The New Child
War Over Work
The Patchwork Nation
Men Mateship marriage

Re-valuing and Re-structuring Primary School Education

Don Edgar
(Adjunct Professor, Centre for Workplace Culture Change, RMIT)


In a global information age, life-long learning will be central to our economic survival and to our social wellbeing. All the more important then, to examine closely the foundations of learning, those core competencies and attitudes laid down in the pre-school and primary school years of schooling.

The forgotten foundations of learning

It seems many of us (including education theorists and teachers themselves as well as politicians and administrators) have forgotten the value of primary schools in this life-long learning continuum. We have fallen into the trap of current economic dogma, which focuses on short-term outputs in dollar value terms instead of longer-term outcomes and the high cost of neglecting them. Science and technology are the skills most valued; vocational training for specific jobs is given more priority than broadly vocational education and the capacity for self-directed learning; the acquisition of specialist bodies of information takes priority over problem-solving, imaginative application of what has been learned and the transferability of skills; interpersonal competencies and social outcomes are seen as soft and unquantifiable, hence unworthy of curriculum attention or adequate funding.

Such distorted views about the value of education are reflected in the current funding differentials between primary and secondary schools across Australia.
The recent analysis of 'Resourcing of Australian State Primary Schools' by Les Bishop, for the Forum of Australian State primary Principals (FASPP) (November, 1999) gives a factual picture of relative poverty.

Commonwealth funding under the States Grants (Primary and Secondary Assistance) clearly favors secondary schools. In 1999, the General Recurrent Grants were made on the basis of $397 for each primary student and $585 for each secondary student. Other block grants are distributed by the States at the same ratio for primary and secondary schools. With some variations by state and territory, secondary school students in government schools attract between 22% and 53% more funds than primary school students, and the national average differential is 38%. Only the DETYA guidelines for Literacy funding focus on the early years of schooling, and they represent only 8 per cent of total Commonwealth funding to the States.

As well, secondary schools are staffed more favorably than primary schools, attracting an average 38% more teachers per student than the same number of primary students. The proportion of senior staff positions is higher for secondary schools and the average FTE Ratios are 17.6 for primary schools, compared with 12.7 for secondary. Secondary schools are also staffed more favorably with non-teaching staff than primary schools, especially with administrative and clerical staff.

Even more disturbing is the absence of any stated educational rationale for this bias in funding. Commonwealth financial assistance to government schools in 1997 added up to a total of $1.471 billion, yet “In none of the material examined was there a statement of rationale to support the differential approach to the funding of government school sectors. The only account of the means by which methods of calculation were arrived at was through reference to average costs incurred by state education systems in operating their schools. There was no evidence of a rationale which would support the position that the educational needs of secondary students are greater than those of primary students or more costly to provide … It is suggested that the reason for the differential treatment is based on historical prejudice and unexamined assumptions.” (p. 3 – 4)

The hidden logic appears to be circular: secondary schools have always been given more funds, so they cost more to run, so they need to be given more funding to meet those higher costs.  This rolls into another circular argument: that larger funds require more people to administer them, hence more senior and support staff, thus better funding.

Clearly, there is a set of assumptions which underpin the differential. Yet each one of these assumptions can be challenged, particularly in the light of the inevitable changes to the nature of schooling that will be forced upon us by the shift to a digital, information age.

Assumption 1: Secondary schools require more specialist subject teachers; and such specialties cost money - science laboratories, libraries, computer facilities, sports equipment. In the new information age, where creativity and the ability to apply knowledge to new situations are crucial skills, it is not specialised subject matter that counts, but learning how to learn. Primary school students need highly skilled mentors and guides in this process, and the staff-student ratio needs to be low enough to permit group work, individual attention to learning processes and difficulties. Without that, failure to acquire the basic skills of learning make a mockery of attempts later on to impart specialist bodies of information.

Assumption 2: Secondary schools usually have larger enrolments than primary schools, so they need more administrative and support staff. But size does not equal complexity, and given the new role as community hub/family resource centre that is envisaged for primary schools, they will need more, not less, administrative and support staff than secondary schools. In fact, increased linkages between smaller schools across regional clusters, and between primary schools and other family support services will require quite complex administrative systems.

Assumption 3: Secondary education is more important than primary because it prepares students for university entrance and/or a job. High school graduates are more valuable to society because they are closer to becoming a productive part of the labor force, so they deserve better funding. This is clearly putting the chicken before the egg. Everything we know about the digital age suggests that specific vocational skills become rapidly obsolete. The value lies in laying firm foundations for adaptive learning and lifelong curiosity and creativity.

Assumption 4: Bigger kids are more difficult to control, or to teach, so they require a better staff-student ratio to ensure positive learning outcomes. This is manifestly not true, given the deterioration of parenting skills, behavioral and emotional control in the family. The variability in children's home background as a foundation for formal learning is greatest at the start of schooling. Children need more personal attention, more individualised instruction, closer mentoring and supervision at that age than later on when the norms of institutional behavior have come to be accepted. The primary school teacher needs a lot of time for each student, or the inequalities they bring with them cannot be overcome.

It is important to understand, as background to this discussion about differential primary-secondary school funding, how the shift towards a knowledge economy makes it imperative that we develop a fully thought-through rationale for how our school system should be structured. We cannot afford to operate on outmoded, or incorrect, assumptions. Nor can we afford to neglect the foundation years of those who will make Australia a 'learning nation'.

Social trends affecting schools

There are three main trends affecting the way schools will have to operate in the new economy. One is the dynamic nature of work structures and processes; a second is the dramatic change in family structures and family functioning; the third is the altered balance between government and community partnerships in a global economy.

In simple terms, our schools were designed for an industrial era now gone. Secure jobs at fixed times, task routines within a carefully coordinated system of production, bureaucratic rules within a clear hierarchy of command were echoed in the old school model. Students had to learn basic literacy and numeracy in order to be productive and work safely; they had to learn conformity to a timetable and a hierarchy of command; they attended at fixed times and parents (at least mothers) were expected to be at home to look after them once school hours finished. Throw in a bit of civic education and physical education for the health of the body politic, and that was it. The elite paradigm of the university insisted on individual effort and evaluation, not group assessment or team work, and universities dominated the structure and processes of secondary schooling. Primary education was for the masses; secondary was for the chosen few, with some note taken of inherent as opposed to inherited talent, since the propertied classes could not keep up an adequate supply of clever people for industry's needs.

Today's workforce needs much more than that and the future demands much greater complexity, adaptability and creativity.

We have already shifted from agriculture, mining and manufacturing to services and the application of knowledge, not merely its possession. Global flexibility requires people who can work at any time, any place, shifting between just-in-time teams and applying what they have learned to new problems in new circumstances. Team-working ability and inter-personal competence are the new demand-skills. Females are as crucial to this expanding knowledge economy as are males; indeed no nation can afford to neglect half the talent base of its population, nor those of any minority. Creativity, adaptability, entrepreneurial skills, lateral thinking, emotional intelligence are the hallmarks of both successful people and successful business organisations. Deference to hierarchy and rule-bound behaviour are anathema to high performance and productivity. We will no longer have jobs; we will do work, so the development of an expansive portfolio of skills and the constant updating of knowledge will make the difference between surviving and thriving. In short, the task is learning how to learn and knowing how to live with complexity.

So the schools, from primary to secondary and the colleges and universities, must re-configure their central tasks, or they will become increasingly irrelevant and even harmful to the nation's future.

This change in the structure and processes of work has already had a profound impact on family life and inter-personal relationships. Marriage is no longer the goal for many. Women have wider options and they exercise them. Nor is having children. Young people stay on in education, stay in the parental home, delay marriage until their mid thirties. But they have a complex intimate life and seek a balance between long, hard working hours and time for high-energy leisure pursuits, self-exploration and the satisfaction of mutual self-disclosure in serial and monogamous relationships. They delay having children, to the point where our fertility rate is below replacement and over 30 per cent will never have children, partly because they have waited too long to start, but also because children get in the way of a career (now better called an open ticket flight-path) for men as well as for women. So children become even more of a private choice, and the value of children to society as a whole becomes more difficult to justify, making expenditure on schools and family support services ever more problematic. 

The impact of new family life has already been felt in the schools. Children are less often socialised in large families of give-and-take togetherness; many parents are too tired, busy or confused to provide consistent guidance towards self-discipline; separation and divorce cause obvious fallout in emotions and acting-out behaviour; teachers complain of having to serve as social workers when they are not qualified to do so. My message is, they'd better get used to it, because family life will become ever more complex, emotional life less secure and the school acting in loco parentis will be the name of the game.

Finally, at the macro level, globalisation and neo-liberal market ideology have brought about an inevitable change in the role of government and the way Australian communities relate to the politico-economic system. Witness the scramble to change a tax system too reliant on income in an age where income can be hidden not just by huge corporations, but by individuals operating on the worldwide web. It will take a long time before nations cooperate to collect taxes for work done in their country by the footloose citizens of another nation.  Witness too, the new importance of regional politics, the 'spatial economy' and the shift away from one-size-fits-all solutions to social problems. The nation state as an entity becomes less powerful, yet more important for the overall wellbeing of its citizens; the wrong moves economically and politically affect everyone, today more rapidly than ever before.

Budget  pressures, new work processes and changed family life will force schools to stop acting as 'silos' in their own communities. Hopefully they will also force other silos such as health, family services, youth, police, aged support, training, etc. to start integrating and cooperating in more cost-effective partnerships with the schools. Indeed, global information technology offers both huge possibilities for schools to become closer to their communities, and a threat to them if they fail to adjust and offer what communities decide they really need and can get from elsewhere via the Internet.


Re-structuring primary schools as foundations for the new age

The social trends outlined above have obvious implications for secondary and tertiary education as well as for primary schools. But my point here is that they force us especially to rethink the nature of those learning foundations laid in the early years of schooling.

The knowledge economy makes the application of knowledge to problem-solving a core capacity of the successful citizen-worker. Fixed bodies of information are so rapidly made obsolete that learning how to learn, knowing which questions to ask and where to seek appropriate information become far more important. Reading with comprehension, the capacity to sort out the wheat from the chaff, critical thinking - literacy in its widest sense – has to take priority. But so too does the capacity to learn from and with others. Projects which put such skills into practice are more likely to develop the right learning attitudes and abilities than the passive transference of subject matter. So team work and practical group assignments are more useful than an emphasis on individual work and assessment.

All of which implies that the teacher as subject expert is already obsolete, replaced by the teacher as learning navigator, as information and thinking guide, as director and coordinator of widely-spread learning exercises, especially in the primary school, where habits of learning are inculcated and the need for specialist subject matter knowledge is less pressing. Obsolete too is the notion that the school is the only seat of learning and education. Schools have to teach children that knowledge resides in the wider community, mentors who may be parents, or older adults, or teenagers learning by teaching others less experienced than themselves.

Above all, primary schools must lay the foundations for effective inter-personal skills and emotional intelligence. Anyone who doubts that this is important should read Daniel Goleman's book 'Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ' (Bloomsbury, 1996). They should also see the surveys coming from big business which indicate job applicants are most lacking in the areas of interpersonal skills and foreign languages (which involve empathy, cultural understanding, tolerance and highly skilled negotiating ability in global business development). The paradox is that business leaders are looking for people with 'soft' skills and 'general education' capacities, at the very time that our tertiary institutions are more narrowly focusing on specialist vocational skills likely to be quickly outmoded. Primary schools can lay the foundations for learning how to learn, and learning how to relate effectively with other people in a variety of team and workplace situations.

Beyond that, of course, such skills are essential for civic life and the full functioning of the individual as a human being and as a citizen of a democracy. The changes affecting family life make primary school the one stable and positive fulcrum of many children's lives. Primary schools must therefore make every effort to become a hub of community life and a family resource centre for children and parents, as well as for other citizens. They can do so by breaking down the barriers between themselves and parents, adopting the only sensible philosophy possible – that teachers are partners with parents in the upbringing of children. Keeping parents and other adults out conveys precisely the wrong message to children, that only teachers can be learned from and parents are the enemy, dooming schools to failure.

Moreover, we know from the research on family and community breakdown, child abuse and domestic violence that the school alone can do little to bring about positive change. When children live in 'toxic communities' (Garbarino, 1995) they cannot learn or thrive in any other way. So the primary school has to redefine its task as that of resourcing parents, working in partnership with parents in bringing up competent, confident future citizens. The primary school is still the one natural hub of family/community interaction. There is no stigma attached to coming to school meetings (provided they are not confined to sorting out problems). And they are the one logical place for the co-location of family support services such as maternal and child health, child care, out-of-school hours care, parenting information and education, referral to family counseling and other programs aimed at strengthening and protecting family life. The school should be a community hub for all families with children.

This brings me back to my starting point about the inequitable distribution of educational resources between primary and secondary schools. Such foundations for learning are absolutely crucial if Australia is to hold on in the global economy. Throwing money at narrowly vocational training is counter-productive, whereas properly funding the right learning attitudes and skills in the early years of schooling will guarantee more effective learning in the secondary and tertiary years. Higher staff-student ratios in the early years where the habits of learning and applying knowledge are developed might prevent failure, ensure full literacy for every child and avoid costly later patch-up remedial interventions. 

While it may be difficult to budge entrenched school funding arrangements, other resources could be brought closer to the primary schools to help them become parent-community hubs, family resource centres in the widest sense. The full-service school model is already proving effective, with many other family support services co-located on or near the primary school grounds. What is missing is an overall understanding (on the part of many teachers as well as the policy makers) that such services are as much a part of education as what is taught inside the classroom. But the global economy is driving government towards a better integrated system, less of a silo mentality about the way taxes are spent, and more of a community-run, locality-based approach to a whole range of services than the managerial mentality that has dominated over the last decade would allow.

Primary school teachers and administrators would do well to seize the day and encourage more of this lateral approach to the school-in-community. It might not only add to the support they seek in being 'social workers' to troubled children; it might also make the community and politicians more aware of how important are the foundation years of learning and thus more inclined to redress the current imbalance between primary and secondary school funding.



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Bishop, L (1999), 'Resourcing of Australian Primary Schools', Tasmanian Primary Principals' Association (TPPA) for the Forum of Australian State Primary Principals (FASPP).

Edgar, D. (1999), 'Promoting the Positive: Family-community resourcing as a model for family services', Deakin Human Services, Melbourne

Edgar, D. (1999), Social Trends and Their Impact on Queensland Education', Strategic Policy Branch, Education Queensland, Brisbane

Garbarino, J. (1995), Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment', Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

Goleman, D. (1996), 'Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More Than IQ', Bloomsbury, London

Ryan, M. (1996), 'Redefining schools as sites for holistic service delivery', in 'School and Community Action for Full-service Schools: Making it Work', Australian Centre for Equity Through Education, Sydney

Social Systems and Evaluation (1996), 'Inter-Agency School Community Centres Pilot Project', Interim Evaluation Report for the NSW Departments of Education, Health and Community Services, Social Systems & Evaluation, Perth

White, J.N. (1997), 'Schools for the 21st Century: Educating for the Information Age', Leonard Publishing, Harpenden