The Guardian April 25, 2001


Education and market anarchy don't mix

by Rodney Molesworth*

Schools are now, by deliberate decision at Federal Government level, 
expected to operate as a "market", competing with each other for 
"customers". How do markets work? Put simply, rich people buy shirts for 
$100, poor people buy a vastly and obviously inferior product for $5. Is 
this what we want for the children of Australia?

The arrival of the education market has been disguised by the rhetoric of 
"choice". But whether we are choosing shirts or schools the result is the 
same  markets don't look after people.

Market leaders set the tone and provide the aspirations for all 
participants.

In education, these are undoubtedly the elite non-government schools. It is 
worthwhile examining whether the ideals and practices of these schools 
operate in the interests of students, or merely in the interests of market 
dominance.

There are many adverse results of applying market ideology to education, 
but the greatest of these is that the "image" of a school becomes more 
important than the welfare of its students.

We have seen in recent times students expelled from expensive schools for 
use of illegal drugs, when what they most needed was help.

We have also seen another school hire top-flight public relations 
professionals to protect the "good name" of the school in the face of 
allegations of assaults on students, while the parents of the victims 
complained of stonewalling and denial.

Markets simply do not work in schooling. Government schools, which accept 
with pride the duty to care for all who enrol, are punished by the market 
for doing so.

Schools that hide their failings, expel their troubled students and reject 
all who need education most, are rewarded not only by increasing market 
share, but by a grateful Federal Government. Education is too important and 
complex to be left to the market theory.

Children are not the beneficiaries of the competitive market model; they 
are its victims.

There is also the question of accountability. Markets are supposed to be 
self-regulating  customers will go elsewhere if they are not satisfied.

But what if they don't know?

Elite schools each receive millions of dollars a year in state and federal 
grants, and yet the taxpayer and the public have no right to know how 
effectively that money is spent, or even if basic duty of care requirements 
are being met. Parents at the school have no right of recourse except 
through the courts.

In another recent case, a prominent Sydney private school has sought leave 
to employ a convicted sex offender as a teacher.

The merits of this extraordinary move are not able to be judged, but what 
is certain is that the name of the school will be suppressed and the 
parents and public kept in the dark.

We deserve better than this. The public is entitled to expect open 
accountability for all expenditure and all programs, especially those 
relating to expulsion, student welfare and child protection.

There is no reason why all schools receiving public money should not meet 
the same reporting requirements as public schools.

The Federal Government, as the major source of funds for private schools, 
must bear the responsibility for the dangerous delay in instituting these 
reforms.

Many schools market themselves on the strength of their traditions.

Unfortunately for students, these traditions are copied from those of 
schools designed to train the English aristocracy of centuries ago. They 
are outdated, they disregard democracy, they promote dominance and 
hierarchy, and they tolerate systematic bullying and harassment.

Some older people, including former perpetrators and victims, have 
expressed the view that "bastardisation" has always existed and "never did 
anyone any harm".

Public school parents beg to differ. Abuse of power affects everyone. A 
minority never recover their confidence. The majority are left with an 
entrenched and unexamined belief in the acceptability of violence and 
intimidation.

"It never did me any harm" merely expresses the harm that has been done. 
The public has a right to demand that this "tradition" be eradicated 
immediately from all schools. Dominance and fear are also the basic 
ingredients of corporal punishment.

Amazingly, there are still many supporters of this dangerous and 
ineffective practice. Many private schools, deprived by law of the right to 
hit children, have merely substituted fear of humiliation and expulsion for 
fear of physical pain.

Non-government schools market themselves as providers of "better 
discipline". Parents who swallow this line are seriously misjudging the 
situation. Fear-based discipline is outdated and ineffective.

It punishes honesty and rewards successful non-compliance. It is dependent 
on surveillance and has led to the introduction of random drug testing and 
security cameras. It operates at the expense of a deeper understanding of 
the rights and responsibilities of all citizens.

Public school parent organisations have been campaigning since 1947 to ban 
the cane and build instead a discipline system based on responsibility, 
mutual respect and citizenship.

The success of these campaigns has been the production of hundreds of 
thousands of school graduates who behave properly because they care about 
the consequences for other people, not for themselves.

The contribution of Australian taxpayers to private schools now stands at 
about $3.7 billion per year, and rising rapidly. They have at least the 
right to know that those schools' discipline policies are not there as 
marketing strategies, or for tradition or administrative convenience, but 
as a contribution to the education of tomorrow's adults.

Child protection and social responsibility are the foundation of good 
education.

So long as these are trampled in the mad rush for market share, children 
will continue to suffer, physically and emotionally, at the hands of 
schools.

* * *
*Rodney Molesworth is the President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, representing the two million parents of students in public schools.

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