We start with three important assumptions.
First, every child is educable to a high degree. Human beings have many capacities and great potential that can be realised; it is only the shortness of our lives that prevents our being highly competent in a number of domains.
Second, what determines life chances is not ‘intelligence’ so much as the care and love provided to children in their early years, and the differing amounts of encouragement and preparation they receive, together with the motivation they themselves generate.
Third, sibling order, sex, family circumstances and the pressure of the world in all its forms affect the probability that a given child will be able to develop its many capacities and develop its potential.
It follows that education systems are always grappling with the outcomes of parenting problems, social location, fiscal difficulties, external events and changes in fashion. It follows further that in an egalitarian democracy a public education system should always be striving to develop the capacities of those who, through some mischance or other, have had less encouragement and preparation.
There are three strong reasons for its doing so. One is that it is the inherently democratic thing to do: in a democracy all human beings are valued equally because we recognise that were all born equal, and we should not be lower in esteem because of a less advantaged upbringing. The second is that it is much cheaper to invest in restorative education early in life than it is to pay out what will be large sums later on in either social welfare or corrective services. The third is that a society will simply be more enjoyable, productive and harmonious the more that its citizens can lead autonomous, positive and creative lives. That possibility is critically dependent on education in all its forms.
Forward, then to 2015. What would we wish to see? I offer six possibilities.
The first is that high school retention rates will be at around 90% in every jurisdiction (they are at 88% in the ACT and 81% in Queensland now). It is now widely accepted that secondary school education is the minimum for nearly all paid work – indeed, that it is the necessary beginning for transition to university and the TAFE system, which provide the qualifications leading to well-rewarded skilled work. Not to lead students through six years of secondary education is to condemn those who fall away to a precarious employment future and the likely receipt of social welfare payments, which is disheartening to them and costly to the rest of society.
The second is that much greater attention will be paid to unlocking every student’s creative potential, whether in music, art, craft, sport, thought, writing or what you will. These capacities may not be as important as the once traditional ‘3 Rs’ in preparing students for work, but they are plainly most important in preparing them for life. To be able to ‘create’ in some way is enjoyable in itself and provides a boost to one’s self-confidence and self-esteem (no small thing). It makes one both interested in others and interesting to others (thereby enhancing one’s social context) and gives one a set of activities that one will enhance throughout life that assists in dealing with questions of existence (why am I here?) which might otherwise produce nihilistic and anti-social answers. In an increasingly secular society this last consideration is of growing importance.
A third is that more emphasis will be placed on competence and less on winning. The notion that winning is most important and that winners are deserving of high praise is deeply ingrained in our society. However important it ought to be at the individual level it is a value that needs careful handling in any educational system, since success at school, as already argued, is to some degree a function of parenting and family circumstances. It ought not to be a part of schooling to discourage students, since critical evaluation from adults is likely to be internalised within the child, where it is much more powerful. So educational systems will be endeavouring to set benchmarks related to the child’s present development, while always holding out the possibility that high levels of competence somewhere are possible for him or her.
A fourth is that secondary schools in 2015 will be much more varied than they are now. Some will specialise in music, some in art, some in science and mathematics, some in languages, some in physical activities like gymnastics and individual sports (though not, I would think, in team sports). Such a trend is visible now, and it follows from the fact that every child has an abundance of talents, but that some talents present earlier than others, and parents are often keener to develop some talents rather than others. This trend is on the whole a good one and should be encouraged. A one-size-fits-all educational philosophy is less defensible now than it was fifty years ago.
The fifth is that teachers will be better educated themselves, more diverse in their own skills and interests, and that they will be better paid and more widely respected. Since we all have talents it is not outrageous to expect teachers to develop their own before expecting them to be able to develop those of their students. All primary teachers, for example, should feel rightly confident about their own abilities in music, art and mathematics.
Finally, no one will be asking where the money would be coming from to pay for all this. By 2015 we will understand that money spent on education is always best seen as investment, not consumption or ‘spending’. By then, too, we should be able to see that some of our expenditure on social welfare and criminal justice is coming down. That would be a big plus!