Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bitten by the art bug

For years the ANU School of Art has been a magnet for me. Like a pilgrim, each year I went to the open day looking into lecturers' eyes, searching for a sign, anything that said I was ready to change track.

I have wanted to go to art school for a long time. But something held me back, pulling at my collar and whispering: "It's a bit selfish isn't it?"

Surprisingly good marks at school and subtle messaging pulled in me in another direction. We make pictures, sculptures and Lego buildings before we learn to read and write, but we're too often expected to put them behind us.

Selfish or not, this week I finally began my three year degree - majoring in painting - joining scores of others, nervous and eager to get on with it after 'O Week'.

My dream began in Mr Milne's art class. Students were treated more like his equals, trusted with his precious inks and paper. The stools would scratch on the paint-licked concrete floor, but we found a place to chill, sort of meditate there, be ourselves. Those pimply years were punctuated by excursions to art galleries where works dazzled and made us think about what it was to be human.

After years working in journalism, in non-government organisations and in politics, isn't painting rather indulgent, a small voice within me goaded. 

Perhaps not. One of my friends told me it was "brave", another warned me to expect "extreme highs, lows and frustrations".  Another warned me against the choice; at seeing visual art as some kind of personal therapy. He should know. He's a former artist now. "It's not a panacea."

Pablo Picasso once said: "a painter paints to unload himself of feelings and visions". So maybe it is selfish. Maybe after years of doing other things perhaps I have things I have to say, a memory bank ready to unload. 

Reverberating in my ears are the words of Hanna Kay, a successful painter I met a few years back: "Go to art school because you want to. That's the only reason."

Why not just dabble with paints at home, rather than take on a new student debt? (Who knows what degrees will cost beyond the current political stalemate). "Art school is about immersing yourself, but there's a very practical part to it," says Hanna. "It's very difficult to go beyond your studio and out there if you don't have a support system. Nowadays it's harder to break through."

But what is it actually for? Swiss writer and philosopher, Alain de Botton says art guides and exhorts us to be better versions of ourselves. We notice it more when it's missing. 

"Art is a tool to help us with a number of psychological frailties which we would otherwise have troubling handling," he says: "Our inability to understand ourselves, to laugh sagely at our faults, to empathise with and forgive others... to remain tolerably hopeful, to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and to prepare adequately for death."

Hanna Kay paints works of conceptual realism, dwelling in the detail of nature - rocks and water, grass, nests and shadows. They are beautiful, feeding a public need for images that are so realistic they temporarily deceive. She takes up to two months to complete a large painting, layering one coat of oil over another till she suddenly stops. "I stop when I'm happy," she says. But how do you stop the voice in your head from saying, 'Is this any good?' I ask. "You don't," she replies. "It's part of the whole thing"

Yes, art is in the eye of the beholder, but not necessarily reliably. If art is ethereal, how can it be assessed as any good? That worries me. Hanna too. She says the fear of being no good never stops. "I have 40 years behind me, relatively successful. I'm showing all the time. I'm selling. It never goes away."

Australia's Ian Fairweather, a recluse, created abstract and calligraphic paintings on mere cardboard as a kind of meditation for himself. "In the end, you are talking to yourself," Hanna Kay responds. "That's what painting is about. It's true to what you want and feel."

It is fitting that Fairweather produced arguably his best work after surviving a suicidal raft voyage across the Timor Sea. Painting, he said, gave him a satisfaction akin to religion - it brought him closer to the truth.

Hang on. That sounds like journalism and politics, at least at their best, a matter of necessity rather than an indulgence; pursuits that should take us to higher ground.

First published in The Canberra Times

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Growing education divide that ricochets

Monday was a magic day for 5000 newly minted Year 7 students. They went to high school for the very first time.

But in Canberra they did it differently. Whereas in NSW the bulk of them went to government schools (58 per cent) in the ACT only 49 per cent went to the ACT government's own schools. The majority - 51 per cent - went to private schools, around 1700 to Catholic schools and another 900 to others if previous year's figures are any guide. The ACT has the uncomfortable distinction of being the first state in the nation in which more parents send their children to private high schools than government ones.

It's all the odder when you consider that ACT government high (and primary) schools are among the nation's best, and odder still when you remember that the ACT is largely a government town.

Yet I have heard countless times from parents and friends that they are going private because they are not going to "sacrifice" their children.

What's going on?
Lindy Beeley retired in 2013 after 35 years' teaching and running ACT public schools. She says it comes down to a lack of trust in children.

"When I started there wasn't anything near the drift to private high schools that we have experienced in the last few years. Parents increasingly seem to distrust their kids to hang out with the 'right kind of kids'," she tells me.

The result is schools are less diverse. Social capital and a demographic mix are stripped from public schools."That can't be good for inclusive communities," she tells me. Learning with a range of people helps build social adaptability.

Ross*, a parent at my own children's public primary school, offers a glum assessment of why parents are making the switch – for cachet.

"I think a growing number of parents are sending their kids to private schools because that's what their friends are doing," he says. "Like driving large four wheel drives around a city, sending kids to private school has become the norm because most people don't want to be the last ones on the road driving a small car or be the last parents to pull their kids out."

As living standards rise in a country as wealthy as Australia, people will inevitably spend their rising incomes on things other than basic needs. Canberra residents are wealthier than most. It needn't matter that there's little evidence that private schools are any better (just as there's little evidence that four wheel drives are safer).

My friend Carol is surprised that her son is now at a private school. "I know I am a contradiction because I support a strong public education system," she says.

"I even hassled Kevin Rudd about it when Gonksi was being debated. I told him when he was prime minister that I thought the GFC money for school halls was wasted on private schools that didn't need the finance when my boys' public primary school desperately needed a coat of paint."

The Gonski review recommended needs-based funding.

"We were planning for my son to go to Lyneham High," she says. "It's a great public high school but we were then offered a place at Daramalan at the last minute. We couldn't say no. We're not practising Catholic but I tell my boys that our values derive from Christianity. My son is not that resilient. He needs that extra support."

Deborah Tranter, an adjunct senior lecturer in education at Flinders University, says parents go private "not for religion, but for prestige".

And she sees something else at play. Parents want private schools to compensate a lack of discipline at home. "Students have heaps of latitude at home and their parents know it, so they seek to outsource discipline to private schools," she says.

Dr Tranter says she's concerned that so-called low-fee private schools in poorer neighbourhoods "cream off students with aspiration". It isn't good for the state system, she says.

And yet in Canberra there's a curious switch back to state schools in Year 11. It might be that by then children need less discipline or that the government colleges are simply so good at preparing students for university that parents overcome their prejudice and switch. A health practitioner told me he had rented an apartment in Narrabundah precisely in order to secure a spot for his daughter at Narrabundah College, such is its reputation for excellence.

We'll be more informed about what drives the choices parents make when Education Minister Joy Burch releases in coming weeks the findings of a parent survey conducted late last year. The ACT government interviewed parents and carers with students in government schools about their perceptions of the public and private education systems and the role of marketing (we know non-government schools have a budget to do that well).

The drift into the non-government sector may also be explained by the squeeze on household budgets in the early years. The leap to private school fees is not that big if you're used to paying exorbitant child care fees – even with a generous rebate. As Carol explained: "We feel like we are now in the black. My son's high school fees are less than our annual child care costs were. And the non-government school our son goes to is not as expensive as some privates."

The choices we make are complex and each family is different. But my heart aches knowing that when families like Carol's, with passion and concern about inequality, opt out we have less chance of making schooling work. We all benefit when all of our children do well.

*Not their real names. First published by Fairfax Media, February 5 2015.