Perspective: Teaching them well (on schooling)

Perspective: Teaching them well (on schooling)
By Erica Bartle
The Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank, based on The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them by Erin Gruwell.
As The Freedom Writers story goes, in autumn, 1994, in Room 203 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, an idealistic 24-year-old teacher named Erin Gruwell faced her first group of students, dubbed by the administration as "unteachable, at-risk" teenagers. 

Not one of them knew about the Holocaust.

She introduced her students to two works of literature: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo. Anne Frank gave Gruwell's students permission to put their own circumstances into context. Other kids did it tough, too – in fact, worse. It gave them connection to others and perspective. 

It also gave them permission to commit their own journal entries to paper, which their teacher lovingly read. They revealed trauma, heartache, and she wept. They found purpose and motivation in their classroom, led by their teacher's conviction. They had a voice, and they started to use it, and their literacy grew, as did their knowledge of the world. 

They were empowered, better able to put their problems into context, they were reading with the intention to learn and learned to cooperate as a group beyond the classroom's race divisions. The effect was profound. 

Gruwell came up against administrative challenges, such as a lack of resources, inflexible curriculum and a lack of teaching and parental support (in the movie, her father and husband also have doubts). But she demonstrated that success in the classroom is as much about the commitment a teacher has to his or her profession as to the resources he or she is allocated.

"Beyond the impact of a student's home and family – which remains unparallelled as the leading factor in their attainment at school – the quality of teaching has the greatest impact on academic performance," wrote Andrew Stevenson in 'Back to school', published in The Sydney Morning Herald last month.

It is when one sees teaching as a vocation that students are energised to engage. You have to give students a reason to be there; a reason to care; something to hope for or look forward to. If a teacher does not believe in this vision, or is hampered by bureaucratic burdens or a lack of support in their endeavours, it's ultimately the students who are left wanting. 

As Mother Teresa once said, "It's not what you do, it's how much you put into it that matters." But it's hard to do things well if there is no vision for what you are doing. As the wise Solomon, author of Proverbs and the great philosopher said, where there is no vision, the people perish.

A vision on education
Relationships that draw the best out of children, that give them a reason to care, that motivate them to give outside themselves and play a crucial part in something bigger are a key element of the teacher-student relationship.

"The great thing coming out of this national focus on teacher professionalism and their importance, will be to promote the profession," one teacher tells me. 

"It will help focus on the standards for individual goal setting, performance and also school/system/state based review process (many independent schools already do this well) and some states are already experimenting with annual goals for professional development, which is assisting the 'culture of continuous improvement'. It was this element, the 'culture of continuous improvement', which was the key thrust of [Education Minister] Peter Garret's comments."

According to researcher John Hattie, the teacher alone accounts for 30 per cent of student performance. For Hattie, quality teaching is about attitude. "It's not a particular kind of teaching and it's not a particular kind of person, it's the kind of attitude they have towards their job. They take the view that 'my job is to evaluate the impact of what I do on the learning of students."
Hattie believes esteeming the profession is crucial to its future. It's easy to lose sight of the idealism of teaching in the context of performance linked to on-paper student outcomes, and not the quality of the teacher themselves or the other positive changes in their students, or their dedication to their job.

And, though sterile statistics abound about Australian students' ailing performance in international tests, it's not so much about students know, but how much they learn; the crucial distinction between in-one-ear-out-on-the-exam-paper knowledge, and those lingering, nourishing nuggets of thought contextualised and appropriated and put to practical use in the world.  

Unfortunately, "learning" is now being usurped by "knowing" for knowing's sake. 

What is the point of education?
ucation is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire," said W.B. Yeats. "In a knowledge economy, nothing is more important than learning and those who can ignite a lifelong passion among their charges to absorb, manipulate and understand the world around them should be among a nation's most valued servants," wrote Stevenson in the SMH. 

Any grown person who fondly reflects on a positive teacher-student experience would heartily agree. But, increasingly, it seems the whole point of school is directed toward doing well on tests with the My School website, in particular, designed to evaluate school performance based on the results of standardised national testing.

And now, the Gonski Report, and the Government's response has put a renewed spotlight on the performance of Australian students in a global context, pitting them against other countries without the necessary cultural context (we want our children to emulate Asian students, but what of their unique Australian experience?). Of course, tests have their place; they quantify problem areas and allow public policy to address them. 

But at what cost to the broader issues and to the students themselves?

Hattie notes that while teachers account for 30 per cent of student performance, the students themselves account for 50 per cent, taking into account the talents and abilities they bring to the table; the home accounts for 5-10 per cent of performance variance (levels of expectation and encouragement); the school and principal accounts for 5-10 per cent (finances, class sizes, buildings; creating a climate of safety for learning); and peers a further 5-10 per cent (peer-to-peer co-teaching, degree to which education is a matter of pride or shame). 

The mounting pressure, in this scenario, is on the individual student shouldering most of the responsibility for educational outcomes. But what if a child is not academic? Does not give a hoot about History? Has no desire at all to acquire knowledge? If education, with the view to having a profession or trade, is not valued within the home? One might say that pupil is at a distinct disadvantage from the get-go.  

A snapshot of our youth

Photography: Sophie Baker
In its National Survey of Young Australians 2011, surveying 45,916 young people aged 11 to 24, where half were aged 15 to 19, Mission Australia reported that 'coping with stress' was the number one concern, increasing 20 per cent between 2009 and 2011. The data collected showed that young people are dealing with a range of competing demands and pressures.

The value that young people place on school or study satisfaction increased eight per cent between 2010 and 2011, and young people's concern about school or study problems grew 12 per cent on 2010. While 5 per cent more students were engaged in full-time education, more highly valued 'getting a job'.

For young people, the economy and financial matters remains as one of the most important issues in Australia today. You might say that today's youth are experiencing the same economic destabilisation that those of us who grew up in the late 80s and 90s experienced, when the 'recession we had to have' came home. 

Only then we weren't fighting wars on various fronts – in Afghanistan and online.

Julia Gillard and Labor have to take some responsibility for the increased pressure on students, as does the economy, political fear-mongering, the media and the inability of the average home to ameliorate their concerns.

"In addition to the pressures of education, lack of job opportunities and financial difficulties, a substantial proportion of young people deal with family conflict, bullying/emotional abuse, mental health and drug and alcohol issues," say Mission Australia.

"Given the negative impact of long-term stress on both mental and physical health, there is clearly a need for not only providing young people with practical strategies to deal with everyday stress, but most importantly for a whole-of-community preventative approach to the issue."

Given that family relationships and friendships were the top two items valued by young people (74.3 per cent and 59 per cent of respondents respectively), it is vital that the family environment provide the necessary stability for students to function well. Family conflict was an issue of personal concern for one third of young people in Mission Australia's survey.

"These findings support the need for evidence-based integrated programs and services that promote loving and nurturing home environments and support parents and carers, vulnerable families in particular, to develop high quality parenting and nurturing relationships with children," says the Mission Australia report.

What's more, female participants were more likely than males to be concerned about coping with stress and body image, while males were more likely to be concerned about drugs and alcohol than females. Support groups, services, families, schools, teachers, chaplains and counsellors need to be aware of these subtle sex-specific nuances.

"The fact that one in five young people in the survey stated that they did not have anywhere to go for advice and support on their number one issue of concern is worrying," says Mission Australia.

"Given the growing evidence of the positive association between social support and mental health this finding highlights the need to increase our efforts as a society to reach others in the community including our relatives, neighbours, classmates, and work colleagues."

Young people who report they have no-one to talk to are at higher risk of depression, while belonging to a social network has a powerful protective effect on health. We presume Mission Australia does not mean Facebook, though, disconcertingly, the internet is ranked highly as a source of advice and support for concerns about sexuality, the environment, discrimination, body image, depression and self-harm... outranking school counsellors and teachers.

Great Educational Expectations – Gillard, Gonski, Beginnings
What is missing in current debates is a sense of the "whole student" philosophy; the kind of big people we hope and expect our children to become, with their individual personalities, hopes and dreams, all working together toward a grand national outcome: happy, resilient, prosperous adults who keep the country churning along. 

In short, let's talk about how we might help individuals to maximise their potential without unnecessarily burdening them with great expectations. "School reform a key to mining future"? Give the kids a break!  

Transferring social problems that go beyond the classroom, and addressing those problems with increased funding, is not going to get us the best results in the end, nor produce students who are necessarily functional. Instead of focusing on the test score deficiencies of students, the current debate around education funding gives us reason to think on why that might be so. 

It is no secret that Julia Gillard's parents played a significant role in her outlook on the world. The sad and recent passing of John Gillard, together with his daughter's response to the Gonski report on school funding, gives rise to present private and public contemplations about the current state of education in our nation, and also our own formative influences. 

Who impressed upon us? How did our upbringing affect our education or lack thereof? Did we feel disadvantaged or well off?

John Gillard was one of seven children born in a Welsh coal mining town who was offered a scholarship to a local grammar school at age 14, but was unable to accept because his family was too poor. Poverty, he said, was part of his daily life, and his fate was accepted under these terms and conditions. He would go to work.

His jobs included the security night shift at a bank, policing and working as a psychiatric nurse at a mental health facility. From humble beginnings of limited means, working for the good of others, John sought, understandably, to give his daughter a better life; the sort of future afforded by a good education. 

"My father, despite winning academic prizes and scholarships, left school at 14. His family couldn't afford not to have him working," Julia Gillard said in her crusading speech, unveiling A National Plan for School Improvement, responding to the Gonski Report last week, the next step in Labor's education evolution.  

"But born in a different era, or into different circumstances, my mother and father would easily have succeeded at university and pursued professional careers. As an adult, I understand their stories aren't unusual for their generation. But as a child, their stories were my world, the backdrop of my life. Because my parents had hungered for education, they wanted their daughter to enjoy all its benefits."

Inspired by her parents, and first as Education Minister and now as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard is campaigning to correct the "moral wrong" that is a thoroughgoing education denied, particularly to children from disadvantaged homes. But in the race to splash cash on education, to pressure teachers to lift teaching standards and encourage students to raise the bar, are we missing something?  

Are we placing too higher emphasis on academic outcomes at the expense of investment in other areas that benefit children's development? What of the other fundamental values John believed in to the benefit of his daughter: of working hard to create a secure and loving household for his two "little girls"? 

The Gonski Report's idea is to even out distribution of education funds for every school student under the Aussie sun in order to produce better outcomes for students, with hopes of lifting the country's overall academic performance, bringing us into alignment with some of our Asian neighbours and making us look all the more responsible in the way we address social disadvantage.
"Today, unless those kids from the poorest quarter are brilliant, they are getting below average results in reading," said Gillard in her response. "By year nine, the average child from the same battling family is two years behind children from the most well-off quarter of Australian homes in reading and maths." 

The whole premise of the Gonski Report, which was delivered to the government in December 2011, is to elevate levels of per-student funding, addressing gaps created by economic disparity and other disadvantage, to create a more equitable education system.

No one would argue with the need to address development in children such as these through extra provisions, both financial and otherwise, particularly Indigenous children. But the obsession with lifting natural productivity through future generations by putting added pressure on educational outcomes is hardly going to inspire children, nor their teachers, to give school their best.

A love of learning 
Photography: Sophie Baker
Learning, kindled in our earliest days, is a wonderful, life-long adventure in itself, and our teachers should be our fearless leaders, creating for children worlds of thinking previously unknown to them, and endeavouring to shape them into good young women and men who, in turn, contribute to a good society we can all live in: in workplaces, in communities, in shared spaces, in their homes and in the public sphere.  

A 2011 report titled OECD Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education: Australia found that Australia's approach to assessment and evaluation was "highly sophisticated and well conceptualised" but warned about being overly bureaucratic in its administration of curriculum and monitoring in schools. In his 2003 analysis of New Zealand schools, which could equally be applied to Australia, education expert John Hattie notes:

We have poured more money into school buildings, school structures, we hear so much about reduced class sizes and new examinations and curricula, we ask parents to help manage schools and thus ignore their major responsibility to help co-educate, and we highlight student problems as if students are the problem whereas it is the role of schools to reduce these problems. 

Interventions at the structural, home, policy, or school level is like searching for your wallet which you lost in the bushes, under the lamppost because that is where there is light. The answer lies elsewhere – it lies in the person who gently closes the classroom door and performs the teaching act –the person who puts into place the end effects of so many policies, who interprets these policies, and who is alone with students during their 15,000 hours of schooling.

We may be at risk of losing the good teachers ones if the "vocation" becomes overly burdened with bureaucratic performance targets as well as the expectation to reform kids who come from dysfunctional homes, to motivate students who have no idea as to the real value of their education and/or who grapple with wider socio-cultural forces that impede their abilities.

Kevin Donnelly, director of the Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: It's Not Rocket Science, writes in The Australian that "based on an analysis of the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment test results, students' [socio-economic status] is not the most important influence on achievement... socioeconomic status is but one influence among many."

He notes that an Australian Council for Educational Research Report (ACER) analysing Australia's performance in PISA (the international test of 15-year-old students, across the government, Catholic and independent systems, that assesses scientific literacy, mathematical literacy and reading literacy) found that just 13 per cent of variance in student performance in Australia was found to be attributable to socioeconomic factors.

The other 87 per cent was found to be linked to factors such as the number of books in the home, whether children enjoy reading, student ability and motivation, and having effective teachers, an academic curriculum and a disciplined classroom environment. Surely some of these factors themselves are linked to matters of economy?

A young boy I encountered recently on the street, when asked what he was doing there on a school day said, "I have to stay at home to look after my brother". As my teacher friends would attest, it is hard for a student who is under the burden of having no money at home to be effectively motivated at school. A hungry stomach can be a great distraction. And forget time to read to your children if you are working two jobs to keep afloat.

A classroom of eight-year-olds

Over dinner on a Saturday evening, the subject of conversation turned to school children. The primary school teacher at our table enlightened us as to the dynamics at play in her class of eight-year-olds, more particularly the stark contrast between the children of the mining boom (hitherto known as 'Miner's Kids') and those from South Sea Islander families. 

The Miner's Kids, she said, played the role of 'victims' whereby material privileges afforded to them by way of compensation for dad's absence creates highly individualistic, my-needs-first little people (not their fault, obviously). The South Sea Islander kids under her supervision, she said, were highly collectivistic, sharing in all, though lack in socioeconomic status. 

In order to combat the vast gap between values imbued in their home environments, this teacher has set about creatively encouraging a team dynamic, but she does not doubt who will fare better in life when the chips are down. Who will come to the rescue of the individual who thinks only of himself? Can we be expected to draw on the kindness of strangers when our sole concern is for ourselves?

This teacher feeds lunch to a child who turns up with none, is made to wear a special vest for identification in the playground, and expends half her energies on ensuring the classroom does not dissolve into anarchy. Identifying the special talents, abilities and frailties in students is a special teacher quality, which this teacher possesses, but working to the students' strength is a tough ask. Many teachers complain that they are essentially "crowd control" for unruly students.

Fitting, one might think, given the foundations of our education system were built on the belief that crime is a result of ignorance, and education could liberate people from ignorance and thus reduce crime. We have since then gone on to rely less on discipline and more on child coercion, in both parenting and education. Children are being mollycoddled, and not for their own good.

Whatever your thoughts on a religious education, the nuns would have had none of that, and nor did teachers with rulers in hand in the day of corporal punishment for crimes of classroom disorder. Society has changed; discipline should be exerted in some other way. But commanding respect is not easy in a world where children are on par with adults and you're given a whistle to tame them.

The getting of wisdom (and life skills)

Can teachers be expected to create responsible citizens when the messages are being mixed by parents at home, by media consumption, by politicking? 

Schools may now be required to teach more than the three Rs (Reading, Writing, Arithmetic), but what about how to be good, moral citizens? How to be clean, orderly and courteous? How to be healthy, happy and generous? How to love learning and desire to increase their understanding of the world? Where is this teaching coming from?

Some schools do have the flexibility to include teachings in their learning that revolve around morals, emotional intelligence and life skills. A teacher at a Lutheran school, dismayed by the focus on data-based decisions, as apposed to anecdotal stories about great teaching, tells me that teaching, to him, is all about connecting around ideas and drawing students into discussion.

"A culture that doesn't value education, liberal arts and understanding at a deeper level, gets utilitarian results," he says. "We're bringing up a generation of kids for who education is all about 'get me through quick and fast'. In the '80s and '90s, it was about cheap and affordable education, but that was threatening to the system. Now we have teachers with Masters degrees. We can't throw money at a problem for better outcomes when parents aren't valuing education."

He says that often parents opt for an independent or Catholic school with the expectation that their children will be forced to fall into line. And many parents will sacrifice money they don't necessarily have in order to do so. The perception is, unfortunately, that you get what you pay for – it shouldn't be so, but in a consumer society, it's easy to see how the misconception might form.  

What is a quality teacher? One who can innovate, adapt, create and recall. "The best teachers are facilitators of the world," he says. "I need to be a master of myself and content and the learner to be effective." He speaks of "productive pedagogues" and social capital and emotional intelligence aiding learning. The Lutheran system's learning and teaching philosophy has a strong pastoral element.

Making the case for studies and curriculum beyond the academic, in order to form the "whole" student, and their outlook on the world, one senior educator who works at a Christian girls' school tells me that religious studies underpin the whole of the school's curriculum, imbuing it with meaning:

"I know with the girls I teach that relationships are important to them and they are willing to engage with big questions because they do want meaning in their life," she says. 

"Education alone does not give meaning to life it is a means but not an end. I think that there is a shift back to values and the reality is that values cannot be taught in isolation they need to have some foundation for students to take them on board. Religion gets a bad press but to be educated and informed does not mean that students are indoctrinated. We need to give young people credit that they can make up their own mind but how can they make up their mind if they don't know anything about religion?"   

In his article, 'The Missing Factor in Higher Education', Perry L. Glanzer notes for Christianity Today magazine that modern university professors have a narrow sense of their vocation, and if they dispense advice beyond their discipline, it is usually concerned with matters of public policy or political life. "Today...the idea that professors should dispense moral wisdom is passe."

The top three activities for young people recorded by Mission Australia were sports (70.7 per cent as a participant), sports (51.9 per cent as a spectator) and arts/cultural activities (30.2 per cent). Significant proportions also participated in volunteer work (27.9 per cent), youth groups and clubs (25 per cent), student leadership activities (24.4 per cent), religious groups or activities (23.2 per cent), environmental groups or activities (11.7 per cent) and political groups or organisations (4.7 per cent).

Non-government organisations, like World Vision Australia, for example, which has a youth-centric program called VGen, play a vital part in the rounding out of our young people's life skills and experience. Girl Guides is another example of a group-based program where young people go for learning, community and support. And these can lead onto other things: 93 per cent of Australian Girl Guides, for example, want to be a leader of some kind.

"The Promise I made as a Girl Guide, some 27 years ago now, to do my best, serve my country, help other people and live by a code essentially about respect, tolerance, care for the environment and pride in oneself, carries into my work," Guide leader and journalist Kate Moore told GWAS last year. "I am a community journalist working as an online editor for 21 newspapers across Sydney and NSW Central Coast." 

Shannon's story

Shannon Birch, 23, is the first member of his family to attend university, but the going has not been easy. "I liked Maths but I just rode my bike," he says of his high-school experience. "When I was in school I was thinking of the skate park. Dad said to me when I was younger, 'You're the most intelligent out of us', so I guess he was pretty proud [when I got accepted into university]."

But while Shannon's educational path has seen him transition from school to a Certificate III in Youth Work, to exercise science at university after completing a year of bridging studies and tests, he says it wasn't school, where he lacked direction, that gave him the impetus to continue studying with the view to one day becoming a physiotherapist.

"Maybe the main idea behind why I'm going to university is I think it's a good idea to have a job and to be able to look after your family," he says. "If you have the ability to look after your family, earn money and give to the poor, I think that's one of the best callings in Australia – to make money and give it. That's what drives me in making me learn."

Shannon's beliefs have been shaped by his evolving, personal Christian faith, which has also primed him for thinking. His brother, meanwhile, works in the mines. "He had to do it, he didn't really want to study," says Shannon. "He's making pretty good money. He floated around for five to six years, so it's good for him, but I don't think it's the best choice."   

Students across the public/private divide 

Whether "effective" teachers are more present in the Catholic, independent or state sectors is a matter for another debate. What is apparent is that even our most gifted students are falling behind, across all school systems.

"Australia was the only high performing country to show a significant decline in reading literacy performance in PISA 2009," say the ACER. "Of concern is that the decline is primarily among high-achieving students, and that the proportion of both males and females in the highest two proficiency levels declined significantly over the nine-year period [from 2000 to 2009], while the proportion of males in the lowest proficiency levels increased."

ACER also points out that the "enjoyment of reading", which has a strong link to performance, is wanting in one-third of Australian students, who do not read for enjoyment. "The performance of students with higher levels of socioeconomic background in reading literacy was one full proficiency level above that of students from lower levels of socioeconomic background, or the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling."

Assessment of the 2009 PISA report found, "Once differences in students' socioeconomic background were taken into account (by adjusting the mean scores for student's individual socioeconomic background and for the school average socioeconomic background) there were no longer any statistically significant differences in the average reading, mathematical and scientific literacy scores of students from the different school sectors."

This would seem to suggest that it is socioeconomic background, no matter the school you are in, that makes students vulnerable to grade differentials. Indeed, "Across all literacy domains, the results show the higher the level of socioeconomic background, the higher the student performance... The gap between students in the highest and lowest socioeconomic quartile is equivalent to more than one proficiency level or almost three fulls years of schooling."

This is even wider than the proficiency gap between students from metropolitan and remote schools (1.5 years). What is an SES background anyway?

In PISA, SES background is measured using a composite index taking into account the occupations of the parents' or guardians, the highest level of education of the parents, an index of the educational resources in the home, an index of cultural possessions in the home, and an index of family wealth. This is intended to give an overall picture of a student's home life or 'social gradients' across the spectrum.

For Australia, there is a "moderately strong relationship between socioeconomic background and achievement". In reading literacy, Australia is ranked as "High Quality - Low Equity", meaning that while our students had higher reading scores than the OECD average, the impact of socioeconomic status on performance was more pronounced.

China, notably a communist country, Finland and Canada are considered "High Quality - High Equity" OECD countries.

What does it mean for an individual student? How can teachers like Ms. Gruwell and my dinner companion overcome these boundaries to make a difference? And can education reform policy help? Significantly, what occurred between 2000 and 2009 to conspire to pull our best and brightest down to the point where average reading literacy levels have spiralled downward?

Could it be something about leaving behind character development in favour of test scores? And wonderment about the world in favour of Facebook?

United States President Woodrow Wilson once said, "You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget that errand." 

A personal story 

The year before Erin Gruwell started practising her profession at Woodrow, I had started high-school in an affluent suburb on Sydney's north shore called Kirribilli. As I sat down in my first homeroom class, a new migrant from the Sunshine State, the girl next to me turned and asked, 'What does your father do?'. 

It was a profound moment for me, and has informed my whole outlook on education since – and, most recently, the report by David Gonski on education funding. The conundrum is best summed up by a counsellor at an independent school in Brisbane, who told me of her school:

"We have an interesting situation; the student body is not homogeneous from a geographic or income perspective. Funding, as I understand, it is partly determined by the income level of the location of the school, which in our case is kind of unfortunate. Our area is rated as a fairly high income area, but since our kids come from all over Brisbane, from all types of neighbourhoods, and generally not terribly high incomes, it means our funding does not match our student population. That could be called 'inequitable'."

I was not from an affluent home, but by virtue of my late grandmother had been bequeathed sufficient funds to attend the school of my parents' choosing. My father had attended Sydney Grammar School and the University of New South Wales; my mother attended Our Lady's College and left at age 15 to pursue work.

view on education was further shaped by a teacher, who I remember fondly as a sort of Mary Poppins figure: one part discipline, one part love. As my English class sat atop a hill on the grounds of the school, maybe 20 girls basking in the sunshine and taking in the sparkling ripples on the harbour water below, our teacher, Mrs. Davis, a short and wiry woman with dark hair, said, "Don't take this for granted, girls".   

And I never did, and never have since. That notion of privilege has stuck with me. Education is a privilege; education in salubrious surrounds, like the leafy courts of Loreto Kirribilli, even more so. There is nothing stopping any of us from reading Tolstoy in a park, so long as you see the possibility of that being a nice thing to do, but the experience of attending a pretty school or a distinctively serene campus is a gift, albeit not necessarily commensurate with a good education.

Even the girl who attends the loveliest private school might find her life remiss. One should not discount the impact of the home environment, nor teen hormones, nor the will of the rebellious girl (Germaine Greer was a convent school girl) on one's educational, career or life choices. A school cannot itself be held entirely to account for its students' life choices

I can tell you exactly what happens at 15, to some students at least: hormones. Parties. Disengagement from sports. (And that was before Facebook, blogs, text messaging and other distracting online interaction.) 

Four years of high school complete, I opted to attend a public school, its crude and concrete buildings far away from the beauty of Carabella Street. By that time, my parents' marriage was broken, and I was dazzled by the idea that a greater social life awaited me there, on the public side. 

Ostensibly under the guise of pursuing dance studies for my Higher School Certificate (HSC), I upped and left Loreto, much to the dismay of my mother, and perhaps my friends, too, who compiled a book of photos and stories and letters and poems for me. 

Of course, it was all about me; not about the community of girls I was leaving behind, nor the school itself and its part in shaping who I was to become. Though I found new friends, and gained in confidence outside the convent walls, it was the beginning of my undoing, which lasted a year before I woke up to the prospect of my future (twice, no, three times 'til the present time, I have followed this pattern of falling in and out of love with education due to other persuasions followed by a period of intense "catch up"!). 

The experience of 'going public' is not one I discount or think on cheaply: it was an awakening to the vast chasm that exists between the worlds of public and private school education, but also to the will of the individual student and the seeking after concrete values and an identity to cling too, which can be both oppressive and liberating whether in the public or private system. 

Without boundaries, without structure, without a purpose and vision, we find ourselves wanting; but with an overbearing sense of expectation, we suffocate.

At my new public school, without surprise, there were many gifted students and teachers. My History teacher, Mr. Gallagher, was particularly talented, and from him I learnt not only about the Weimar Republic but also that if a man does not possess the funds, he should not expend them. He paid cash for everything, including his home. Values seep into young minds unexpectedly. There were naughty boys in his class, but he tamed them by earning respect. 

In my experience of public school, there was a greater sense of self-determination in one's studies, and of seeking out supplementary texts and teaching for educational betterment, but less sense of a school community or common values to which we adhered. Values, which at private school, saw us keep our uniforms spick-speck, commit to community involvement and apply ourselves to our academic studies and extracurricular activities like music, dance, drama and sport. 

There was less pressure on the public side to perform well, but more joy when one did excel. When the gift of liberty is applied, and the spirit is willing you along, anything can be achieved – this is what I believed, and still do. Because while I didn't top the state, and always wondered if my University Admissions score would have been better if I'd remained at private school, I felt that by the end of Year 12, I was starting to become myself.

Call it "big fish in small pond" syndrome, if you like, but the public school experience felt less claustrophobic at the time. It suited the needs of a young woman exploring and pushing boundaries. 
But you first have to have boundaries if you are planning to cross them. For many of my public school schoolmates, there were no boundaries to start with. For them this was not a teen social experiment in sampling the grass on the other side of the fence. There was no choice. 

Like Paul Simon heading to South Africa amid Apartheid to produce his "Gracelands" record with local musicians 25 years ago, it was only much later that I was able to reflect on the social chasm and my political position within it, but to also think on how one's domestic life, and the people within it, impact on our ability to learn, to value learning, and to benefit from it. 

Disruption, dysfunction, and their polar opposites, order and functionality, should not be lost in the debate that is centering on school funding: there is a much wider social debate to take place, the responsibility for which should not rest solely on the education system. It takes a community, a whole country, to raise good, hard-working, purposeful individuals. 

Educational inclusion - reflecting the real world

Recently I glimpsed the name of my primary school, Our Lady of Lourdes, Sunnybank, in a story posted on The Catholic Leader about the National Disability Insurance Scheme. A former student, Maggie Holgate, was pictured with her friend Georgia smiling at the camera at an NDIS rally. Maggie, 14, and Georgia both have cerebral palsy.

"An NDIS will give us and others like Maddie long-term certainty, access to experienced and professional carers, an opportunity for her to contribute to society and not feel like a burden," Maggie's mother Richelle Holgate told the journal.

It is wonderful to think that students like Georgie and Maggie attend my primary school, and have hopes for the future and contributing to society just the same as those who are able-bodied. Segregation of the disabled and the disadvantaged is at the heart of the "Gonski Report", which fed into the Government's National Plan for Improvement, and this is admirable.

Its basis is that every school will get a certain amount of money for each child, with additional loading amounts for economic (read: low SES) or other disadvantage, such as disability. Currently, funding is targeted at areas of disadvantage, according to census data, but not individually – like disability funding, which under the NDIS will be more personalised.

Ideally, a good education should prepare us for all of life's variables, whether they be the sudden onset of a disability (or bearing a child with one), a divorce in the family, an unexpected setback or set of circumstances completely out of our control. But most importantly, it will contribute to and strengthen our character and resolve to contribute something of value to the world.

There must surely be acknowledgement for the 'Best and Fairest' as much as the winner on the sporting field. Resilience, self-awareness and emotional intelligence, together with the ability to care for oneself and fellow man, is a desirous educational outcome, as much as a decent Higher School Certificate score. Education shouldn't be seen as an aid to our personal ambition, but, as Shannon believes, a means for adding something to a community.

What point an education used solely for selfish gain? What of the child who cannot relate to anyone outside the educational inner sanctum, their specific course of study, or social circle? A Edward de Bonian beautiful mind with an ugly temperament? The boy who grows up to achieve his Masters yet is horrible to his wife? The girl who gains a great job in the upper echelons of the corporate world but whose inner life is in strife? The man with his doctorate but who has no humour?

In his Christianity Today article, Glanzer writes, "consider the Habib Malik's testimony about his father, Charles Malik, a Lebanese philosopher and diplomat who helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'People ask me, what was it like growing up the son of a great man? My answer is, it was great! But only so because Charles Malik never let greatness detract from fatherhood.'"

After all, you can have the IQ of a genius and use your knowledge to either become a wonderful asset to the community, such as Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or you could opt to build a chemical bomb and kill some people. Knowledge applied the wrong way can be a dangerous thing. Just the same, a fertile mind wasted because of social or cultural or economic impediments is a shame. 

The recent advice, from our teen columnist Georgie, that a friend of hers had attempted to take her own life amidst her trial HSC examinations really brought the idea of the great chasm between education and coping mechanisms home; the lack of hope that creeps in unexpectedly when we put all our emphasis on one aspect of our being. 

The great expectations of education can be to the detriment of many young people ill equipped to cope with even the basics of life. What of the child from the split home, the jobless, the mentally or physically ill, the 'wrong side of the tracks', so to speak? 

The singer James Taylor, who battled with drug and alcohol addiction, faltered during his junior year at Milton, not feeling at ease in the high-pressured college prep environment despite having good scholastic performance. The Milton principal would later say, "James was more sensitive and less goal oriented than most students of his day."

In the crusade to make little people better and more equally educated, are we placing too much pressure on a single institution, its teachers and administrators, at the expense of taking a full view of how society shapes them into big people? To what degree should parents, the family, the community, the church, sporting, recreational and non-government organisations, business, and the media, take for the nurturing, building, shaping, moulding and maturing of our young people?

And if, in light of recent research that suggests that our national productivity is falling, that kids' prospects for both employment and earning an income are determined as much by the national and global socio-economic landscape, what are we giving them to hold onto if not their career prospects turn to dust amidst a recession? Too many stories, since Occupy Wall Street took to the streets, have appeared about highly educated individuals who wind up working in staple factories.

So, a question: What is An Education? And how can children grow to flourish in their existence as apposed to merely coping or climbing the corporate ladder like Jack staring up at the impossible beanstalk? Education should teach us what has been, how things are and what could be. It should tell us how to keep our nose's clean. But it should not be the teacher's sole responsibility.

Essentially, we are all in "teacher" positions, showing others who are younger than us how to live life by our very words and actions. It is not enough to say that we don't each share some of the responsibility. It is said it takes a community to raise a child. It takes a whole country. 

The Gonski Report and Education, Radio National, ABC
Challenges for Australian Education: Results from PISA 2009
Farewell to a father whose sacrifice shaped future PM, The Australian, September 10, 2012
The Superstition of School by G.K. Chesterton 
Holistic cures for school snobbery, Ellena Savage, Eureka Street
Villains of Australian Education Funding, Dean Ashenden, Eureka Street 
Review of Funding for Schooling, David Gonski AC, December 2011
The Evolution of Education in Australia, Marion McCreadie

See also:
Perspective: Creating successful little people
Snapshot: Beate and Willem, a Cambodian education
Perspective: Towards genderless education and beyond
Satchelism: An education in work and life
Perspective: A (re)education for Great Britain?

Girl With a Satchel


We live we love said...

Wow! Well researched and written Erica. You have encapsulated the essence of education and the importance of nurturing our nation's young people quite remarkably.