No Place for the Individual in Education

The media coverage of the so-called ‘controversial’ farewell speech by Ravenswood Girls School captain Sarah Haynes at the end of last year was interesting to say the least. I mean headlines such as ‘Private School Captain’s Shocking Speech Goes Viral’ are far more extreme or provocative that anything Sarah said in her speech. Whilst the level of media interest in Sarah’s speech is more a result of it being easy, inexpensive news than any genuine interest in the state of education, the speech itself does address a really important issue that is worthy of much more comprehensive analysis. Of course, the ‘shock’ of Sarah’s speech stems from two factors: 1. She is just 18 years of age and the idea of any young person daring to speak their mind is beyond the comprehension of the mainstream media (and most adults generally), and 2. She is female. As such, her speech has generated considerable attention in both the print and digital media. I mean, holy crap, a young woman who is intelligent and articulate. Who would have thought it possible? Certainly not the media it would seem given their reaction to what was, in reality, a speech that offered nothing particularly revelatory about the way schools are administered these days. The fact that her comments came as a shock to anybody only serves to demonstrate just how out of touch the media and the broader community are with regard to the ways in which image and income generation are the key priorities of state and private schools, often at the expense of student welfare and educational outcomes.

Ravenswood

It is a sad reality that school administrators are becoming so obsessed with image and reputation that the real business of schools – providing high quality education in a safe, inclusive environment – is almost an afterthought. You would think that providing a good education would, in itself, be the greatest selling point a school could have in building a positive reputation, but schools are finding it easier to make themselves sound great – utilising marketing/public relations experts, image consultants and the like – than they are in delivering greatness to their students. Although Sarah’s speech dealt specifically with Ravenswood Girls School, it could just have easily been about any school. Image is everything and if projecting a positive image comes at the expense of educational outcomes and student welfare then, apparently, that is a price worth paying. At the end of the day, many of the attributes that schools emphasise in their marketing and promotional endeavours have very little to do with educational outcomes. It is purely about convincing parents that the school is somehow better than another, drawing on superficial and largely irrelevant information to do so.

The commercialisation of education has always been the modus operandi of the private school sector, but the state education system is now adopting a similar approach to the way in which schools are managed. The only difference being that the state sector is perhaps a little less overt, although this is certainly changing as schools come under increasing scrutiny to ‘demonstrate’ their effectiveness as an education provider. The problem is, of course, that the criteria used to assess the quality of a school rarely provide any real insight into the effectiveness, or otherwise, of a particular institution. There are protocols in place designed to limit the capacity of state schools to sell themselves to prospective clients (sorry, parents), such as the catchment regime that operates in Queensland. These catchments are, according to Education Queensland “a geographical location where a state school’s core intake of students must live” and are designed to “ensure every Queensland student from Prep to Year 12 is able to enrol at their local state school”, that is “the school which is closest to home…measured by the shortest, most direct route by road”. Sounds good in theory as a measure to prevent schools from competing against each other to lure students and the income that is derived from increased enrolments, both from Government funding and parental contributions, but the reality is that schools have little difficulty in circumventing these. Schools want students who they see as an asset, and by asset I mean somebody who can be used to ‘sell’ the school. Likewise, they don’t want students whose presence is likely to have a detrimental impact on the bottom line. Therefore, schools reach well beyond their allocated catchment zone in an effort to lure students and their families into the fold. Of course, the existence of the catchment zones means that it is very easy to refuse enrolment from somebody outside the catchment areas. However, that doesn’t mean that those students deemed to be of value to the school cannot secure enrolment regardless of how far beyond the catchment they may reside.

Expecting schools to accept any student who resides within the catchment simply encourages school administrators to find more creative ways to discourage the less desirable students from enrolling. By less desirable I mean students who may struggle academically, may be from a lower socio-economic background, may have a disability or may be deemed problematic for some other reason. Now, schools won’t necessarily reject these students outright, but they will go out of their way to keep them away. This might include, for example, the implementation of a fee structure that is beyond the means of low income families, something that is happening more and more. Not only does it keep away the riff-raff, but increasing school fees and charges well beyond the cost of the provision of resources and equipment ensures that, like the private school model where higher fees denote greater prestige, the school perpetuates an image of superiority. Refusing to spend money on improvements needed to improve access/mobility for disabled students is another tactic used by school administrators to avoid the ‘burden’ of such students on their fiscal fortunes.

System Failure

The intensity of the competition between schools has only increased since the emergence of NAPLAN and the public broadcasting of results. These results are used by parents to determine which school is ‘better’ and the schools themselves draw on this information as part of their marketing strategy. Of course, the fact that NAPLAN and other results and data used by schools to sell the quality of their education programs, such as the number of students who might receive a high OP score and/or secure a University place, actually offers no insight whatsoever into the quality of a particular school, its programs or its staff is conveniently overlooked. Schools just love to be able to spruik their ‘success’ to sell themselves as somehow superior, even though there is no evidence to suggest that the exact same cohort of students attending a different school would produce different (lesser) results. Testing regimes such as NAPLAN are so flawed that schools using this information to promote the quality of their teaching programs are being knowingly disingenuous.

In her speech, Haynes alluded to the interference from school staff with regard to previous speeches she had prepared for various school events. Again, this hardly comes as a surprise as both private and government schools have long operated on rigid regimes of censorship and control. What are schools afraid of? Why are school administrators so fearful of what students might have to say? What message does it send to these young people when their school doesn’t have enough faith in them to let them speak freely? Surely we want our young people to find their own voice, their own convictions and the confidence to say what they believe. It’s bad enough that schools deny students any sense of individuality through archaic policies around dress and appearance. I mean, apparently having blue hair somehow makes you a problem of some sort that is going to have catastrophic ramifications for the entire school. One can only imagine the chaos that will ensue should a boy choose to have his ears pierced or opt to wear anything other than the expensive brand of shoes demanded by the school’s uniform ‘policy’. I mean, this will be the end of the world as we know it. How dare any student expect the right to express any sense of individuality in the way they look or the opinions they express. Heaven forbid the student who dares to identify as gay or transgender because any such deviation from the rigid norms that invariably determine what is ‘acceptable’ is simply untenable. I mean, we cannot possibly expect that our schools would encourage individuality and independent thought amongst the student body. No, no, no, that is just too scary to contemplate. It is much better if everybody looks the same, thinks the same and acts the same because, you know, that will prepare them for the realities of the world beyond school. Good on Sarah Haynes for bringing the issue to light, it’s just a shame that more young people (and their parents) aren’t willing to take a stand.

Compliance

Of course, this culture of compliance extends beyond students to teaching and other staff as well. Any teacher who does not meet the rigid expectations of the school administration cannot expect to ever feel safe and secure in their positions, no matter how skilled they may be as an educator. Schools don’t really care whether teachers are good or bad at their job, what they want is be people who will happily rid themselves of any sense of individuality and blindly comply with the whims of the administrative regime. A great many highly effective teachers have been lost as a result of their frustration with a system that simply does not allow for any sense of individuality – either in their personality or their approach to teaching. Education authorities are counting the days until we reach a point where teaching can be delivered by robots programmed to deliver a curriculum that meets the political agenda of school principals and education bureaucrats. No more of those pesky teachers who might dare to challenge a particular policy initiative or treat the students with respect.

Sarah Haynes’ speech was just the tip of the iceberg. The issues she addressed in her presentation are widespread throughout the state, private and independent school sectors. It is a great shame that the media who were so quick to pounce on Sarah’s speech for cheap copy weren’t so keen on delving into the issues raised to discover just how fucked up our approach to education is in this country. We are forever lamenting our lack of competiveness in world education rankings, yet we make no effort to really evaluate where the problem lies. Our young people are as smart as any and we have some fantastically talented and passionate teachers, but none of that means anything if we continue to deliver education via a regime of compliance and control instead of one that encourages and nourishes individuality and independent thought. Stop operating our schools as business ventures and focus more on the delivery of a relevant, flexible curriculum with a pedagogical framework that demonstrates a respect for our young people and privileges the most passionate and dedicated teachers over those for whom teaching is merely a means to an end. We need an education system in which diversity, creativity and individuality are privileged over uniformity and compliance. We need an education system that is personalised, wide-ranging in content and perspectives and in which culture and identity can flourish. We need teachers who love what they do and we need to allow them to deliver education in a way that best suits their individual style AND best meets the needs of their students. It’s actually pretty easy to make education great, but nothing will change while those best placed to lead the way in revolutionising education delivery remain focussed on protecting their own positions of privilege and power.

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