Bricks and Mortar

Ok, so I haven’t really been managing this blog as best I could have. My apologies, but in my defence, the life of a teacher is insanely crazy. But now I feel I have something to say.

Recently, for a range of reasons related to my private life (choir rehearsals, extra-curricular activities for my son) I have spent some time in and around private school premises. As a public school alumnus myself, and having put my son’s education also into the hands of the public system (largely due to the undue influence of religious institutions in the private space), I have to admit I find entering these places vaguely bewildering.

You pull into the school grounds, through ivy-clad bricks, heritage stonework, designer fences – a far cry from the black iron bars of the public system – into a car park that is usually spacious, separated from the school itself by gardens, lovingly tended and organised. As you wander through these serene examples of horticultural symmetry you see the school buildings rise before you. On one side, a music centre that looks like a professional theatre, complete with box office, stage door and, judging by the adjoining complex, enough recording and practicing rooms to manage the Beatles’ entire career. On the other side is a period building, restored to act as administration or housing, with filigree wrought iron and locally quarried bluestone walls. Further on, a block of classrooms – double story, in brickwork that wouldn’t be seen dead in a 60’s government architect’s material catalogue – enclose a courtyard full of outdoor art installations and invite you in to modern laboratories and spacious classroom areas, freshly painted and carpeted at least some time within the last decade. Looking beyond you realise there are multiple versions of this educational perfection, as well as large gymnasiums and swimming pools, billiard-table smooth playing fields, manicured trees…

It’s enough to make you gape in wonder! But it is also, upon reflected, something that stirs a deep resentment. I don’t know what the research says in this regard, or even if there is any, but these schools are, in a word, beautiful. Everything about them is aesthetically pleasing, and designed to within an inch of its existence. It is a place you desperately¬†want to inhabit. A place you can’t but feel proud of, and enjoy being in.

I remember clearly when I attended Adelaide University the feeling I got when I entered the old wing of the Barr Smith Library; a cavernous space with wall to wall books in colonial cases below stained glass windows and monumental stonework. It was my favourite place to study because it was beautiful.

My point is that, in some way, even if it is marginal (and I suspect strongly that it is not, that it is, in fact, significant), these grounds in and of themselves contribute to the education of the children within. These grounds, beautiful as they are, invite and nurture inquiry and pride within the students they embrace. Further, the array of additional resources these students enjoy within the context of these kinds of grounds, must enhance their lives in incredible ways.

This is a product of wealth. There is no getting around it. Private schools attract funding. Parents pay ridiculous amounts of money for the privilege of sending their children to them, philanthropists throw money at them, and the religious organisations that back their philosophies contribute their misbegotten, tax-exempt income into them. In fact, they even receive funding from the government to enhance their manicured lawns and perfect computer suites.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the public system, that wealth simply doesn’t exist.

We – both students and teachers – inhabit derelict buildings that look about as interesting as the Noarlunga Railway Station, and smell approximately the same. The fundamental infrastructure works; we have heating and cooling, the roofs don’t leak (often), and there are walls. But the old heating system (from the 70s, that was refurbished when it finally was decided that students couldn’t work in 40 degree heat and needed air-conditioning too) still provides a hole in the wall through which rubbish, and vermin, can move. Temporary walls, added or removed over the years, have left unusual surfaces that are routinely just painted over in an attempt to keep them looking fresh, and pinboards that are decades old moulder behind their brown or burnt orange facades. Haphazard bodge-jobs dot the landscape: the paving in a slightly different concrete paver to those that were used originally but which were deemed financially appropriate under the budgetary circumstances of the time; the noticeboards that are just panels of chipboard; the staff copying room that has been converted from a compactus room and still has the tracks on the floor and walls; the transportable Music block that was supposed to be temporary but became permanent. And so on.

It’s depressing, if I’m honest. And every now and again an insertion of funds will actually fix something, allowing some degree of gradual renewal to occur. Unfortunately this generally affects a small percentage of the school grounds, while completely ignoring the dilapidation elsewhere. But, as with their financially bloated analogues in the private world, the surface reflects the interior. High class sizes and teachers who lack effective planning time, dated resources (especially technological resources) and, in most cases, ineffective mental health support for students, and so on.

I broached the question with some friends, all of whom earn enough to put their children into the private sector, with predictable responses:

“We, as a society, have to ensure that people are treated well. Every child deserves a baseline standard of funding, and government should then fund according to need.”

Sure, this sounds reasonable on the face of it, even enlightened. But in a system where one group is able to fund such magnificent excess, while another languishes in poverty, this really seems, to me, like an egalitarian-sounding principle being used to justify an unjust class system. The facts are pretty simple: the public system has very little money, the private system does (and, more to the point, has an economic obligation to ensure it is profitable without government support), to the extent that it can provide opulent environments for children, and government money is limited. Given this, why are we beholden to provide funding to those private schools?

“The research shows no difference in outcomes between public and private”

No, actually, it shows no difference in outcomes once socioeconomic status has been taken into account, or, in other words, once you remove the impact of being rich. This is not an argument worth the time to refute.

“But I went to a public school.” / “My parents taught for years in the public sector.”

That’s great! Congratulations, you were some of the lucky few who were able to break the cycle of poverty. But then, what you actually mean is that you went to some of the few public schools that are situated in well-to-do areas, in an era when budgetary constraints weren’t quite as tight, with parents who remained in a stable relationship and were able to assist you because they were educated themselves. This is a far cry from what I see every day in my school’s context. Of course you did well!

Unfortunately, what this amounts to is a self-interested justification for an inequitable system, by people who I actually have a lot of respect for and would count as friends.

For the record, while I am not quite as wealthy as they are, I do have the means send my son to a private school should I wish (I won’t, but for different reasons) and, therefore, could easily fall back on the same empty justifications. But the difference is that I see, daily, how very little the students I teach actually have (and I teach in a category 3 school, two categories removed from those considered the worst off). I realise, keenly, that there but for the happy chance of birth go I… and there but for the same happy chance goes my son.

This isn’t going to change, and nor will the conditions of the public school sector. This isn’t an appeal that I think will actually change anything because, when faced with the kinds of responses that I’ve listed, it is patently obvious that it is impossible to penetrate the easily held ideologies of those who have. The tragedy is that this inability to understand the extent of their privilege affects children who should be able to expect better.

Ultimately, it has always been the way that the wealthy have complicated issues in order to justify their own attainment and maintenance of that wealth. Those complicated statements, parsed in the language of high-minded equality and laced with the benevolence of what ought to be right, hides a pretty obvious truth in this case. It is a truth that is as simple as the bricks and mortar before our eyes.