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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When education favours division over diversity JOHN PILGER


Public education gave John Pilger his start, but as he told Sydney Boys High School this week, success in life is more than winning prizes.

It is strange for me to be standing on the stage where I last stood in 1957 as a member of the Sydney High first eight that had just won the GPS Head of the River. I was so proud. We had shown that High, a state school, could deploy the determination and skill, the spirit and intelligence that are often claimed as the monopoly of money and privilege. Most of our supporters on the river bank were not finely dressed. They did not drive smart cars. They were not always confident and assured. But they represented the way we were.

Yes, High is an elite school - it comes eighth in the government's new performance tables, but that is not the point. Public secondary education in NSW was pioneered at Sydney High; and as Australia has changed its Anglo-Irish characteristics for a nation drawn from all corners of the earth, this amazing diversity is celebrated at High in common with most public schools which, unlike the private sector, speak for the wider Australian community.

The Rudd government's recent publication on the My School website of school league tables is an attack on this wider community and the very essence of "fair go". The hidden message of these lists is one of division and hopelessness to many young people not fortunate enough to be at a school like Sydney High.

For example, I looked up the primary school I attended - Wellington Street, Bondi. It rated No.564 out of 1100. Wellington Street is an excellent school, but it was never fashionable. The parents of kids who go there often have to struggle. However, not far away, Bondi Beach Primary is fashionable. Middle-class parents fight to get their offspring in. And it is more than 400 points up the list from Wellington Street.

In the west of Sydney, schools that have the responsibility of teaching students with English as a second language, and dealing with the poverty that inevitably comes with refugees, find themselves way down in the list.

In the country, Boggabilla is near the bottom of the list. Its students come from the indigenous community: the First Australians. According to a recent United Nations report on 90 countries, the Aboriginal people of Australia are so disadvantaged they have the worst life expectancy of any indigenous people in the world. This is shocking.

What will happen now to schools like Boggabilla that are named and shamed? The students, teachers and parents, for all their admirable often heroic efforts, may now feel more alienated from the Australian community than ever as a campaign of attrition is mounted against so-called failed schools.

What is the real aim of these lists? Is it to cut back state education and harness teachers to a dictated curriculum? Is it to replace a democratic system with a primitive corporate version?

I have watched this happen in Britain and the United States, disastrously. A New York model which has besotted the politically born-again Julia Gillard is a sordid exercise in failed extremism: of turning schools into competing businesses for no purpose other than ideological.

In Australia, this false debate serves as a political distraction from the scandalous fact the federal government bankrolls private schools at the expense of public schools. A wealthy private school like Knox Grammar gets an aquatic centre while the poorest schools beg for funds for a library. By 2012, Australian taxpayers will have given $12 billion more to obscenely wealthy private schools than to the schools where the majority of our children are educated. This is wrong by any moral measure.

There is nothing more precious in a democracy than a well-resourced public education system that provides opportunity for all youngsters, regardless of income, race and class. Without it, I would have failed. Without it, the esteem and confidence of our youngsters is just another commodity.

The great American historian and teacher Howard Zinn, who has just died, was a champion of public education. His textbook A People's History of the United States challenged the propaganda of established power that claimed democracy as a gift from the top, not fought for by us.

"I wanted my students," he wrote, "to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble."

In congratulating all school leavers, I urge you to remember success in life does not necessarily come from prizes. What is important is the person you are, the kindness you express, the compassion you feel and the courage you show. Go into the world and relinquish the safety of silence and make trouble - remembering that the most important trouble is calling to account those who assume power over our lives.

This is an edited extract of an address by journalist and filmmaker John Pilger to the Sydney Boys High School annual speech night.

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