So the State and Federal governments of Australia are going to find an extra $5 billion dollars a year to spend on school funding according to the recommendations of the ‘Review of Funding for Schooling Final Report December 2011’, generally referred to as the “Gonski Report” after it’s chairman, David Gonski.
What if they are going to spend it on the wrong things? What if the system itself is concentrating on the wrong outcomes? What if our education system is broken as designed?
First, let’s contemplate the purpose of our education system. What is it meant to do? If we want we can turn to our Government to answer that question, politicians can always be relied upon to give us a great “motherhood statement” on any large social question. In Australia we only have to go back to 2008 when there was a conference of government Education ministers in Melbourne that produced a nice motherhood statement as a report, the ‘Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians’.
The Melbourne Declaration says
- Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence
- Goal 2: All young Australians become:
- Successful learners
- Confident and creative individuals
- Active and informed citizens
The most interesting thing about this statement is that it says nothing about vocational outcomes. The preamble however is a little more revealing, it says in part:
Skilled jobs now dominate jobs growth and people with university or vocational education and training qualifications fare much better in the employment market than early school leavers. To maximise their opportunities for healthy, productive and rewarding futures, Australia’s young people must be encouraged not only to complete secondary education, but also to proceed into further training or education.
It should be noted that jobs and vocation are nowhere else mentioned in the declaration.
On to the Gonski Report.
It’s ‘Executive Summary’ tells us:
High-quality schooling fosters the development of creative, informed and resilient citizens who are able to participate fully in a dynamic and globalised world. It also leads to many benefits for individuals and society, including higher levels of employment and earnings, and better health, longevity, tolerance and social cohesion.
Further on it says:
Further, no student in Australia should leave school without the basic skills and competencies needed to participate in the workforce and lead successful and productive lives. The system as a whole must work to meet the needs of all Australian children, now and in the future.
The panel believes that the key to achieving this vision is to strengthen the current national schooling reforms through funding reform.
(Don’t you just love it when politicians and government bodies make their motherhood statements? I can see the rainbows and unicorns as clear as day.)
Seth Godin has recently released a book “Stop Stealing Dreams” subtitled “(What Is School For?)”. It’s a good book, he even did a talk at TEDx@BFS on the topic. You can grab a copy of the book for free at that site and watch a video of the talk.
Given the subtitle it comes as no surprise that he addresses our question. In section 4 of the book he says:
It seems a question so obvious that it’s hardly worth asking. And yet there are many possible answers. Here are a few (I’m talking about public or widespread private education here, grade K through college):
- To create a society that’s culturally coordinated.
- To further science and knowledge and pursue information for its own sake.
- To enhance civilization while giving people the tools to make informed decisions.
- To train people to become productive workers.
Over the last three generations, the amount of school we’ve delivered to the public has gone way up—more people are spending more hours being schooled than ever before. And the cost of that schooling is going up even faster, with trillions of dollars being spent on delivering school on a massive scale.
Until recently, school did a fabulous job on just one of these four societal goals.
No, I think it’s clear that school was designed with a particular function in mind, and it’s one that school has delivered on for a hundred years.
Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers built school to train people to have a lifetime of productive labor as part of the industrialized economy. And it worked.
All the rest is a byproduct, a side effect (sometimes a happy one) of the schooling system that we built to train the workforce we needed for the industrialized economy.
In section 6 he says:
If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, we need to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.
The mission used to be to create homogenized, obedient, satisfied workers and pliant, eager consumers.
The one thing that the Melbourne Declaration, Gonski and Godin all neglect to mention is that the entire nature of work and career has changed since our education system was designed in the late Victorian era.
Our great grandfather’s often spent their entire working life employed by one company, almost certainly they spent it at a single trade.
Today think about the number of trades that didn’t exist as little as twenty years ago. Think about the massive changes in some of the trades that are older than that.
The children who are in school today will almost certainly work in a rapidly changing workplace for many different employers and probably at several different types of rapidly changing tasks.
Godin is right, the task has changed.
The problem we now face is that we have an education system that is directed at the wrong outcomes and measures the wrong metrics. The Gonski report admits this:
The panel acknowledges that schools contribute to a much broader range of outcomes for students than those currently measured by governments and which receive the greatest attention in this report.
So we have an education system that is measured according to a limited set of outcomes and the outcomes we drive for are no longer relevant to the society we want to be.
What do we want from our education system? How do we fix it? I think these might be questions for other posts. Until then I’d appreciate your thoughts.