Being an educator in ‘interesting times’

These are strange times for education – or, in the words of the oft-quoted Chinese saying, ‘interesting times’.

On the one hand, we are told on an almost daily basis that education is of para- mount importance. It was always important, but somehow, today, it is more important than ever.

Take parents, for instance. At all income levels and everywhere in the world, parents know that education is critical in shaping their children’s destinies. They have always known this, but it seems more crucial today and the pressures to succeed feel even greater. And they are right. There is no stronger predictor of affluence and wellbeing later in life than one’s level of education. Education is the most achievable route to social mobility.

Meanwhile, growing anxieties about globalisation and technology are creating new opportunities as well as new divisions. Persistent issues of equality of access are coming to the forefront of people’s concerns, at the local level and around the world. New fears about identity and security are emerging just as the spirit of freedom and choice appears more lively and insistent.

In the broader public discourse, people are talking about the ‘knowledge society’, the ‘new economy’ or the ‘knowledge economy’ (Peters and Beasley 2006; McMahon 2002). Take the world of work: it’s not just that knowledge-heavy professions are employing more people – in information and communications technologies and services, in health, in human services and in education itself. Even traditionally manual industries, such as manufacturing and agriculture, now require ‘knowledge workers’: people who have technical and scientific knowledge and skills, and who also have the social skills required to operate effectively in a diverse workforce, to interact in collaborative teams, to provide better service relationships to customers, to use networks effectively and to be more sensitively aware of the broader human and environmental impacts of their actions (Cope and Kalantzis 1997).

See Michael Peters on the Knowledge Economy.

Education is not only expected to address the challenge of changing skill and knowledge requirements; it is also expected to provide solutions for inequality, poverty and prejudice, as well as to enable social justice, cohesive sociality, job skills, scientific discoveries, wealth creation, personal fulfillment and self-realisation. Our political leaders make promises like these every day. Their rhetoric shows just how wide and deep are the expectations placed on education today.

See Political Leaders, Speaking of Education.

The resourcing crisis

However – and this is the ‘strange’ aspect of our times – educators are getting conflicting messages about education’s value. For every moment in which it seems our society is valuing knowledge and education more highly than it did in the past, there is another moment in which it appears that education is devalued. Education falls prey to perpetual funding crises, often linked to taxpayer revolt, small government conservatism and the shrinking size of government budgets. This presents a significant crisis, given that modern schooling has mostly been publicly funded. How, then, do we improve teacher–student ratios in public schools? How do we bring teacher salaries closer to those of other similarly qualified professionals in equally demanding jobs? How do we fund the new essential of learning – a web-enabled ubiquitous learning device for every learner – or new areas of learning to address difficult areas of social concern (such as sexuality and drugs) or specialist aides who can assist teachers in an era in which we are properly much more sensitive to individual learner needs as a consequence of a more finely calibrated recognition of the range of disabilities? The answers to these questions are more straightforward for affluent communities, who have the tax revenue to be able to spend more on education or who can afford to pay higher school fees under the ‘user pays’ principle.

A comparison with the social cost of health care is relevant here. In 2009, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries spent 9.5 per cent of their total national incomes on public and private expenditures on health, up from 7.1 per cent in 1990 and 5.0 per cent in 1970. The absolute figures are much higher, because of the substantial growth in national incomes over these years (OECD 2009). These increases reflect the cost of developing and making widely available new medical procedures, technologies and pharmaceuticals, and to employ many more medical professionals. Even with this level of expenditure, there is still a long way to go to make the possibilities of modern medicine available to all. Some people and communities are able to afford the latest medical services; others are not. Meanwhile, costs continue to rise, and so do demands for universal access.

However, the story is different for education. On average, total public and private expenditure on education in OECD countries has not kept up with national income. Across OECD countries in 2002, 6.1 per cent of national income was spent on education, but by 2009 this had dropped to 4.6 per cent – and this was despite the fact that young people were staying at school longer (OECD 2009).

As a society, we don’t yet seem to have realised that education adequate to today’s social requirements requires a significant additional social investment. It’s just too easy for taxpaying generations to suggest that the user – and, in the case of children, this means the parent – should pay for education. As public education fails to meet parents’ increasing expectations, in many parts of the world there is a drift away from public schooling. Even parents who find private schooling hard to afford are feeling the pressure and investing in private schooling for their children. If you want a full-service school – every child with a laptop, up-to-date curriculum and personalised attention with specialist support – the only choice available, it seems in many cases, is to go to a private school and pay fees. The consequence of shrinking public education is that significant groups of the population, indeed the majority of the populations of developing nations, are missing out on a decent education. Education, despite its promise, ends up contributing to the vast breadth of inequality on a global scale.

This, then, is a peculiar moment for education. Education is more important to society and individuals than ever before – nobody would deny that. But as a society we seem reluctant to invest in it sufficiently to perform the bigger and more significant role it is now expected to play. If education is so important, and so much more important now than it ever has been in the past, then, as a society, we need to make a commitment to invest considerably more, not just in current educational arrangements, but also developing new ideas and then producing evidence to back our claims that the investment is worthwhile. It is our role as educators to advocate for education, to make a claim for the allocation of the social resources required in order to meet expanding expectations.