Hey, Where’d You Go To School?
Beyond our own immediate families, the first social grouping that shapes our view of the world and how we see ourselves is likely to be within our schools. Many of us grow into adulthood, and even into late age, lucky enough to have friends we met in our youth when we were less guarded, less sure of anything and, I am told by my mother, “definitely more gorgeous”. My dad goes to lunch once a month with three old mates from his school days. I’ve known my best friends since we were in primary school. I recently attended a school reunion where the oldest ‘ex-girl’ was well over 100 years of age. Our school days not only shape who we are, but set the pattern of social relationships we carry throughout our lives.
Schools are important, and this is very obvious in our Eastern Suburbs where the traffic they generate brings our roads to a grounding halt, particularly during peak hour. You probably would have noticed that our schools are inevitably located on major roads, so not only is gridlocked traffic guaranteed at particular times, but school kids also suffer endless traffic noise and have their fresh air replaced by exhaust fumes, not to mention the challenges they face when trying to safely cross the road. Love them or hate them, schools shape who we are, as well as our driving patterns!
If schools are so important, why then does current government policy treat them so poorly? The lack of strategic planning and investment in our schools is evidenced on several fronts. First, teachers are not paid enough. I won’t say they are poorly paid, but the fact of the matter is that teachers do not earn enough to live in many inner Sydney suburbs, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Eastern Suburbs. There has been a decline of 15 per cent in critical workers (teachers, firefighters and nurses) living in the Eastern Suburbs since 2006. What sort of government policy leaves us with a dwindling supply of critical workers in our neighbourhoods, including teachers?
Second, planning and funding of schools is a mess in NSW, as well as nationally. Our public schools, in particular high schools, are filled beyond capacity. A parliamentary inquiry has revealed that one third of NSW schools are full and 180 schools are stretched beyond capacity. In fact, an astonishing 800-plus public schools across NSW are operating at 100 per cent capacity or more.
CLOSEast (Community for Local Options for Secondary Education) has been campaigning for a new high school in the Eastern Suburbs. This community-based group is doing a great job but the fact that their efforts are necessary tells us a lot about current State Government policy priorities. And don’t get me started on stadiums, or the mazes of motorway tunnels being built while overheated schools overflow with kids.
Third, local Catholic Schools, most intended as low fee institutions, have had their funding cut by the Federal Government, resulting in higher fees over two years of about 40 per cent. It’s no surprise you get shocking outcomes when you have shocking government policy. As a consequence of this poor planning and bad policy, we have seen a massive 23 per cent reduction in enrolments into our local Catholic schools and increased enrolments in our public schools, placing increased pressure on an already overstretched and mismanaged education system.
Two of the great equalizers of any society are education and health care, yet these are just a few examples of how State and Federal Government policies are making it harder for working Australians to access quality, affordable education for their kids. All of us will remember the teacher we loved and the one who was mean, yet so often today schools are viewed as factories producing widgets, measured regularly to assess progress. NAPLAN results are seen to indicate which schools are doing well and those that are not.
Through the current lens, the main role of schools is to develop numeracy and literacy skills, which will presumably enable our children to lead fuller lives with options for secure employment. But schools should be about so much more than this, and hence a thorough rethink of education and schools policy is needed. The loss of quality and affordable education has costly implications for the individual and society as a whole that are not easily reversed. It seems to be self-evident that expenditure on schools is an investment in people and that it just makes sense to try to build the best people we can, rather than trying to later repair the damage done by under-resourced over-crowded schools. We can always get around to building that new monument sometime in the future but sadly we do not get a second childhood.