The crisis of public education

Good teachers stay with you for your whole life. Here’s a short roll call of some teachers who shaped mine.

At primary school I fell in love with kind, patient Miss Fielding, my first grade teacher, while streetwise Mrs Dick kept my feet on the ground when my head was in the clouds.

At high school we discovered teachers had first names like us. Our art teacher Roger Chapman had us printing and binding the school magazine. Donald Colgrave opened a door to the universe of France and its language, and Harry Epler, my German teacher, introduced me to Europe and garlic. 

After years of struggle, maths was suddenly interesting thanks to Rex Wilson. My interest in history and literature was fed by Bruno Poulson and Michael Boddy (and at university by Malcolm McRae and his chief sparring partner, poet James McAuley).

Education is an abstract word for an experience that for me was visceral – physical as much as mental. I shared classrooms with kids from every imaginable socio-economic background who taught each other about life. I learned quite a bit at lunchtime, when we’d go down to the creek to hunt each other in packs. 

School life could be pretty rough. Around 1960 my first high school was named by the Melbourne Truth as Australia’s blackboard jungle. We took that as a badge of pride, but we were also aware that this newspaper was known to exaggerate. 

That school, New Norfolk High, was one of many being set up in Tasmanian country centres in the 1950s. My parents sent me there because it was their only option. But within the school, every student had a choice of technical, commercial or academic education.

The secular system that nurtured me gave all children, regardless of background, an opportunity to grow and flourish. Church schools struggled to keep up. When I later was a student at Hobart High (about to change into a pre-tertiary college) we looked down on the impoverished students at Friends just up the road. Our school was tops.

Little did we know that this was about to change forever. In the mid-1960s, to win the Catholic vote, Liberal prime minister Bob Menzies put federal money into private schools, starting an educational revolution that continues to this day. As a result, Australia now has the world’s best-resourced private school sector – at the cost of a steadily eroding public system. 

State governments have compounded a federal funding bias towards private schools by cutting funding for their own public system. Since 2010, combined federal and state funding for private schools has risen six times more than funding of public schools. One result is a dramatic teacher shortage – 4000 teachers nationally by 2025 according to the federal education department.

Parents of private school students seeking for their child the best possible start in life may not feel bothered by this, but they should be. Well-resourced private-school learning is itself compromised by inequalities in school funding more broadly. In education as in so much else, there can be no excellence without equity. 

Inequity is felt especially keenly in Tasmania. Economist Saul Eslake told the Tasmanian Economic Forum last month that his home state’s education system was under-performing and in grave need of reform, while disparities in income and wealth were widening. 

Last week my colleague Greg Barns pointed to every democracy’s need for an informed citizenry. Our youngest people will have to deal with with the thorniest issues ever to confront human society. At their disposal will be unprecedented computing power that may help in the search for solutions, but this same power also makes us more vulnerable than ever to mass delusion.

The teaching profession will be the focus of Billy Blackett, the 2024 Tasmanian Rhodes Scholar, at Oxford from next year. Its ability to deliver to young people the power of independent, critical thinking must surely be uppermost in his mind.

Besides me, the impact of the good people I named above would have been felt by thousands of citizens-to-be. But for each one of them there are countless more teachers today in need of our recognition and support. Potentially, teachers have the power to shape whole societies, but only if we can find it in us to allow them the freedom and the support they need to perform at their best. 

Public education is a fundamental responsibility of state governments. In Tasmania both major parties have shirked that responsibility for decades. Redressing this chronic failure should be the highest priority for parties and voters alike as we near another state election.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.