Plan, a $14.5 billion injection into primary and secondary education over six years. Unfortunately they failed to address one of the largest areas of education inequity in Australia; the imbalance between public and private schools.

Over a third of Australian students are enrolled in non-government schools, which is the highest concentration in the developed world. The reason is simple; kids consistently get better results in non-government schools.

Source: Fairfax 2013

Source: MySchool analysis by Fairfax Media 2014

It’s great news for parents who can afford these schools. It’s also great for governments who want to raise education standards. But it’s not equitable, and the government is to blame.

“I think Christopher Pyne has said somewhere that his administration is very attached to private schools and that’s very nice of him. But for most kids, public education isn’t just their best shot, it’s their only shot. And to me it’s the mark of a civilised society to invest in public education and to make it available at the lowest price possible.” – Sir Ken Robinson

If we want to create the fair and impartial education system Ken supports, private schools should not receive the federal funding they currently do.

In 2009 Catholic schools received 73.7% of their funding from government grants. In the same year independent schools received 45.7%. What’s more, when implementing the Gonski funding reforms the Gillard government struck a deal with Catholic schools that their funding would not decrease.

If we continue to lessen funding for public education by supporting private institutions, the equity gap highlighted by the Gonski Report will never be closed. It’s not as if private schools are essential for a world-class education; the much-lauded Finnish system has none. At the same time our own rates of private school enrolment have never been higher. It is time for the government to break its attachment to private schools and invest a little more in pedagogy that is available to all.


University Fee Deregulation

The most recent federal budget contained a $1.1 billion cut to universities over 3 years, although the actual amount will be much greater because Commonwealth funding for higher education will now be extended across TAFE and private colleges as well as universities.

To offset the loss of funding, the government plans to deregulate university fees, allowing institutions to charge whatever they want for their courses. Initial analysis suggests they costs will rise by at least 30%. Students will still be able to defer payment under HECS, but similar to the United States will now have to pay interest on their loans.

Source: ANU Maths People

Source: ANU Maths People

Fee deregulation has never been tried in Australia. But we don’t need to look far abroad to see what it looks like.

“In America just now the price of university education has rocketed. It’s been made possible for kids only through a system of student loans. The total burden of student debt is $1.3 trillion dollars and rising, which is more than the total credit card debt of the country. The interesting thing is that for most forms of debt, there is an escape route through bankruptcy. It’s not true for student loans in America. You can’t get out of your debt.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Australia’s top universities support fee deregulation; after all they’ll be the ones reaping the benefits. Research has shown higher HECS fees do not deter students – a fact often cited by Education Minister Christopher Pyne – but higher interest repayments certainly will. The original architect of the HECS scheme has said that under the new system, poor graduates could pay up to 30% more for their degrees.

“It’s an act of faith to assume that this will not jeopardise equal opportunities in education. I think if a country is serious about its own civilised future and investing in all people, then the prior commitment has to be to social equity rather than private profit.” – Sir Ken Robinson

After the public backlash, it now looks like the government will abandon its plan to apply interest rates to HECS loans. But the deregulation of fees will go ahead… and in doing so the government is further distancing itself from education equity.


Fixing the System

The biggest criticism aimed at Ken’s arguments is “it’s all very well to say the system is outdated, but what do we do about it?”

I believe everybody has a role to play. We can’t ‘solve’ education any more than we can ‘solve’ religion, but we can certainly improve it.

Fixing the system won’t come from a rushed review of the national curriculum just three years after it was first implemented. It won’t come from strengthening our efforts just in “science, in technology, in engineering and in maths” as our Prime Minister said recently. It certainly won’t come from reinstating corporal punishment in schools.

Real change has to come from the ground up, from everyone involved in the system.

“Unless the current minister of education is proposing to teach all the children himself at some point, then he’s going to have to depend – as all politicians do – on the commitment, quality and passion of the teachers themselves and the engagement of the kids.  No attempt to raise standards in the country will succeed if the people who are involved in it are disengaged with the whole process. You may raise test scores, but you’ll lower the quality.” – Sir Ken Robinson

If you’re a parent, don’t settle for second best. Research alternative schools, push for change in the system and be supportive of your children’s passions.

If you’re a teacher, look for ways to change the system. Think creatively about teaching, because in the classroom you are the educator and nobody knows better than you what to do.

If you’re a principal, encourage flexibility. Support your teachers and engage your community. Here’s a segment I produced last year focusing on how to achieve change within the system.

If you’re a politician, give schools the freedom to experiment and explore the curriculum. Listen to the teachers and don’t obsess over international test results.

Every single person in our school system is there for a reason; because they care about education. Sir Ken Robinson can’t bring about a revolution on his own. He needs you and me. So let’s start doing.

“I think part of my role these days is that people need permission. It’s what culture is, it’s permission. It’s about whether things are okay… [So] go off and do it. Because you know it’s right; and the results are palpable.” – Sir Ken Robinson



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