If we were really serious about educating the child…

Bill Shorten is still thumping away about education as being the key issue for the coming election, For him it’s simply a matter of more money for schools. We have been hearing this for a long time. In the 1960s the great school, college and university building program began. Then it was about having enough buildings. Now, apparently, it is about having money for teachers, smaller classes, and so on.  I’m sure there would be some limited good in flooding schools with more money, but I think Mr Shorten has lost sight of what education is about. What follows is a short version of a piece I wrote in honour of Phillip Hughes, one of the really important people in Australian education in the second half of the 20th century.

It is always possible to suggest incremental improvements to this or that aspect of any educational system. Nevertheless, I do not think that pouring money into education, setting aside how all this is to be paid for,  will fix society’s problems. It is true that almost every human baby comes into life with immense potential, but not necessarily potential for good. The baby’s parents themselves, the nature and extent of their parenting, sibling order, sex, the circumstances of the time, the availability of extended family, the quality of schooling — all these factors will be important in the development of the human adult. Education cannot do everything, and should not be asked to. Indeed, schools are in danger of serving in part as therapy centres for children who are already strongly and sometimes poorly shaped when they reach school at age five.

Of course I agree that every child should have ‘effective, relevant, high-quality education’. How could one argue the reverse? But that goal comes with two major problems. The first is establishing, for a particular child, what kind of education will be relevant, effective and of high quality. The second is making it available for that child. For the moment we look at a particular child, rather than at children, we move into a new world of educational provision. Our current schools, at every level, our TAFE institutes and our universities, no matter how ingenious their provision of alternatives, are based on the ‘one size fits all’ principle. And it is plain to me, especially after twelve years in a university that prided itself on its capacity to give young people a second chance, that our educational institutions are not especially effective in what they do. There are just too many failures, too many uninterested kids, too little real learning. And that is not in any way to disparage teachers and their often Herculean efforts.

If we were to take seriously the notion that every child needs to be well educated, then we would organize education rather differently, I think. Howard Gardner, the Harvard scholar whose work has greatly affected my own thinking in this area, has said somewhere that the major advance in school education in the last thousand years has been in bringing children in out of the rain. Ideally, we would have much more knowledge than we now do about each child’s portfolio of skills and interest, and we would design a program for that child so that his/her development proceeded steadily. We would try to balance that development, so that we did not in the end produce lop-sided adults who were extraordinarily proficient in one field but quite undeveloped in others. Since we would not know what occupation that child would have we would do our best to prepare him or her for a variety of possible areas of life and work, recognising that even by late adolescence the future career path or paths might not be plain. The nature of ‘work’ and ‘career’ is also changing.

The child would still be in a school, but the school would have quite a lot more staff, both teachers and support people. It would be organized differently too. High schools might start after lunch, in recognition of the different circadian rhythms that come in adolescence. Some might be co-educational in part, but mostly single-sex in specific areas, recognizing that puberty can interfere with good learning. The desired outcome would be the development of skilled, self-confident, productive, altruistic adults who would in time be the parents of children whose development they supervised with encouraging, disinterested love. It’s not that today’s parents and our educational institutions do a bad job in this domain. In my judgment, and comparing now with the 1940s and 1950s, when I was in school, things are a lot better than they were. Every time I visit a school or a university I am encouraged by what I see, in some respects anyway.

To have a real ‘education revolution’ we would have to go past thinking of improvements to our schools, our teachers and the timetable, important though they are. We would need to start with the decision to make a new baby, the circumstances in which that baby will emerge into the world, and its likely course over its first five years. At once we face a major hurdle, because making a baby is regarded as an absolutely private matter, one in which the state ought to have no interest. And that is paradoxical, because the moment the baby is born the state moves to take notice of it. Why not start earlier? The Howard Government set up an initiative in parenting, and today there are most useful websites that are there to help new parents, if they know about them and are able to take advantage of their assistance.

But I think we are long way from a community understanding that every baby is a future adult, and that babies are not possessions, or someone to love who loves us, or achievements to justify our own lives, or warriors sent out into the world to achieve what we have so far been unable to achieve. More, it is doubtful that our community understands that those first five years represent only a little more than five per cent of the future adult’s life, but they are the most important five years of all. In fact during our own lives we will encounter our children mostly as fellow adults, not as small people dependent on us for almost everything. From this perspective we should be striving to ensure that our adult children are equipped to cope with life in a resilient, confident and helpful way, and likely to see us as special friends, rather than as ‘parents’.

This is a hard ask. Is it worth it? Australia’s prisons are vastly over-supplied with young men for whom the education system was not helpful and, in so many cases, for whom parenting was not very helpful either. The school cannot replace good parenting and, to repeat, it should not be asked to do so. Our social-welfare system consumes billions of dollars each year patching up problems whose genesis, in so many cases, can be traced to inadequate or indifferent parenting, or to the making of a baby at a most injudicious time, given the real needs of the growing infant. In my opinion, the making of a baby is arguably the most important decision we will ever make, and the consequences of that decision should be beneficial to the community in which we live.

Each of us has creative potential that is, in most cases, only poorly developed. It is true that human life is finite, and that even in a long life we will never be able to do all the things we would like to do, or have the capacity to do. To do anything well requires time and energy which will therefore not be available to undertake some other creative activity. Having said that, it seems to me that by concentrating on ensuring that high school graduates are ready for jobs, important though that is, we neglect the development of that part of us that leads to our having joy in creation, in having an art form that we can turn to when work is over, in having creative skills that lead us to others, and in possessing the right sort of self-esteem in our ability to do something creative quite well. To use the prison example again, the great majority of the young men in prison do not possess any developed creative skills at all, and have never been encouraged to develop them.

In sum, if we are to greatly improve the life chances of our children, in the next fifty years we would address the need for would-be parents to be prepared and ready to nurture the babies they create so that their child’s experience of the educational system will be productive and enjoyable. That is a huge ethical challenge, and we have hardly begun to debate it. Then we will need to recognize that the creative side of our potential is as important as the money-earning side, and that we need to develop mechanisms in our society that make it easy for children to acquire appropriate creative skills and develop them through adolescence. This too is hardly recognized at the moment.

There is, then, a long way to go. But I am not disheartened. When I left high school in 1953 only two per cent of my age-group went on to any form of further education. Today the proportion is some 60 per cent. In the 1940s and early 1950s most girls were not educated past age 15, on the ground that they would only marry and have babies. The money and energy should be devoted to boys. That is no longer the case, and the country is vastly better for it.

I wrote this essay four years ago. I am not suggesting at all that we turn everything upside down in order to give every child a perfect education. As should be clear, education is important, but it is not the only important issue facing our society. What it does mean is that I reject the rhetorical stuff that passes for debate about education at election time.

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • margaret says:

    Yes, you have my vote on the issues raised. If a leader of a party put these ideas to the public, s/he might also. The leaders debates are bound to be hollow when they don’t risk provoking thought but if they did, the press would see it as a chink in their armour and turn it into mischief.

  • margaret says:

    Free, secular, compulsory – a three word slogan that was ingrained in my thinking for a long long
    time in relation to education for 5 to 15 year olds. I still think that should apply in a good public school system but … it’s an old fashioned concept from the 1800’s that really never got off the ground.

  • dlb says:

    If I was dictator of Australia for the day I would legislate all youth to be temporarily sterilised from puberty to the age of 25. Hopefully by 25 when their fertility is restored they would have had some life experience, started in a career or permanent job, and maybe settled into a permanent relationship. By this time they should at least have evidence of savings or capacity to earn reasonable money i.e. a trade or university qualification or otherwise the sterilisation would continue.

    Sound unfair? I’m sure the lefties would be crying discrimination! and I wouldn’t be too popular with the religious people and the right wing libertarians. But hey, if China can improve its living standards by the one child policy, we could sort out some ingrained social problems by giving the important job of parenting to those capable of managing it.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately) we live in a democracy, so no el Presidente will be around to introduce such measures. But perhaps we could bring in a contraception bonus. This would be like the baby bonus except those women under 25 who refrain from having kids would receive the bonus. Speaking of the baby bonus, that was a shocking piece of legislation. When the bonus was introduced my partner was living in a regional city and she knew of many adolescent girls that got pregnant just to get the cash, with no thought as to what lay ahead. And to think this was introduced by a conservative government! It almost makes the tragic pink bat fiasco look like intelligent legislation.

    • JMO says:

      “many adolescent girls that got pregnant just to get the cash,” , it gets worse.- some young girls got pregnant and then hand over the baby bonus money to their boyfriends!!

      • margaret says:

        Got pregnant. Easy enough if you have a willing boyfriend who thinks contraception is a woman’s responsibility.

    • William ROBINSON says:

      Agree with dlb. For too long we have been chanting “populate or perish”. I really like the idea of a “non-baby bonus”, that is, if a man or woman can get to 25 years with having fathered/ borne a child, then a very sizable bonus should be paid. They can procreate after the 25 years if they wish.

      And for every person who voluntarily undertakes permanent sterilization, then double it (whatever that means !).

      There still be plenty of people who want to procreate, and they are entitled to do so. No one would stop them.

      There are of course problems with the above, and they are mainly social/ industrial. My parents came through a period where, if a woman remained single, there were whispers behind gloved hands and Oroton handbags “Something wrong with her system !?! “. And for a bloke to remain single meant “Something wrong with the family jewels” whispered over the bar. Or “could be a woolly woofter” was another whisper.

      We read of modern single women dining by themselves in restaurants, with the staff asking “when is your partner arriving ?”, or “I have have prepared the table for two Madame, so when your partner comes he can sit here”. But people are becoming a little accustomed to someone “not married”, however difficult it is for the married to comprehend.

      And the industrial problem is that most modern industry is predicated on growth. What will Coca Cola do when consumption starts to decline, simply due to a stable or declining population ? Perhaps they will attempt to have more consumption per head. The shareholders will be revolting (we know that already !). “What of our investment ? Woe is me !!” will be heard throughout the land.

      Trust the Chinese to solve their population problems the practical way, with not much time for formalities.
      We can learn from them.

      I am not suggesting that the population of Australia needs to reduce – indeed it needs to grow to the optimum carrying capacity, which even the best minds cannot agree on. Some say 40 million, some say 60 million.

      But the population policy needs someone pulling the levers.

      We all know that the standard line for a 17 year old girl and her boyfriend (in chorus) is:

      > when the landlord is about to evict them for 2 months of rent arrears,
      > when the car payments have fallen behind by 6 months and the hire purchase company has a court order they keep waving in your face,
      > and when the 6 month old baby needs further treatment for a difficult condition,
      > and the husband has just lost his job,

      LETS MAKE A BABY !!.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Two observations, Don, one on money, one on School retention rates.

    When I went relief-teaching in 1975 to fund my author calling, the large monies directed by Whitlam at Education after 1972 were being spent. This coincided with the advent of the video machine, and schools were buying them in some number, converting text from page and blackboard to screen. As a teaching tool, screen had its advantages of vibrancy, prepared material, and a certain quelling mesmerism useful for class discipline. Their great disadvantage was their power to make the material presented resilient in the mind on the basis of a one-off flickery display. A further problem emerged in time. Initially one looked for the video of the set text, but before long one was not setting a text unless there existed a video for it, so curriculum began to get constrained by the video machine rather than a judgement as to which texts were most suitable for whichever age-group the class was. this constraint became more rigid with the DVD change some 15 yrs later. So also did the relative feebleness of the hold that the text/material had on mind – a tendency to brush the consciousness rather than lodge in it. This particularly affected the subjects I was trained in – English and History – but being a relief teacher with open brief, I noted them in the Science area, and other subjects.
    By the end of my relief teaching days (1991, with a brief revisit in 2007) when gov’t, particularly the canberra local mob, would boast of the high proportion of retention from Yr 10 to College level there was. My observation is that this retention rate meant that one kept adolescents in academically oriented institutions who in many cases would have been better off in apprenticeships or the workforce. Because they lacked aptitude (in whatever…English, Biology, etc) they were bored, and so disruptive. The disruption had a level of guile and spite often difficult to pin down or control (mobile phones nd their screens, for instance) so the ability to teach the kids who were motivated by academic subjects was impaired, while the thing that would have done the bored immense good, namely being within an adult workforce, dispersed and subject to that natural constraint of a wider age-spectrum, was deferred.
    A further difficulty, arising from both these problems was the change in the nature of the syllabus. From a view that saw syllabus as a body of worthwhile material that illumined and integrated the world, in English and History at least, it became one based on an idea of ‘Issues’. This tended to fragment the wholism associated with the earlier model where one emerged from, say, Physics, Biology, History and English with the sense that Relativity, chromosome and gene, the 19th/20th C history of Russia, Germany, China, Japan, India, Britain, WW1, WW2, were all part of the modernity of the world, and made for a fractured, and I reckon more fractious, comprehending.

  • margaret says:

    How about a financial bonus for completing any vocational course you enrol in that has economic benefit to society and where jobs exist but are hard to fill.
    Ideally I don’t think people should become parents until at least their mid-twenties but short of dlb’s idea (!), the best way to encourage that is sex education from the earliest years of primary school – some might seem that it would have the opposite effect but I don’t.

    • margaret says:

      “Some might think” I mean.
      Also, how about raising the entrance scores for school leavers for all university courses – especially teachers – then give them a bonus upon completion.

  • Alister McFarquhar says:


    I welcome the diagnosis but wonder about policy response

    My participation in MDB s suggests throwing money at projects is hazardous

    In rich countries nationalised effort to counter social problems can be counterproductive

    National Instutions like Health and Education can swallow extra resources without trace

    My experience in Cambridge suggests most students arrive with unlimited potential from which many are diverted

    I agree we must seek progress in early pre school years and in the inherited potential plus social environment

    In UK many children are in baby school from 2yo some earlier . In Germany serious school starts about seven. In Japan education starts with discipline- here the opposite

    How successful are Kibbutz?

    We seem to know very little . Most education policy is driven by rhetoric.

    Educators are like racehorse trainers faced with natural selection

    I would like to see Don Aikin s post explored

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Alister,thank you for your response. Mine is a thought-piece, not a policy proposal. I am objecting to the notion that we have an education problem that needs a ‘revolution’ produced by spending even more money on schools.

    • margaret says:

      I really liked your thought-piece and sent it to the ‘educators and parents’ in my family. Howard Gardner is terrific. Revolution School tonight on ‘our ABC’ is looking interesting.

      • margaret says:

        But it wasn’t really very interesting because it made teaching appear so unrewarding. So much is made of the ‘charismatic life-changing’ individual teacher in the myths perpetuated by films like Dead Poets Society but it’s mostly bs. Unless the structure of high schools is changed and team teaching and teachers as facilitators of learning rather than inspirational heroes becomes accepted then high schools will remain institutions filled with ground down adults and bored and disaffected kids. Unlike primary schools which are often a joy to visit.

  • Lenny says:

    I find myself agreeing with the logic of it not being a $$$ problem. I think throwing more money at the problem will not solve the issues.

    To me the major issues are
    What is the standard we are aiming for and how do we measure it. NAPLAN is a good start.
    How do we teach to get there, I tend to favor single sex classes where practical, boys and girls learn differently. and should be taught differently to take advantage of the different learning skills.

    I think we should move away from a central planned curriculum, and move towards a centrally planned set of outcomes. So that at the end of each term/year children that move between schools / states are not too disadvantaged in the move.

    I think the curriculum is too crowed and not enough focus on the basics + STEM based subjects (STEM for me is the future of a high value add economy). Get back to basics, measure & improve. Rinse & repeat.

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