In his victory speech, Kevin Rudd appealed to Australians to put the “old debates” behind us. One area he nominated was the public and private schools debate. As I wrote this, the Prime Minister tasked all government MPs to visit a public and a private school.
The desire to put old debates behind us is understandable, but it glosses over a strong contradiction in public attitudes towards this issue. On the one hand, there is growing support for policies aimed at integrating our diverse population into the “mainstream” Australian community. On the other hand, there is also support for the notion of school choice as an important democratic right for parents.
For many, these might seem to be positive, plausible and unproblematic notions. You might even support both initiatives. But what if these two ideas work against each other? In calling for more choice and independent schooling, might we be undermining the public institutions that have delivered so much of the social cohesion we now enjoy?
Any strategy that has societal integration as its goal needs to consider the essential role that public schooling played in the Australian community during the two generations immediately following World War II. When public school enrolments as a percentage of the population were at historically high levels, it was the norm for children from all walks of life to be educated in the same playgrounds, the same set of buildings and the same postcodes.
These were the years when Mediterranean migrant children were teased for having salami in their sandwiches instead of Vegemite, and when even well-heeled families had few qualms about sending their precious darlings to the same school as the kids from the wrong side of the tracks. And yet, as these generations grew to adulthood and assumed power in Australia’s boardrooms and parliamentary chambers, we should not underestimate the extent to which their shared childhood experiences and playground scrapes have contributed to Australia’s post war social stability.
What predictions then might we make about the current generation, whose schooling experiences are more strongly divided into hermetic social groups, pre-determined by their parents’ choice of school?
First, let me clarify that this is not a discussion of public versus private schooling. In truth, there is little that is private or independent about any school given the economic reality that so many have grown dependent on public funding, and face ever more prescriptive government guidelines as to the curriculum they teach. Furthermore, as all schools have intense interrelations with their local community, they cannot escape ethical responsibility for the effect they have on the public sphere around them.
In place of private schools, I believe that Australians have lately acquired a taste for what could be more properly be described as separatist schools.
I am well aware of the inflammatory connotations of the term “separatist”, but I consider it to be an apt description of the process by which some schools inculcate their students with a belief that they possess special characteristics when compared to the general populace, against whom they define themselves.
One can find such separatist notions at work regardless of the school’s chosen focus on religion, socioeconomic privilege or a particular educational philosophy.
If we are to accept that separatism is a contrary force to the desired goal of social stability and cohesion, it raises the question of why some 30 per cent of Australian families would willingly embrace such separatism. Are we pursuing some sort of mass cultural suicide, as alarmists predict? Do millions of Australian families really want to undermine the stability and fairness of the society on which so much of Australia’s success and prosperity rests? Hardly.
I prefer to take a much more charitable view of the support for separatist schools and, in so doing, to highlight how the trend can be reversed to the benefit of all. And before anybody is consumed with outrage, let me assure you that we needn’t shut down a single school to achieve this.
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