Community and Education

What is the role of education in our society – in any society? Right at the beginning i find myself in a mire of conflicting thoughts. How about considering those that quickly come to mind:

  1. Learning to understand the basics of language – how to say it, read it, write it and at some level, understand it.
    1. This helps us to communicate with others within the community and with the community itself (ie, read and deal with societal institutions and conventions).
  2. Learning to understand and be able to apply the basic principles of mathematics.
    1. Given that our units of exchange are monetary notes and coins, there is a need to be able to deal with these at some level to meet your subsistence needs and to ensure that you receive a fair deal in any transaction.
  3. Cultural Positioning – To learn the context of the community you are a part of. This would involve some version of any number of areas of study:
    1. Global demographics
    2. History
    3. Religion, Theology and Secularism
    4. Philosophy
    5. Politics
    6. Art and the multifarious facets of this sometimes contentious aspect of human expression.
  4. Understanding the processes of nature
    1. Astronomy and the basic structure of the planet, the sun, the galaxy and the universe.
    2. Anatomy, physiology and psychology. People as living organisms.
    3. Biology and the study of other organisms, and systems of living creatures.
    4. Geology, meteorology, oceanographic study.
    5. Physics and the interaction of objects and forces.
    6. Chemistry and the makeup of elements, compounds, processes and outcomes.
  5. Preparation for entry to the workforce
    1. Vocational studies
    2. Gaining exposure to a number of areas to help identify what a person is suited for or what areas of interest they can aspire to.
    3. Learning about the economy. This is NOT economics but rather a broad understanding of what taxes are for, how wages are determined, how society places value on various roles.
  6. Preparation for entry to adult society
    1. Basic living skills such as cooking, woodworking, metalworking. How to drill a hole or make a bucket. Perhaps technical drawing comes into this area. How to plan a garden or gain an understanding of perspective.
    2. Learning about the institutions, conventions and limitations that exist within society.
    3. Learning to operate within a set of guidelines and how to interact with others while doing so. Especially those who are ‘different’ to you – whether intellectually, physically, racially, class based or religious beliefs.

OK. That is my quick list. Longer than i would perhaps have initially thought. To some extent these could be considered minimums.

If allowed, i would probably add:

  • A broad understanding of the forces at work in a community. “Truth and objectivity” (not a good title, as i begin to critique it almost before i have finished typing it) or “Perception and reality”. It would be a broadly arguable point at which stage such a topic is covered – at what stage is a child going to already know that there is no Santa Clause or Tooth Fairy or the like but regardless, it is a topic that should be gaining traction by the time a child is in high school (ie, by the beginning of their ‘teens). It would include such things as :
    • The principles of argument.
    • The principles of logic.
    • Some concept of how marketing and advertising work and how they produce an impact.
    • Broad discussion of how language and culture impact on our actions.
    • Issues and concepts surrounding media and popular culture.
    • Issues and concepts surrounding “public” knowledge and institutions.

It is easy to argue that these are topics that are covered in university and are too “deep” to be covered in early schooling. It is also easy to argue that these are topics that can impinge on the beliefs and lifestyles of specific groups within society. It is also easy to argue that these are issues that can and should be covered by parents and family of the child.

It is also easy to make an argument that i am proposing a relativist approach to teaching and that this will unduly influence children at a time when the are easily influenced. I would argue that to deny a child some knowledge in this area is to admit that you are planning to direct their understanding to a specific pathway and that you are trying to limit their exposure to alternative ways of thinking.

So there is the basic thought on education.


i have just read an article in the Weekend Australian newspaper (which immediately places me solidly into the bell-curve demographic of white, Anglo-Saxon male, over the age of 45). The article covers some of the issues surrounding the funding of schools in Australia. (The Weekend Australian May 31-June 1 2008, p20)

It struck me as interesting because it set out a few of the basics around the funding of private vs public schools. The article pointed out the average cost of providing education to a student. It then went on to point out hte logic that a student educated at a private school reduces the costs of the public schooling system. For this reason, the Government provides funding to both private and public schools.

The percentage of the cost that would have (on average) been saved is passed to private schools through a complex measurement of the “wealth” of the private school – with some form of concession if the school is remote or serves a “special” community need.

This sounds very good and logical. It is apparently only a part of the overall issue as States in Australia are responsible for a large part of education funding costs and there is most likely another form of complex measure there as well.

However, it strikes a discordant note with me.

Education could be considered a little like an infrastructure asset – in that it has a large fixed cost with a reduced cost per student as the numbers approach various thresholds.

If we take it that the aim of the public system is to provide an excellent level of education for those who are unable to afford any additional study then this would involve a certain basic level of infrastructure.

There has been a growing trend towards sending students to private schools in Australia. i am not aware of the reasons for this. Anecdotally it would seem that the growing affluence of “middle income” earners helps. It is natural that a parent would want the best for their children – and in many cases “private” is associated with “better”.

My problem is that money directed towards the private school system reduces the funds available for public schools to provide facilities and service levels to help them compete with private schools. Why should the children of a single income (say, $70,000) family be contributing towards the cost of those attending a private school (in that that receive lower services and less facilities)? By funding private schools you are definitely achieving this outcome.

“But”, i hear you say… what about the savings to the public system when students attend private schools? 

The savings are most likely wrong, is my answer. Feel free to become irritated at this point with my lack of knowledge of an area and the use of generalisations to come to questionable conclusions. However, this is my thinking… the cost per student reduces as the number of student increases (all things being equal and to at least some extent).

This “marginal costing” means that the cost of the final additions to a schools student number do not cost as much as the “base load” of students required to provide funding (at average cost levels) for the basic infrastructure of a school.

So if you keep taking students from public schools, there comes a point where the schools are not only struggling to provide additional facilities and services – they struggle to simply maintain a basic infrastructure. And sooner or later that will impact on the provision of a good basic education.

There are likely to be all sorts of howls of protest were my ideas adopted and the funding of private schools reduced. Perhaps this thought belongs in the “if i were Dictator” section… But i don’t think so. There exists within the community a definite “elitism” of private schools over public schools. This can only gain traction as private schools obtain better facilities and public schools struggle to compete.

The end result is a move to predominantly private schools with the poor, unlucky and underprivileged attending public schools.

To me this would be the worst possible outcome. It would remove one of the great opportunities to build a cohesive and egalitarian community. The great offering of the public system is the ability to exposure your child to a whole range of other children that they may note (and quite often WOULD NOT) encounter in their normal day-to-day. This involves children from families with different income levels, racial backgrounds, scholastic abilities, interests and occupations. If children were only to attend the school nominated by their parents on income/status/religious ideology or whatever grounds then you reduce the ability of those children to see alternatives to their lives. To my mind, you increase the “us and them” mentality grouping within the community.

If we were to remove private schools altogether it would be interesting to see the result from a social perspective. i wonder where all those building fund cheques would end up? i wonder what level of facility or service would be offered if it was the only option available to all and sundry equally?

You could argue that it is a bloody good thing that private schools exist. That institutions seeking excellence in education can work tirelessly towards a greater good and future for those prepared to make the sacrifices. “Crap” is what i would say. It would probably be cheaper for those parents who could afford it to pay for tutoring outside of school hours if they’d like their children to have better educations. It would certainly ensure that money was only spent for children who were prepared to work for it.

This all sounds a bit like i am advocating what amounts to a “communist” style of education. If you have come to that conclusion then you have missed my point entirely.  It would be wrong to take away the ability of those who want a “better” education from a specific school (dad’s school, religious denomination school, wealthy parent school etc, etc). i am simply arguing that it is wrong to expect the Government to pay for that – and almost, pay for any of it.

You see, not everyone wants to chase the materialistic rewards so glorified in Australia’s contemporary culture. So simply suggesting that a private schooling is available to all those who are prepared to work hard enough for it is (again) a load of crap. Basic living costs for a family have increased and continue to increase. This makes it difficult for those families who have not participated in the recent property market or share market booms to afford the higher costs of private schooling – especially if they have more than the Nuclear Family Unit to look after. This limits their options to public schooling – or to a life of poverty with their children scraping through private schools – most likely bearing the psychological wounds of eternally comparing themselves to the more affluent in the school.

To my way of thinking, the funding of private schools is a misdirection of resources. Not in its entirety but certainly in the current environment of funding levels.

This is different when we consider universities – for all sorts of reasons that we can ponder another day.



Potential for Bias

My own schooling was through Public Schools (ie, in Australia these are Government funded schools). My eldest child attends a Christian denomination private school while the younger ones attend a Government school.


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