Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Review: The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education, by Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro

Why are private schools called 'private' when they receive substantial government funding? Why are public schools considered the lesser option out of private and faith-based schools? Which types of schools deserve government funding the most? What are the consequences if some sectors receive more government funding than others? These are the sorts of questions raised in Chris Bonnor and Jano Caro's provocatively titled, The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education.

Bonnor and Caro's main concern with Australia's current education system is that we are perpetuating social and class divisions through our current arrangement of schools. For, Australia has the highest funded, but least regulated private school systems in the world. This is placing increased pressures on the public school sector, which is highly regulated yet is struggling to keep up with policy demands and the ability to cater to the diverse needs of students enrolled in them. Bonnor and Caro propose that our system is so unsustainable that more and more public schools will be forced to close down in the coming years, meaning that free access to education will become less and less available. Is this the sort of future we want for our country?

Before unpacking this idea further, Bonnor and Caro explore how Australia has come to this predicament. They suggest that an unwarranted hysteria has been created about the quality of Australia's education system, which actually isn't as bad as it's been made out to be. However, politicians and the media have incessantly played on the fears and anxieties of parents, who are made to feel increasingly uneasy about their role as caregivers and the security of their children's futures. These fears are so influential that just as 'you can't hear terrorism without thinking war, you can't hear public schools without thinking they need to be fixed' (p.44). All the while, the private school and faith-based sectors continue to flourish. 

Federal politicians in particular have been adding fuel to the fire of debates regarding who most deserves federal school funding, often defending their financial support of private schools (public schools are state funded). John Howard's encouragement for schools to be free markets - where parents are entitled to choose where to send their children based on whether they're willing or able to pay school fees - and the supposed lack of values prevalent in public schools sewed the seeds for the current generation of parents concerned about how to ensure the best futures for their children.

But is it really that bad if parents who can afford to send their children to private schools do? Absolutely, Bonnor and Caro argue. After all, a successful and prosperous society relies on all citizens having access to quality learning, as well as learning how to live and work alongside a diverse range of people. Public schools help this cause as they 'build the social capital and the social bridging that keeps our society and communities together, and create a stable and prosperous society' (p.224). As Bonnor and Caro point out, this is why the public education system was created in the first place - to ensure that everyone had equal access to quality education, no matter what their personal circumstances were. '[T]hey are the best way we have found to help overcome the inevitable inequalities that are visited upon all of us at birth' (p.168). Unfortunately our governments don't seem to support these same values.

Not only is the deterioration of our public education system bad for the fair and cohesive development of a nation, but Bonnor and Caro also suggest that it is a poor economic choice for parents to send their children to private schools. Interestingly, they claim that private schools don't actually offer students any advantages in terms of achieving high results compared to if the same student attended a less prestigious school. While comparisons of end-of-school results may cause people to argue otherwise, the fact of the matter is that there will always be different trends in results of private vs. public schools when the former hand-picks students and/or has students attending the school from (generally) more privileged backgrounds. They also site research which claims that high-achieving students aren't actually that disadvantaged from being in classes with lower-achieving students, whereas there are many benefits of the latter being in environments with the former. The perks of private schools simply tend to appease the anxieties of parents wanting to send their students to a school with a particular reputation and a particular demographic of students, rather than having any definitive benefits for student outcomes.

The issue with all of this isn't that private and faith-based schools exist in the first place, because they do and they are here to stay. The issue is the social divisions they are creating, which is all funded by the public purse. Neither private schools, the people that work there, nor the parents who send their children there are necessarily to blame for our unravelling education system. Rather, it's our governments and politicians who have a lot to answer for, as they have continued with this unsustainable model. For, as Bonnor and Caro point out, 'Governments should be making sure that public schools are so well resourced that there is no need for parents to feel they must sacrifice their time, energy or standard of living to access decent education' (pp.116-117). Unfortunately this hasn't been the case.

Therefore the purpose of this book is not to pit each system of schooling against each other. Instead it unpacks the myths and sheds light on the issues which have become highly politicised by the media, so that Australians can start an informed dialogue regarding how we can improve our education system. Given that the most successful education systems in the world are cooperative, rather than competitive in nature, these are the models we should look for inspiration. For, the latter is proving to be detrimental for the success of our students and nation as a whole.

Overall, The Stupid Country is a highly insightful exploration of how Australia's education system has become what it is today and the consequences of these decisions. I've only just scratched the surface of the many compelling issues raised in the book, which itself is only an introduction to them. Thus The Stupid Country is a very important read if we are to understand what changes should be made to better our education system, so that Australia does not become the stupid country.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Review: The Misogyny Factor, by Anne Summers

The 1970s were an extraordinary time for women. Finally, they were speaking out and taking action for matters that were specific and important to women; letting society know that how they were being treated was not ok. 

Fast-forward forty years later to 2012. Australia has its first female Prime Minister, a female Governor General, as well as a number of female MPs. While this progress is something to be proud of to some extent, how far has Australia really succeeded in terms of women's issues since the 1970s? That's the question Summers explores in The Misogyny Factor.

Summers begins with the matter-of-fact statement that despite the aforementioned 'achievements' of women, the state of women's affairs in Australia is little to gloat about. Sure, more women are in positions of leadership than ever before, but to what extent does that reflect society's acceptance and support of women in these positions? Just how inclusive is Australian society of women, particularly in terms of workplace involvement?

Not very, argues Summers. After all women's workforce participation, disparities in pay, the little number of women in senior company positions (which in Australia happen to be some of the lowest in the developed world for ASX listed companies), and domestic violence are all still issues affecting women despite four decades of attempts for change. In other words, the misogyny factor, which is the 'set of attitudes and entrenched practices that are embedded in most of our major institutions...that stand in the way of women being included, treated equally and accorded equally,' needs to be overcome. Importantly Summers notes that the misogyny factor is not only perpetuated by men, but by women as well. 

For example, Australia's childcare system isn't particularly accommodating to women, who tend to be the main carers for their children. In fact, it's as good as disapproving of working mothers. Why else is there no alignment between work, family and schools, not to mention a lack of affordability and accessibility, for families needing to send their children to child care? Unlike in countries like France, whose child care services are state regulated and tend to be close to schools where siblings might attend so that mothers don't have to drive across suburbs to pick up their children from various locations.

In terms of equal pay, the lifetime earning prospects of women who have spent years at university is still significantly less than men who have spent the same amount of years at university. This was one of the most shockingly pertinent points for me as a young woman, particularly when Summers states that, 'simply being a women is the major contributing factor to the [pay] gap in Australia, accounting for 60 per cent of the difference between women's and men's earnings.' To put those percentages into direct monetary figures, NSW male law graduates earned $70,300 in 2009, as opposed to the significantly lower figure of $63,500 that female law graduates earned with the same qualifications. How is this still happening in 21st-century Australia?

Summers discusses a myriad of other ways that women are excluded from full and equal participation in Australian economic and public life: if women do poorly in their job, the whole sex shares the blame; if women on Boards decide to make changes they are disliked; and if women are in positions of leadership, they are likely to have gotten there by behaving like men (which is hardly the point). Summers asks why can't the army - an organisation that orders to kill - order to not sexually attack its female members? And then there's Summers' discussion of Julia Gillard's prime ministership, and the many ways she was subject to sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying. All of these points, and many more, make for an incredibly engaging read. 

If the economic potential of women was properly unlocked by appropriate support from local, state and national levels, it would have substantially positive effects on Australia's economy. If this also happened globally, then the effects on the global economy would be astronomical. In fact, 'the Economist points out that the increase in the employment of women in developed countries during the past decade has added more to global growth than China has, and that's a lot.' Hillary Clinton mentioned this at the 2011 APEC Women and the Economy Summit - facts that you can't feel anything but baffled by. And yet, for some reason, little is being done to continue unlocking the economic potential of women. Why on earth is this the case?

Summers doesn't necessarily offer any clear-cut solutions to these issues, for they are understandably too complex to be discussed within the 160-odd pages of this book. What Summers does do is offer a rational, intellectual discussion of where things have gone wrong, where proposed changes should start, and why it is so important for these changes to happen. This frank, unapologetic book is a must read for anybody curious about the issues facing women in contemporary Australian society, and it'll surely leave you wanting to know more, as it has for me.

Want More?

The Wheeler Centre recently held a session called 'Women at Work' - another insightful discussion about women's opportunities in the workforce. Listen to it here.

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