The nineteenth-century creators of public schools spoke of "education for all". That was a radical idea when the upper classes thought of the populace as little better than animals. It is still a radical idea. In an inclusive system, you do not fence people out, and you do not price people out.
This is based on an ethical principle - mutual responsibility. Through a public system, I share responsibility for your child and you share responsibility for mine. We share because we have a collective interest. The better education your child gets, the more my child benefits, and the more the whole society benefits. As everyone who has taught in a classroom knows, this is also a pedagogical principle. By and large, the better one pupil is learning, the better others will learn.
In a public education system, mutual responsibility is embodied in educational institutions - public schools and colleges, and the system of administration and teacher training behind them. The institutions are never perfect, but they are necessary for the ethical principle to have a continuing effect.
Inclusive education has another side, which I call encounter. A public education system, because it provides for all, must embrace the deep diversity of modern societies. Our schools today include Muslim, Christian and atheist, boy and girl, straight and gay, athletic and disabled, indigenous and new immigrant - and that's just the beginning. Contemporary public education makes social diversity work for education, rather than treating it as an obstacle or a source of anxiety. It designs learning processes around the encounter between different experiences, cultures and perspectives.
We can't do that easily in a single teaching/learning format. Public systems are now creating centres that support a range of teaching/learning activities in a variety of formats - conventional classrooms, electronic learning networks, vocational workshops and laboratories, community-based programs, etc. We need institutional richness in education, and public systems are in the best position to create it.
Public education is based on an underlying principle of equality, which has several dimensions. The first concerns justice. Public education embodies a community guarantee that all children, regardless of wealth, race or region, will have a decent basic education and access to advanced education. Thus an inclusive public system expresses the idea of equal rights in the sphere of education.
The second dimension concerns equal respect. A gated community attempts to keep out the rabble; public education denies that there is a rabble. Public schools respect the tremendous range of experiences and cultures that their students bring into the classroom each day. This can be hard, given social tensions and inequalities; but public schools constantly deal with these issues, most with competence and some with rousing success.
Giving equal respect involves the curriculum. The old competitive academic curriculum still dominates Australian education, and it is a powerful machine for reproducing privilege. To have a monocultural, socially exclusive curriculum dominating Australian schools is not just outdated. It is outright stupid, in a world of global diversity and increasing global interaction. Public schools, especially schools in Victoria, have led the search for more inclusive curricula, valuing the experiences and using the resources of different social groups. Australia owes them a lot for doing so. This is the strategy that will keep us relevant in the 21st century world.
Thirdly, public education embodies equal provision. Our colonial predecessors built lovely public schools, real temples of education, in working-class suburbs and remote country towns as well as middle-class suburbs. They didn't do the same for Aboriginal or Chinese children - and Australia is still struggling with racism. Yet the principle of equal provision remains important. It means offering education to the most marginal and the most troublesome, as generously as we do to the most respectable and the most "gifted".
Making equal provision has traditionally meant state-supported education, and in modern conditions there is no other way of doing it. Tax revenues are the only way of supporting a large enough teaching workforce, while neutralizing (however imperfectly) the income inequalities of the market.
In helping each other, and each other's children, to learn, we are jointly building a society and a culture. In that sense, commitment to the public sector embodies a view of education based on hope, rather than fear.
Education is, in a large perspective, where culture grows. In the moment of transmission between generations, our culture is tested and changed. Public education assumes that we want constructive, enriching change. Through communication across diversity, we can build institutions that embody shared interests. In that very fundamental way, public education expresses the idea of democracy in education - since democracy (in the real sense) means constructive power in the hands of the people as a whole.
At all age levels, there are democratic ways of teaching - ways that maximize student involvement, student/teacher interaction, and shared authority in the learning process. This is the principle that should guide teaching and learning in a public education system. It means, at a basic level, we trust the learner. We don't assume learners have to be flogged on by endless tests, rewards and punishments. We look for joy in learning, for relevance in learning.
A public education system regards teachers too as citizens - not just hired hands - who are carrying a particular responsibility on behalf of other citizens. Public education also requires that, at a fundamental level, we trust the teacher. We give teachers respect as professionals. We provide the tools they need to do the job. We support the renewal of their occupational culture, creating connections among schools, sharing methods and experience, developing professional pride.
Despite all the propaganda for privatisation, there remains an impressive level of public support for public education. We should recognize the unique strengths of a public education system, celebrate them, and be adventurous in using them. Public education is a tremendous social asset - it benefits even the people who opt out of it. It is only by developing the public system that Australian education can serve the interests of the Australian people as a whole.
Raewyn Connell (born 1944) (née Robert William "Bob" Connell, widely known as R.W. Connell) is an Australian sociologist. She is currently University Professor at the University of Sydney.
Raewyn Connel gave a lecture at the University of Vienna on >Gender Theory on a World Scale< in October 2011. The Lecture was organized by the Dept. Genderresearch - University of Vienna, Association of Austrian Adult Education Centers and the IWK (Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst).
Webstream of the Lecture