After working in public education for many years, I’m afraid I’m becoming a little bit cynical. All too often government education policy seems to be motivated by cost cutting, or populism rather than a genuine desire to deliver high quality education to all childen in NSW. Many of us remember the blue print for educational reform commissioned by our previous Labor Government. More and more I fear that both of our major political parties want to turn their back on their responsibility to deliver high quality education, leaving it up to the private sector.
Australians seem to be shifting away from a sense of collective social responsibility towards a more individualistic paradigm. With this shift, comes a change in perceptions of the role of public education. Increasingly, public schools seem to be perceived as a second rate option; a form of social welfare for those who can’t afford a private education. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of our population agree there an obligation to provide public education, but I am concerned that an increasing number of Australians no longer agree there is an obligation to provide a quality education.
Public Schools in Australia are doing quite well. As these charts prepared by Trevor Cobbold from www.saveourschools.com.au reveal, public and private schools from similar socioeconomic backgrounds perform similarly on national tests. The biggest determinant of difference is poverty. He explains it in detail here.
I am concerned however, that if we are not careful the quality of our education programs will suffer. Government initiatives, such as the My School Website, which allow schools to be compared based on national test results is already narrowing our curriculum. Some schools rort the system by persuading families of low performing students to keep them at home. In NSW a recent government wages policy has resulted in public school teachers being paid less than their private school colleagues for the first time, which will surely make it a little more challenging to attract new staff into the public sector. There is now talk of performance pay for teachers, a system which will pit teachers against eachother, breaking down the collaborative working relationships that are at the heart of much of our success.
It’s impossible to divorce public education from politics. While many of us might prefer to bury ourselves in our classroom responsibilities, if we are at all interested in the future of our education system, we must start paying attention to the politics that surround it and get involved when necessary.
We need to inform ourselves about current debates in education and participate in the dialogue. We need to be contacting politicians, writing to newspapers and participating in social media. We need to have our voices heard by the decision makers who determine our education policies.
Who knows, we might even make a difference.