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Australia: money skepticism and hope

Every Sunday night on my radio I listen to Alistair Cooke's "Letter From America." Somehow in 15 minutes he manages with lucidity and wit to capture both events and moods. His idiom and tone seem marvelously capable of rendering order and meaning to that great continent and its peoples.

Would that I could in this brief report make the continuing disorder and anarchy of education in Australia a little more comprehensible. Not that I have any sympathy with those who seem determined to tidy up education, for its protection may well reside in being distractingly untidy. (I wonder, for example, how wise you are in establishing a federal Department of Education.)

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One of the real powers in Australian education since the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 has been the statotory schools commission. It concerns are wide-ranging and its impact, although not fully evaluated, has been quite obvious, even to the most malign skeptics. Recently that commission and the bureau of statistics published a 260-page portrait of education in this country: "Australian Students and Their Schools."

What emerges? Well, first, we have spent a gret deal of money since 1970, and we are not at all sure whether that has changed the face of education very much; second, those we euphemistically label "disadvantaged" still do rather badly (these are the aboriginals, the migrants, the hanidcapped, and the poor); third, the population of the country is aging; fourth, and most significant, students are staying at school longer, but fewer are proceeding on to post-secondary institutions.

Where are they going? Certainly not into the work force, for there are now as many unemployed 15- to 19-year-olds as there are students studying full-time at universities and colleges.

The Australian population is undereducated, and often school administrators find themselves expending many of their resources trying to educate parents to understand what schools are doing, to educate them to accept that their own children may go further in educational settings than the parents did themselves, and to encourage parents to cooperate, not denigrate.

A high percentage of 14-year-old children do not continue at school, and there is a large fallout by the end of the penultimate year (Year 11, the equivalent of the 12th grade in the US.)

Current statistics indicate that only 7 percent of 4,884,500 males over 15 hold a degree or a diploma. The comparable statistic for females is 5 percent of 4,973,700. Nearly 68 percent of all people aged 15 years and above have no post-school qualification whatever, and the female component is much the worse off in this respect.

What one of your diplomats said about us in the mid-1930s still has great cogency: "It was a constant surprise to me to discover how little schooling the average businessman had been given, how scanty was his reading, and how few his intellectual interests and curiosities. Even the traiing of the professional man is less intense than elsewhere."

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What are the implications of the report? People may ask whether the increased expenditure by governments in the 1970s (clearly delineated in the report) has been justified, whether there has been any connection between quality and money spent, whether they are getting value for the money spent.

At a time when there have been great dislocations to our economy and our capabilities to deal adequately with those dislocations, it is conceivable that, in accordance with the "scapegoat" theory, schools may not be regarded with much generosity. That will be sad, for the intelligence and the practical application of rationality rquired to meet our sundry national malaises (including the archaic structure of government) will demand better-educated people.

That demand rests upon the assumption, largely unwarranted, I feel, that we have any national concept of what the profile of "the educated person" for the ' 80s and beyond may look like. Public debate about education is largely confined to cantankerous teaching unions and to those who would tidy up mechanisms. Not a very entertaiing or enlightening spectacle.

It is a measure of our inability to plan -- Australians find "planning" an unpleasant word -- that in the early 1970s we were recruiting teachers overseas and now we have too many of them. Despite this, schools report an increase in the number of "support staff" -- janitors, groundsmen, library and laboratory assistants, teacher's aides, and clerical assistants. The numbers of such support staff has increased more rapidly than the number of teachers, students, or schools! [This increase of support staff in the face of declining enrollments is a US development, as well.]

One phenomenon now emerging, and not undetected in the United STates, is the sudden burgeoning of independent-school enrollments. Headlines such as "The Independent Schools Are Booming" appear from time to time in our newspapers. The causes of the phenomenon are not clearly documented and are mostly represented by mischievous retreat into slogans: better control, better discipline, better work at the three R's, better public examination performance, etc.

There is, I believe, a disenchantment with the enveloping bureaucracy of the state systems and the incapacity of those systems to respond to communal needs (this despite the tokenism of local involvement).

The employers that complain about literacy and numeracy (facility in the use of numbers) are largely "products" of the independent and private church-related schools, and they may find it convenient from time to time to enforce their prejudices by castigating those who did not have, or chose not to have, independent schooling.

The argument of choice is specious, if some are unable to choose, if they have neither the freedom nor resources to choose.

What is interesting to contemplate is whether the independent, nongovernment schools would be doing quite so well if they did not receive huge doses of federal and state grants; the lesser, but by no mans insignificant, are the grants for capital works. Australian School libraries and school science facilities have improved immeasurably in the past 20 years.

At present the grants are being challenged by a group known as the DOGS (the Defense of the Government Schools) in the High Court of Australia (our equivalent of the US Supreme Court). The basis of the challenge is that the grants offend the constitutional provisions (Section 116) relating to the establishment of religions. Much of the action may depend on the US precedents in this area. It will be intriguing to see what the court does, but that will be another story for another day.


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