Values and Australian schools: Towards an inclusive and respectful society

Last year, at the summit with Muslim leaders following the the London bombings, the Prime Minister argued that Muslim schools need to be monitored to ensure that what they teach is consistent with ‘Australian values and beliefs’. Prime ministerial heir apparent, Peter Costello, has recently uttered similar sentiments suggesting that people should not be allowed to arrive and live in Australia unless they subscribe to ‘Australian values and beliefs’.

What are these common values and beliefs? When pressed, the enumerated list is unsurprising: democracy, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, fairness, tolerance, respect and so on. There are not too many Australians who would argue that these are not central to our Australian way of life.

But in thinking about the stance being taken by our two political leaders, I am struck by the apparent inconsistency between an aspiration to build and sustain such beliefs and values, and the ideologies and strategies being advanced in some areas of the government’s social policy. Education is a prime example of this point.

The current emphasis of education policy undermines the very values and beliefs that Howard and Costello claim to hold so dear. In particular the current policy direction is counter-productive to the creation of a tolerant and cohesive multicultural society.

My argument is founded on at least three assumptions.

First, that a key challenge for a multicultural society is to ensure that its citizens have the intercultural understandings to be able to communicate productively across as well as within cultural groups.

Second, that such capacities and dispositions cannot be left to chance — they need to be nurtured and schools are one of the major institutions in our society charged with that responsibility.

Third, that developing an appreciation and empathy for people from different backgrounds and cultures is best achieved through the experience of interacting and mixing on a regular basis. It is not something that is learned by one removed from the action.

By the 1970s, after a long period of struggle and development since its beginnings in the late 19th century, public education in Australia was seen as providing public spaces that are consistent with these assumptions. State schools are microcosms of the communities in which they exist.

Since they are open to all – that is, no one can be denied access on the basis of, for example, religious affiliation or the capacity to pay — state schools are made up of young people from a range of social and cultural backgrounds who live together for 8 hours a day, 40 weeks a year, for well over a decade of their lives. They therefore naturally provide one important ingredient necessary to learning to live harmoniously in a diverse society.

However, diversity of school population does not itself ensure that people will learn to peacefully coexist. The conflict that is created in the wider community through difference does not disappear when young people enter the school gate. It plays out in a range of ways.

But when racism or bullying emerge in school settings there are professional educators on hand to work through the conflict. Working through such problems can be an educational opportunity where young people can analyse causes and consider ways to address these in the school and the wider community.

The social mix in schools is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to educate for multiculturalism. There also needs to be an environment of open-mindedness and a capacity to understand and appreciate a range of perspectives. This is another strength of state schools which, since they are secular, do not promulgate or favour particular world views or represent sectional interests.

Rather the logic of their existence means that they live out such values as fairness, respect and tolerance, and within this framework encourage students to explore what such values mean in different contexts in order to decide where they stand on moral and ethical issues.

Schools that promote single world views are less likely to be able to do this. When Prime Minister Howard criticised state schools for being ‘values-neutral’ he could not have been further from the truth.

State schools therefore provide spaces in our society where young people can be inducted into a civic culture of recognising and vigorously engaging with their differences. Rather than simply educating individuals, state schools turn a group of people with a host of differences into a civic entity called a public. They are therefore an important lever in the creation of a cohesive and harmonious multicultural society.

None of this is to suggest that private schools cannot also promote, and educate for, a multicultural society. They can. But if such an education is to be more than learning about diversity, then private schools would need to demonstrate that they are open to all, that they do not favour a single world view, and that their student population comprises a mix of social and cultural backgrounds.

The burden of my argument is that publicly funded education should have a number of public purposes, including making a major contribution to the development of a tolerant and cohesive multicultural society. And yet, in recent years the idea of education as a public good has come under challenge.

During the 1980s, as the funding of private schools became regularised and extended, so the policy discourse began to emphasise individual choice and the private benefits of education.

This trend was sharpened by the election of the Liberal/National Party coalition in 1996. The new government embraced neo-liberalism, a central plank of which is a commitment to public choice theory.. In education this philosophy has been applied through the introduction of a raft of policies which seek to move students away from public schools into the private sector.

Policies of choice encourage differentiation, and often such differentiation is organised around socio-economic status, ethnicity, religion and race. This tends to produce enclaves of homogeneity.

Apart from residualising public schools and creating a more stratified educational system, such policies run the danger of reducing the number of places where young people from a diverse range of backgrounds can mix, share and learn from and about one another.

This is a dangerous policy direction, especially at a time when tensions and suspicions are heightened by some of the consequences of globalisation and by terrorism.

If ever education has been needed as a mechanism to enable Australian society to make the most of its diversity by encouraging mutual respect and understanding of differences, it is now. So what can be done?

Policy solutions

The challenge is to foreground the public purposes of education when formulating curriculum and funding policies. That is, rather than privileging the individual and private benefits of education, education policy must be constructed to reflect such important public purposes as the enhancement of a tolerant and cohesive multicultural society.

This does not negate the notion of public funds going to private schools. Clearly the public/private debate has moved beyond that stage. Rather it suggests the development of a set of public principles that will shape government funding to schools. The policy implications are:

1. That a set of public principles be established to guide education funding policy; and that these principles include an aspiration to promote a multicultural society

2. That the current policy emphasis which seeks to privatise state schools by forcing them to compete in an education market be altered to one that emphasises the public purposes of all schools

3. That in order to receive public funds, private schools be required to demonstrate the ways in which they contribute to the agreed public principles.

From this perspective, for example, schools with comparatively homogenous student populations might be required to demonstrate the ways in which, through their formal and informal curriculum, they are exposing their students on a regular basis to a range of cultures and backgrounds, if they are to receive public funds. Examples already exist in inner city Melbourne where young people from Muslim schools are working with neighbouring state school students on substantive community projects.

The challenge would be to provoke a deep and ongoing community conversation about what these public purposes are.

Such a debate would both exemplify and reaffirm the very values and principles that Howard and Costello argue are at the core of Australian society, without the undermining the democratic mission of state schools. Instead it would place the onus on private schools to demonstrate the ways in which they are contributing to the common wealth.

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