Thursday, 15 January 2009
Level Playing Field
Today's Courier Mail has a refreshing article by Margaret Wenham, journalist and mother of three boys.
She writes about her experiences with their education in the context of the public-private debate. It appealed to me, in light of my own experiences, although I don't completely agree with this statement -
Australia's two-tiered structure is unnecessary. It's anachronistic legacy of British class system and it's time we shrugged it off.
I believe we need a range of educational opportunities, but we don't need "tiers". The strength and resilience of our community depends on its diversity, and the exposure of young people to that diversity. The more accepting of difference we are, the less likely our community will be to harbour conflict.
This is also part of our national ethos - Jack is as good as his master in this country.
We also need to be sure that all our young people, irrespective of parental income, race, creed or heritage, are given the best chance of success in life. Any lack of access to opportunity for one specific group will be at cost to the whole community.
I do agree with her to some extent when she says -
According to figures supplied by Minister Rod Welford's office, private school attract not that much less in state and federal funding that state school students - about $7500 per head compared with $10700. Political philosophies aside, is it reasonable for those who spurn the publicly funded universal inclusive education system to expect hundreds of millions more of public money to be spent propping up a separate, selective and exclusive private education system?
My concern is specifically for students with disabilities. Since 1971, I've worked with this particular segment of the school population in a range of capacities across the state. On coming to Toowoomba, which is renowned for its plethora of expensive private schools, I was surprised to find that almost all of them refused enrolment to students with intellectual impairments and/or Autism. They would occasionally admit students with visual impairments and physical impairments, but this was usually by exception.
Because I was at this time a principal, I joined the local chapter of ACE (Australian Council of Educators) and generally made myself unpopular at dinner meetings by asking the "why" question when told that they didn't have students with disabilities enrolled.
The stock answer was "We don't cater for these students".
If I was persistent enough to ask when that situation was going to change, there was usually no answer, but I was studiously avoided for the rest of the evening. I remember one (male) principal of a large co-ed Catholic school describing my work as "blessed", but he still didn't answer the question. He obviously wasn't interested in competing for that place in heaven reserved for special educators.
My simple point with all of this is that these private schools receive large chunks of taxpayer funding, yet do not provide the most basic component of an educational service, namely universal access to parents who can afford the fees.
My experience tallies with Wenham's in terms of the results of a state education. I am the eldest of six. Myself and all my siblings attended a combination of state schools, small convent schools, and large metropolitan private schools. This was a function over time of my parents' careers as teachers, initially in the bush and later in larger provincial and metropolitan centres. In addition, as both my dad and mum were promoted higher in the system, they were able to afford the private school fees.
My three bothers ended up respectively as a Deputy Director General, a Manager of a medium sized (and very prosperous) business, and a General Practitioner with a very busy surgery and an interest in emergency medicine. My sisters respectively became (apart from being successful mothers) a public servant and a music teacher.
My own children have all attended both public and private schools (for much the same reasons as myself and siblings) and have all been good students, continuing to study at tertiary level.
The point of all this is to reinforce my belief that the best preparation for life is an inclusive education exposing the individual to a wide range of individuals and experiences.
The term "exclusive" should never be applied to schooling. Leave it to purveyors of Real Estate.
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