Whenever my 15 year old daughter goes out with her friends I mentally rehearse what I would say to the magistrate if anything ever happened to her. Do I know where she is going, who she is with and what time she will be home? If she is staying at a friend’s house, do I know the parent’s name, address and phone number? These are all sensible precautions, it seems to me. I don’t really expect to have to explain myself to a magistrate, but I did wake in a cold sweat one night when I realised that she was staying at Ruth’s house and, though I knew Ruth and had spoken to her parents, I had no idea what her last name was or where on earth she lived in Seaforth. Since that sleepless night, I have been more vigilant. If the worst should happen, at least the magistrate will not be able to pass judgement on me as a bad mother.
Of course, if the worst did happen the last thing I would actually be worried about is what a magistrate might say. Nevertheless such stupid, self-centred stuff regularly robs me of sleep, and I suspect I am not alone. My generation of parents are riddled with guilt, shame and anxiety about our own performance as parents. Given we are living in what Hugh Mackay calls The Age of Anxiety, it’s no wonder those of us with the most responsibility for the future — parents — feel the most angst.
It also does not help that governments have a great deal to gain from an anxious and fearful electorate. Frightened voters are much more likely to vote for the devil they know than the devil they don’t, so governments have a vested interest in stoking our fears. Nor does it help when media feeds our parental anxieties. Television now brings ghastly images, things that most people would never personally witness in their lifetime, right into our homes. We begin to believe danger is everywhere and so keep our precious children ever closer by our sides .
In fact, crime rates have been falling steadily for 5 years, and the rate of child abduction and murder — always infinitesimal — has not gone up in at least a century. Child mortality continues to go down. Indeed, the greatest dangers now facing our children are probably the result of our attempts to protect them from virtually non-existent risks. The most obvious manifestation of this is the rapidly increasing rate of childhood obesity. Doctors now speculate that our children may be the first generation in history to have shorter life-spans than their parents. We’re so busy keeping them where we can see them that they spend their entire lives parked on their ever expanding bums, their arteries gradually hardening and their blood pressure slowly increasing. They’d be much safer running around the local park with their mates, darting past all those lurking (but mostly imaginary) paedophiles. As every expert knows, 9 times out of 10, paedophiles are known to their victims.
The age of parental anxiety is causing other, less obvious, collateral damage. What is happening in our schools is an important case in point. We fear that our children will be unable to navigate a successful path through life if, somehow, they do manage to make it through to adulthood.
However, not all our fears for their future are imaginary. Doing badly at school is linked to unemployment; going to uni does seem to offer more chance of getting a good job. In the last 25 years more than half the full-time jobs for teenage boys have disappeared along with an incredible two-thirds of full-time jobs for teenage girls. It makes more sense for parents to worry about school achievement than it does to fret over abduction and murder, perhaps, but are we actually making our kids safer?
One of the most popular parental strategies is to put our kids with other kids who are just like them. So, one trend in education is to put girls with girls, boys with boys, and smart kids with smart kids. If we are Jewish, we often want our kids educated with Jews, if Muslim with Muslims, if Catholic with Catholics. One way we cope with our anxiety is by avoiding challenges to our beliefs, but does this protect our kids or ourselves?
Today, the number one thing parents require of the kids’ schools is that they be safe. A high UAI and the open doors which follow it, are one measure of safety; old boy’s networks, old fashion school uniforms and the promise of discipline are others. No wonder private schools say they are doing so well.
However, it is not parents alone who are driving the drift to private schools. During the 1980s high school completion rates doubled, yet politicians from both parties were busy cutting funding to all sorts of public institutions, including schools. The result is that public high schools, particularly those serving poorer communities, have been left without the resources to cope. Indeed Australia’s private spending on education has increased at twice the rate of public spending over the last ten years. Among OECD nations Australia’s parents are unique in the degree to which they are buying out of the public system at school level. Ironically, such an increased financial responsibility, which adds even more to the level of parental anxiety, may also directly affect our falling birth rate .
So how can our schools respond to all these escalating and often irrational pressures and expectations? Private schools have responded by marketing safety and achievement, and have attracted parents who can afford what they ask. Many have come out the other end rather disappointed, discovering that the real differences between public and private are often cosmetic. Even more galling for parents who have paid high fees, are the many studies which have shown that kids from comprehensive public high schools routinely outperform both their private and selective school peers by the end of their first year of uni.
There are a number of broad policy changes that might help parents manage their own anxiety.
First, we need to increase spending on schools, but particularly those schools that do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting. Put simply, we should make sure public funding gives the most to the kids who have least and the least to the kids who have most. There is some important work currently being undertaken under the auspices of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) that will provide hard evidence about how much it costs to adequately educate different groups of students; evidence that will help us set a standard.
This is particularly important for those schools with a concentration of the most expensive kids to educate — those in the most troubled communities. Once that standard has been set, good policy must make sure that parental choice comes second to children’s needs when it comes to how and to whom we distribute money. The problem with giving school funding mechanisms to parents, to be frank, is that it is often the different abilities of parents to survive and thrive that has caused their kids disadvantage in the first place. Handing the money to them — as either vouchers or via some other mechanism — will simply exaggerate the inequalities their children either struggle against or benefit from, already.
Although parents narrowly focussed on the outcomes for their own kids may not see the relevance of this immediately, it is rather like the principle behind immunisation. It increases the safety of all our children if all children are well educated, just as it increases their safety if all children are immunised. Opting out of immunisation is another example, perhaps, of how this generation of parents are prepared to sacrifice the greater good for an ill-founded anxiety about their own child.
Secondly, all schools in receipt of public funding must be made to take responsibility for compulsory schooling. This can be achieved by:
- Requiring all such schools to prove that they have used this funding to lower fees. Bursaries offered to the brightest and the best of the disadvantaged are not enough.
- Requiring all such schools to take a share of the toughest to educate, not just the easiest.
- Ensuring, in the interest of safety and transparency that no schools should be exempt from FOI legislation or anti-discrimination laws.
Finally, we need policies which support parental choice within, as well as without, the public system, and, particularly in regional areas, choice within schools via innovative use of technology and interschool collaboration, so parents can choose the public school that best suits their kids. And the current trend to give public school principals more control over the teachers they hire and fire is also reassuring to parents.
The current polarisation of our education system cannot continue. One school system for the rich and another for the poor will create an underclass with all that entails. We cannot opt out of our responsibility to all Australia’s children, no matter how wealthy we may be or how much self-sacrifice we are prepared to make.
By desperately seeking safety we risk creating the very thing we most want to avoid, a much more dangerous future for our children.