Would you like some Education with your Schooling?

Education looks set to become an election issue in Australia, which is good because before I go spending my hard-earned money, I like to be sure I’m getting what I really want.  And what I’d like to get out of fourteen billion dollars is an education system that will spit out generations of people able to steer this big old ship of ours to a place so peaceful and abundant that I can kick back and enjoy my retirement in style. 

I’ve had to struggle with the ‘what is school for’ question since I first sent my oldest child to an Australian preschool.  The aim there was school-readiness and the reverberations of NAPLAN were being felt all the way down to my four year old’s hand as she struggled to practice writing when all she wanted was to play with her friends outside.  But four years later, she would be compared to the rest of the nation and woe to the school whose students were found wanting so she sat gazing out at the playground until I was asked to come in to be told she was having trouble following instructions.

It was a shock to all of us since she had already attended preschool in two other countries and both times loved it so much we had trouble getting her home.  So suddenly I was faced with a question I admit I hadn’t asked before: does she really need to go to school?  My answer then, at age four, was no.  It was too early for her to learn that she wasn’t good enough.

But when is the right time to learn that?  What is the appropriate balance between toughening a child up in the real world and treasuring the innate perfect-ness that all children are born with?

And what do we send our children to school for?  My own answer to that was that I wanted my child to grow up to be a positive member of society.  Content, healthy and useful.  Useful because I don’t think you can truly be content unless you feel valued by your community in some way.  And that led me to the hardest question of all: is school the best place to learn any of that?

I trained as a teacher, my parents are both teachers and I have always believed that education is the ticket to everything.  And I still do.  But making sure every class has an interactive whiteboard and every teacher is teaching the same thing at the same time has nothing to to with education and everything to do with schooling.

It is faster and more fool-proof to teach a medical student to perform a caesarian than to teach them all the complexities of pregnancy, labour and delivery to a sophisticated enough level that they could competently facilitate any of the myriad births they are likely to be presented with.  That doesn’t mean caesarians are better, for anyone.  It does mean that if anything goes wrong we can go back and make sure all the right protocols were followed and then reassure each other that we did the best we could.

But the best we could at what?  We are creating a similar kind of standardisation in most industries for a very simple reason: money.  We design systems that allow us to follow the money trails without having to trust anybody.  This is wonderful if our greatest aspiration as a species is transparency and accountability but it does little else for us.  Designing systems that rely on people: their basic goodness, their intrinsic motivation to help others and do their best, their honesty and their competence, is risky.  Sure you might get pockets of genius and the majority will be doing the right thing but make no mistake: there will also be corruption.  There will be terrible doctors who go unnoticed for years and dud teachers that ruin the education of entire class-fulls of students… oh wait, all of that happens despite our best attempts to legislate it out of existence.

A one-size-fits-all education system will always fall short because the more you design policies to cover for the worst teachers the more great teachers you lose.

But you won’t lose the duds.  In fact the best form-fillers were some of my worst teachers at school.  Then there were the ones I remember like old friends.  The one whose boot shot off as he kicked the soccer ball out in the yard with us at lunch time.  The one who had a boy come to her kindergarten class whose autism was so severe the experts said he would never be able to function in society.  At first it looked like it would be one of the disasters of the mainstreaming experiment but his teacher learned all she could about autism, stayed with him for seven years until he left for high school, working every day with him, his devoted parents and a wonderful aide and that young man is now a content, healthy and useful member of society.

Then there was the teacher that picked up a piece of my writing and read it out with so much passion that I saw the world open up in front of me and believed that maybe I had something to say… but the teachers I remember, almost without exception, are not teachers anymore.  Not because they have reached retirement age but because they were no longer able to devote themselves to the individual learning needs of each student so the job lost its appeal.

What the media dubbed the Gonski report was actually titled: Review of Funding for Schooling.  In a 319 page document there was plenty of room to outline the shortcomings of our education system, but its mandate was not to fix the problems.  The point of the review was to “develop a funding system for Australian schooling which is transparent, fair, financially sustainable and effective in promoting excellent outcomes for all Australian students.”  Just what those excellent outcomes are is perhaps the task of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to determine.

At ACARA the staff are hard at work on the National Curriculum, which promises to be an entire library of documents so detailed that even the bluntest teacher will be able to join the dots.  If they get around to reading the appropriate section.

But what is the point of all that funding and curriculum standardisation?  To pump out thousands of 18 years olds ready to go to university, which their equitable schooling prepared them for but gave their parents no extra cash to resource?  Is university an end in itself?

I don’t think we need another report to tell us that in order to teach our children how to become functioning adults we must tailor an education to suit each individual child.  If that seems like a ludicrous task that is because it runs precisely counter to the current paradigm, not because it is difficult.

A tailored solution that relies on great, supported people and situation-appropriate policies is nothing new and it is unsurprising to find that it works across most industries.  It is how we created the world’s best crusted scabies management program in an endemic area.  It is what I recently suggested for a new end-of-life care system.  It is what our Yasus can’t help doing and it means ditching the one-size-fits-all standardisation approach and creating policies, programs and systems that take the risk of trusting people.

At a 2001 Australian Principals’ conference the HSIE Chief Education Officer John Gore suggested that we should learn from democratic schools, which he defined as having:

1. Inclusive consultation and collaboration

2. Open communication

3. Equality of opportunity in representation

4. Freedom for critical reflection

5. Appropriate decision making processes

6. A focus on the common good.

In order that those be defining characteristics of democratic schools I have to assume that non-democratic schools do not have those characteristics.  Go back over the list to see what a typical school apparently looks like: not inclusive, no open communication, no equality of opportunity in representation, no freedom for critical reflection, inappropriate decision making processes and no focus on the common good.  And now consider that of about 9500 schools in Australia we have ten that might be called democratic.

We are the first species ever to believe that everyday life is not an appropriate arena in which to learn how to live, so we remove our children from real life for most of their childhood, and school them.

But what are we educating our children for?  What do we want from them and for them?  The funding models and curriculum are unimportant until we can answer that, and for each child the answer may different and the path will certainly be different.

Are we brave enough to hand over control of our education system to our children and the people we are trusting to look after them for most of their young years; their parents, their teachers and their communities?  Because yes, there are funding issues, and equity issues and a host of other issues but nothing will sort them out more efficiently than creating an education system that genuinely and individually serves those who live within it and, through them, the rest of us who rely on it to produce the calibre of people we need to lead this nation with wisdom and compassion into an uncertain future.