We spend a great deal of time in Australia debating the curriculum we teach our children and the teaching methods deployedand wringing our hands about NAPLAN tests and OECD rankings. But in doing so we seem to assume the structure of school – particularly the “when” – is set in stone. Gonski Mark 2 is just the latest example of this misdirected debate.Though teaching methods, curriculums, society and our expectations of the education system have changed vastly in the past 70 years, the major structural parameters of the system have not.The standard remains the one set in the post-World War Two era. Children are taught roughly from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, for roughly 40 weeks a year, from the ages of five to 18. Over a period in which the nature and structure of work, society and family life have undergone profound transformations, the school routine has remained largely untouched.Any institution that survives largely unchanged for almost 70 years is either remarkably well-designed, or is remarkably resistant to evolution and outside pressures. I believe it is the latter. By any conventional measure, the school system in Australia should be ripe for disruption.At a time when a major policy challenge for all levels of government is to increase workforce participation, especially of women, schools remain structured around the now antiquated post-war family structure. The school routine continues to assume that one parent (the male) works a full-time job and the other parent (the female) is a full-time carer. Today the norm is entirely reversed: almost two-thirds of families with children have both parents working (with the figure higher still for single-parent households).In an age when we seek to get more out of our existing resources, be it accommodation (Airbnb), transport (Uber), roads (autonomous vehicles), office space (WeWork) or data storage (cloud-based computing), the utilisation of our schools as an asset class remains woeful.Most school assets – the buildings and infrastructure – are used only during school hours, or roughly 15 per cent of the time. School employees and teachers are similarly underemployed, working hours closer to three-quarters of a regular full-time job.We expect government services to adapt to the tempos and demands of modern life, yet the school system remains stubbornly resistant to even the contemplation of change.And in an economy which demands increasingly high levels of skill and education, if we are to maintain our standards of living and way of life, perhaps some of the answer lies simply in more hours of education and learning.Working families with children in primary school face particular struggles. If both parents work a regular full-time job, then dropping the children at school and making it to work on time is almost impossible. Parents manage this through a combination of before-school care, one parent starting work later (if their boss allows such flexibility), or relying on grandparents. But why not simply start the school day at 8am, and make lives easier for these families?The afternoon pick-up at 3pm poses similar challenges. Again, some combination of part-time work, after-school hours care (for which places are in short supply), and grandparents or other carers are used to manage this.The reality is that most primary age children with both parents working are doing some form of after-school activity, either on the school grounds or elsewhere, for at least several afternoons a week.But if this is the case, why not mainstream it into the school day? Why not have service providers use school facilities to offer a full range of after-school activities, from sports to dance, music to art, rather than the one-size-fits-all after-school care currently on offer? Why not have service providers rent out school facilities and create a valuable stream of income for schools? I’m not calling for children to be over-programmed. But if they are doing the equivalent of full-time days, then at least we can give them some variety and stimulation.School holidays are another testing time for working parents. With upwards of 12 weeks of school holidays each year, but two working parents usually having access to at most a combined eight weeks (and only then if they never take a holiday together), bridging this gap is a continual source of stress. Children’s holiday’ programs are often expensive, hard to access, and with their disparate locations and hours put a further strain on family logistics.Meanwhile for 12 weeks a year, school facilities sit largely unused. So why not open the schools during this period and offer school holiday programs from there, using external service providers?No doubt any one of these suggested reforms throws up complex policy challenges and will involve taking on a number of vested interests who prefer the status quo. But governments should be brave enough to tackle such challenges directly, rather than tinkering around the edges with measures such as the child care subsidy.We fundamentally need to rethink school if we are to make it easier for working parents to educate their children, earn a living, and balance work and family pressures. Stubborn adherence to the current school system is failing nearly everyone – children, parents, society and the economy at large.Post-script: I got a lot of angry responses from teachers to this when published – nearly all taking issue with a single line in the article, and not the broader thesis. Most of the responses struck me as a version of “they doth protest too much”. I do not doubt that teachers work hard. Nor do I believe that they should longer annual hours without extra pay. But the truth is their average weekly hours when at work (about 42.6, according to recent OECD data) are very similar to an average full-time job, but they have upwards of 12 weeks off per year, rather than the usual 4. Many claim they spend the entirety of this 8 weeks of extra time off per year doing professional development and school preparation; perhaps that is true, but from the teachers I know this is clearly not the case. But in any event I was not seeking to attack teachers – merely to say that we should not view the current school timetable as sacrosanct, and this goes for teachers’ hours also.Originally published as an opinion piece in the Sun Herald on 17 June 2018.
The outcome from the European Union’s “emergency summit” on refugees and irregular migrants makes for curious reading. Emerging from more than 10 hours of talks in the early hours last Friday in Brussels, European leaders claimed to have averted a continent-wide migration crisis.The solution? Once among the most self-righteous critics of Australia’s border protection policies, Europe’s leaders now seem well on their way to adopting as their own large chunks of Australia’s border protection approach.To start with, European leaders are finally beginning to acknowledge that they have a serious problem with illegal migration — and that their inhabitants are none too happy about it. Previously in a form of denial about the scale of the challenge they face, in Brussels European leaders stated their determination to “prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015”, an implicit acknowledgment that Europe had lost control of its borders.Europe is also beginning to recognise it has become a soft touch for people-smugglers, and that this is fuelling further people movements. In language familiar to Australian ears, Europe’s leaders acknowledged they needed to “definitively break the business model of the smugglers” and so save lives by eliminating the “incentive to embark on perilous journeys”.Next up, Europe’s leaders agreed to build “controlled centres” across Europe to provide for “rapid and secure processing” of asylum claims — with genuine refugees resettled but other irregular migrants returned.Though euphemistically put, what the EU is talking about is migrant detention centres. But they also went one step further, calling for the consideration of “regional disembarkation platforms” in countries outside Europe, predominantly in northern Africa in places such as Libya and Tunisia, where refugee claims could be assessed without creating a “pull factor” towards Europe.In all but name, Europe’s leaders have landed upon their equivalent of Australia’s offshore processing centres.Concern over uncontrolled and irregular migration has become a major — perhaps the major — political force in Europe. But large chunks of Europe’s political elite have until now failed to grasp this reality or concede the legitimacy of public concern over uncontrolled borders. The result has been a growing populist backlash across Europe.In Italy, a new government has emerged that has made restoring control over borders and people movements its highest priority. In Austria, Hungary and Poland, governments are demanding a more hard-headed European response to unregulated people flows. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel — Europe’s longest serving and most senior leader — is fighting for her political life, under pressure from the demands of her Bavarian coalition partner for a tougher line on migration. And in Britain, of course, growing public anxiety about the level of migration drove much of the support for Brexit.In the US, similar public anxiety about migration is driving politics.Though the temptation to indulge in schadenfreude is strong, we should welcome Europe’s overdue recognition of reality and its adoption of border protection and migration policies that are familiar to Australia. And we should use it to seek to modernise the global rules that underpin the system, most importantly the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.The convention played a critical role in helping resettle displaced populations in Europe after World War II. But it was not designed for today’s world of mass people movements, mass travel and mass communications.There is an almost endless supply of people seeking to leave their countries and resettle in the West, and these days — unlike in 1951 — there is the means to reach the destination. Some of these are genuine refugees, though a large portion are not fleeing persecution but simply seeking better lives for themselves and their families — and who can blame them?The sheer volume, however, is completely beyond the capacity of European countries or Australia to absorb without fundamentally upsetting the internal balance and social cohesion of these nations. While the humanitarian urge to accept everyone who makes it to your shores might be strong, this can be no basis for policy — as Europe is slowly learning.Whether we seek to modernise the 1951 convention or augment it with other agreements, the time is ripe for a global effort to reach a new set of understandings around people movements.These understandings should continue to provide protection from persecution and a pressure outlet from conflict zones and humanitarian crises. They should seek to improve conditions in so-called source countries, and so tamp down on the push factors that drive much of migration. But they should also be frank in accepting that destination countries have a sovereign right to control their migration intake.Originally published as an opinion column in The Australian on 5 July 2018.