Who could fail to understand the frustration of teachers whose efforts appear fruitless and unsupported (for example Chris Fotinopoulos in his article, "Confessions of a state school traitor")? If over many years their morale had been eroded, worn down by unresponsive students and uncomprehending bureaucrats, who would not understand their decision to jump ship? For every day brings further news that schools are failing, either to meet standards or to serve the poor, which ultimately comes down to the same thing.
It is always public schools that are in the frame. Private schools have their scandals, but the largesse of families and governments and negligible exposure to disadvantage save them, almost all of them, from failure.
To condemn public schools as failing is to mistake lack of support for lack of impact.
They shed weaker or more troublesome students to the public system and have no obligation to serve widely. This lures disenchanted teachers out of government schools into the narrow and more manageable enterprise of driving up marks. Who can blame them?
But they should hesitate to condemn the schools they are leaving. At any time in the past 50 years, we could, and we often have, damned our public schools for failing. For it is true that they can never do enough. And what they do well for some, they don't do well for everyone. What is more, we have raised our expectations, intensified demands on them, scrutinised them ever more sharply, broadcast their results, and refused to forgive them for picking the wrong students.
We too readily forget that we invented our public schools to make demands on the population — that all children should be literate and lettered. We intended that all children should be exposed to a rising standard of learning demands, as we did when we began teaching algebra to children whose parents had never studied it, French to those for whom French was foreign, and when in addition we removed from teachers the tools of streaming and keeping children back, practices which lower not raise demands.
We have thus made it hard on teachers as well as families. Yet at the same time, we have made it easier for better-off families by funding segregation and seclusion. Is it then surprising that we have created a permanent stream of refugees, both parents and teachers, from public to private?
"We have not failed in our efforts to educate the mass of the population in public schools."
"We have not failed in our efforts to educate the mass of the population in public schools." Photo: Quentin Jones
The fleeing parent and the fleeing teacher will both claim that they are searching for higher standards, by which they mean a higher standard of resources, more intensive support, and effective access to the high end of the curriculum. We pay for this, partly by a narrowing social mix of students in our public schools and partly by spending too much where it is too little needed.
But while we have eased the demands we make on the rich and the nearly rich by creating expensive environments for learning, we have not failed in our efforts to educate the mass of the population in public schools. This is notwithstanding the considerable cost to teachers and principals through stress, long hours, and frustration.
Public high schools have raised general levels of attainment, expanded social access to the most demanding subjects in the curriculum, increased transition to tertiary education, and reduced social inequalities in participation in higher education. State high school teachers have taught children from the most diverse backgrounds, taught them their algebra and French, and taught them well. They have thus extended the social boundaries of knowledge and taken their students across the lines of class privilege and university domination. They have opened up the curriculum and created inclusive settings for the civic education of children, whereas non-government schools shelter behind fees and religion.
Yes, we can understand the stress and the perception that efforts always fall short. But to condemn public schools as failing is to mistake lack of support for lack of impact. So much has been achieved without adequate support and so little is recognised in the work of public schools that politicians have made a feast of failure. They know that government schools will work well even if starved of funds and they know that the starvation diet will drive voters to them if they fund non-government schools from the savings made in the public sector. No doubt this recurring behaviour that transcends political boundaries sows doubt in the minds of teachers. They question if education has any value if it does nothing for political leaders and gets nothing from them in return.
But the fact that the public recognise this and know in their hearts to expect nothing shows that our schools have sown a healthy scepticism, and all credit to teachers for cultivating this, the greatest source of wisdom.
By Emeritus Professor Richard Teese
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