Would you describe somebody who exits a burning building as exercising a "choice" to leave? When sirens sound and you're told you must evacuate to save yourself and your children, does there exist a rational decision to remain, or head for the stairs?
The notion is absurd. Yet a range of politicians and media commentators who have gleefully spent the last 20 years torching the reputation and standing of Australia's public schools have lately described the apparent exodus of families to private education as evidence of coolly rational choice in a free market. Or could it be that some people have been shouting "fire!" in a crowded classroom?
Such is the situation lamented by Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro's new book, The Stupid Country: How Australia is dismantling public education (UNSW Press). Drawing on their combined experiences as a long-time public school principal and convenor of Priority Public respectively, Bonnor and Caro make a bid to douse the flames by pointing out the flaws in the position of those who habitually run down public schools and teachers.
The Stupid Country presents an up-to-date and accessible primer for parents and other community stakeholders on the full range of issues that are current in Australian education. From school choice to academic standards and the culture wars, from school fees to funding, vouchers, league tables and the role of public education in our democratic society, the authors canvass the issues from a stance that is supportive of public education without indulging in unwarranted attacks on other school systems.
Those already familiar with current educational debates in Australia are unlikely to discover new material here, however even for education professionals and political observers the book will serve as a plain-speaking round-up of where we now find ourselves. Rather than relying on academic tomes, Bonnor and Caro make lively use of a range of public sources that have tracked the debates, to which they have added the perspective of their own experiences.
One needn't agree with the authors' dire predictions for the health of our common wealth under a declining public school system to acknowledge the importance of the question and the need to fully examine the issues.
Indeed, one strength of the book is that Bonnor and Caro observe the courtesy of allowing readers to draw their own conclusions, which is more than many commentators today seem capable of doing.
The final chapters canvass a range of measures that could be taken to improve school governance, strengthen enrolments and secure resources for our far-flung communities without breathless advocacy for a single "silver bullet" or a return to previous models that have outlived their usefulness. In this sense, the book serves to showcase the best of modern teaching practices, in which students are invited to consider the evidence and form their own response, in contrast to the from-the-pulpit harangue lately favoured by education ideologues.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of The Stupid Country is its scrutiny of the many contradictions that misdirect so many people's thinking on education issues, from our prime minister down. For example, our school system is both deregulated yet heavily subsidised by government, all in the name of the free-market ideal of choice. And the very same commentators who insist that there has been a decline in education standards over the last 30 years - concurrent with the rise of school choice - continue to prescribe more "choice" as being the means to improve public school standards.
Bonnor and Caro also remind us that the distinction between "public" and "private" schools is far less clear than it once was, since all Australian schools receive government funding, teach from a government-mandated curriculum and must submit to ongoing government checks to continue operating.
So-called private schools now receive between 40-80 per cent of their operating funds from a combination of Federal and State government grants, and many public schools rely on additional operational funds in the form of private sponsorship or donations from well-heeled Parents and Citizens' Associations.
The Stupid Country also reserves a few buckets of water for the torch-wielding vandals currently active in the education debate, who they describe as having "a surplus of ideology and a deficit of sound evidence".
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