30 January 2012
So it’s back to school this week and the media are starting to grind out their annual stories that they dust off and make a gesture to updating at this time of the year.
At the top of the list is the question of cost.
This year the initial focus has been on stationery and the direction of parents towards a specific supplier. Of course the schools are clipping the ticket and getting a payment directly as a result. The company then tries to cover itself in by describing these payments as “grants” to the school under its benevolent and philanthropic scheme which will have a catchy little name of some sort.
When I went to school we got the cheapest books we could find and covered them with wall paper. Nowadays when they cover exercise books it is with a synthetic material that sticks to the books. This is excellent occupational therapy for the parents that end up doing it.
Stationery is stationery. Unless schools can show that they have secured a good deal for parents, a better deal than the parents could get on their own, they should stay out of it.
Then in a few days the story about school uniforms will appear in our papers. This is now another anachronism in education. Someone claimed to me the other day that the single achievement of the administrative reform of schools (as in Tomorrow’s Schools) had been to put primary kids into uniform. I doubt very much whether a school can dress its students more cheaply than any school uniform. I look in the windows of those uniform shops as I pass and on the basis of such scientific evidence, confirm that this is so.
A funny thing is that when I went to school there was no uniform but when I look at the school photos, invariably the boys are clad in grey and even a surprising number of the girls are wearing gym tunics of the old fashioned kind. But our school clothes would have been in the category of “tidy” perhaps even “going out” clothes and so got a use that was wider than any school uniform of garish colour, quaint checks, logos and stripes ever would.
So with the wide availability of young persons’ clothing at cheap prices, the days of school uniforms should be numbered. And the old argument that uniforms make it evident who should be at school and are a deterrent to truancy is well and truly defeated by the facts.
There could be an argument to be made about sunhats. It is a sensible requirement for which compulsion can be justified.
So, stationery and uniforms will tie the media up this first week. Then there is a lull while the media gets back into its diet of wall-to-wall coverage of road smashes, its continued support for the cult of the victim (of all kinds) and, since there is still time before summer ends, some competition that sees our morning paper filled with contributions from readers.
But by Week 3 it will be time for the hardy annual – the shock horror story of school fees. Of course no-one cares what the independents do, they charge what they like and their parents like what they charge since they are too polite to say otherwise.
But parents of children attending state school do ask the question: “If my child goes to a state school in a system that has since 1877 claimed to have a system that is free, compulsory and secular, why do I get a bill for a sum of money to have my child compulsorily attend this free school? This is a good question and it never gets a convincing answer.
In truth, these fees are charged by schools because they can get away with it. And this education black market distorts funding in an extraordinary way. High decile schools rake it in while low decile schools do not. The schools with arguably the greatest need are the ones with the weakest power in this.
It really should be regulated for reasons that are about equity, ethical behaviour and, indeed, the legal framework within which schools operate. But as sure as there are little green apples, the practice will continue, the complaints will be aired and nothing will be done to address it.
How refreshing it will be if the newspapers prove me to be wrong.