The Guardian October 31, 2001


Observations of a Public Education Tourist

Recently, a Promotion of Public Education (POPE) correspondent toured 
public schools and colleges in the Sydney Metropolitan area, the Riverina, 
South Coast, North Coast, North West and West of the NSW. The following 
were observations made about the NSW Public Education system  one of the 
most successful on the planet.

Inequity, but universal commitment

The most stunning reality was one of immense diversity between schools, 
sometimes quite close together, but more generally based upon regional 
differences.

Older, more comprehensive models in non-wealthy areas were, almost without 
exception, resource-neglected and possessed a sense of desertion.

Lack of maintenance funds produced dilapidated buildings, insufficient 
assembly spaces and the inadequate repair of basic resources like desks and 
chairs. Teaching staff felt that they were targets for private school 
subversion, restructuring and nominated transfers.

By contrast, specialist (that is, selectives, "collegiates", sports highs, 
etc.) and "showpiece schools" (ie, new schools set up with the latest 
technology) showed evidence of far greater financial commitment from 
politicians and DET, and thus displayed a greater sense of teaching and 
learning well-being.

This inequity unfortunately revealed that public education has become a 
site of political grandstanding. The basic resources of the system were not 
sufficient to sustain equity across the whole constituency.

What was most striking, however, was the utter commitment by teachers and 
communities to deliver the best possible education, no matter what the 
circumstances.

Universally, teachers in the public education system came across as 
selfless, hospitable, caring people who sought nothing more than the best 
for their students, whether that be in teaching commitment, resourcing, 
class sizes or curriculum.

Even those nominally in the "better-off" show piece schools professed 
concern at the injustices of private school opulence and inequity 
undermining the integrity of the system.

Private vs Public

Noticeable too, was the utter class nature of the private vs public divide. 
In many centres, private school students strutted about after school in 
expensive uniforms with the air of assured superiority reserved only for 
the social elite.

Especially galling was the construction of brand new, extravagantly 
designed private schools right next to existing public ones, specifically 
for the purpose of "cherry-picking" desirable students.

These were the areas where public schools had been most significantly 
destabilised and residualised as places for "the rest", thus leading to a 
sense of resentment and division within the local community and less-
confident, less-effective educational delivery overall.

By contrast, in centres where public schools held primacy and where there 
had been minimal intrusion from new or expanding private institutions, 
educational provision appeared less stressful and more relaxed; relations 
between students and teachers were more cooperative and community support 
for their schools was more united and satisfactory for all concerned. 

Conclusion? The doctrine of "choice" and an intensely competitive 
atmosphere are not healthy for a constructive educational environment.

Remote Education

A bone of contention throughout country areas was the State subsidy for 
bussing students from outlying towns to larger regional centres, either to 
larger public schools or private places.

Locals argued that parents were being encouraged (usually for a host of 
misinformed reasons) to bypass their perfectly adequate local schools for 
alternative "choices" further afield  with a vast increase in travelling 
time. The agreed solution was to confine bus subsidies to the nearest 
Public school. Beyond that, parents should pay full fare.

One issue stood out, however. The role that small and Central schools in 
country areas play is absolutely crucial to overall educational opportunity 
in Australia.

These schools possess the most wonderful atmosphere of 
teacher/student/parent cooperation, caring welfare provision and effective 
learning outcomes  every student is special, and learning is conducted in 
a relaxed atmosphere that can only be achieved by the absence of the threat 
of private privilege.

There is much to be learned from the intimacy of small school practices. 
This underlines the tragedy of the cannibalisation of smaller schools in 
Sydney announced recently.

Commitment to struggle

It would have been understandable to encounter cynicism, apathy and 
defeatism throughout public schools in NSW during 2001, given the constant 
menu of attacks on teachers, curriculum overload, and unequal resourcing in 
public schools. But this is not the case.

The sense of unease regarding our apparent desertion by politicians, DET, 
and, to a certain extent, some within the NSWTF was counterbalanced by the 
commitment and determination of teachers and school communities to struggle 
for greater educational equity and quality.

This was best exemplified by a public meeting at Byron Bay, where a united 
community refused to be snowed by Larry Anthony's (ie, Dr Kemp's) 
statistical funding games and hammered home their demands for educational 
justice. The fight goes on.

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Republished from Class Action a newsletter of POPE Promotion of Public Education.

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