“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.” Cree Indian Proverb
At risk of whipping up an unintentional Gonski storm, I was gratified to read a recent article critiquing the funding-based approach to education. It was further evidence that I am not the only one tired of hearing about funding, funding, funding.
The thrust of the article (by Ben Jansen, director of the Grattan Institute’s school education program) was that instead of constantly focusing on education funding and arguing the toss over where it’s coming from – state or federal – and who it goes to – private, independent or public schools – how about we focus on what the kids are learning.
Smaller class sizes are costly and the results, according to the article, are not proving worth the spend. Instead, Ben Jansen proposed training school principals in leadership, providing mentors for teachers, encouraging teacher research groups, broadening the sources of teacher appraisal and providing specialist literacy and numeracy teachers in every school. Put simply, he suggested helping our teachers improve performance – both their own and that of the children they teach.
It was a breath of fresh air. When we first moved to the Geelong region 13 years ago, one word repeatedly struck me like a brick wall. In every enthusiastic conversation about getting something done someone would pipe up with “but where are we going to get the funding?” It was usually early in the piece, the implication was always that it couldn’t be done without funding and the question invariably killed about fifty per cent of the energy in the room.
I was stuck for words, not least because the activity usually didn’t need money – just time and energy. Also because the one undeniably consistent lesson I’ve learned from running a business for nearly 20 years is that the minute I start worrying about money it dries up. When we focus on the job, the people, the joy and doing the right thing, the work pours in and the money flows.
Having asking around about this funding obsession over the years, I find myself in good company. Many people here find that funding takes the lead role in discussions. I have even half-joked that funding is the f-word in the Geelong region. And with looming elections, it’s a situation that’s not likely to change.
Why do we do this? Is it a result of our public-service domination? Government, health and education are our main employment sources and when you add the marginal nature of both state and federal seats, the f-word takes on a certain gravitas. Apparently politicians still believe people vote according to the new toys they are promised. Do we really do that? I wonder, but that’s for another day.
Of course we clearly need to lobby for certain big-ticket items, just as we all need to earn an income to furnish our personal needs. And the relevant groups are doing a fine job of this, including our mayor and council. But is funding necessary to every conversation?
I see dependence on funding causing a spiral of inaction. It creates a merry-go-round of conversation that is tedious and unproductive. It doesn’t focus on the end game, but it does make a certain group of people sound clever (mostly to each other). The silent majority tends to back away from the discussion – either bored, incredulous or bemused by the jargon.
Imagine if we shifted the insecure, inward focus of “how can we get more now?” to a confident, capable “what can we do now to create a sustainable future?” When that mentality is led from the top, it will filter down and create a sense of capacity and competence in the broader population.
We have it all here – we live in a uniquely beautiful, diverse, rich and ready region (and yes that includes every suburb and township) and we should be realising that talent. Everyone has something to offer, so let’s seek and celebrate that rather than looking to ‘fix’ people or places.
Money is not our future, the contribution of people is what makes a difference. Hopefully, wherever our schools get their funding they make sure to teach our kids it’s not all about money.