We are told, from cradle to grave, that Australia is the land of opportunity; the lucky country. Even The Queen came to believe it. In 1954, at the end of the Royal Tour, she said, in her farewell broadcast: ‘Australia may well seem the promised land. For it is a spacious country with a healthy vigorous people and vast natural resources. Only a pessimist would set bounds to its future.’ The Queen was right; and it was true back in those days. Certainly, it is not true today.
I am a baby boomer. I was born two-years after the end of the Second World War. When it came time to leave school at the end of 1964, we had to decide what wanted to do, or be. What would we make of our lives? The possibilities were endless – teaching, the law, engineering, architecture, dentistry, nursing, banking. The world was our oyster. We were told, and came to believe, that nothing was beyond our reach.
In Western Australia, state education was free, including tertiary. If you had the aggregate marks from the five relevant categories – you needed both English and a language or maths to qualify, you were given a university place. Music substituted for a maths. For those students lacking family financial support, a Commonwealth Scholarship, or other educational grant, took care of the cost of your books. Students could seek rental assistance, or apply for a place in one of the University residential colleges. I lived in a wonderful boarding house in Bayview Terrace, Claremont. It was run by Mrs. McNicol who was a fantastic cook. Every night, she made certain the fridge was stacked with bowls of pudding left over from dinner, which students ate at midnight before tumbling into bed. Students had weekend jobs which, with penalty rates, earned them enough money to live for the week. They were wonderful days. You could smell the excitement in the air. We gathered in coffee shops to eat toasted raisin bread and solve the problems of the world. Gaudeamus Igitur, and all that! What went wrong I wonder?
The Australian Education Union (AEU), 2017 report,‘State of our Schools’, based on interviews with about 10,000 teachers and school principals, has that revealed teachers are spending hundreds of dollars of their own money to buy textbooks, classroom equipment, sports equipment, and even food, for students. It was the first time the survey asked teachers about the issue.
Of the more than 7,500 teachers who responded, 95 per cent said they had spent money on students out of their own wages. Two-in-10 teachers said they spent more than $500 a year to purchase supplies, and one-in-10 put the annual figure at $2,000. Most spent the money on classroom supplies including stationery and library resources or textbooks. Other items included reward stickers, sports equipment, and food for kids.
There was a time when the state education system was one of the best in the world. It was the reason my mother took me out of the convent and sent me to the state school: ‘They’re not teaching you fast enough!” If the AEU report is an accurate interpretation then one has to ask: What is happening in our state education system, and why? It is nothing short of a scandal. Children are our greatest natural resource. They have an inalienable right to expect, and receive, the best possible education available, preparing them to become positive and contributing forces to their communities. The technological revolution has transformed the world, irrevocably. Jobs, both white and blue collar, are vanishing at a disquieting rate – supplanted by technology. The question for school leavers has become more vexed; the options fewer: What can I do?
The situation is dire. There is no question: If the system fails to fulfil its responsibilities and expectations, we are committing our youth to a lifetime of certain unemployment. Already this is a stark reality for some. They come from homes where, for several generations, parents have been unemployed. They have no sense of a work ethic. They are the perpetual welfare recipients which, by its very nature, leads to serious societal dysfunction. Education is the only way to break the insidious cycle which is engulfing the social order. When the time came for me to go away to boarding school, my father sold his only asset, a house, for two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. My father lived, and died, by the sweat of his brown. He knew education was the only way I would escape a life of grinding drudgery in the goldmines of Western Australia. For that I am eternally grateful. We should, through our elected governments, being doing the same for the nation’s children.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.