Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Australia's cultural heritage: parents who despise education

I have no doubt that the writer below -- Lex Borthwick -- describes a real phenomenon but I think he oversimplifies the causes of it. In some cases students will indeed not continue with their education because their families have a contempt for it but it could also simply be family tradition that causes families to discourage further education. 

My father got only as far as Grade 6 in his day and his father did not go to school at all but was taught to read and write at home.  So when I finished primary school my father thought that was enough and that I should get a job.  That was simply the world he knew.  He was however persuaded to allow me to do two years of high school -- after which I did leave and get a job.

After three years of doing various things I was however persuaded that I should complete High School --  which I did.  And from there I began evening classes at university.

So despite a lack of parental encouragement I went right through the education system to Ph.D.  I had the ability so it was not difficult, even though I received no parental financial support after those first two years of High School.

So I think we should distinguish between those parents who are actively hostile to education and those who simply don't think it necessary.  My parents were in the latter category.

And I am fairly sure that actual hostility to education largely emanates from those who don't do well at it.  And almost all of those simply don't have the ability for it.  All men are NOT equal. So hostility is a cover for failure.  I don't see much remedy for that.

I was talking to my son about this, however, and he said he despises education too.  He was privately schooled -- where he always did well, has a first-class honours degree in mathematics and is a well-paid IT professional -- so he is looking through what might be called the opposite end of the telescope.  What he dislikes about the educational system is how much it is dumbed down and how much it teaches things of little usefulness.  He does not yet have children but seems likely to home-school them when he does

Many studies show parents' positive influence on their children's education, but hardly anyone will discuss the opposite: when parents stymie that education and ambition.

It's not uniquely Australian, but sentiments unsupportive of education are part of our cultural DNA. We know about our sporting heroes, but who knows about our Nobel Prize winners? And worse, who cares?

I witnessed the consequences of these educationally-destructive factors when attending rural secondary schools in the '60s, and more recently when teaching in metropolitan schools.

In 2001, aged 46, I was first-year teaching at an outer-suburban government school. Expecting a new educational era accompanying the new millennium, I discovered little had changed since my schooldays.

Attending six government schools around Victoria before accessing university, my educational progress could have been derailed but fortunately my family was educationally supportive.

I received spoken and unspoken parental encouragement to stay at school and achieve my best. Soon, I was being paid more than my father.

Many of my friends back then were not so lucky. Hating school, contemptuous of teachers, they stopped learning early. Leaving school at 15, they saw no point trying as success was impossible. They drifted through the low-skill manual labour jobs possible then but nearly gone now.

These friends' parents mostly didn't support education, inducing or forcing their children to leave school early. Through overt or covert disdain for education, these parents condemned their kids to lifetimes of low incomes or unemployment, and the consequent problems, including social disaffection, crime, alcoholism, drug addictions, and family abuse.

But most of these parents were themselves victims of their own parents, caught in cycles of negative parental influence probably stretching back several generations.

In Britain, particularly England, the membership and future of the poor was largely predetermined by the wealthy. Further education wasn't an option.

In early white Australia, kids needed hunting, riding, deforesting, fence building, cooking, laundering, children rearing, and animal care skills, not literacy and numeracy.

With urbanisation, kids left school for low income jobs to keep their family solvent, requiring only basic literacy and numeracy.

No poor kid could afford further education. Trapped in this awful cycle, many developed increasingly negative attitudes towards education and teachers. Education only constrained poor kids from surviving in the "real" world, and was for rich scumbags incapable of "real" work.

Recent reports, such as Gonski (2011) and Bracks (2016), highlight education's significance to national success. Similarly, most parents recognise education's importance to individual success, offering a reliable escape from long-term struggle.

Training, education and skill development through apprenticeships, technical colleges, teachers' colleges and universities have propelled many families into financial security. And many newly-arrived migrant families clearly recognise the transformative power of education.

So why had things not changed by 2001 when I began teaching? In the 30 years since my schooldays, libraries of books about "perfect" educational systems appeared, gaggles of politicians prattled about making Australia "smarter", and endless "band-aid" reforms whizzed by.

But there they were still, the educationally destructive factors I witnessed in the '60s, evident in every class I taught: that same parental opposition to education, at worst comprising anti-education.

Partly because of this, schools are still failure factories for many students: only one-third of my year 10 students had year 10 or above literacy skills. The remaining two-thirds were mostly between years 1-6, with some at years 7-9.

Of the one-third, most were influenced by the two-thirds' oppositional culture, so only one-tenth of that one-third consistently submitted assessment work.

Unsurprisingly, the two-thirds' parents were those who rarely attended parent/teacher interviews.

Despite expectations, a teacher's chances of changing the trajectory of these students' lives are effectively non-existent, especially when in their teens, as they came to me.

Teenagers can be intensely oppositional to any adult's opinion, so why do these kids keep their parents' negative education cycle spinning?

From first hearing their parents' voices kids absorb parental beliefs, giving years for negative inculcation before teenagehood. If non-educational parents fail to teach the pre-school basics then their kids start school behind, struggle to catch up, label themselves as stupid, lose their self-confidence, mix with similar kids, and develop behavioural problems.

This is well prior to their teens, by which time their hatred of schools, teachers and education is cemented in. The cycle is running.

Add Australia's culture of valuing sport above intellect, the upheaval caused to many kids by family dysfunction, physical or mental illness, poverty, and social disadvantage, shake or stir, and the resulting cocktail can, if even sipped, greatly diminish kids' opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, many teenagers howl in fury and frustration at the world, with school and teachers the easiest target of their pain. Some howl loudly, others in dark silence.

Teachers want to help, but can rarely win kids' trust when they're only seen a couple of times a week with 24 other kids, most with their own problems. And the teachers? By day, they act the part. But at night, their frustrations often bring tears, mental health problems, and resignation from the work they once loved.

Our work was also hindered by the Education Department and many academics persistently feeding the media with incredibly simplistic tales blaming teachers for almost everything. The real causes, however, go much deeper, culturally and psychologically.

Is this worse than my schooldays? I can't truly say, but it's of such an extent, with such awful consequences, action is clearly needed.

A few articles when year 12 results come out, highlighting a few students' success, fail to begin to counter many parents' educational opposition, or Australia's anti-intellectual culture.

It's an insult to all the kids failed by our education system, and their teachers, when we won't examine the full causes of, and solutions to, the wasted lives and potential that is another enduring part of Australian culture. This must change.


Will the internships program help young people get jobs?

THERE are many different reasons why a young person might not end up securing a job.

Even having a university degree doesn’t mean you will necessarily find work straight away. In fact, it takes a young person, on average, 4.7 years to find fulltime employment after graduating.

During this year’s Budget, the government set out its plan for tackling youth unemployment. It said it would offer six-week paid internships to those who have been looking for work for at least six months. But will the approach actually work?


The government wants to give $840.3 million to a new program named Youth Jobs PaTH (Prepare, Trial, Hire). The aim is to get 120,000 people aged 17 to 24 who are currently on income support into jobs.

A core part of the scheme is to place as many as 30,000 young people each year in a voluntary four-to-12-week internship program. This will require completing six weeks of training and working 15 to 25 hours per week. Interns will earn an extra $200 each fortnight in addition to their existing income support.

Businesses providing the internships will receive a $1000 bonus, as well as a potential additional Youth Bonus wage subsidy of between $6500 and $10,000.


Opportunities for young people to be exposed to working life have potential benefits, ranging from work experience, developing networks, self-confidence and skills on the job that, hopefully, lead to a job at the end.

But whether this internship program will help more young people get jobs depends on a number of things.

Following the 2014 election, it was announced that welfare recipients would have the option of working for the dole if they worked for 25 hours per week for welfare. But evidence from the US and previous Work for the Dole programs suggests that being in a mandatory program may reduce participants from seeking work; perhaps because they are too busy with their current workload. The same could possibly happen for those undertaking an internship.

Other criticisms have emerged from some unions, arguing that it amounts to “unpaid labour which is actually going to be subsidised by the taxpayer”.

They may have a point, depending on how you look it. An intern could be seen by an unscrupulous employer as cheap labour, with the taxpayer footing the bill for the training and incentives to the employer. On the other hand, if the internship leads to successful and secure work, this could save taxpayer expense on welfare payments — as well as being beneficial to the successful intern.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said about the message this sends to young people about the value of their labour. One commentator has already pointed out that when factoring in the combined payment of the program and Newstart allowance, jobseekers on these internships will be working up to 25 hours a week while earning just $363.80. The poverty line in Australia for a single person is $422.06 a week.

Another challenge for Youth Jobs PaTH will be to ensure that measures are in place to maximise the possibility of young people getting into secure, meaningful work — and keeping it.

Such safeguards would need to include the commitment of both interns and employers to the program, basic legal workplace requirements and a quality, meaningful internship experience in place. Whether six weeks will be sufficient is questionable, depending on the quality of the experience.


Young people can struggle to get work because of a lack of qualifications and experience. Other factors can include where they live (particularly if they reside in regional and remote areas), their gender, or if they are from an indigenous or disadvantaged background.

One important factor in getting a job is to complete school. But this may not be for every one, so other pathways need to be developed and improved.

Even with the completion of year 12 or equivalent — and even a degree or post-school training qualification — some businesses are not happy with young people’s work-readiness and are reluctant to hire them. Surveys of employers repeatedly identify dissatisfaction with young people’s business and customer awareness, self-management skills and problem solving abilities, and literacy and numeracy skills.

Soft skills and learning how to learn are increasingly needed to navigate changing worlds of work in which there will be multiple careers. Internships are one way of developing them — but they can only go so far.


A pressing question for policymakers is this: are good-quality, secure jobs available to young people?

Youth unemployment remains disproportionately high for young people aged 15 to 24 across Australia, rising as high as 28.4 per cent in regions such as outback Queensland.

Access to fulltime work is happening later in life — even for many university graduates. Young Australians face growing competition from global labour market flows and an ageing local population. Researchers found that between May 2003 and May 2013, the share of those aged 60 to 64 in the workforce increased from 39 per cent to 54 per cent.

The Baby Boomer generation is living and working longer, both by choice and necessity. Some bring experience and skills that young people do not have.

Underemployment, where young people aren’t able to get enough quality work, also remains a major issue. The casualisation of the workforce and greater competition for work in general are some of the reasons for this.

Lack of certainty across the areas of business, education and training suggest that for the election campaign, a more cohesive vision of youth employment policy is necessary, one which joins the dots between education, economic and social policies.

Perhaps most importantly, measures like the Youth Jobs PaTH program are only effective if quality, meaningful work is available at the end of the internship.

"quality & meaningful work"? That's a big ask.  Most work is routine -- JR


Australia seals trade expansion and $2.25b defence deal with Singapore

Australia will significantly deepen economic and defence ties with Singapore through an expansion of the countries' free trade agreement and a major boost to the number of Singaporean troops training in Queensland.

Former trade minister Andrew Robb has clinched the deal, which aims to elevate ties with Singapore to the same level as Australia-New Zealand relations.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Robb and Trade Minister Steve Ciobo will on Friday announce the agreement, under which Singapore will build $2.25 billion of new defence infrastructure, including new barracks, making it the only country beyond the United States to invest in military infrastructure on Australian soil.

The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, begun by former prime minister Tony Abbott and his counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, more than a year ago, represents a major boost to the strategic relationship amid the rise of China and the growing uncertainty across Asia.

"It takes our relationship to a whole other level, and in the region [it is] comparable to our very, very close relationship with New Zealand," Mr Robb said.

"It will lead to significantly more linkages and business across so many different sectors. It's going to lead to immediate multi-billion investments in Northern Australia. It's totally consistent with where we wanted the Defence white paper to go, where the northern Australia [white paper] commitments go."

Strategically, it would "lock in a deep friendship in a most powerful way", he said.

For the next quarter of a century, Singapore will send up to 14,000 military personnel to Australia for training, up from the 6000 a year now. They will stay for up to 18 weeks, longer than they currently stay.

There will also be an expansion to air force training. Details are yet to be agreed upon, but Singapore pilots will now be able to train in Australia for up to six months a year.

The expanded troop training will be based in Shoalwater Bay and Townsville in Queensland. Singapore will spend $2.25 billion on training facilities, barracks, roads, fencing and other measures, with the investment roughly split between the two sites.

For the other 34 weeks of the year, the Australian Army will be able to use the facilities.

A boost to northern Queensland's economy, in such areas as tourism, is also expected to flow through.

The deal follows Mr Robb signing free trade deals with China, Japan, South Korea and the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the past three years and significantly expands the existing FTA, first struck in 2003.

It increases visa access for Australian contract workers and executives, and allows spouses and children to work. Singapore will recognise some postgraduate law and medical degrees from some universities.

And investments – aside from agricultural land investments – under $1 billion will avoid full scrutiny from the Foreign Investment Review Board, up from the current threshold of $250 million. Both countries will commit $25 million to a science and innovation fund.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said Singapore was desperate for "strategic depth" – relations with like-minded countries. But it was also good for Australia, he said.

"The context is in large part the rise of China, but it's not just about China. Singapore is famously pragmatic and recognises the need for smaller and middle powers to work together on security, because of uncertainties about Indo-Pacific power balance more generally, including the future US posture."

He said that given the wrangling between Canberra and Washington over who would pay for the US Marine facilities in Darwin, it was "ironic that Singapore, a non-ally, seems willing to stump up for costs to cover its forces' access to Australia, when our US ally has been so reluctant to do so".


Australia and the United States: close but different

Bernard Salt

Comparisons are often drawn ­between the US and Australia. Both comprise large land masses settled (or invaded) by European colonists. We both speak English, accept migration, value democracy, and regard ourselves as young nations.

We are linked by close trade, military and cultural ties. But then there are fundamental demographic differences that illustrate the sheer enormity of the American Empire compared with Australia.

The US economy generates a gross domestic product of $18,000 billion a year, 11 times the Australian economy. US military spending is $600bn, is 26 times the Australian spending. The US population at 320 million is 13 times the Australian population. Texas contains more people and is a bigger economic force than is the whole of the Australian nation. The US has 10 aircraft carriers at a replacement cost of about $10bn each that can project lethal force simultaneously to multiple global flashpoints; we had an aircraft carrier once but we crashed it.

The biggest city in the US is the greater urban mass of New York with 24 million residents; NYC is a bigger economic force than Australia. The second biggest city is Los Angeles with 19 million and which stretches 220km east to west; this is followed by Chicago with eight million.

Australia’s biggest city Sydney will pass the five-million-mark by the end of this year. We think Sydney is positively Los Angelean in scale even though the Bondi-to-Penrith stretch is barely 70km. Interestingly, the New Zealanders think that Auckland (pop 1.3 million) is a vast city.

We Australians get terribly excited every three years when our population ticks over another million as it did in February to 24 million; this is a fact that gets remarked upon on breakfast television. The US ticks over another million residents every four months. It isn’t a news story.

The US’s two biggest public companies Apple and Google each have a market capitalisation that is five times the market capitalisation of BHP Billiton. Five of the US’s 10 biggest companies were founded in the last 40 years; none of Australia’s top 10 businesses were founded in this time frame. Apart from Macquarie bank which was founded in 1970, the most recently established big Australian business is Woolworths founded in 1924.

There have long been murmurings about Australia being incorporated within a greater United States of America. I’m not sure we could make a net contribution.

And yet there are remarkable similarities between the American and the Australian settlement of their respective land masses over the last 25 years. Four weeks ago I published in this column a map showing population growth and loss at the municipal level across Australia between 1992 and 2015. The map spoke to the Australian preference for — even obsession with — coastal and treechange lifestyle options. Vast tracts of the Riverina, the Mallee, the Wim­mera, and the Eyre Peninsula and of the West Australian wheatbelt were shown to have yielded population in response to shifting methods of farming.

I have recreated that map for mainland America based on the same parameters. The unit base is 3000 American counties which compares with 600 Australian municipalities. The fastest growing and the fastest declining counties tell the story of the American people over the course of a generation. All powerful, resourceful and innovative that this nation might be in aggregate, the minutiae of demographic shifts shows a pattern of behaviour that is remarkably similar to the Australian experience.

The same unrelenting demand for agricultural efficiency that drives farm aggregation and depopulation in the Wimmera applies throughout the Mid West from the Dakotas in the north to the western prairies of Texas in the south. But also evident is the depopulation of the rust belt northeast in upstate New York, along the western edges of Pennsylvania and deep into the Apallachian Mountains. There are towns and counties in the US just as there are towns and shires in Australia that are caught on the wrong side of economic opportunity. The number of people living in Cottle County Texas for example dropped from 2100 in 1992 to 1400 in 2015 which is a 33 per cent decrease over 23 years.

Growth counties on the other hand cluster on the edges of bigger cities as commuter corridors or fill the retirement coasts in Florida. Other growth areas blossom in the unlikeliest of places like the Arizona and Nevada desert. The Americans will retire to lifestyle communities in the desert. We Australians are different; there is no counterpart in the Australia interior to places such as Phoenix. And besides we don’t do desert we do beach.

On the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, is the US’s leading growth hotspot. Douglas County increased its population from 74,000 residents in 1992 to 322,000 in 2015. Douglas County is a bit like say Melbourne’s City of Wyndham. Perhaps the mayors should organise an exchange.

But more important than the areas of loss and growth in the US or the sheer scale of the economy is the advent of turnaround places. I call these places sponge cities in Australia; in the US they are popping up everywhere and especially in the Dakotas. The reason is the discovery and exploitation of a new local resource, shale oil and gas. Shale oil has been behind the turnaround in the demographic fortunes of Burleigh and Cass counties in North Dakota.

In some respects the US is vastly different to Australia, but in ­others there is a remarkable similarity. It seems that towns in demographic decline can remain in a state of subsidence for years if not decades as the economic base of the region eschews labour. It’s almost as if places hibernate waiting for a reason to be brought back to life like the discovery of a new resource such as shale oil or further north into Canada’s Saskatoon Saskatchewan, potash.

Another reason why a region, a town or a county might be transformed is because of the great migration-driver of our time, retirement. Whether it is to Pinal County near Phoenix or to the Northern Rivers region of NSW the driving force is the same, the remarkably novel concept of a funded life that exists for years beyond work.

It makes me wonder why we have never emulated the American obsession with retirement to a desert location. Perhaps it’s because our winters are milder; perhaps it’s that no-one has tested the concept; perhaps it’s that Americans simply have different values to the Australians.

In many respects the US is mightily different to Australia; it certainly offers opportunity and scope on a scale that Australians and New Zealanders find hard to contemplate. And yet I somehow think that life is pretty much the same in the Wimmera as it is in Nebraska, in Douglas County as it is in the City of Wyndham, and along the Florida coast as it is on the Gold Coast.

I somehow think that the US and Australia will continue to find similarities and differences for generations to come.


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