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