Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

Dreaming the Impossible Dream

Wednesday March 15, 2017

My father and I sat in a small office, nondescript in many ways, save for the clutter and sense of urgency that pervaded the atmosphere on that hot and humid January day. The teacher hustled about the room, shuffling papers and wiping the sweat from his brow. This was big day for me. The following week I was about to start secondary school and my father was enrolling me at the local high school – at the time a prestigious country high school, affectionately known as The School on the Hill. The hilltop address of the high school was shared with the local technical school, though it was never referred to as such, that title belonged exclusively to the high school.

Despite sharing a geographical site, not much else was shared between the schools as far as I can recollect. Oh, from time to time, on occasions when our attention wandered from our studies, we were curtly reminded that it was a privilege to be attending the school on the hill, and that privilege could easily be forfeited were we not to refocus on our studies. The consequence? We would complete our studies at the technical school, with the clear inference being that any plans we may have had for attending university would be dashed. That was the sixties!

Fast forward to the eighties, by which time I was at the beginning of my career in senior leadership roles at a medium sized suburban primary school in Melbourne. Our school council president, a former AFL champion player and in retirement, a sports teacher at a prestigious private school introduced me to the brutality by which such schools massaged their reputations. Back then, he revealed, Year 12 students at that school did not only complete their studies at that school but in addition had to ‘earn the right’ to sit their Year 12 exams as a student of that school.

Those that didn’t? Well, they were off to the Exhibition Building in the city, sitting their Year 12 exams most certainly, but just as certainly not as students of that particular private school. They sat as public students, belonging to no-one as it were – and they would have known it.

Thirty years have passed and what’s changed? If the current debates that swirl around us in the media are any indication, very little that is good has occurred. Newspaper headlines such as: ‘The reason schools lock students out of the VCE’, ‘I deserve another chance: the student no school wants’, and ‘They thought I’d become a tradie: Why schools lock students out of VCE’, paint an alarming picture of current secondary school practice in some schools.

What is driving this problematic trend in education? Back in the sixties as far as I can recollect headlines such as those appearing in our newspapers in recent times were non-existent. It would appear that the practice of ‘dissuading’ students from sitting their VCE exams and encouraging them to seek the vocational alternative, the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) is a more recent strategy. Then there’s the ‘option’ provided by some schools to have students opt for an unscored VCE. That is, complete their VCE without receiving an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), meaning that in effect they do not sit the end of year VCE examinations. Judging by the commentary, several possibilities would be at play in this trend.

Advocates for broadening the types of assessment options available to Year 12 students, vehemently dismiss claims that the intent of the exercise is to embellish schools VCE results. Rather, they argue, it is aimed at ensuring that students for whom a tertiary course at university is not a realistic option, stay at school longer, suffer less pointless stress in their final years of secondary schooling and undertake courses better suited to their talents and interests.

This makes eminent sense. After all, most jobs in the workforce do not require a university degree. There’s plenty of evidence indicating that early school leavers and, by that, here it is meant those students who drop out from secondary school as soon as it is legally appropriate to do so, too often slip through the workforce gaps, remaining unemployed for far too long for anyone’s good.

Then there’s the not inconsiderable issue of aspiration and hope – while at school, students still have hope, more hope I daresay of completing some sort of qualification that will lead to a worthwhile career. The contemporary film, Moonlight, which incidentally was awarded the Oscar for Best Film, is a gut-wrenching reminder of the hopelessness into which students can disappear following the early curtailment of their secondary schooling.

That’s not to say that students who complete their mandatory schooling years will by definition do well in life. That can’t even be said of all students who successfully complete a university degree. The twists and turns in our lives are far more complex than that. It’s also fair to say that school for some students is an exercise in trauma and disappointment. Nonetheless, hanging in there at school would be a better option for more rather than less students. From this perspective, providing students with an incentive to stay at school longer is highly desirable.

One school which has boldly come out and stated its case for requiring students to ‘opt in’ if they want an ATAR, is Templestowe College in Melbourne’s north-east. As was reported in The Age newspaper recently, the school has embarked on a revolutionary approach, one which as its principal, Peter Hutton explains, “Finishing their schooling at Templestowe College without an ATAR would become the default option for students.”

In arguing this strategy, Hutton says, “If one of our aims is to encourage a love of learning, why would you make their final years of learning a hell?” He added, “We don’t want this to be a dirty little secret where kids are meant to feel ashamed. I want to bring it out into the light and present it as a really viable option.”

Templestowe College are to be commended for their transparency and frankness. Sadly, that’s not the case for all others. I can’t help but think of the eighties and the students made to sit their Year 12 exams as belonging to no school. I have no doubt that it was not an isolated case at the time, and from the stories told today, it would seem that the ‘market forces’ approach which has gained momentum in our education system has much for which to answer.

Central to the market approach to education is what is commonly termed the commodification of education. Put simply, this means that learning becomes a process where an economic value is attached to the outcomes. That is – good marks for subjects studied, with the eventual pay dirt being a quality job. The better the marks the better the options for desirable courses at, of course, the more prestigious tertiary institutions; read our sandstone universities.

It’s important to remember that not all learning is assigned an economic value. Indeed, it is the very measurable, tangible learning that is undertaken in our schools that is assigned such value. Little wonder then that our NAPLAN tests, the international tests – Trends in International Mathematics & Science (TIMSS), Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and of course VCE with its attached ATAR scaled scores rule supreme.

No irony intended, but Einstein, himself an unremarkable school student, would make the connection between an increasingly commodified education system and the appeal to some fee-paying schools private schools and sadly, some of our own government schools of pushing boundaries to outperform each other in their VCE results. This at the potential expense of their students it could be argued. There should be more to education than that and indeed there is.

One of the more frustrating features of our spiral down the path of high-stakes testing regimes in our schools is that we have no way of comparing school performance beyond the narrow confines of predominantly tests in literacy, numeracy as per NAPLAN and to that science can be thrown in for TIMSS and PISA tests. Then there’s VCE with ATAR scores, all designed primarily for entrance to university.

Sadly, the language of our day speaks of high performing and underperforming schools on the basis of these narrow indicators. This, quite apart from the fact that firstly, schools don’t operate on a level playing field of resourcing and secondly, students are ‘enticed’ from government schools based simply on their academic or sporting prowess by some private schools.

The free enterprise model of education explains this all very neatly. Schools with the best VCE results command the most clout for enrolments and, in the case of private schools, the highest fees. Student segregation based on social and academic advantage logically follows. Little wonder then that the gap in educational performance between the students from our more affluent and poorer families is one of the highest of all OECD countries in international tests such as PISA.

So many schools do wonderfully well, both on shoestring budgets and in the most challenging of circumstances in ways that matter so much – student and family well-being being a prime example. Unfairly, however, they are left behind in the public wake of others who also, it should be acknowledged, do well, but for whom these free market times in education are a boon.

A final point should be made for those amongst us obsessed with having us follow in the path of Asian countries and cities that outperform our students on TIMSS and PISA tests. Education systems cannot be divorced from the broader cultural context of their host nations. By definition, education systems are integrally woven within the tapestries of each nation’s culture. We should be mindful of that. Simply cherry-picking one aspect of a country’s culture to import is fraught with the possibility of failure and disappointment. It should not go unnoticed that more than a few Asian nations value our existing education system with its flexibility and emphasis on creativity.

Maybe, just maybe, the move toward a broader basis for student engagement and success in senior secondary schools such as Templestowe College will be the dawn of a new era in our school system. If it proves to be so, then that will be truly revolutionary and will rewrite the rules of engagement for all schools. If not, then tilting at windmills is no bad thing. If it were there would be no place for Don Quixote and the Impossible Dream.

Henry Grossek
Berwick Lodge Primary School


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