In the 1990s all Australian Governments had policies around gender equity in schools. Somewhere along the line this died and now education systems seem to act as if issues related to gender justice are no longer of relevance to education – the battle has been fought and won

How it died is a story in itself for another time.  In this post I want to suggest that it should never have died and that with the issues of relevance to women now being played out all around us – in the US elections, in the application of provocation laws in murder cases, in the Anglican church, in the comments about high performing female journalists and our PM, campaigns about Target’s clothing range, and even, or especially, in the world of comedians you would have to be living under a rock not to notice that women have not won the battle to be treated as full human beings worthy of respect.

Everywhere I look I see evidence of women’s hard won rights under serious attack – rights to contraception, to access to abortion – even in the case of rape and incest, rights to equality in the church and in marriage, rights to justice in the courts, rights to respect and rights to have our experience our insights our contexts and our histories taken seriously.

I found out today that the female Republicans in Tampa for the GOP convention have been catered for with a pop-up hair and beauty salon near the convention hall that promises to help them “woman up” (their language)[1]  while the men of the GOP gear up to talk policy, debate the merits of their platform, and listen to speeches about the Republican vision for America. I must admit I had a bit of a chuckle over this.  But it is not funny, not really.  Its message is powerful and scary.

I also came across an article by Clementine Ford about slut shaming[2] which shocked me.  She talked about being involved in a TV based discussion with men where the issue of sexy clothing for young girls came up.

Well I thought I knew where this was going – should we worry about young girls being pressured to adopt highly sexualized identities.  It’s a topic that has come up for discussion in the tweet-o-sphere quite regularly and it can be quite divisive.

But it wasn’t about whether it was bad for girls growing sense of themselves at all.  It was about the effect of this clothing on men”

“……should we be concerned about the kind of message 12-year-old girls are sending when they ‘dress up like prostitutes’? I listened as the kind of opinions generally offered on talkback radio and in the letters pages of tabloid newspapers were bandied around unchallenged without proper interrogation of their validity. An all too familiar consensus was reached regarding clothes and their multi-talented capacity for meaning and unspoken invitations – essentially, we need to educate young girls about dressing in a way that might give people the wrong idea.”

Ford reminds us that this kind of talk has a powerful message

 And I thought to myself, congratulations team. Well done. Because if statistics are anything to go by, you’ve just reinforced to one-third of the women present in this studio something they’ve always been afraid of – that they were responsible for their own rapes. That if they’d just dressed differently, acted differently or resisted differently, they might not have sent the kind of message that says, ‘I’m looking to be raped tonight. Any takers?’ …

At their heart, they betray an unconscious belief that men cannot be held responsible for the ways in which women tempt them – nor should they be forced to.

These are just two of today’s examples of what s out there.

So here is my question to teachers and education policy makers.  As teachers/policy makers you engage with the same media world I engage with – you hear the rape myths, the rape apologies, the attacks on women’s hard won reproductive rights, the use of the word cow and slut.  You hear similar things or worse – daily weekly or more often.  You also have advanced critical literacy skills, so are capable of critiquing these media messages and understanding their harm to women, girls, boys and men.  Given this, why is there no campaign to ensure that we systematically and comprehensively equip our students with the ability to engage critically with this sexist misogynist soup?  Why do we no longer highlight and question the gendered dimensions of classroom and school life? Why do we talk about bullying in schools but rarely sexual harassment or homophobia?

If you respond by saying of course we do that – you just don’t know about it I will be pleased not offended.  But please tell me more.  As a grandmother – fourth one born today  – I want to know that schools will equip my grandchildren and their peers reject sexism, homophobia and misogyny in all its manifestations.


JULIA PLEASE EXPLAIN – an example of what?

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gil...

English: Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard at a Q & A Session in Rooty Hill, New South Wales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, like many concerned citizens following the Gonski developments, or lack thereof, I read the text of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech to the Association of Heads of Independent Schools Conference.

While there were some worrying statements, the one that everyone is quoting goes like this:

“I’ve never looked at a big independent school in an established suburb and thought ‘That’s not fair’. I look at a big independent school in an established suburb and think ‘That’s a great example’.”

What does this mean?  A great example of what exactly?

One possible meaning is that our Prime Minister has a radical egalitarian vision going well beyond Gonski, or, for that matter, any previous proponents of school funding reform.  She is saying that the lush grounds, the well maintained housing stock, swimming pools and fully equipped facilities and classrooms in the wealthiest of independent schools in Australia sets the example we must follow for all schools.

By contrast, Gonski sets the resource standard at a level one might find in a school in a middle class suburb where most children are successful above national minimum benchmarks in NAPLAN literacy tests.  This is below the standard of the wealthiest of Government schools and far below the wealthiest of independent schools.

And the $5 Billion figure quoted in Gonski is an estimate of what it would cost, using 2009 data, to bring all schools up to this middle rank standard with additional allocation based on need.

Has the drive by a wealthy independent school given our prime minister a rush of blood to the head? Is she now going to find a way to ensure that “this great example” sets the standards for all schools? And if this is the base standard – or the standard for a sound education for our most advantaged children then there would still be a strong case for additional needs based funding. However if this is the governments proposal I will even give up campaigning for additional needs based funding.

If schools in the outer west in Melbourne and Sydney and in Arnhem Land had access to the kind of resources enjoyed by Kings School, Riverview, or Carey Baptist, it would be possible to set up the full range of culturally relevant wrap around services to support children dealing with the overwhelming challenges that go with being disadvantaged and living in a disadvantaged community. Teachers would not be able to be cherry picked by the independent sector through the lure of school provided accommodation, generous remuneration packages and other perks from capital investments.

If schools in the middle class suburbs of Northcote in Melbourne, Leichhardt in Sydney and Garran in Canberra were of an equivalent standard, the many parents who opt out of the Government system might stay, ensuring a socially mixed school community with articulate powerful parents to advocate on its behalf. And of course the greater the social mix of the school the greater the educational learning benefits, not just for the most disadvantaged, but for all students.

Our school choice scenario would be a little fairer.

However the alternative is that our Prime Minister might be saying ‘that is a great example’ of schooling for the children of our wealthiest and most privileged. We should support that because they deserve this.’

Is she echoing the values of that the old hymn ‘ All Things Bright and Beautiful’

 The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them, high or lowly,

And ordered their estate

Is her comment indirectly, or even unknowingly, referring to the rightness of the current set up – because it conforms to a deeply embedded sense of a ‘natural order’, where there are rulers and others.  If so it is a far cry from the vision and legacy of Sir Henry Parkes and many of our founders.

Education in Australia was designed to be compulsory not just as an individual market good, but as an essential social or public good – in the public interest. This is because the benefits of education to each individual aggregate to strengthen communities, the polity and workplaces. Universal provision was provided in order equip all future citizens, workers, parents, and community members to contribute to our social democracy and our economy.

As early as 1869 Henry Parkes articulated this vision

 …We are endeavouring to supply the means of sound instruction to those who, in a very few years, are to constitute the strength of the country…a Public school system in any country is an essential part of its institutions

Whatever may be our form of Government … Let us by every means in our power take care that the children of the country grow up under such a sound and enlightened system of instruction, that they will consider the dearest of all possessions the free exercise of their own judgment in the secular affairs of life, and that each man will shrink from being subservient to any other man or earthly power (my emphasis).

Neither of these explanations sound likely to me.  The PM is not an education revolutionary – her alliance with the worst of US corporate education reforms suggests that this is not the case.  More importantly, she knows we could never afford the public investment it would require to bring schools up to the standards of our wealthiest schools.

But the idea that the PM is an apologist for the current state of inequality doesn’t seem likely to me either.

I may have written some of this tongue-in-cheek but I am deadly serious when I say I have no idea what on earth Julia Gillard means when she says that the wondrous facilities and resources enjoyed by our luckiest of children at our wealthiest of schools is a great example.

An example of what exactly? After all she did not just look and admire, she promised them increased public funding, as a national priority.  And that demands a please explain.

Gonski – The poisonous pen of the IPA strikes again

Julie Novak’s article, Gonski report too narrowly focused shows once again just how little the IPA and its ilk give a dam for ‘other peoples children’.

But her statement that the Australian Education Union (AEU) is pushing for more TAXPAYER funding for GOVERNMENT schools for entirely self-interested reasons is beyond unacceptable – it is disgraceful.

The Australian Education Union has long called for the Gonski recommendations to be implemented, and it is not difficult to understand why. Additional taxpayer funding for government schools would further entrench teachers’ employment, and provide opportunities for the union to skim some of the extra funds via higher teacher salaries in any future negotiations with the states.

Teaching conditions have an impact on classroom learning conditions.  To think otherwise is idiocy.  Julie could ask the Independent Education Union of Australia for ther views on this link. The AEU have an interest in increasing funding for Government schools because they work in them and know the struggles and challenges involved in delivering high quality education in a cash starved environment that unequally serves the needs of the vast majority of our most needy students.

But we should also keep in mind that the AEU is the most important public school public school advocacy group that we have in this country and they wield nothing like the power of the independent schools lobby – the Independent Schools Council of Australia (ICSA) with the very outspoken and powerful ex senior public servant Bill Daniels as its Executive Director

Unlike independent schools, public schools do not have a Bill Daniel equivalent. The ‘caretaker owners’ of government schools are governments, and oddly enough they cant lobby themselves.  When an education system was established in the ACT there was such a body – the ACT Schools Authority – set up to be independent from Government and able to advocate for schools. But it did not last the first major budget cut.

And of course the Independent Schools Association are not at all self interested. They are seeking an increase in funding for the Independent sector because this is the most important  priority for Australia today and this is the most effective use of TAXPAYER funds and for the good of all Australians.  Do they really believe this?  Is it possible?  The article also suggests that up till now the independent schools lobby has taken a cautious approach but the gloves are coming off.  Well I am telling you now Julie, that the Government schools supporters have also, up to now, taken a cautious and careful approach.  They have kept quiet on the important things that implementing Gonski won’t fix, because getting a fairer funding base that is simple, transparent and adjusted according to need is so important.

But even if, by a miracle, we end up with the principles outlined in Gonski applied to education across Australia, we will still have one of the world most segregated and unequal funding systems in the world.  It is a system that spends less on government schools than most OECD countries and more on non Government schools than most (see below*).

*As I outlined in a previous post

“Our funding regime for Government and non-Government schools is highly irregular in global terms. Australia sits around the middle of OECD countries ranked in terms of per capita investment in schooling. But this obscures the bifurcated elements of the funding relative to other countries. Our funding to Government schools is very near the bottom, at third lowest. But our funding to the non-Government system is near the top of the list, at fourth highest.”

Why Women Are Silent About Sexual Harassment

This article Why Women Are Silent | Justine Larbalestier reminds us all, that sexual harassment and rape are  legitimised by a culture that accept this as normal and that tells women that they are over-reacting when they try and object or speak out.

In the 1990s I worked for a Australian Commonwealth Department  that shall be nameless.  But is probably recognised by many as soon as I say that the Secretary of the Department was a well known and constant sexual harassment menace.  While nothing was ever done to address the problem, there were many things done to manage it.

For example, at every event attended by the Secretary a minder was appointed to follow him and to stop him finding a reason for going out of the social space alone with any women or sharing a car home and so on.  They told me they had to be quite vigilant.  This was an official part of someone’s job and no-one seemed to think this unacceptable.

But the appalling-ness of this normalising culture really came home to me on one particular day when I had to report on an important project, that was running into problems, to a  meeting of all the senior executives.  At one point I said ‘ What will be the consequences of this project not delivering on time?”

The answer from a senior male bureaucrat: ” You get to spend an hour alone with the Secretary”.  This was in front of over 40 senior public servants many of them female.   I don’t remember that anyone objected, but the laughter rang in my ears for a long time. I can still recall my sense of  angry humiliation.

I do understand why women are silent but to this day I wish I had named this talk for what is was.