In her latest book, critically acclaimed author Bri Lee takes a close look at Australia’s education system and finds that far from encouraging equality, current arrangements are deepening social divisions.
When Bri Lee’s friend Damian was named a Rhodes Scholar, she took the opportunity to visit him at Oxford University, where she found her preconceptions about intelligence – and how people rise to positions of power – significantly challenged. The experience led her to write Who Gets to Be Smart, examining the way Australia’s two-tiered public–private system can entrench educational inequality from a young age, and ultimately shape the corridors of power.
“I discovered – not just in Rhodes House but in Oxford more broadly – that it was a place very much looking to the past, defined by who it excluded. It is a specific class of people who go there.”
This did not sit well with Bri, and upon her return she started asking questions about access here, not just to university but to positions and places of power.
“In Australia, we’re so adamant about telling the story of meritocracy and this being ‘the land of the fair go’ – but this hides the truth,” Bri says. “It can take four generations for someone with a low socio-economic background to reach the average income. Our divided education system exacerbates the social strata.”
It hasn’t always been like this, and Bri identifies the change as emerging during John Howard’s prime ministership (1996–2007). “The point of departure was Howard and his era of politics, which ushered in this idea of ‘school choice’. It shifted education policy. Four decades ago, 15% of kids went to private [secondary] schools. Now, in the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, it’s closer to 50%. Whereas, by way of comparison, in places like Canada, for example, it’s low – in the single digits in many places.”
When Howard said: “Choice is a vehicle for driving better school performance across the board because it empowers the consumers of education services”, he ignored the right for every child to be treated equally. This messaging – accompanied by a substantial rise in federal funding to non-government schools – has had an insidious effect both on the way Australians perceive public education, and on their willingness to accept government policies that direct increasing amounts of public money towards private schools.
While Bri doesn’t blame parents, often lumped with a difficult choice, she argues that in attempting to give their own child an advantage, parents are helping to prop up a larger system of power – one that is actively working against equality of opportunity. She hopes her book will make clear “how damaging it’s been over the last couple of decades to force schools to be so competitive with each other”. She believes that much of the debate on these issues becomes clearer when the needs of children, rather than the financial interests of parents, is put first.
“It is astonishing to me that the admissions procedures of these private schools have been allowed to go on, effectively amounting to mass discrimination.”
Part of Howard’s justification for more private school funding was that schools would lower fees, extending ‘school choice’ to working-class families. But, despite promises from independent school representatives, this has failed to transpire. Instead, there have been big fee rises, declining enrolments from low-income families, and exponential growth in government funding ever since.
Bri feels outraged that, despite all this, private schools can still choose who they enrol based on test scores or student interviews. “It is astonishing to me that the admissions procedures of these private schools have been allowed to go on, effectively amounting to mass discrimination, and they are still publicly funded.”
In a recent interview for the Readings Bookstore podcast, Bri spoke about the ramifications of a two-tier system of education. “You’ve got schools where they’ve identified kids are turning up hungry and they want to be able to run a breakfast program and they can only afford to do that three days a week. You’ve also got schools in Australia who have firing ranges and orchestra pits and two-storey swimming tanks so that kids can learn to scuba dive,” she says.
Access to free preschool would be “the number one policy change” she would make.
“I’m sure we can agree that if we’re talking about children being hungry at school, that’s not equality of anything. If you want education to be a free and open market, then why are these very, very rich schools still getting so much government funding? It’s extraordinary. It’s middle-class welfare at its worst.”
Bri’s thinking about the tertiary system was also “radically altered” while working on her book. Now, when she sees sandstone institutions such as Oxford University, “healthy scepticism and suspicion” have replaced what was once awe. Having formerly trusted that such institutions were all about creating and sharing knowledge, she instead found that they are more about exclusion, perpetuating existing power structures and jealously guarding knowledge against all but their own kind.
“I am suspicious of the validity of the institution itself, of what they’re charging and who they’re enrolling, and about whether they’re actually about knowledge-sharing at all. They’re not interested in a meritocracy,” she says.
“Anyone who has gone through the private school system and got into a position of power – they like to say that Australia is a meritocracy, because they must have worked for what they have, and earned it. But they don’t see the struggle, these people; they’ve never seen the way other people live. They have a wholesale lack of empathy towards most children.”
Bri has also become passionate about the positive intergenerational effects of early childhood education, saying access to free preschool would be “the number one policy change” she would make if she could. “What we know every decade, more and more, about early childhood development is that the first five to 10 years of your life can very much set the tone for what potential you are able to achieve for the rest of your life.”
Using the word ‘smart’ in the book title was a deliberate move. Rather than add a question mark, she used the statement as a challenge, referring to who is given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Upon finishing it, Bri felt “personally freed, nationally embarrassed, and newly furious at the ruling class, who have every incentive to keep things precisely the way they are.”
Asked what advice she would give to parents, she is quick to point out that everyone has a part to play. “What parents can do is write to their local MP, get involved as citizens, join campaigns, be active.”
An active spokeswoman on the issues she writes about – access to justice, women’s rights, and now education – Bri Lee is unequivocal when she adds: “The state has an obligation to treat all children equally.”