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Public education fiasco can be fixed by restoring power to parents

Public schooling has become an arena of mischief and failure, in which parents are powerless to influence what their children are taught.

The system cries out for reform. It is a policy issue of the first order, yet even on the verge of an election it receives no mention.

When children leave the classroom en masse to promote unproven views in the streets, the schools betray their educational commitment. And when those children return to their classroom, it is one of ideology (such as the notorious, Marx-inspired Safe Schools program), interrupted teaching and disorder instead of true instruction and objectivity — with pockets of excellence all too rare.

Evidence shows our public schools lag behind most of the advanced nations in promoting students’ skills and knowledge, while disruptive behaviour is common. The OECD remarks on findings from the Program for International Student Assessment that “Australia has a ‘problematic situation’ in terms of classroom discipline”.

Despite more and more money for schools, the Productivity Commission, in its National Education Evidence Base report, observes that student achievement shows “little improvement and in some areas standards have dropped”.

The loss is not just educational; it is also moral failure when the reasonable expectations of parents for their children’s education may be ignored.

Appropriate conduct under legitimate authority and discipline in the classroom have substantially disappeared, and the children’s loss is shared by their parents, who lack any serious capacity to intervene and help stem the decline.

Given that successful education of a child requires peace, discipline, commitment and respectful and responsible conduct by child and teacher, does the public schooling system provide the motivations and the management system that will achieve those ends?

If appropriate learning ought to be the supreme objective, the answer to that question must be a negative. Control and power in public schools are being directed to supporting the ideological interests and teachings of their staff, to the impotent dismay of parents. They may complain, but they lack any formal powers of intervention and control.

The public schools increasingly are concerning themselves with gender issues and political ideology, contrary to the wishes of many, if not most, parents. Public schooling has become answerable only to itself. For several generations such schooling has steadily evolved to this condition with relatively little challenge.

The most far-reaching institutional and systematic abridgement of the power of families to shape the education, moralisation and socialisation of their children followed the introduction of universal and compulsory free education in the last third of the 19th century. Before then, providing for the education of children — like the provision of the no less important essentials of food and clothing — was in the hands of parents. They were assisted by subsidies, or what amounted to subsidies, from the state and the churches.

The state helped pay for education but did not provide it itself.

But, as the state steadily took over the provision of the free education, children and their parents fell into the hands of a single supplier and escape into the private system became very costly.

The public system therefore ­neutered the power of the parents’ purse to monitor, judge and influence what was happening to the education of their children. Reform would be possible if this power could be restored to parents.

Some would argue that education should be “value free”. Nevertheless, issues of value and virtue may arise in many school situations and it is vital that parents should be well informed and enabled to exercise power in deciding what is to be done.

The only effective source of that power is control of school fin­ancing. Governments are ostensibly the agents of parents’ school interests, but in practice governments have a conflicting interest as the producer or provider of schooling. The history of public education records that this conflict has usually been resolved in favour of producer interests to which the interests of parents and children have been sacrificed.

Teacher unions are the most powerful of these interests and they are frequently inimical to the interests of children and parents.

If progress is to be made, the present unhappy state of public education as a key institution should be prominent in public debate and subsequent action. A crucial object should be to endow parents with the power to control the financing of the public education of their children.

Barry Maley is a senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.