I have a photo on my wall of my grandfather as a young boy. Full of promise he was, and with musical talent, and his mother bought him, somehow, a piano, and enrolled him for lessons. Then she died, when he was just ten, and his uncle, effectively head of the extended family, demanded that the lessons stop, they were inappropriate for a boy from a poor family, all he needed to know was enough to play hymns in church. Oh, and by the way, time he was out of school and into a job – he knew how to read and write didn't he? And that was that.
It was a common pattern in Victorian England, where there was a place for everyone and everyone was in their place. An education League Table. The noble rich had excellent schools like Eton and Harrow where they were taught how to stay rich and rule the Empire while being prepared for respectable seconds at Oxford. The middle class with aspirations could try the flogging shop schools described by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, but it wouldn't change their rank at all. The poor had, at best, a village school where for a very few years they would learn, from an unqualified teacher, their times table and alphabet and, perhaps, how to sign their name, but before you could say "Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write", and probably before their age had reached double figures, they were out of school and down the mines and into the factories. They needed education for nothing more than that.
Government or state schools were meant to change all that. To provide, in Australia, a quality education for rich and poor alike. To provide a chance for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, or, for that matter, middle class backgrounds, to go as far educationally as their abilities and desires would take them. Oh there would still be those who wanted to recreate Eton under southern skies, providing an old school tie for Australian Boardrooms; or ensuring that children had no alternative to the religious certainties of their family. But if that's what you wanted to do you paid for it, otherwise you were all welcome at the local public school.
Julia Gillard's league tables are going to take us back to Dickensian times. Poor schools will get poorer as students are pulled out of them, rich ones richer as Julia unaccountably pours money into them. Eventually children from poor families will give up, as my grandfather had to do.
Look, I think gathering information on performance (as long as that is what you are really measuring, which is a question for another day) of schools is fine. There are many public schools in poor city areas and poor regional areas who have struggled for years as conservative and then Labor governments have pulled money out. Compounding the problems by naming and shaming them isn't something I thought I would ever see a Labor minister do though. Why couldn't Julia keep the results to herself? Keep them secret. But then turn up at a school, disguised perhaps as a teacher's aide, and suddenly announce herself as the secret millionaire who was going to write out a big cheque for the struggling school that had been trying so hard. Not rest content until every public school in Australia was equal on the level playing fields of Eton.
Come on Julia, I'll help you with the disguise.
All David Horton's earlier writing is here.