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Kevin Rudd's 'To Do' list

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 13 November 2007


Opinion polls say we will have a Labor Government led by Kevin Rudd. Smoothly-spoken, fluent in Mandarin, able to leap tall buildings perhaps? Rudd looks like a winner.

What should be on Kevin’s "to do" list? The much-hated Work Choices laws will be torn up. A sensible foreign policy would also be welcome - one not based on friendship with a sad president mired in an unwinnable war.

The rest of the list must begin with schools, health and media.

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PRIVATE AFFLUENCE AND PUBLIC SQUALOR

In The Affluent Society, J.K. Galbraith argued that modern democracies have private affluence. Thus Australians see higher prices for shares, record salaries for directors and enormous house prices for the top end of the housing market. On the other hand we have public squalor - decrepit buses whose drivers seem to be happier if nobody rides in them, hospitals that bureaucrats prefer to see empty of patients and other comical scenes reminiscent of 'Yes, Minister'.

Public Schools

The state of public education is just one aspect of this syndrome. When aid for Australian private schools crept in during the 1960s and 1970s, it was not resisted successfully. In the eastern suburbs of Sydney, 75 per cent of kids are in private schools. Any tiny group from whatever religion seems able to start up a school these days. Certification of such organisations is lax - few schools have been shut down because of poor teaching standards. It’s easy to walk out of private schools with stunning harbour views and cross town, where you can see kids trying to do their best in run-down Victorian buildings while their principals attempt to reconcile parents’ requests with Department of Education decrees, occupational health and safety guidelines and ineptness from Departments of Public Works. Let alone dealing with incidents of alleged violence, bullying and endless paperwork sent to and from Community Services.

'Summer Heights High' was a big hit on ABC-TV because it targeted real issues in state schools. A kid accuses his father of child abuse to avoid handing in homework. Disabled kids are pitched in randomly with the rest. Private schoolgirls look down their noses at state school "skanks" and "bogans". We wanted to laugh as well as cry, because it was too accurately reflecting many prejudices.

As I argued in my book Fathers, Sons and Lovers, troublesome kids used to be held in check by fathers, schools, members of the community, churches, and sports clubs. Now most of these are much weaker than they were; some are even under suspicion.  Public schools can’t be expected to do all the rescuing as well as teaching kids to read, write and all the other things demanded of them. Commonwealth education funding merely provides a program for this and a little for that, while state schools funded by state governments languish. Their teachers struggle to survive on meagre salaries.

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A Labor Government must tackle the problems of recruitment to public school teaching. We don’t need yet another inquiry into teacher education nor more fast-tracking and dumbing-down of teacher education courses. Already the students in primary level teacher-preparation courses learn less history, less music and less mathematics every year. One of my former colleagues at the University of Western Sydney has tracked that remorseless decline. We do need a return to the days when working-class kids were attracted to teaching because it was a good career move. In the 1960s my colleagues and I were given a scholarship to pay university fees, a small living allowance, a good starting salary, reliable employment and good prospects for promotion.

Teaching can’t compete in today’s employment market. Why would  school leavers start a teacher education course and pay HECS fees for years when clever ads tell them they can join the armed forces, fly helicopters and be trained in weeks, all on a good salary?  Or join the police force, carry a gun, grab some basic training and gain a bit of respect? I’m afraid teachers don’t get much respect these days.

Teachers’ salaries are pitiful, and need to be boosted substantially.  Boys bored by school won’t want to 'stay in school' as teachers for the rest of their working lives.  A man can’t support a family on a teacher’s wage while his wife goes through pregnancy, childbirth and early child-rearing. The salary barely inches upwards each year and good teachers aren’t rewarded. And so the people leaving teaching the fastest are men in their early 30s. Getting good women into teaching is also difficult when salaries in law, real estate and the whole private sector are much more attractive. No doubt there will be panic when all the baby-boomer teachers retire in the next 10 years.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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