With our schools on the cusp of being cancelled due to the coronavirus, the divide between rich and poor kids will become clear.
In the wake of the headless chook response we’re calling ‘controlling’ COVID-19, it seems it is only a matter of time before all schools are closed. Most likely the powers that be will bow to increasing parental pressure.
Hopefully, their response will be evidence-based and well thought through and they will simply move the coming school holidays forward. That would be the easiest and most sensible solution. It would also be the fairest.
We have seen some well-resourced private schools close already and move to teaching their students online, which is all very well if your student cohort comes from relatively well-heeled families with access to high-speed internet and home computers. There have been suggestions that all schools should move to this method of lesson delivery for the duration of the pandemic. (But to return to the headless chook analogy I began with – who knows how long that will be?) This idea completely fails to take into account our very segregated school system and the very different resources available to the kids they teach both at school and at home.
And I don’t just mean access to hard and software either.
Kids are not poor through any of their own doing. A simple fact that seems to be comprehensively lost on too many commentators and leaders who ought to know better. Kids are only poor because they have been less fortunate in the lottery of birth. Such children have been born into households with less resources and less capacity to navigate their way successfully – at least economically – through the world. This means that a more economically fortunate child probably also has parents who are better educated and more confident in the face of lesson plans and learning material.
The kids who have less well-educated parents correspondingly need the expertise and support of their teachers more. And it is not only the economically disadvantaged kids who are at risk. All the kids who struggle with school work, all those who find it harder to self-motivate will get left further behind if expected to study online without a face to face teacher. We devalue what our teachers do at our most vulnerable children’s peril.
Kids are not poor through any of their own doing. A simple fact that seems to be comprehensively lost on too many commentators and leaders who ought to know better.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not begrudging the luckier child their good fortune and of course, parents should use their own skills to help their children – whether the schools are closed or not. After all, inequality has existed since time began. However, this inequality at birth is exactly why a public school system supported by every taxpayer open to every child, regardless of accident of birth, exists. Their task is to do whatever they can to ameliorate the inevitable inequalities visited upon all of us at birth. Our task as the wider community is to do everything we can to support their endeavours.
Tragically, in so-called egalitarian Australia, successive neo-liberal, winner-takes-all governments have done the exact opposite. They have further segregated students according to parental income, gender, religion, ability, you name it. They have overtly encouraged better-off parents to desert the public system altogether and they have over-funded private schools with a largesse unseen anywhere else in the world.
Our current government is even more egregious in this respect and a new report shows that the gap in government funding between disadvantaged students is now neatly the reverse of what it should be, with the per-student funding in Catholic schools at $14,350, $13,850 in Independent schools and $13,450 in public ones. Given that we know concentrating disadvantaged students in similarly disadvantaged schools compounds their disadvantage, we should be particularly concerned about those figures.
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However, to return to our headless chook response to COVID 19, that inequality of funding, of degree of difficulty faced by each school, and of available resources is precisely why we should not be delivering lessons online when (not if) we close the schools. Do it during term time and it will further advantage the already advantaged and further disadvantage the already disadvantaged, increasing the gap between our high achievers and low ones, not on merit but on privilege.
It is a much better idea that we move the school holidays – only about 3 weeks away anyway – forward. It’s not a perfect solution by any means but it is better than having a pandemic not only affect our health, our safety, our economy, people’s jobs and livelihoods but also lower the already marginal life chances of our poorest and most disadvantaged children and young people. If we need to extend the closures we must first acknowledge the glaring inequalities now built into our school system.
Then we must find ways to help the kids who will inevitably be left behind and fund that effort and support their teachers generously.
I hope it won’t come to that, because we all need a holiday, more so now than ever.