One of the less discussed political issues over the past three years is education – well, less than things like carbon pricing, boats and whether Kevin Rudd should move back into the Lodge with his shaking sauce bottle. For the residents of Western Sydney, however, there are few more important priorities. This is because the numbers of young families are higher than in many other regions. “Where is your kid going to high school?” is a key question around many BBQs and kitchen tables. The reality is that there is choice
There was a time when education was a largely state issue – and for parents, that meant sending your child to the local public primary, then high school. The Federal Government did fund the universities in the City as well as the Catholic and large, traditional Protestant schools (most of which weren’t in the west) – but they weren’t as numerous in the older days. The Catholic schools were for Catholics or rugby league players, the Protestant schools for the landed gentry. That changed, however, with the building of the University of Western Sydney and the growth of independent schools in the Howard years. The Federal Government became a bigger player in the area. Now the Western Suburbs has a variety of independent schools – Christian schools, Muslim schools, systemic Catholic schools, systemic Anglican schools.
Whether these schools should still be funded at current levels is a heavily contested question – but it’s fair to say that currently the education system of Western Sydney is a complicated matrix of schools providing a number of different services. The cliche of the expensive private school building another rugby field doesn’t really apply in the west – except for the Kings’ School and Tara School for Girls next door, east of Parramatta. It isn’t the simple case of rich private schools v poor public schools. Even the more expensive independent schools like Macarthur Anglican near Narellan or St. Paul’s Grammar, north of Penrith are an exception and out of reach of most parents in the west. For most parents in the region sending their children to an independent school, it’s to a relatively low fee paying local Catholic, Christian, Anglican or Muslim school.
There are a mixture of reasons why middle income parents choose to spend their money and send their children to an independent school. For many parents, the lack of ability for state schools to immediately expel an unruly student is an important determinant – which leads to the perception of “better discipline” at the independent school. Another important element for many parents is the uniform policy of independent school – it adds to the perception of “discipline”. A different reason is that independent schools are structured to spend more class time and staff time on pastoral care, which many parents appreciate. It is hard, though, for parents to make decisions of which school to choose, so they will reach for a number of tools, such as MySchools, Open Days and anecdotal evidence in the community.
Then there are independent schools which are geared specifically to cater to students with special needs, such as those on the autism spectrum. My son attends such a school – and there are others that are managed by Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect), such as their dedicated school at Wetherill Park, as well as their satellite classes established in conjunction with existing Catholic schools. These units mix intensive programs with mainstream interaction. State schools with special needs units in the Western Suburbs are either terribly underfunded or act as separate units, which doesn’t suit all students on the spectrum.
Somewhere down the list for many parents is whether the school has a religious world view. It is an oft repeated cliche that all church run schools indoctrinate students with their religious philosophy, but that’s not the experience in most schools. The full range of Board of Studies subjects are taught, with the exception of one subject where the school will teach the philosophies of their religion – though in Years 11 and 12, most students complete the Board of Studies’ Studies of Religion course, which included education about a range of religious thought. These subjects, along with the religious services conducted in the schools, is a chore for many in the congregation. Whenever we hear stories of religious indoctrination, one sector not mentioned in some areas is the Islamic sector, which has a significant presence in Western Sydney. Ironically for some, however, many of the teachers in those schools are former teachers from the Catholic or Independent system.
As a result of the complex matrix of services provided by these independent schools in the west, any perceived threat to being able to choose to send children to those schools is a very sensitive pressure point, in that the future of those children is entwined in that issue.
In all this is the future of public education, which is frequently unfairly maligned by people in media outlets and in the community. Public schools have a number of quality teachers, even in the so-called “roughest” schools. One day I would love to see media profiles of some of these excellent public school teachers I have met at conferences and at after school TeachMeet voluntary professional development meetings. When we hear about the “poor reputation of the profession”, I sometimes think that’s because we don’t have media outlets seeking to make the positive work of teachers a priority for their programs.
There are many issues associated with the drastically underfunded public schools in NSW that should be addressed. The most immediate is the decision by the Liberal O’Farrell Government to strip funding from the state schools. The Government, as ever, promised that “front line teachers” wouldn’t be affected, but that’s not what teaching is all about. Funding cuts always affect the ability to run important programs, such as those to help teachers assist students with special needs – who are often the forgotten victims in funding cuts in any sector. Another issue is the training and retaining of good teachers. This is hamstrung, however, with an employment system that often finds it impossible to offer permanent contracts to teachers – many young teachers in Western Sydney have been on temporary contracts for many years on end. No government, state or federal, has provided an answer to that question as yet or have even shown if the question is being asked.
On top of these issues, we have the NAPLAN exam, brought to the nation’s schools by Julia Gillard when she was education minister. Despite early promises that it would be a useful tool for schools to have a snapshot of the literacy and numeracy skills of students, it has changed from that initial idea. With the advent of the MySchools website, it is now in danger of becoming a blunt instrument used by media outlets and the community to make comparisons between schools. While some in the conservative media would agree with this “being held to standards” (they love this part of Gillard’s activities down at the Oz), it’s not the necessarily the best thing for schools, students and parents. NAPLAN, while very useful for schools, is only one test, assessing a particular range of skills and doesn’t necessarily give a full picture of how useful a school will be for a student.
On the flipside of that, one of the better Government programs of the last 6 years was the Building the Education Revolution, which saw many schools get much needed updated infrastructure. The BER also provides us with one of the more successful pieces of shutdown from the conservative side of the media – especially The Australian, Daily Telegraph and 2GB. It’s a difficult thing to organise mass building projects in a restricted time frame when NSW has one of the largest education departments in the world – hence the cost difficulties faced in isolated examples. One thing that also wasn’t noted at the time – and perhaps the Government could have pointed this out more – was how independent schools were able to build useful pieces of infrastructure to budget. A number of these projects, however, were completed and opened in 2011 – and by then, the shutdown of BER as a positive outcome for the Government was achieved by the likes of Ray Hadley.
The Alternative Government isn’t particularly edifying. Christopher Pyne, when speaking about his portfolio (which doesn’t happen all that often) went on record as to say he wants “didactic” chalk and talk teaching in schools – indicating how out of touch Pyne is with his shadow portfolio. Didactic, teacher centred learning – rote learning, sage on the stage instruction, doesn’t work on its own anywhere, especially in Western Sydney. If the context of the students isn’t considered, many students are not motivated to connect with the material being taught; if there is a lack of demonstrated practical application, many students don’t learn for the sake of learning – unlike the likes of Pyne, for example. I suspect he would find it difficult to find any expert currently associated with schools who would be able to recommend a turn away from student centred learning.
The other sector of education we hear less about is tertiary education. In Western Sydney, it is the University of Western Sydney – maligned in some quarters, very unfairly, as the quality of teaching has increased over the years. It is crucial that both sides of politics are held to the funding of this university, as it provides crucial pathways to careers previously denied to residents of the region who found it difficult to get to the Sydney universities. The other part of post high school education that is very relevant for the region is the TAFE system, which provides skilled trainees to those jobs needed across the region. It was TAFE that copped a big hit from the O’Farrell education cuts. This hit Western Sydney particularly hard, because of its high percentage of TAFE students. This is one area where Federal Governments should step in and top up funding when State Governments have proven to be pretty myopic. Unfortunately, this is something we won’t hear talked about that much this year, despite its impact on the region.
In this year of carbon tax, asylum seekers and the rest, education will be quiet in its importance on the national agenda. For the residents of Western Sydney, however, it is vitally important and will continue to be for a very long time.