Education is Australia’s biggest industry and largest activity. It takes place in some ten thousand schools, hundreds of pre-schools, forty odd universities and other higher education institutions, rather less than one hundred TAFE institutions, and about 1500 provider locations for VET training. In addition, thousands of private providers offer courses in almost anything that people want to know and learn. No other activity in Australia is of such scale.
In human terms education involves around 3,500,000 students in schools, about 250,000 in pre-schools, around a million in universities and two million in TAFE, not to mention around 400,000 teachers and supporting staff of all kinds. That’s about a third of Australia’s people. Money? Around $40 billion in public funds, and whatever you would like to guess in private funding of all kinds – say $50 billion in all.
It is arguably also the most important function in our society, because everything else depends on it: the skills we have, the knowledge we have, the values we have, the future we have. A good education system is supremely important to every country. But what is a good one?
In response to that question there is a discordant cry. For some it is the way for their children to reach heights in life that their parents, for a variety of reasons, could not. Many immigrants see education like this, as do many people with low incomes. For some it is the social sieve, sorting future adults into their proper spheres in life. For some it is the means by which their own children can associate with the ‘right’ sort of children. For some it is the means whereby their children can have access to the very best teaching and learning environments that money can buy. For some it is where their children have to go because the law requires it. For some it is just the nature of things: kids go to school thank God! For some, those who are in education to work, it is their life, their passion, their daily bread.
And governments fund all of these aspirations and attitudes, because for much more than a century education has been seen as a social necessity that deserves substantial contributions from the public purse. Government funds a diversity of expectations because our children are important to us, because ours is a diverse society, because ours is a democratic society, and because we have several governments that often have different viewpoints about it all.
But we could do better, especially with respect to the public purse. What follows is a small set of basic assumptions, and an even smaller suggested set of signposts for better educational policy.
1. All children are educable, intelligent and creative. If properly parented, loved, encouraged and educated, they will grow up into useful, autonomous, creative adults.
2. The education system cannot do everything. While all children are educable, and to much the same degree, they come to school (and later to other educational institutions) with different levels of self-confidence, trust, competitive spirit and outlook. Equality of outcomes, in this context, is simply impossible.
3. But investing in education, for everyone, at every level, in virtually anything, is a worthwhile social investment, since there is a direct relationship between limited and deficient education on the one hand, and low income, low self-esteem, unemployment, crime, incarceration in prison and so on, on the other. (The state of Ohio develops its long-range prison capacity model on the basis of the distribution of 3rd grade test scores.) Social welfare, in all its forms, costs us $55 billion or so, and the criminal justice system costs another $7 billion. Much of this expenditure could have been avoided had children in earlier days been properly prepared for life.
4. Our society needs to educate creativity as well as learning skills, since all humans enjoy their developed creative capacities, which lead not only to greater personal confidence but to wider social contacts and to a more interesting society.
5. Education is a proper activity to be fully supported from the public purse, firstly because it is the basis for the continuity of our society and secondly because all new human beings in a democratic society deserve the same attention and support from that society, whatever the origin, status and income of their parents.
1. The best outcome is an increasingly high general level of competence for us all, not a victory for one or a few
Striving for excellence is a good thing, but excellence is an aspiration that fits individuals and teams better than systems. A good educational system is not one that divides people into winners and losers, but one that equips each of us to fulfil our potential. We all have stacks of potential, and only one relatively short lifetime in which to develop it, channel it and use it for our own and others’ good.
While there is a building process in acquiring all knowledge, and some build much faster than others, it is a mistake to assume that the speed of building is the same in every knowledge domain. While it may be good sense to put fast builders together for some purposes, it is wrong to assume that they will be ‘brighter’ than others in every respect. They will not be.
There are good economic reasons for caring for all children in education. Competent adult human beings contribute to the general good, the general wealth and our general pleasure in being alive. They tend not to be in prison or to be conspicuous users of social welfare funds.
The more of them there are, the smaller the amount of money we will need for social welfare and criminal justice. From this perspective, the best educational system turns out the highest proportion of competent adults. It is always cheaper to spend more on education than it is to build more prisons and more comprehensive welfare schemes.
2. We need a diverse system because the tasks are diverse
Any school, university or TAFE college will need a curriculum and a pattern for delivering it. The curriculum and the pattern will suit most people most of the time, but that is all. We need alternatives for people who are not ready for either, and we need to recognise that late developers are a much better social outcome than no development at all.
In general, the growth of knowledge is pushing the length of time we spend in education further and further. This should be seen as a good thing, and funded properly. Yes, it will mean increasing taxes, but these are very low in international terms anyway.
We need to depart from on old intellectual hierarchy that places mathematics at the top of the status system and technical subjects at the bottom. All of us need a blend of intellectual and technical (manual) skills. It is not at all clear that the most valuable members of society are those with intellectual skills.
Those delivering the curriculum need as much support as we can provide (and this is increasingly happening), It would make good sense to increase the enjoyment, both financially and emotionally, of those delivering education, at all levels. It is one of society’s most important jobs, and should be valued as such.
Finally, education cannot deal easily with the pathologies of incompetent parenting, partner choice or life-style. Yet if the society as a whole doesn’t deal with them they prevent the education system helping to deliver a good society. These pathologies deserve particular care from all governments, at all levels. They are everyone’s responsibility.
3. Policy changes should be made carefully and consistently
Governments find education only marginally less difficult a domain than they find health, because they are always trying to appease different groups with often contradictory aims, and there is never enough money.
A good starting point would be a declaration by a minister that he/she saw the outcomes of publicly funded education as a well-functioning society of competent adults, and that all educational policy was going to be focussed on that end. Over time policies that are at a tangent to that end would be replaced by those that are focussed on it.
Since no such minister seems to be around, we have some time to wait. In the meantime, we might continue to argue for such a change. It is the most important element in the building of a better Australia, and of a better world.