Introduction

Reports from the front

THE BATTLE OVER ideas in education is one of the most hard-fought in public life. No other field carries heavier baggage. Education is regarded as the panacea for social ills and as a repository for personal hopes and fears. In the quest for everything from social integration to economic wellbeing and personal advancement, education is thought to be the key.

There is no doubt a large measure of truth in this. Education remains the best mechanism to equip individuals with the essential skills for survival and the capacity to learn and develop. But it may be too frail for the baggage it must carry.

This was clearly evident at the 2005 conference for the quarter of public schools in NSW classified as disadvantaged. More than 700 teachers, parents and students crowded into the conference venue to talk about their successes, to consider strategies for improvement and to imagine what might happen if more of the children in these pockets of economic and social disadvantage could find more secure places on the education escalator. The conference was sponsored by Macquarie Bank, better known as the "millionaire's factory" than for its philanthropy. Its sponsorship underlined the message – education is the key to the meritocracy. The pattern of entrenched disadvantage revealed at the conference highlighted the gulf, but the sponsor's "holey dollar" banners reinforced the message: an exceptional individual could still make it from a disadvantaged school to the millionaire's factory. Despite the statistics that tell a very different story, such opportunity is part of the promise of education.

The dream sits uncomfortably alongside the constant talk of crisis in schools and universities. This talk suggests that the formal educational institutions, and the teachers and academics that animate them, cannot bear the weight of growing expectations about the sort of education each child will need in an uncertain future.

Education is not a simple solution to personal, social or economic problems. There is not one size that fits all, despite attempts to standardise and the increasing recognition of the importance of measuring achievement.

The notion of a child as an empty vessel, who can be transformed by twelve years at school, misses the complex relationship between school, home and community that, to a large degree, determines the effectiveness of the educational outcome.

This complexity is explored here. It ranges from noted educationalist Richard Teese's telling insights about the front line of the disadvantaged schools to a snapshot of a pocket of extraordinary privilege captured by Isabelle Reinecke.

The emphasis in Getting Smart on disadvantaged schools and the children and communities they serve is deliberate. The success of the system can be judged best by how the least advantaged fare, by whether education effectively provides pathways to more options, success and achievement, or slams the door and ensures that schools become what Teese has described as "a link in the re-creation of poverty".

At a time when most attention focuses on the high achievers, on school fees, on the nervous retreat back to basics and on the replication of social advantage, this issue of Griffith REVIEW shifts attention to the other end of the spectrum, to the quarter or more of schools which are, in Teese's words, "condemned to innovate". To gain some insight into this innovation, Chris Sarra takes us into the classrooms of Cherbourg School in Queensland, Ross Homel plots a path from disadvantage to achievement through school-based intervention, Jeff McMullen explains how literacy can revoke a life sentence in remote communities and Chris Rix captures the daily life of kids who have been given a second chance and a lifeline in a unique Brisbane school.

 

IT IS SCARCELY surprising that there is an ideological tinge to debates about education. There is a lot at stake. Some see education as the key to egalitarianism and social integration. For others, it is the key to economic advancement and self-improvement.

Many of those most passionately engaged in this discussion are quick to spot a political agenda or advance one. You hear it in the oft-repeated arguments about teachers trying to force (or reflect) social change via the curriculum and in the arguments that seek to shift the focus back to values, tradition and "basics" as a means of ensuring accountability and higher standards (or maintaining the status quo and entrenching advantage). Listening to this debate, one could be excused for thinking that the discussion is about indoctrination, not education and the spread of knowledge, the development of skills and analytical ability. Anna Clark examines this debate in relation to the teaching of history and the emergence of "values" centre stage in education policy and funding; while David Young puts the contentious arguments about intelligent design into the context of the much longer battle, particularly in the United States, between science and religion.

 

SKIRMISHES SUCH AS these are often reported as battles between good and evil. The statistics of success and failure are waved like banners. Take your side and stand armed, with your child or grandchild taking a place in the front line.

And therein lies the problem. No one wants their child to be cannon fodder in someone else's battle. Joanna Mendelssohn recalls her reluctant decision to send her children to private schools in precisely these terms, while Margaret Simons grapples with the tensions surrounding opportunity and achievement as she contemplates the conflicts between the social and the individual purpose of education.

These are intensely personal stories, but ones with far-reaching social implications. If education is a proxy for class in this country, the move to private education should come as no surprise. The country has been enjoying a long economic boom and the Government has made the spoils of this available quite widely by providing increasing funds to a wide range of private schools although not to universities. Indeed, it could be argued that in an era when higher education is the norm, the desire to exercise the choice to buy advantage for your teenagers is a predictable market response – even if it is one with a large residue of unintended social consequences.

The degree of change in the educational mix is profound. It is well known that enrolments in private schools have skyrocketed at the same time as the retention rate has increased. But the scale of this retention is remarkable. In a little over half a century, the number of people completing twelve years of schooling has jumped from one in ten to eight in ten, and the proportion of those going to university has also leapt as we have entered an era of mass tertiary education. In a service and information economy, it is mental rather than manual dexterity that is crucial.

At the same time, education has gone from being an essential social service to an industry that now ranks as one of our top exports in an increasingly competitive global market.

The changing nature of the economy and society means that getting education right, for individuals and for the community, is more important than ever. The old verities, which drew a line between those who completed school and those who didn't, are disappearing. Simply completing school is no longer a ticket to greater opportunities; in an increasingly competitive environment the brand matters – which school, which university – probably more than it should. The economy has changed and is likely to continue to change, challenging the ways we have learned to think about education. The jobs of the future will increasingly demand more, not less, education. This is being recognised by governments around the world as they add fuel to the fire of competitive advantage by spending more and encouraging more students to stay at school longer, as Gavin Moodie documents.

The challenges that this presents for parents, students, teachers, academics and policy-makers are profound and are explored in this issue of Griffith REVIEW. In the important opening essay, Glyn Davis, the vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, analyses the way current ideas of what a university is have developed. He is concerned that, in a globally competitive, technologically enabled world, the rigidity of the highly regulated, research-driven university may not be able to respond with sufficient adroitness to the changing environment. He argues that there is a need for more diversity and less regulation if Australia's public universities are not to become sitting ducks, ill-equipped to respond to growing competition.

The transformation of the Australian university sector over the past decade has been remarkable, and not without costs for both students and staff, as Inez Baranay and Michael Wilding show. If Davis's prognosis is correct, however, this is just the beginning. The next decade is bound to force other changes that are even more profound in their implications.

 

IF YOU BELIEVE media reports, you could be excused for thinking that the education system is deeply mired in crisis, that kids are being poorly taught and that the level of achievement, despite massive public expenditure, is atrocious. While there are no doubt pockets of underachievement and inconsistency, and room for improvement, as Andrew Leigh suggests, the reasons are often complex and, like so much else in the education system, tied to economics. In the meantime, the curriculum is more diverse and demanding and, at the pointy end of the senior school syllabus, more rigorous than ever, as Chris Summers recounts online.

The snapshots of life in the classroom contained in these pages paint a picture of changing fashions and widely varying opportunities. The schoolroom of the past was chaotic and under-resourced, as Helen Elliott, Meera Atkinson and Jena Woodhouse show, and depended, like the schoolroom of this century, on exceptional teachers who could open unimagined doors to new worlds for their students, as Gideon Haigh, Peter Davis, Donna McDonald, Lee Kofman, Megan Kinninment, Ouyang Yu, Anthony Macris, Ivria Wenjun Jiang and Christine Stanton capture.

The battle over ideas in education is important but remains a backdrop to the crucial encounters that can change a life, when, as Chris Sarra writes, "the teacher believes in the child". 

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