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Connors, Lyndsay
Lyndsay Connors speech [Keynote Public Education Day Address]
NSW Teachers Federation, 14 Mar. 2001

The following is the text of Ms Connors' speech.

There are many Australians wanting to take a stand and to speak up for public education. I am one of them. So I want to start by thanking the Teachers Federation for proposing this Public Education Day - to celebrate the central role of our public schools and colleges in all our lives.

We all uphold the principle of a universal right to schooling. This is a time to remember that it is the public school system that guarantees that right in practice. A high quality public school system is one of the best ways to show our children and young people that they are all equally valued and are all equally entitled to learn.

In this first year of a new century, it is time to take forward what is best from our past, including the democratic values on which NSW public education is based; and time to forge a system of public education worthy of our children and the generations yet to come.

Many of us know firsthand just what high quality, rewarding and enjoyable programs are being provided in public schools across this State. But there is a limit to how long we can expect the dedicated teachers in our public schools to go on doing what we are now asking of them. The great public task they are doing deserves the unequivocal, the wholehearted, and the primary support of governments and political leaders of all parties.

It is always easy to provide excellent resources and opportunities for the privileged few. It is always easy to achieve equality for the many if we keep our aspirations fairly low. The challenge of public education is to provide excellent resources and opportunities for the many.

Rising to meet that challenge is not for the mean-spirited. It takes parents and students, and teachers too, whose sense of their own entitlement is matched by an equal sense of their responsibility to others. Like many of the things that make a society worth living in, public education requires of us a strong sense of shared purpose, of mutual obligation and of the long-term interests of our children.

I shudder every time I read in one of our daily newspapers that phrase - a 'leading, exclusive school'? Leading us where? And excluding whom? It has been my experience that the challenge of including everyone is precisely what makes for truly strong teaching and learning, and for standards that are real.

We live in complex times. Changes in communication and information technologies are generating social upheaval and division in all societies around the world. The workplace is now like a moving mosaic. Global travel, migration and turmoil in other parts of the world are increasing further our population diversity.

A large, flexible public school system can embrace our differences of culture, religion and ethnicity, abilities and aspirations - and can turn them to educational advantage. A public school system can compensate for differences of social status, material wealth and geographic location. It can foster networks that provide genuine educational choices; as distinct from forms of choice for some at the expense of others.

As never before, the times cry out for a high quality, intelligent, rational system of schooling that can ensure our public resources are used wisely and well. Public education stands for the values of intellectual openness, for curiosity, independence of thought and critical inquiry based on evidence. These are the attributes needed for these times, for translating a deluge of information into knowledge and understanding.

Public education is right for these times. And the time is right for a renewed effort in public education. Only a school system that is backed by government and that operates in the public interest can muster the resources to bring the best education to children right across this State. Only a public education system can guarantee that students with special needs can be protected from exclusion and marginalisation.

It will take an investment of will, backed by resources, to create the vibrant system of public education we need. One with highly educated teachers and competent and confident leaders who can work with each other in a large network of institutions, bringing all the available resources together in ways that can meet both the common and individual needs.

NSW is well placed to develop such a system. Our Education Act includes an explicit statement that 'the principal responsibility of the State in the education of children is the provision of public education'. NSW has a large statewide network of public schools and TAFE colleges. The strategic directions set for the system bring together the enduring values of public education and a commitment to preparing students for the future.

These are reasons to have high hopes. But there is also cause for concern.

In voicing this concern, we need to avoid driving a wedge between those of us who have made the decision to educate our children in public schools and those who have made different decisions. Whatever choices we make, as parents, for our children, we make in a public policy framework that is set by governments.

It is that framework, and in particular the role of Federal Governments, that gives cause for concern.

Federal funding policies for schools have, over the years, developed an inbuilt indifference to public education. That indifference has now reached a point where I can only take it as a personal insult to my family and to the many families that make an active choice of public education based on their values and beliefs. It is an insult to those many families that rely for their children's education on what is provided publicly. It is an insult to those that teach them all.

The Commonwealth's neglect of public schools is expressed through silence on the value of public education. It is expressed through a program of schools funding that, among its many flaws and shortcomings, fails to acknowledge the clear, legal responsibilities that are unique to public schools - and that fails to apportion public funding accordingly.

We hear references to 'parents voting with their feet'.

Voting is, of course, better done with head and heart than with feet!

But there is something that we should all be doing with our feet. To invoke a traditional Australian idiom, the time has come for us to put our foot down. And to put our foot down firmly.

The time has come to let our representatives in all political parties understand that we have had enough of Commonwealth funding policies that are putting our public schools at risk.

We are putting our foot down! And we are standing up for public education!

Lyndsay Connors

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