Equality of education puts system to the test

Sharon Beder


Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Equality of education puts system to the test', Newcastle Herald, 16 January 2001.

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications


The distribution of resources to schools means that some students are getting better education than others, according to Sharon Beder.

THE education system is supposed to be part of the social apparatus that ensures equality of opportunity, enabling those with ability and application to get good qualifications that give them entry into the best jobs.

School education, in particular, serves as a selection mechanism, a filter by which children are funnelled into `appropriate' occupational positions.

Schools label and stream children, sending some to the higher status academic streams and others to the lower status, more vocationally oriented streams.

However, the selection process that is provided by the educational system is not independent of a child's background. Quite clearly, the school a child goes to depends on their parents' income and place of residence and the resources available to schools vary considerably.

State schools in poorer areas have larger class sizes, fewer resources, fewer course choices, fewer specialised teachers and teachers have less discretionary time to devote to students. It is well known that the smaller the class the higher the achievement.

Since the 1990s, funding for government schools has been declining while government funding for wealthy private schools has increased. The consequence has been falling school retention rates (the only country in the OECD to experience this) with only 60% of boys in government schools finishing high school, and even fewer in the poorer government schools.

A child's experience at school not only affects his or her job opportunities but also job aspirations.

Ralph Miliband, in his book The State in Capitalist Society, suggested working class children were confirmed in their future status `by virtue of the starved education' which they are given `and by the curtailment rather than the development of further educational opportunities'.

He claims that `the very fact that some working-class children are able to surmount these handicaps serves to foster the notion that those who do not are themselves, because of their own unfitness, the architects, of their lowly fate, and that their situation is of their own making'.

Similarly, R. W. Connell in his book Ruling Class Ruling Culture showed that working class Australian teenagers often recognised which jobs were the best ones but had disqualified themselves early on because they had decided they were not intelligent enough.

The children were in fact of normal intelligence and school performance but they had `working-class' expectations. Yet they explained their lower expectations to themselves in terms of whether or not they `had the brains'.

The Australian Council for Educational Research has found that students in government schools tend to be doing vocational subjects far more often than those attending private schools and that the students doing vocational education had parents who were mainly in manual jobs so that the establishment of vocational education in schools `retains a social division'.

In schools where students are predominantly from poor and working class backgrounds, rules and obedience and ability to follow instructions are empahsised.

These not only mirror the types of workplace conditions their parents are used to but also those they are likely to find themselves in.

Their parents tend to prefer this type of education as it reflects their own experience in the workplace where they have found submission to authority is necessary to getting and holding a job.

Because of the emphasis on discipline, school tends to be unpleasant for many working class children and they are keen to leave early.

They then blame themselves when, in later years, their lack of schooling prevents them from getting the well-paid, higher status jobs or the promotions they would like.

In contrast, in the more affluent suburbs, where students are expected to fill higher level jobs in the occupational hierarchy, schools tend to be more progressive, with less direct supervision, encouraging more student participation, and offering more student electives.

Control over students is exercised through fostering internalised values and standards rather than discipline.

The school education system reinforces the idea that the distribution of status and wealth in society is fair because it is a system open to all and supposedly based on merit.

Those unable to gain good educational qualifications are therefore intellectually inferior or lazy.

Yet the unfair distribution of resources between schools ensures that some students get a far better education than others.

Parents know this, and most of those who can afford to, send their children to private schools.

This is an edited extract from Sharon Beder's book, Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2000.


Professor Sharon Beder is a visiting professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.herinst.org/sbeder/