Maree O’Halloran is the President of the NSW Teachers Federation. Her teaching career spans city and country schools. She has also spent two years teaching in TAFE and Corrective Services. Maree has been a Federation Industrial Officer and Senior Vice President. She has also practiced as a solicitor for teachers.
Thank you, thank you very much for the introduction. I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation who are the traditional owners of this land and thank you very much for the opportunity to give this 3rd Juanita Nielsen Lecture.
I should correct something from the start. The title of my address tonight is, ‘Passion, Politics and Public Education’. When Lee approached me about speaking at the lecture, I was grappling within the union with the notion of how can we renew the comprehensive vision within NSW of comprehensive high schools and deal with the issue of Aboriginal education and make sure we can have equality of learning outcomes. I am still dealing with that issue but I am coming to it from a different angle. I do apologise if anyone is here under false pretences and I hope you still enjoy the address.
So, Passion, Politics and Education – passion is still a prerequisite for activism in our society and it’s obviously no coincidence that the operations of government, particularly the executive arm of government are designed to thwart the expressions of passion amongst people committed to public or indeed any other issue in society and linked to that, major communications channels that we need to use, to get out to people in our modern world, the Media obviously ensures that a passionate argument can’t necessarily carry a complex message and that’s to do with the way the Media operates and I’ll get back to that later, of course. Or, if it can carry a complex message then Passion is deliberately misconstrued by the Media to be aggressive or violence and those and those are the issues that I wanted to start off with because I think it’s clearly possible to be both passionate, reasonable and rational in our debate and I think that we have to combine all of those to win our debates in public education or the issues that you are interested in as a group.
The dichotomy that’s set up in the State or body politic between being passionate and irrational or passionate, irrational and having a simple message versus being impassionate, objective and therefore rational with a complex message, we’ve got to somehow breakdown that dichotomy and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do so because to be the reasonable voice in the body politic and in this case I’m particularly talking about NSW, I’m not discounting the Federal government or the Federal body politic but I particularly want to deal with the NSW government.
To be the reasonable voice is one that what happens is that you either don’t challenge the norm because your reasonable voice is not heard or you can achieve incremental change, a sort of gradual evolution, perhaps make some small incremental gains or from the point of view of unions If you take on the role of corporate unionism rather than community and grass roots activism unionism, you can’t achieve radical transformational change. And, I’m not, in this sense, saying with this State government, that I see the Government as an enemy by any means whatsoever, I think the Government has a clear role, that the State has a very clear role, but their responsibility is to lead and to govern, not merely to manage what happens in the State and what’s happening in this State I think is the mere management if issues and not the governing or leading forward.
I want to particularly deal with a quote from John Ralston Saul, from his text, ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’ (p. 308) and I just want to divert for a moment to say that I am calling on this not because I particularly, necessarily endorse all of Ralston Saul’s ideas, I think he has a lot of interesting descriptions about the managerial class and the professional class and his interesting examination of where you can set up a reasonable world and within that world, it appears reasonable but anyone from the outside is deemed to be irrational.
And there are good examples of that in public education all the time. I remember a dept. official…talking to the Federation about we weren’t to worry, if we were worried about comprehensive high schools and comprehensive schools, well don’t worry, we’ve got a comprehensive system of schools, which seems to me a perfect example of what appears reasonable but is completely irrational because a comprehensive system of schools is nothing like having a comprehensive high school in every local government.
More on Ralston Saul, he’s a big supporter of public education but I think essentially, he’s about enlightened capitalism, more participatory democracy…and trusting the people more, but I don’t think he’s necessarily about transformational politics and I think transformational politics is really the key to public education and why the Federal government in particular wants to damage public education because it is transformational but leaving that aside, I like to use that quote because that’s particularly interesting.
On that issue of transformational education, we’ve had signs up at our schools for some time saying the issue is public education. That came up in the Federal government and that’s raised a lot in community debates. I’ve seen letters in the papers saying the issue isn’t public education, the issue is quality education. To my mind, the issue is public education because it’s only in public education that you can transform both the individual and society. Quality education has the potential to transform individual lives but not necessarily have the chance to transform where we are going in society. Obviously other people have different views but I certainly think Public education is the only option.
That whole idea of the passionate, irrational versus the reasonable, dispassionate is not astounding or profound. It’s why Unions should always take rank and file members with them when they go down to see Dept. officials, in my case to talk to employers because it completely throws that reasonable, rational world out of sync when you actually hear what’s happening. So, it’s not an astounding concept but this particular quote is interesting:
“Reason over passion, reason over fear, reason over panic. Above all, modern man must remain calm”.
I’m sure he uses ‘man’ advisedly, because women have often been seen as irrational.
The thing I want to know about, that is, why aren’t we passionate, fearful and in a panic over what’s happening to public ed. And what is wrong with us being passionate, fearful and panicky over what’s happening to public education. For example, the St. George Leader advertises a particular private school that has ‘home pool’ advantages in Water Polo, while we’ve got schools that their roofs are falling in. I feel quite fearful about where we are going and don’t think that that’s unreasonable for that to be so and I don’t want to become calm about it, because if we are not calm about it, we’re not going to change it.
Is it reasonable to be calm about the fact that Professor Tony Vinson, his work on ‘Unequal in Life’, shows that we are mining the same socio-economic disadvantaged areas for the prison population, that you can put a map down and see where people are coming from and that’s a map where we’ll also have problems with our schools. Is it irrational to be upset to know that in some states in America, they are using year 5 testing results to determine where they will need to build prisons and how many, by matching that. I mean, to me its irrational not to be upset by that.
So, Public Ed, the leadership role, the governance role, the role of the State in Public Ed, and I think in this State, is sadly lacking. It seems to me there’s 3 ways that the State’s managing the situation. First and foremost, micro management at local level or system level to make sure that you dampen down disputes because we don’t want bad publicity. For ex., Newtown North Public School was in the Sunday Telegraph with a leaking roof. There’s been a furore through the properties dept to make sure no other school gets into the Sunday Telegraph. Now, that’s got its advantages, it starts to fix our schools up but that’s managing disputes.
Secondly, a sort of pumping out of positive messages about public ed…this particular tactic of pumping out positive messages, ‘the best ever result…this year’, every year is the best ever result, a sort of managerial notion that you have to keep it getting better and better. Pumping out the good news stories, that’s what Ralston Saul is calling having to have immediate proof of success and they are coming out constantly.
And then, they’ve got this marketing program where you have that ‘ teach your children well’ ad, wh ch has a sort of nostalgia. I liked it the first time I saw it or even the second. It made me feel good about Public Ed, but when I thought it through, there was an imperative there, as though you weren’t actually doing it, but you should be doing it. A marketing thing, marketing and promoting, based on some sort of nostalgia and I have to say this, what could be more reasonable than a government offering teachers salaries less than inflation and simply saying you are worth more but there’s an incapacity to pay. That’s the sort of reasonable world we live in, there’s a budget there, an incapacity to pay.
So, we are faced with, as activists, if you enter into that world of giving measured, reasonable evidence based arguments, ostensibly to government and you are quiet about it, you make some slow changes and then the means of communication, the media, are very simplistic, not necessarily because there’s any malice involved in that but there’s a vacuum, you’ve got to fill the content of the media and its a very quick medium, particularly the electronic media.
I know myself, I seem to be only able to slam something or welcome something. The ABC in particular, I seem to slam things or welcome them, yet when I thought I’d done the interview, I thought I’d had some nuance there, like, the government’s half way there but needs to get better. The message comes out you’re either opposed or you’re not for it. And it’s often that the media is a player. I’m not suggesting for a moment that the media is not a player. The SMH editorials for example, but most importantly, when Tony Vinson gave his addresses about the Vinson Inquiry and Public Education, he emphasised that public education is not in crisis. He went to such enormous efforts to do that on every occasion and yet the headline in the SMH, ‘Public Education in Crisis’. The article itself quite good but the headline was entirely the opposite. And in fact, this is why the Vinson Inquiry came about because of the conjunction of what we were seeing – this type of government micro management and then the media not being able to get out those complex messages, the absence of governance almost. Such subservience to media that there was an absence of governance and what we saw as haphazard changes, not properly researched.
So, the Vinson process was really a way of trying to break through that. And it happened because of the absolute frustration of parents and teachers in the state about where public ed was going and what was happening in the state. The process itself…involved hearings across the state, public hearings and it gained a lot of momentum. It actually meant that we had to take the risk in the Teachers Federation that what we were saying in our forums about public ed, that people were saying too and by and large we were justified in that, it involved the community in an enormous way- 770 submissions, a whole range of hearings that managed to put the issues of public ed in front of the community in a positive context, so we were able to say that there were needs in the system, but in a positive way.
It also meant the building of very strong alliances, community alliances that more and more as a union, we’ve come to believe are the only way to break through what’s happening in government in NSW- so, alliances with the parents and a whole range of other bodies- Principals organisation-in order to break through.
The Government response to the Vinson Inquiry was interesting. They could have just done what they normally do which is ignore it, and deny it oxygen and hope that it would fail. When I think about it, the inquiry process in itself really fits into that sort of world of dispassionate, being objective and having reasonable process but the Carr government took the view that it would logistically support the Inquiry and allow the inquiry, it was an independent inquiry commissioned by the Parents and Teachers paid for by the Parents and Teachers, into the schools, into the TAFE colleges, give them access to the Treasury data and the Dept data.
My conclusion about that is I think the government felt it couldn’t gain the momentum that it (the Inquiry) did gain, that in fact, it would die because it was an independent inquiry, it didn’t have the backing of the Government, per se, and it would fade away. In fact, its very independence became its strength. The fact that it was independent of the Government gave it credibility, along with the person who was chairing it. That meant that what was said by the Vinson Inquiry received wisdom in the public domain. The result was that it had positive spin offs. One of the most important ones was dealing with the Media and again it goes back to these ideas of having complex messages and selling them passionately. It meant that rather than what usually happens for us is the Government sets up the thesis and we are the nay sayers – why it shouldn’t happen and then we look on the back foot. What Vinson did was create the thesis in the Media time and time again and the thesis was there, the Government had to say why it couldn’t happen.
Selective schools for example- rolling back selective schools was an example of the Government saying no and then, the Parents and Teachers were the synthesis coming in and saying yes- what Prof. Vinson says is right. So, it gave that positive spin off in the Media.
The Inquiry also resulted in the adoption in the public domain by the Government, certainly the rhetoric in support of public education, we saw a shift in the rhetoric that was being used about public education and what people say publicly, particularly Premiers and Prime Ministers does actually matter. And there was an adoption, an appropriation of some of the Vinson recommendations but when I really look back and analyse which ones were adopted, they were really the ones that already fitted the system we currently work in. They were the incremental or evolutionary type changes, small changes that already built on the system or change the system slightly.
Premier Bob Carr has told us, “it helped me get through and public education is a quality system”. However, he goes on to say that: “Public education can and should be made to compete with private education”.
The most important thing that we wanted to do and we tried to do was to break the policy framework of the Govt.. The policy frame works that setup what’s happening in Public ed and those we failed to achieve and I’m not saying we won’t keep trying but we failed to achieve and in a way because the Vincent inquiry was a pragmatic plan it was in part due to Tony himself a pragmatic plan hoping the government would adopt it because it reached its ultimate goal when it became government policy. So while the Vincent plan did challenge the established policy frameworks and here I’m thinking about the funding of the private education system, federal and state and the notion of selective high schools versus comprehensive high schools, the Vincent inquiry certainly challenged those hierarchies but it didn’t allow us to break those frameworks.
Don’t get me wrong, the public education community has certainly made some wonderful gains and it can’t be underestimated how much the Vincent inquiry process has lifted this state of siege that members of the public education community were in with the constant attacks for ten to fifteen years and also the deliberate lowering of expectations by the government, deliberate lowering of expectations of members of the community.
We have to have great expectations. I don’t believe in that view that we shouldn’t raise expectations like as a union you shouldn’t raise them because if you don’t achieve it there’ll be a backlash. You have to have those great expectations and go forward. So there’s been those incremental gains but the policy frameworks, particularly the funding of the private school system to the extent that it’s occurring and that the selective high school versus comprehensive high schools ones which was the catalyst for the inquiry weren’t broken. The pubic education system has challenges facing it both externally and internally. I think that the first thing we need to say is what is it that we want the system to do in society. I think acknowledging that we live in a pluralist society, Australia is a pluralist society. What do we want public education to do within that society. It seems to me that first of all we want cohesion in that pluralist society, but we want cohesion without dominance of a particular group and without the conformity that sometimes comes with that notion that we all have to be in one place and it’s that conformity that leads us to the idea of choice and breaking down the system.
So we need that cohesion but without necessarily having everyone conforming. We need to be able to have that equity or equitable outcomes without compromising excellence. There always seems to be this view now particularly about the selective/comprehensive high school debate that having a comprehensive high school for some reason will compromise the excellence of some of the students at that school and we have to turn that around that debate. We have to have equity without compromising excellence. The schools being at the heart of the community and as I said earlier the schools being transformational for both the individual and the society.
I heard Linda Burney speaking recently at an Aboriginal education conference. She spoke about how there’d always been what she called the stellar performers, individuals who managed to break through that system but for her people as a whole there had not been this transformational change and that public education is not delivering that for them. And that is a big issue for us to grapple with if we want to improve it and that’s that issue of conformity. Then there is the question, does the public education system as it’s currently constituted deliver those things that I was saying that I think are the platforms we should have, and the situation really is in Australia that we have quite radical policy frame works compared to international countries and compared to the past here in Australia.
We live in a world where we have publicly funded private schools and privately financed public schools. We live in a world where we have hierarchies of schools set up within our own public system. Our frameworks set up hierarchies of schools, selective schools, specialist schools, girls’ schools until the comprehensive school, that were the original vision, ends up in the mind of the public as the last choice in case you don’t get into one of the other schools. So that hierarchy in the public system leads to the notion that there’s no difference really between the public and the private so if you don’t get into one of the selective schools you try a private school or try a girls school.
That sort of hierarchy in the education system leads to the public perception that the public education system is very good for the academically gifted students through the selective schools and for disadvantaged students but not catering for the bulk the middle group of students. And if we lose this middle group I think we lose public education and it would take a revolution to get back.
We do know something more, there’s some empirical data evidence based which supports the notion about comprehensive high schools. The OECD conducted in 2000 a survey of 15 year olds, a global survey, but Australia was involved in it. I’m drawing on the work here of Barry McGaw, who’s a director of education for the OECD. I’m drawing on his work, but I’m not agreeing with his conclusions. His work is quite interesting, in the survey, this particular survey by the way has been lauded in NSW for how well our schools are doing, and Australia did perform very well on the literacy and numeracy surveys. The Premier put a congratulations ad in the newspapers to teachers because the kids have performed so well in the survey. So it’s one of those ones where we’re trumpeting how well we’re doing and we are doing well. But this is what the PISA survey said, the OECD survey, about indigenous students results:
Altogether about 500 indigenous students were assessed. On average their performance was more than one proficiency level lower than that of non-indigenous students in each domain. Indigenous students were over represented in the lowest level of reading proficiency, and under represented in the highest category.
It goes on to say that Australia was one of the worst performers for indigenous students on that survey. But we did do very well in terms of quality outcomes. But when you look more deeply into it you see some severe disadvantages. Australia according to Barry McGaw’s work was above the OECD’s average for quality outcomes, that means there were a lot of very high performers, but below the OECD average for equity outcomes which means that we had a lot of disadvantaged students in the lowest bands. And that was based on looking at both the difference between the highest performing students and also socio-economic backgrounds.
Germany, which has a very extreme selection of students, they stream students at eleven to technical schools or academic schools, Germany performed poorly in both the quality outcomes and the equity outcomes.
But Barry McGaw’s work shows that statistically is that quality and equity can be achieved together. There can be a “levelling up”. There were countries achieved both high quality individual performances and high equitable averages. Canada, Finland and Korea for example and interestingly places that have a strong comprehensive system. Barry McGaw, in the lecture on Tuesday night talked about that same information and information that said:
Organising students into hierarchical streams by school type exacerbates students and produces lower average performances. He took that information and talked about Australia having the two streams, the private and public schools and the selective and comprehensive but took the view that you couldn’t change the policy framework and the way to deal with it was to make public schools more like private schools.
So as I said I didn’t agree with his conclusions, I’m not even sure how he lead to that conclusion except to say that it’s one of those things you have to work in the framework you’re in. You can only make minimal changes.
But I think that that sort of evidence shows us what we already know in that our schools are not transformational, we have some good performances but we are still perpetuating the same sort of class system, the same ranking of preference. But again, that’s not astounding new information. I can remember when I first started University reading a book called ‘Making the Distance’ by Bob O’Connell and since then it just hasn’t changed very much but now we have to start going to this sort of evidence to start getting it out into people’s faces.
Those countries that didn’t have a big private system, or had none and had a large comprehensive system achieved high quality outcomes and high equity outcomes. I think that’s very important and I know I don’t have a lot of time left so I would like to get to the question about the policy frameworks in Australia. I’m not sure how many people know it, and it’s always complex about private/public school funding because of the Commonwealth State nexus which is difficult to get through, but the Senate has released new figures about total estimated income for different schools systems and I must say this is one of those ones that makes you burn with anger. In 2004 the total income for the Catholic Education System in the commission and that includes fees will be 15.2% higher than the average recurrent cost for government education. Remembering that government education includes all the rural and remote distance education that all goes in that the other systems don’t necessarily include. So that’s 15.2% and other private schools were 52.5% higher total income. Now I know that includes fees but is it irrational to be angry about that? Is it irrational to be angry about that?
It’s consistent with what the Vincent report found. Professor Vincent looked at it another way but he chose 3 schools in different socio-economic areas and he found in the higher socio-economic area total income for private schools per student was $14,478, for government schools $6,744. And in a medium socio-economic area total income for the private sector $9738 per student, total income for the government system and this includes the money parents are raising $5699 per student and then in the low areas $10,000 for the private schools, $6,989 for the government schools. It seems to me to make a mockery of the State government’s view that we’re going to compete and win back the drifting enrolments. We’ve got fantastic teaching and learning programmes, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. It seems a little hard to me to think that we’re going to compete on those sorts of playing grounds.
The whole idea of the Commonwealth government originally, as I understood it, is that they were topping up, topping up. It started with the Catholic system, not having the resources, apparently, of the government schools. So that’s how I understand it – it was top up. Well, why are we topping schools up to such an extent? It seems to me unbelievable. And I hear the argument about so called tax payer’s money – public money in my mind, government money. But I hear the argument about tax payer’s money, I’m a tax payer. But surely the logical conclusion of that is, that people without children, their money doesn’t go towards any education system. I mean, it just seems to me that that’s an irrational argument, put forward in the public domain as the norm.
And it also points out really, by the call for private schools now, because we have started to make a difference, The Greens have started to make a difference, the parents. I think its getting out there. The call then is, well, let’s make the private schools accountable for their public money – that’s what the call has become. If you can’t damp down the call, if you can’t damp down the passion, let’s change to: let’s make them accountable for it – that’s the Grimshaw review at the state government level. But really, from my point of view, that’s simply not enough. Of course, if I was asked, I’d like them to be accountable for public money, but to my mind, the critical point is: we have to challenge the policy framework that allows that to happen, or otherwise, we’ll keep acquiescing to it. Competing with private schools and stopping the enrolment drift, with a funding-driven shift to the private sector, plus the hierarchies of schools.
Its interesting – and I know I keep slipping between the funding and the comprehensive/selective, because they’re the two policy frameworks that I think are the most critical. And the two chapters of Vincent that – if you haven’t read the Vincent report, read chapter 4 and chapter 13 – they were worth the whole million dollars for that sort of information about the funding and the comprehensive schools.
But the Catholic education system, just out of interest, is not embracing this hierarchies of schools – selective, specialist schools etc. They’re moving, their strategy is moving towards a 7-12 comprehensive model, because they see that as the best model. And I mean, I don’t debate that with them, they’re right. They’re using government money to move down towards a comprehensive high school model, while we’re breaking our system up and moving into hierarchies of schools. In the inner west, with the potential closure of Dulwich Hill and Marrickville, where there was an argument about not enough students at the schools. The interesting thing is that Casimir, as I understand, and I think there’s Marrickville, I think I saw Sydney here, is a 7-12 Catholic school, but it’s a comprehensive school in that sense, and it was the competing comprehensive school in that area.
So really, I’m coming back now to base, but, if we can break the policy framework about funding, can we also renew the comprehensive vision in our schools, that comprehensive high school notion. On the view that what we found from the OECD survey, what we knew from making a difference with Bob Connell, that you can have high quality, high equity, and the way is through your comprehensive schools.
Can we do that? Well, that’s the one area that the Vincent inquiry really rattled the Establishment I think, when the chapter came down about rolling back the selective system and moving to comprehensive high schools, there was a cacophony of outrage. There was editorial after editorial when the Vincent inquiry had got very positive media, by and large because, as I said, it was building on the policy frameworks, not trying to crash them. But the ones where there was bipartisan support to shut it down, were the issues about anything to do with the funding of the private sector and the selectives. They’re the two areas where both Brogden and Carr came out to oppose the Vincent report together, and they’re the two areas where there was this cacophony of outcry.
I think, I mean, obviously I’m here to say of course I think we can renew the comprehensive vision, we have to keep it up – if we keep up the passion and the argument. But I don’t think we can do it based on a nostalgia about what was the past – for example, that the comprehensive high school did exist and that there’s some nostalgia about what it was. I’ll just come back to that in a moment. And I don’t think we can do it on the expression of some universal values that we hold dear for public education that people share, because I don’t think that’s any more translating, in a world where there’s such a shift in thinking – the Howard government and others – moving to a very individual notion of society, the Thatcher model – that the individual is most important, that you aspire to affluence in that world.
Just to repeat our universal shared values about education isn’t enough, I think, to change what we have to do. And public schools, I think, aren’t just our past. We have to emphasize our future. There’s been a lot of good work done, about the cornerstone of democracy – Alan Reid in South Australia, even Ken Boston, the former Director General – about the strength of public schools. But I think that calling on the nostalgia of the past is not the way. I think we have to show that the public schools are our future. And they are in a global world. In a global world, the place to be is in our public schools, where there’s a mixing with everyone, a building of bridges between people, not just mateship. And in many ways, I see some of the private schools, its like gated communities where they’re trying, in effect – because people are fearful of that notion of a global world – trying to be in a gated community.
But let’s not have any real nostalgia that our comprehensive high schools were everything that they should have been. When I entered Matraville high school in 1972, there was an A to G stream, A down to G, and in fact, in some schools it was A to M. So that within the school we were streamed anyway, from the academically gifted down, and that’s the work of Sherrington and Campbell. There was institutionalised racism – that I didn’t understand at twelve – but where we had – well, I suppose, to be blunt about it – Aboriginal students were in the lower streams, not because of anything to do with their ability. And that was still continuing when I was at Griffith ten years later, teaching. We had segregation of students with disabilities, students living with disabilities. The Federation believes in special settings, where its appropriate educationally, but this was just absolute segregation, with no option for integration. And we had a situation in 1972, where the principals of public schools could still exclude Aboriginal students if they was a complaint from the white community. In 1972, that was still the situation in public schools in New South Wales. So that whole notion, that we’ve built on, that its been inclusive, was not completely true.
And ten years later, it wasn’t that much better at Griffith, although that did change. So, we can renew the comprehensive vision, and this is where I was grappling with this notion of Aboriginal education. Its been within our union, a huge debate – we know there are not equality of educational outcomes. We know there’s access and equity issues, the fundamental injustices for Aboriginal people. And they’re not necessarily being solved through any of our schools – our comprehensive schools or any of the others. So there’s been a debate about whether or not we can deal with that issue, by accepting that we might have different models. And that goes back to this idea that I was talking about – a comprehensive system of schools versus a comprehensive high school. But we’ve come to the conclusion in the debate that we just simply cannot have more of the same for Aboriginal students. We need to do it better, in consultation, obviously, with a whole range of Aboriginal communities.
There’s not a lot of time, but I would like to read you just a couple of the statistics about Aboriginal education – I already read some of these. 13% of indigenous 5-15 year olds were not attending an educational institution. 80% of year three indigenous students were below the middle schools in reading or numeracy. Absences for poor attendance could be the more than 50 days – equivalent to a term. And, for example, Aboriginal juveniles detained during 1999, constituted approximately 40% of all juveniles detained. I know these aren’t new to this audience, but I just feel you have to keep saying it. Aboriginal juveniles were imprisoned at a rate 17 times that of non -Aboriginal juveniles. Its just an unbelievable situation.
So, the question then comes back to, well can we, if we want that comprehensive vision back – we don’t want hierarchies of schools, or I don’t – well, can we somehow deal with the fact that we still are not achieving equity for Aboriginal students in any of the schools that we’re in. I think that its clear from the OECD survey, its clear from these statistics, its clear from what Aboriginal people talk to us about, that there are fundamental injustices that we have to accept that we are responsible for, and that we have to help to deal with. And just simply saying, there has to be a comprehensive high school and that’s where you go and everything’s going to be okay, is not necessarily the way forward.
The question really is, what is the way forward. And I know I’m not really qualified to enter this debate, but I’ve been hearing the debate about whether or not we should have separate schools, and is that self-determination or is that apartheid, and how does that work in the system? And that’s a very difficult debate to take on, but one that we certainly have to be involved in. The Council of the Teacher’s Federation determined that the situation was so critical, that the issue of Aboriginal education should not only transcend any fight we might be in with the state government – for example about salaries – but that we had to also examine our own policies about absolute commitment to one way of doing things, with a view perhaps, of Aboriginal communities perhaps changing those models.
I haven’t got for you a solution, but we can’t have more of the same, and we can’t have more of the old. If we went back to the comprehensive high schools, that wasn’t necessarily successful either. So we can’t have more of the old there. And I think the question of, how do we make our comprehensive high schools, if we get back to them, not necessarily places where you have to be conforming all the time. We want to what’s called – I mean, I suppose its called – “levelling up”, not down. We want to have a way where conformity doesn’t become the basis of it, because that won’t break the cycle of what’s happening.
So the comprehensive education vision has to be better. And I think public education is always strengthened if we accept that there are internal problems. I think that we’re weakest when we try and cover those problems up. I think that we’re weakest when we only talk about the good things in the system and not necessarily that we can do it better. But I also know that quiet and reasoned argument – quiet and reasoned argument, rather than passionate and reasoned argument – will keep us on the same pathway that we’re on now.
We might have to snarl, and we might have to get bad press. And it might cause bad news stories, and that causes a lot of angst in my own union. When we get bad news stories for public education, for example – and I know I’ve switched a little bit here, but – Newtown North, which was in the Sunday Telegraph, has resulted in a lot of betterments for schools but has damaged the perception of public education. You get to such a critical point where, if you can’t expose the problems, you can’t get a solution. And that’s because of that managerial notion in the state. And so, you’re told – or I’ve been told, written to by the Premier and told – that if we were positive, we’d get a lot better outcomes.
My own view about that is that’s to acquiesce to continued under investment, its to acquiesce to wrong policy frameworks. And its to be subservient to that whole idea of media manipulation. So, I think you have to take a risk in that way. But passion and reason is definitely the way forward, not just quiet reasoning, because we’re not going to change anything that way. I think the Vincent Inquiry started us on a path, but breaking those policy frameworks requires us to be a lot louder and a lot harsher in what we do. Thank you very much.