Commodification of education a slippery slope

The daft and radical idea of charging high-income parents for public schooling included in a secret draft of a federation green paper was canvassed by one ABC reporter as an attack on the culture of entitlement. But it might be the opposite.

Many members of my extended family are teachers, among them my husband's mother. Margaret taught maths at an Adelaide girls school. She used to pile up gifts of perfume and soap in her bedroom wardrobe. While education is a right, to her students it was also a gift. Margaret received something other than soap in return: the opportunity to teach emerging adults. The respect and appreciation was mutual.

Entitlement creates neither gratitude nor engagement. This is a key finding of Dr Kerry Howells, a teacher educator at the University of Tasmania. She found that the more students were aware of the money they or their parents paid for education – be it school fees or higher education contributions – the less grateful they felt. The less grateful they felt, the less present and engaged they became. Complaint set in and clouded students' ability to be present in their learning.

Howell found that teachers have been feeling less appreciated over time, as education has become more commodified. They were "seen as someone employed by the parents, rather than someone who was giving something precious". They described being seen as someone who delivered a product, "caught in the grip of an exchange paradigm" rather than a person giving of themselves.

One of the most famous studies in behavioural economics finds that late fees, imposed to encourage parents to pick up their children from childcare centres, have the opposite effect. Before fines were introduced in the childcare centres studied, children were picked up late around eight times per week per centre. Afterwards, late pickups jumped to 20 per week. Parents felt entitled rather than engaged.

Fees turn students into clients. Instead of considering how they should live, students who know they are paying fees are more likely to look for instructions on how to make a living.

As soon as the recommendation in the Tony Abbott's draft green paper came to light he shot it down. Owning it would have been political suicide. But at some level his government must have been thinking about it.

If he was serious about better using public funds he would stop using them to boost private schools and concentrate on public ones.

In any event it isn't right to describe public schooling as free. We pay for it through taxes. Some parents choose to pay more by going private, and others who can afford to give more do so through the public system, voluntary. And they contribute in other ways other than financial. Parents give their time, volunteering in the canteen, at fundraisers, as in-class helpers and so on.

Many families in my part of Canberra choose to work part-time in order to help in their local school and to be available for in those precious pre- and post- school hours. They understand that they are part of a social project, involving parents, teachers, and children. They understand that it takes a village to raise a child.

Students whose parents take part in their schooling in partnership with teachers record better outcomes. They have better attitudes, are more likely to take on more challenging tasks and are more likely do well at them.

Their parents are also more likely to defend and lobby for public schools. If compulsory fees sent high-income parents away to private schools, public schools would have even fewer defenders. Public schools would concentrate on serving poor people with little lobbying power. Private schools would concentrate on the rich, who would lobby for the schools to become richer still. Communities would further fragment.

And perhaps become less soulful. To paraphrase the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, education is more than discipline and ticking off competencies. It is the business of creating people who can participate in inclusive society regardless of their means; citizens who are much more than individual cogs in an economic system.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 3, 2015

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