We all know at one level or another that there is no equity in our school system. But that lack of equity is about to become a health issue rather than an educational outcome. And that is deplorable.
Our Australian school funding system is unique. No one else pours public money into private schooling. No one else splits school funding between levels of government in ways which materially disadvantage public schooling. No one else has been doing those things for long enough that the whole system leaves parents with fewer and fewer choices but to become actively complicit in the system as the weight of votes moves over to this publicly-funded privately-run system.
We all know this at some level. How materially we feel about it probably depends on which side of the private/public split we sit. But anyone taking a dispassionate look at it knows this isn’t a sensible system.
Some of that inequity has become highlighted in the current emergency. Private schools have quickly been able to adapt to distance learning in a way which public schools have been entirely unable to replicate. Not through any lack of will by teachers or administrators, simply through lack of resources.
But the decision to re-open schools while the coronavirus is still a threat is about to push that inequity to a whole new level.
Now, personally I think sending kids back to school is a flawed idea. We don’t know enough about how the virus is transmitted to know if the fact kids are usually asymptomatic means they aren’t transmitting the virus. But beyond that, as a piece of social engineering, it’s going to break lockdown as a concept. Parents will take their kids to school, pick them up from school, interact with kids who’ve been out in a the world. That’s going to make it very hard for people to take other measures seriously.
Anyway, all of that is just background to my main point. My child goes to a public high school. A typical public high school inn many ways. Let me list some of the ways:
- The school has less than half of the proscribed space per child available to it. It is a school built for 500 students which currently has 1100.
- The school has converted storage spaces and offices and every other room with walls to classrooms – small classrooms with kids jammed into them.
- Even then, the school has had to cut back on elective options years after year because there simply aren’t enough classrooms to fit the students into if classes are split into electives.
- The playground space is sufficiently overcrowded that even with staggered breaks older student are encouraged to go out into the community for lunch etc.
- Toilets are a time-and-motion study in how not to do good hygiene. Tightly grouped push-timer taps to minimise water-use, and one soap dispenser for a group of taps.
You get the idea.
Now don’t get me wrong there’s a great deal that’s good about this school. But that’s in spite of, not because of, the parlous state of support from the Government.
So the Government says students should return to school: But it’s OK because the school will enforce social distancing, hygiene, and so on. How? Has anyone making that sort of statement actually visited any school, let alone a government school. Most classrooms are crowded on a normal day so how on earth do they spread the students out? There are no more classrooms to use to spread them amongst. There isn’t any outdoor space to work with. The corridors and stairwells were built for half the number of students who use them – and the minute the bell goes they become a mosh-pit. The only reason the toilets are not overcrowded is because so many students avoid them even at the best of times.
But these problems are not equally shared. There are several private schools within walking distance of my house. They have shiny new classrooms. Expansive grounds. Huge gyms and separate halls. Pools.
Now I know not every private school has the same five-star facilities. But they do share one other feature which will help enormously – they have flexibility. The private schools have a capacity to make independent decisions about how to solve the problem they are being presented with.
Not only do the public schools have little funding to work with, they also have to take direction, in NSW at least, from an enormous, monolithic government department. We’re seen that in public schools trying to respond to distance learning. We’re going to see it just as clearly in issues like putting hand sanitiser at the door to every class. In an inability to get, or pay for, increased cleaning regimes. In capacity to choose which students should get priority in access, or even be excluded if they present a risk. In providing protection, even increased pay, to teachers. In dealing with the nightmare that will be school buses. Again the list just goes on and on.
OK so our system has inequity built into it. Children in NSW are streamed into vastly different educational experiences based on their parents’ income. I think that’s a stain on our society; but it’s one which is a long-term issue. The difference, right now when we are facing an immediate threat, is that that inequity becomes not just a long-term educational issue, but an immediate health issue.
We can’t fix the long-term issue today. But our Government which is directly responsible for the public education system can certainly make sure it doesn’t re-open any schools before it puts realistic measures in place to not just issue blanket statements about things like social distancing in classes, but to recognise the reality the public school system faces and take measures to deal with that up front.
And short-term or long-term, the thing about schools is that what happens in the school system ripples out into the entirety of our society. Long-term inequity is creating a divided, class-ridden country, it’s making us sicker as a society, as a body politic. This short-term inequity threatens us directly by making us all sicker as individuals.