Education and the Conservative Mindset

The right to a free Education in Australia is a universally accepted and fundamental part of our social contract. What is anything but universally accepted, is what we mean by “free education”.

Education can hardly be called free, if you have to pay thousands of dollars in fees, tens of thousands for some private schools. Parents want the best for their children, that much is clear. They pay private school fees mainly, because they believe their children will get a better education. Paying thousands of dollars per child, one would certainly hope so. Paying tens of thousands of dollars per child, they’d be mad not to insist on it!

Of course, other drivers are involved, too. Depending on your social class (yes, there is something like that even in egalitarian Australia) and/or your friends/neighbours/family grouping and their educational and socio-economic inclinations, sending your kids to school in the “right” uniform (private, naturally) is seen as good parenting and the “conscientious parent” status inferred or perceived doesn’t go astray, either.

It doesn’t really matter if private schools actually provide better educational outcomes. Even the perception that they do, creates a two-tier system. State (public) schools provide ‘basic’ outcomes, private schools provide better outcomes. True or not, the ‘divide‘ goes even deeper than that. The old ‘school tie’ system, still permeating British society, lives on even in Australia. Surprising really, since most other aspects of Australian life are firmly rooted in egalitarianism and meritocracy. Applicants with a top notch private education vying for top tier public service, bluechip corporation, iconic legal, banking, tax and other high profile business positions, do and can expect an edge.

From a scientific point of view, a two-tier education system is undesirable. It skews the participation rate of private education in favour of the offspring of more educated and/or relatively more wealthy parents. Since less educated and/or relatively poorer parents in Australia are more numerous by comparison, the gene pool of meritorious students available for private school attendance is therefor much smaller. Intelligence, the power of recall and cognitive ability are the undisputed indicators for advancement in a meritorious education system. Scientific studies confirm that a higher educational level and the relative wealth of parents have no significant impact on the intelligence quotient of their offspring. Tellingly though, children of higher educated and earning parents consistently have better economic outcomes.

The realisation that a system with a fundamental flaw, detrimental to the public good, needs a radical rethink, is anathema to the conservative mind. As a matter of fact, a radical rethink of any kind is anathema to the conservative mind! The conservative mind is a more or less closed system; it views the world in myopic, monochromatic fashion. The more extreme the conservatism, the more closed it is to new ideas and fact based insights.

Climate change, the cause and its veracity, are a prime example of the conservative minds inability to comprehend and process paradigm shifting concepts. Their refusal to accept overwhelming scientific consensus, preferring instead to concentrate on the opinions and arguments of minority detractors, often clearly conspiracy theorists, is evidence of a ‘closed mind’.

The definition of a closed mind is “an inability to shift its opinions in the face of, even overwhelming, new evidence or ideas”. The definition of a conservative mind is a “person steeped in traditional values, an aversion to change of any kind, a moral dogmatism unable to follow, comprehend or adapt to an ever changing social, moral and ethical paradigm”.

If such a conservative mind is intend on lending its “wisdom” to the health of a nation via the ‘noble’ notion of public office, you have the quintessential conservative politician. Truly a thing to behold: A tour de force in their application to the cause, single-mindedly pursuing their chosen stratagems, repeating with honest conviction the, carefully selected, sound bytes du jour; blissfully ignoring, without a trace of guilt or shame, the most outrageous hypocrisies of their positions or arguments. A single-mindedness matched only by their polar opposite, the socialist “true believer”.

So, how does a society change from an entrenched and flawed education system to a better one? A reasonable strategy might be to look at the most successful ones used by countries with comparable societies. The consistently best performing countries in those terms are Finland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway. The outstanding performer in this list is Finland, with a system so different from Australia‘s, it regularly gives conservative minds considering it for us, a severe case of apoplexy.

The most striking similarity of these European countries is the almost complete lack of private schools. Even Switzerland, famous for some of the most exclusive and expensive private schools in the world, only has 2% percent of its own students enrolled in private schools!

Surprisingly, a regime change, in Australia that would mean a Labour Government, is not the answer. Our first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, introduced some sweeping changes, hoarded no doubt, from her years as minister for education and a ‘fact finding trip’ to, of all places, the USA; New York’s Bronx and Harlem in particular. What she took away from some of the underprivileged schools she inspected, was a ‘new’ system of measuring educational outcomes. Never mind that the schools in question were some of the worst performers in the USA. Using the ‘new metric’, they had improved by an impressive margin. Still underperforming compared to the average, but they had improved! That was good enough for Julia! The improvement in underprivileged, largely black ghetto schools seemed a perfect match for Australia’s egalitarian, multicultural and first world education system.

It introduced competitive pressure into our education system, forcing schools to attenuate their methods of implementing their curriculum to make or exceed the, artificially normalised, NAPLAN average. Parents were encouraged to look up ‘their’ school’s position and presumably, if results were below par, either tear strips of teaching staff or move their children to the closest best performing school; the concentration of better performing schools in more affluent neighbourhoods an inevitable consequence.