Breaking up monolithic education

This was an editorial in the "Sydney Morning Herald" so maybe the need for radical educational reform is being recognized

The OECD'S director for education, Barry McGaw, says public schools should be run more like private schools, with parents and teachers given more say and competition and diversity encouraged. Dr McGaw believes it would help convince parents that public education is worthwhile. As the drift from public to private schools continues, and the number of students of school age starts to decline, education bureaucrats must consider ways to bolster the popularity of public schools if they are to continue to offer a high-quality alternative. The [Australian] federal Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, is so keen on what Dr McGaw has suggested he has hinted he might make it a condition of federal funding for the states. The ideas certainly deserve serious consideration.

The demand for choice is a relatively new pressure for the government school system. In 1971, government schools were the overwhelming choice of parents. Seventy-eight per cent of students were educated at them. By this year that figure had fallen to 67 per cent and it is projected to fall to 64 per cent by 2010. While the advocates of government schools rightly praise the high standard of education available, the centralised uniformity which used to be the government system's great boast has come to be seen as a drawback.

Parents feel wary of the public school system in part because it is so vast, and so hard to change. Last week parents from one Sydney public school felt angry enough about a staffing decision to protest noisily in State Parliament after letters and a petition to the Education Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, proved fruitless. They got nowhere. Ms Tebbutt told them she could not intervene in a staffing matter, and their school had been treated exactly the same as any other. So it had. That is precisely the problem. The parents were perfectly justified in wanting the right to choose. They are concerned - as they have every right to be - about their school and their children, not the bureaucratic needs of an enormous statewide system. Why should it be necessary for honest citizens to invade Parliament House and risk arrest over such a simple matter?

While some state schools involve parents in decisions about staff, it is clearly not mandatory. And if anger and vehement protest cannot change even one recruitment decision, what chance do parents in general have to alter more fundamental trends? One virtue of Dr McGaw's suggestion may be that it would oblige teachers to engage more closely with the concerns of parents, without requiring them to surrender professional control. Any such change would allow individual schools to follow their own paths, and diverge from centrally dictated standards. Some schools would flourish, others might not. There would have to be safeguards to ensure individual schools did not deteriorate through neglect.

The continuing flight to private education shows that parents want choice and are willing pay for it. As things stand, only the relatively wealthy can afford to choose. Why should choice not be available, within the government school system, to all?


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