All I want for my kids, education-wise, is that by their late teens they have an interest in something, and that something comes with a reasonable possibility of making a living at some reasonable point in the future. School, in the institutional sense, may or may not contribute anything at all to that.
The chances are that they’ll get and develop their interests outside of any formal education process, but if the schools they go to can help, that’d be great. Similarly, the attitudes and inner feeling they have about learning will come mostly or entirely from their home life despite the considerable effort of the institutions they’ll spend many years at. I don’t care one little bit for the infantile infatuation with scores and credentials that obsess so many parents, students, and professional educators, not only because a child’s potential still has many years post-school to come to fruition and is poorly correlated with measured school performance - but because they are a wasteful diversion from the main point of education, which it to foster an actual interest in something that will be useful and meaningful in the student’s post-school life. Schools can and do provide plenty of instruction in the tools that kids need to discover their interests, but always it’s with a view to the measurable and assessable.
Evidence that this is not a widely held view, or thought-out desire for what it means to get an education, abounds. In Australia, by way of diverting attention from what seems to me the self-evident point of education, there’s the all-consuming politicised fight about how to fund education, with very little discussion about what a desirable outcome from it may be. There’s a ham-fisted debate about final test scores versus the family socio-economic background of the students processing through the system, and the dollars that are the primary input into the education system. Nothing, of course, about how it all plays out in the long run, say over the first half of the students life. But the funding issue drives the way the education system is diverted from achieving anything like what it could achieve according to my measure of a successful outcome - fostering a strong interest in something that the student can aim their life at.
Some observations here are essential. In this country, like all others, education has always been tied to caste and status. It’s only fifty years since free universal secondary education has been guaranteed by the state, starting from the late 19th century, but varying from state to state, and even by location within each state, and since finishing high school has been a requirement to go on to tertiary education, and because your family wanted you to be a doctor or lawyer or other profession, or wife suitable, then you had to go to a private school, typically with a religious taint. Religion itself might even be a reason to go to a private school - a century long program that managed to produce this most irreligious of countries. If your family has been middle class for more than three generations, chances are somewhere along the line private schooling has become a marker of social status - something that folks cling to, to distinguish them from the unwashed masses. Shame on anyone who falls for that crap, but many have. With smaller families and therefore more to spend per child, the illusory prospect of conferring status and prestige must be overwhelming to many people and seemingly more affordable, though it’s pushed an inflationary escalation in private school fees and enrolment numbers to record levels. Private education is big business and big marketing. And parents are too easily led into believing a lot of nonsense about their own teenage years, over-crediting their surroundings with fermenting the rich emotional world they first encounter as puberty kicks in. The same inner world would have developed hauling hay bales in a barn as marauding the sandstone cloisters of some tax-exempt pile with a gang of other pimply youths in clip-on ties. Some inner conviction, or worry, that parents can and must perpetuate this cycle lest their children fall from grace runs deep.
In this country, as in most, votes can be bought by the tried and true method of creating anxiety before subsequently, and with a knowing nod of the head, announcing the solution. In the scheme of things, education is cheap, with none of the messiness and open-endedness of health spending, or invisibility and massive cost of, say, military spending. Subsidies are key. It’s so easy to set the media loose with a thousand stories about “our failing education system” and tell the baying mobs we’re gonna fix it, and your aspirations for Johnny and Jemima to only associate with the kids of other like-minded, sensible-minded parents, with subsidised places at private schools. Oh, and we are going to allocate that tax-payer funding to schools where there’s already a huge financial barrier to entry, so wink-wink, we’re spending tax-payer money to subsidise schools that many of those same tax-payers could never afford to send their kids, to privilege the financially privileged. It’s plainly taking from the less well-off, giving it to the better-off, and attempting to engineer a mindset that perpetuates this inequality into the next generation though a manipulation of status anxiety and parental confusion, all predicated on the unquestioned belief that superior school educational outcomes can be bought for cash. It buys votes though, and voters top up costs with their own money, thereby ensuring their own confirmation bias is a sure thing and they’ll be reluctant not to claim full value and wasn’t it all just marvellous. Few ask themselves if they would have or could have paid the full whack had the tax-payer not been so generous. Doesn’t matter, they are in the club. It’s egregious and rightly pisses off anyone interested in social equity and who believes that a major roll of government is to break down barriers to social mobility and intellectual enrichment. On the latter point, governments will argue that low and middle income people are making good use of private subsidised education, but it is very poorly directed public policy that requires huge subsidies be paid to the well off in order to benefit less well-off folk. Funding the health system does not work that way, nor does public infrastructure policy, but education policy is so tied to the politics of vote buying and the great un-said of social snobbery that we turn the other cheek to its crass iniquities.
For an added paradoxical twist, much of the argument over public funding of public and private schools is hamstrung by that old economist’s bug-bear: only measuring inputs. Comfort or angst is drawn from how much money is spent going into the system, but little to no meaningful analysis happens to students on the way out. There is progressive assessment and there are final exams, but that’s not a measure of the success of the school in improving the students potential, only of where the student’s level is at that time in their cohort of students. Some reference can be made to socio-economic background, but it’s tenuous and makes for statistics with poor predictive quality. No tracking research, outside of the criminal justice system, is done on how the student is going, say, three years and ten years after leaving school to analyse what benefits their education may have imparted—to answer the fundamental question: what was the effect of the student’s education on the trajectory of their life? But a lot is known about the money spent and resources consumed on the way through—inputs—as though they are a good predictor of success, a deeply irrational assumption. It’s a tremendous conceit and must surely stem from the conviction that no stake-holder in the system actually wants to know lest the whole edifice come crumbling down, that the claim that private schools in and of themselves guarantee better outcomes is demolished. Certainly not the private schools benefiting from parental anxiety, status consciousness, and ratcheting political cynicism. Even worse, the funding formulas used to dispense public money place an emphasis on easily and instantly measurable outcomes, so schools are pressured to “teach to the test”, and the notion of encouraging a child’s genuine interests is given short shrift.
Coming back to the point made at the start of this piece, how has the rattle-and-hum of education funding going to make any difference to my kids reaching adulthood with the knowledge to pursue what interests them? I think it’s unlikely that my kids’ school experiences will strongly influence what they want to do with themselves or who they’ll be at the age of thirty. There are children for whom that is not the case, who come from abusive or malfunctioning family lives, where school, for all its faults, is still a far better option. But sticking with the case of kids who come from typical families with parents who want the best for them and work hard to help them, what could be done so that these kids see more options? For many kids, in the long run, not much. School is terrific for their socialisation and developing a sense of how social systems work, but then so are many alternative arrangements such as village life, or even a child-labour factory if it was run under enlightened operating conditions, and I do not suggest that as a alternative. The point is, school as glorified day-care is a reality for many kids no matter what the school, and while seemingly a big deal at the time, its lustre dims rapidly after leaving. And pity the child who is hammered by parents and school into a deep conviction that they must perpetuate their educational experiences on their own children—that they must seek meaning in some imagined institutional conferring of values and life-possibilities, where no such claim can be scrutinised. But what if education funding, a finite resource, could be used to improve life-long outcomes for children of all backgrounds?
If parents are so convinced that a private education that conforms to their particular prejudices is so important, let them pay the full cost, hire the teachers, rent the buildings, and if the school is run for profit, pay the taxes. Let those schools compete with each other on whatever grounds they choose. Let universities take into account the high failure rates that closely shepherded students suffer when the props are kicked away. Let the workplace decide the utility of lazy staff fixated on self-entitlement. Let these students cling to caste and type and see how well that works for them in a world grown less impressed by these things. Perhaps they’d also come around to the view that using education to preserve and reinforce social segregation, rather than as a means of personal and societal improvement, is nuts.
For the rest of us, what is essential to motivating students to foster and follow viable interests, to spark within them, every girl and boy, insight into where their lives will lead them and to begin acquiring the skills they’ll need? The answer is the same as it’s always been, that if it is not the students’ home life, then surely it is quality teachers, human beings trained to open doors for students that may have been left shut. Teachers paid a salary commensurate with their awesome responsibility, trained and retrained, resourced with the tools they need to bring the world into the classroom, this is where to spend the education dollar. With courses designed to bring out the best in students, not to simply and robotically assess the easily assessable, but to show a little courage and draw the student into the wider world and show that with effort and will, a good life is possible. And study what happens, get data on students’ life trajectories, and test all claims for education outcomes.
Diverting resources into some bizarre competition between schools and education systems and how to fund them sucks any possibility of reform straight into the sinkhole and demeans us as a society, defaulting to the “teach to the test” attitude and perpetuating a mean and capricious view that school is a place where kids get marked for life according to some social scale that is really a proxy for wealth and ignorance. The point of education is missed and we are all the poorer for it. It’s hard to see the status quo buckling to any arguments or evidence when the values of so many people depend on not acknowledging any arguments or searching for any evidence. It needs to be said that education funding is a mess and that by buttressing the private school sector with subsidies, and thereby enlarging it and the votes it can deliver, the public sector is drawn down to the same obsession with short term outcomes, with little acknowledgment of students’ long term interests. I don’t expect private schools to reform - they are in the business of convincing parents they’ve spent wisely and that’s entirely about short term results, mythologizing, and deceptive marketing, but the public sector could do more, and with improved funding, could make a big difference to a great many students. Maybe.