Chris Bonnor's speech from the HSC Q&A

If you were at our Q&A (or even if you weren't) and you want to know why a local school for the local community is so important, please read our keynote speaker's address below.

Chris Bonnor
Chris Bonnor

A couple of years ago I wrote a book with Jane Caro called The Stupid Country, how Australia is dismantling public education. We started with a fictitious letter from a principal to Year 6 parents saying in effect: if you want to enrol here you best be quick, because there are now fewer public high schools nearby.

Jane and I thought we were guessing about the future – but this future has already arrived for you, here in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

We said that more and more people would be forced to knock on the door of schools that set an entry test, charge fees, teach a particular religion or schools, which for other reasons, would turn them away. What we long regarded as one of our birthrights, a quality, free local secondary school, is progressively becoming harder to find.

Communities and social capital
Like many of you I grew up in a community with just one school – and the community poured all its energies into making it a quality school. I know some things have changed. Yes, most of us live in dormitory suburbs where people sleep at night and go elsewhere to work during the day. Families pay a big enough price for that. Many working parents often don’t see their kids in daylight hours. They no longer make a contribution to their community because they are rarely in it. We see the evidence of loss of community in so many ways.

But it shouldn’t be like that for our kids. Their growing years should be years they spend in their local community, growing up with their friends, enjoying and contributing to the networks.

This is a big part of social capital: friendships, professional and vocational circles, clubs, neighborhoods, churches and various other networks - when we can bond with others and bridge across the social and cultural divides. In this way we provide mutual support and benefit from learning from each other – and we welcome strangers in our midst.

This is the stuff of democracy. Strong social capital helps us all and each of us individually. It creates higher educational achievement, better performing institutions, faster economic growth, less crime and violence in communities and even better health and longer life expectancy. You can’t easily put a dollar value on all of this but there are certainly dollar costs when we don’t have it.

The importance of community schools
Schools are a big part of this because local schools are a focus for our interests, values and expectations. Schools are increasingly the most reliable source of stability and social support for many children and families.

But the effectiveness of schools in these ways depends firstly whether they exist and secondly on whether they are strongly supported.

When students travel to attend a school somewhere else the focus of the student’s family shifts to the other community. In effect the social capital in the home community is transferred to someone else’s school and community. This is especially noticeable when the student commutes away from a disadvantaged community because families don’t want to mix it with strangers. When this happens some communities, and their schools especially, suffer.

The new marketplace
Over the last two decades Governments have shown that they don’t fully understand what a school is. In one sense you can’t blame them. They have been driven by numbers and the idea that the economic marketplace will solve all our problems: if people don’t want to use public transport then let’s build freeways. If people don’t want to attend a school just close it.

Education changed from being a community and social benefit to being an advantage for individuals. To help families make individual choices we have now created a lopsided provision of things which we see as being desirable: selective schools, senior colleges, single sex, specialist schools, private schools.

Governments were also told to butt out of providing services. Private providers would do it better, we were told. The irony is that we did all this to increase choice, but in the process denied some communities of the most important choice of all: an accessible quality public school. Governments were told to save money and never go into debt. So many schools were closed.

Every time it happened it was couched in the free-market language of choice, advantage, diversity and opportunity. It probably made you feel all warm and runny at the time. We now know what the unregulated and rampant free-market did to the world economy. It’s been a shock. The same focus has also damaged our framework of schools. There are now worrying social and cultural as well as educational divides between schools – and as a result, between communities. We are going to pay a price for this.

Dollars or sense?
But tonight gives cause for so much hope. Maybe we’ve all had a big enough shock to prod us back to valuing community and social good – and valuing everything that schools provide. Maybe when we open or close schools we’ll also look at all the benefits and costs. A school is more than just a place of learning, more than a VCE factory. It isn’t a branch plant of a business, to be given the flick at the first sign of red ink on the ledger book.

Do we really save when kids have to commute to bigger schools in more distant locations - or has the real cost neatly been flicked from governments to parents? How do we measure loss of family time and community cohesion and the longer term costs and benefits in dollar terms?

Sometimes we have to carry smaller schools and remember one of the basics of urban geography course 101, namely that towns and suburbs go through phases of growth and relative decline and in so many cases re-growth – and that in this time there are fundamental services which will always be needed. It might be enticing to sell off a school – but they are extremely expensive to re-establish.

When you seek to establish a new school, as you are, you gather the figures to show that there is strong local demand. But we also have to re-educate political leaders about the whole purpose of schools. They need to re-learn about social capital and the part played by schools in creating the bonding and bridging between people within our community. A whole generation of leaders and opinion-makers have forgotten these things.

Taken for granted
In one sense this campaign in Coburg and in other places shows that communities cannot be taken for granted. The wake-up call is not only needed for governments but for us. We can’t just assume that the people and institutions which create communities, and become the glue which binds them together, will always be there.

We can’t just allow education to become a commodity or product - something that you might have to purchase to gain a private advantage. We’ve taken our schools, especially our public schools, for granted and we have lost many of them.

Sure, some public schools also had to relearn the meaning of service and learn about the value in having parents as part of the life of the school. But much of it comes back to us: we use it or we lose it.

So congratulations to the high school for Coburg campaign on its notable achievements to date and, I’m sure, the promise of much more to come.

Chris Bonnor

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