The notion of 'public good' in state education needs to be redefined. It should map out the government's role and include core values recognised the world over, writes Brian Caldwell.
REACHING a new settlement on what is public education may be the defining project for educators and policy-makers in the early years of the 21st century.
The central issue is the role of government and the concept of "public good". For more than a century, public education has been synonymous with public control, public funding, public ownership and public delivery, with "public" being represented by "government".
It is clear, however, that this view is being challenged, especially in Britain, where support services in several local authorities have been privatised. The private sector is playing an increasingly important role, notably in education action zones, and support is growing for schools to be run as profit-making institutions. Some have even advocated that the Government should vacate the field altogether, leaving school provision to the private sector.
The way forward is to move from a focus on inputs ("more money please") or on means ("only government should be involved" or "leave it to market forces") to unrelenting concern for outcomes, underpinned by commitment to core values. This should be the "third way" in defining public good.
Many commentators persist in defining the third way as an alternative to socialism or capitalism, or to the free market or government regulation. Tortuous tomes have been written on the topic. As Prime Minister Tony Blair has stated, the third way calls for absolute adherence to core values. But in getting there, as he says: "we should be infinitely adaptable and imaginative in the means of applying those values. There are no ideological pre conditions, no pre-determined veto on means. What counts is what works."
The challenge in putting the public good back into public education is to be clear about the ends that are sought, and the values that should underpin both means and ends.
There is a consensus emerging among nations about the ends, if key statements of policy by governments and institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and UNESCO are taken as a guide. It goes something like this: All students in every setting should be literate and numerate and should acquire a capacity for life-long learning leading to successful and satisfying work in a knowledge society and a global economy.
Since all governments are seeking to achieve this outcome, it seems an appropriate contemporary definition of "world-class" education. I does not, of course, represent all aspirations for state schools - it is simply the common ground. Different nations, systems and schools will add their own. For example, Confucian-based societies give priority, even pre-eminence, to moral education, and the nurturing of harmony between state, society, family and citizen. The emerging international consensus says world-class public schools would be based on six core values.
Choice: the right of parents and students to schools that meet their needs and aspirations.
Equity: to provide assurance that students with similar needs and aspirations will be treated in the same manner in the course of their education.
Access: to ensure all students will have an education that matches their needs and aspirations.
Efficiency: to optimise outcomes given the resources available.
Economic growth: to generate resources that are adequate to the task.
Harmony: to remedy the current fragmentation of commitment and effort in support of schools.
The idea that core values should shape a new view of public education was expressed recently by Jerome Murphy, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who believes that: "What will determine whether we call them public schools is not so much the vehicle that's providing the education, but really whether they ascribe to a certain set of public values. Values like equal educational opportunity, values like non-discrimination, and so on."
Getting the mix right is crucial, given three entirely feasible but very different scenarios for the future of public schools. Scenario one will see public schools as safety net schools - a likely consequence of sticking to a century-old view of the public good and extrapolation of trends to private schooling.
Scenario two foreshadows "the decline of schools", with advances in information and communications technology and growth in home schooling. Scenario three suggests that all schools can be public schools if a settlement can be achieved on the core values that should form the basis of the public good test. Decisions made in the next two to five years will determine which scenario shall unfold.
The stakes are high. But with the right leadership and the unrelenting commitment of teachers, and parents, a golden age for education is at hand.
Brian Caldwell is professor and dean of education at the University of Melbourne. He presented a seminar on "Putting the public good back into public education" in The TES series on Challenge and Change in Education at Keele
University, earlier this week
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