Elections focus attention on what we hope for in the immediate future, and what we aspire to become as a society.
My main underlying hope this year is that the atmosphere surrounding our national discourse will change. That the shrill tone and meanness of spirit that has dominated discussion on issues like immigration, security, energy and climate can be altered. If the tone and tenor of debate becomes more civil then we will all be better able to engage more constructively with each other, including those with whom we disagree.
What hope should we be looking for in education?
It’s easy to understand why governments focus on school funding, higher education, vocational training and more recently early childhood education. They are the big-ticket areas and they engender the most concern from parents, unions, sectoral providers and industry.
Policy has been dominated for decades now by a narrow concentration on education as a means to build competitiveness in the labour market. Will the next government simply continue on managing this policy setting, albeit with some important adjustments to the mix of school funding, restoring cuts in TAFE, higher education and research funding, ending the scandalous waste that accompanied the privatisation of VET, and expanding pre-school education?
Or could it set a new course?
We should ask if education, as currently configured, is meeting the needs of a complex society, beyond preparation for work. What if a new government set itself some more ambitious goals? Goals that recognise a broader set of educational needs. Goals that recognise that many learners don’t follow a neat linear path through education, and that one in five Australians are over the age of 60 and looking for different educational opportunities.
A more ambitious agenda would understand the need to foster learning throughout life and offer a progressive approach to learning for a contemporary society undergoing change. It would conceive of a new educational ecology that combines formal institutionalised settings and the many informal sites. It would support early childhood, school, post-compulsory, adult and third age learning, and recognise Indigenous knowledge and different traditions of learning while introducing positive strategies to support Indigenous participation in mainstream education. It would foster workplace and community education and focus on engaging discouraged and disillusioned learners. It would play a leading role in promoting and understanding cognitive development, new teaching and learning pedagogies. Its aim would be to provide skills and knowledge for a changing economy, to equip people to deal with rapidly evolving technology, to understand the social and economic changes taking place, to appreciate the vital issues of climate change and sustainability, and to use learning to foster community development especially in regional and rural areas.
Education can play a key role in developing a vibrant society, with individuals skilled for the economy, prepared for civic participation and democratic involvement, confident in responding to technological, scientific and demographic change, supportive of an inclusive and multicultural society, and encouraging their children to have a positive view of ongoing learning. However, for the past thirty years it has been too closely tied to narrow economic interests.
Governments, planners and funding bodies have over-emphasised learning for competitiveness and productivity while neglecting its contribution to our quality of life.
Learning for pleasure, social, civic or aesthetic purposes has been dismissed or downplayed. Because it’s harder to measure, planners and funding bodies neglect education that builds communities and active citizens and which enriches culture.
Providing and maintaining high quality and well-resourced school, higher and vocational education must remain a priority. However, there are many pressing social, health and economic issues that call for measures beyond administering the existing systems. They are essential issues of educational equity.
Establishing a national policy framework around education and learning that provides the umbrella to support and encourage all forms of organised education, and to then provide the resources to deliver on an expanded vision would make clear that a new government is committed to something more than business as usual.
The question after May shouldn’t be ‘Can we do more?’ but rather can we afford not to do more?
Every election raises hope that things will improve; lets hope that this year an incoming government will expand its horizon and mark the beginning of something better.