Based on the largest social survey of secondary education ever undertaken in Australia, this book presents a national picture of who succeeds and who fails at school, offering valuable angles on many topical issues such as retention and dropout rates, the relation between poverty and achievement, the gender debate, private versus public schools, and which universities servBased on the largest social survey of secondary education ever undertaken in Australia, this book presents a national picture of who succeeds and who fails at school, offering valuable angles on many topical issues such as retention and dropout rates, the relation between poverty and achievement, the gender debate, private versus public schools, and which universities serve which social groups. This survey also sheds light on the inequalities within the Australian education system and presents new information on students' achievements in relation to their attitudes and values, students' destinations in relation to their backgrounds, and student's perspectives on issues from jobs to discrimination. Students' larger views on matters such as careers, marriage and family, the political system, and social justice are also revealed....more
Paperback, 272 pages
June 1st 2003
by Melbourne University Publishing
I don’t know how true it is that there is a Chinese curse that you ‘live in interesting times’ – if it isn’t true then I have to say that the Chinese get better press than they deserve. We do indeed seem cursed to live in extremely interesting times.
It is important to remember that real mass secondary education is a remarkably recent phenomenon. Both of my parents, for example, left school at 14. Currently in Australia around 70% of kids now finish high school – that is, 13 years of schooling foI don’t know how true it is that there is a Chinese curse that you ‘live in interesting times’ – if it isn’t true then I have to say that the Chinese get better press than they deserve. We do indeed seem cursed to live in extremely interesting times.
It is important to remember that real mass secondary education is a remarkably recent phenomenon. Both of my parents, for example, left school at 14. Currently in Australia around 70% of kids now finish high school – that is, 13 years of schooling for two-thirds of the population. And mass secondary education is now turning into mass tertiary education. However, what is interesting is that the education system was not set up for the purpose that people assume it was set up for – that is, educating people – but rather as a means of reproducing class distinctions within society. Its major purpose to date has been a way of ensuring a hierarchical society and it does this by imposing a hierarchical curriculum whose demands can only be meet by a hierarchical school system.
The problem all of this faces is the ‘interesting times’ curse mentioned above. A long time ago John Dewey said that things are moving so quickly that it is very hard to know just what we need to teach the young so that they will be able to meet the demands placed on them by an unknown future. He recommended large chunks of time being set aside in their education to engage in inquiry-based learning. That is, that kids be taught to find something they would like to know more about and then shown how to go off and find out more about it. The point being that these are exactly the kinds of skills a good citizen needs to have. For Dewey a good citizen wasn’t the loyal ant Russell spoke of when he contrasted education for citizens with education for individuals. For Dewey a citizen needed to be more than a willing ant, a citizen needs to understand how to wrestle with ideas and facts to be able to confront an uncertain future – and that is a large part of the point of educating them in the first place.
All this was over 100 years ago – and as we know, things have only gotten worse. I was thinking this morning that it is barely 20 years since I bought my first CD player and now I can hardly remember the last time I played one. I was told at the time that CDs might have an archival life of about 20 years – I had no idea the technology itself would be almost obsolescent in that time. We live in a world that is changing at a breathtaking pace. Technology is providing us with the means to achieve truly democratic societies if that is what we really want.
And then there are the challenges we face – climate change, economic crisis, likely food and water shortages and, of course, the one people tend not to talk about (like the curious smell that lingers around the aunt we only see at Christmas) nuclear war. Our preference for using education as a toll bridge for access to the middle classes doesn’t only come at a cost to the individuals considering crossing that bridge – and a disproportionately high cost it is indeed for children of working class parents – but also to society as a whole.
The Australia system of education works to entrench social class reproduction by first creating a curriculum that is hierarchical. There are hard and soft option subjects. The hard options invariably tend to be the ‘oldest’ subjects – languages, literature, mathematics, physical sciences, history – subjects that time has ensured have earned their academic stripes to be able to prove their efficiency at differentiating students. These are the most abstract subjects on the curriculum. What is interesting is that when students are surveyed they say they prefer subjects where they can work together, subjects where they learn through engagement and interaction with others. But academic success at school is about two processes antithetical to these preferences – one is that the increasingly abstract nature of the work required of students serves to isolate them from other students. The more abstract and divorced a subject is from the everyday experience of the student the more the brain-work required to tackle it needs to be done alone in the head of the student.
The other isolating process is competition. We have created a hierarchical educational system in all senses – and your proper place in that hierarchy is determined by your success or failure at meeting the demands of that system.
In Australia certain classes of people are better able to pool their social capital in a way that makes them virtually immune from the threat of failure the curriculum presents. They go to private schools that have a great many advantages: while receiving government subsidies they are also able to charge extortionate fees to keep the riff-raff out and even require low-performing students leave and take a place in the local government run high school which is required to accept all comers. If Australia were a country in the least bit interested in equity of opportunity this stealing from the poor to give to the rich would not be tolerated. That no political party in Australia is prepared to make the slightest move to address this shameful situation shows just how far we have moved from our great egalitarian national myth of mateship and a fair go – in deed, at least, if not yet in word.
A hierarchical curriculum requires a hierarchical educational structure. Let’s imagine for a moment that a test was given in mathematics or English and the results were that children from the lowest socioeconomic group in society somehow achieved a virtual monopoly of the best grades and those from the highest socioeconomic group the lowest grades. What do you think would happen in such a circumstance? Clearly, something would be wrong. Somehow the test would have been skewed bizarrely for it to give poor children such an unfair advantage. Inquiries would need to be made – the test would need to be changed. However, year after year we get the exact inverse of this result – one that shows the great advantages those with the resources have, one that presents untold advantages on those who already are advantaged and denies benefits to those most in need.
Concentrating resources to ensure academic success as a means of social reproduction is all very well, but it is important to remember it also has costs. There is a remarkable graph in this book of the likelihood of rejecting an offer from a tertiary institution – if it is a high prestige institution the likelihood of an offer of a place being rejected is virtually non-existent, if it is a TAFE college on the other hand that is making the offer then the chance of a prospective student rejecting their offer is massively increased. This is a shame as TAFE colleges offer very worthwhile courses to students and students also tend to rate the learning experience they achieved there very highly. But our system of social reproduction means only valuing the most arcane academic study and devaluing as almost worthless anything smelling of the practical. This is a precondition of the hierarchy, but in devaluing that apparent worth of alternatives to rarefied academic study the system also encourages students less able to meet the demands of the curriculum to exclude themselves entirely from education.
A further problem is that universities are not really good places to ‘learn’. The hierarchical nature of the curriculum and the kinds of skills this develops in those in locations where they are best able to meet the demands of the curriculum, ironically enough, is used by the most prestigious universities to select students in least need of good teaching. By only recruiting those who can succeed in the lonely and isolating ethereal heights of abstract learning, who can be more or less safely left to their own devices, who can be taught in overcrowded (and therefore cheap) lecture halls or in tutorials with 50 students in them, universities can focus more on research and greatly ignore their role in teaching. The question ‘what am I doing this for’ is never meant to enter the minds of the students faced with this increasingly abstract curriculum – but rather our universities (and particularly the best of them) fashion a love of disinterested learning which can flourish even while left unencouraged by what educational research has consistently shown are the kinds of pedagogies most likely to engage and promote learning – small classes and students engaged in meaningful tasks.
Environmental groups make a point of saying that if we choose to use less of the world’s resources we can actually have a better life, rather than one of hardship and doing without that we generally assume. In fact, the problem with the way we live now is that we often live quite awful lives gathering more and more stuff we don’t even really want by working in jobs we don’t in the least bit like. These groups have moved away from using moral arguments to strike our consciences, for example, arguments about the poor and starving denied even a little by our grasping so much, or of fairness, or of doing what is right – they know all too well we would gladly trade a billion third-world children for an ipad, I suspect. There are costs to having a hierarchical education system, a system designed to grant access to some and bar access to others. Let us hope that in an increasingly ‘interesting’ world the costs of such an undemocratic education system don’t prove in the end fatal. ...more