The ‘Invisible Backpack’

Have to admit, the response of the principal (and I suspect many of the parents) in the exclusive private school is a huge part of the problem with Australia’s education system – which has been internationally characterised as ‘high quality, low equity’.

‘Equity’ is about opportunities rather than outcomes: can’t mandate equal outcomes for all, wouldn’t necessarily want to. But the notion of the ‘invisible backpack’ of social capital is a helpful way of thinking about why ‘equal dollars for all students irrespective of sector’ is *not* a recipe for equity of opportunity.

Rather than blaming poor kids (or even their parents) for their lack of the specific kinds of social capital that lead to success in schools, it is better for Australia’s future to invest in breaking the cycles and helping all students succeed.

8 replies on “The ‘Invisible Backpack’”

But that’s absurd? Why should the poor kids be given more money than mine! I’ve worked hard for my money and I should be entitled to certain rewards because of that contribution! Your punishing me for contributing to society by giving me less! You’re encouraging me NOT to work!

/Gina Rinehart

That article is about a very important issue but it seemed determined to say little to suggest a remedy.E.g. “Studies show that when a child starts school, 50 per cent of their future academic achievement is already determined by their family background, socio-economic status and intellectual ability.” I’m not sure if that tells me anything.

“The disparity is compounded by the siphoning of wealthier children into the independent system and high achievers into state selective schools.” Well, do we want to dumb the brightest down? Not that wealthier always mean brightest, but doesn’t state selective schools mean that selection is based on achievement up to some point?

I think the state school system should serve as a great leveller of opportunity, i.e. ensuring that kids from disadvantages areas and families get a good education, but not in a way that stops people who want to spend more on their children’s education from doing so.

The article started to get interesting just as it ended: “Finland also invests comparatively more in primary schools to address disparity early”. Tell us more: what do they do, how is it working out, how affordable is it?

I don’t think either the article or I are anti private schools. There are equity issues at stake when public schools are struggling for the basics and private schools are getting new elite sporting facilities with public dollars. Equity of opportunity is *exactly* where the notion of the ‘invisible backpack’ comes in: if some students start out with a huge disadvantage compared to others, then it is *fair and reasonable* that it might cost more and be more difficult to offer those kids truly equal opportunities.

The wealthy will be fine. So will the intellectually exceptional. But unless society is keen to fund a permanent underclass of unskilled and unemployable people whom the system has failed, genuine efforts to overcome the issues of social capital – i.e. family financial disadvantage, but even more so family support for and attitudes to education – are required.

This doesn’t have to be lefty sentimentalization of the poor, it can be hardheaded enlightened self-interest. Do we *want* a society where 1% of all citizens are imprisoned at all times, at an immense cost to the rest of the population? Given that perhaps 1/3 or so of the population is in full time employment, that means every 33 of us would be (at US incarceration rates) entirely supporting one prisoner.

Schools are cheaper than prisons. And it’s not the grammar school kids who are in prison – though, with their recent financial depredations, some of them should be. Keeping society freer and more productive means investing in those at risk. Throwing up our hands and abandoning them is not an option.

I don’t pay you to tell me to do my own research.

So I had to look it up myself. I found an article in the Globe and Mail. One of the most striking things was this:
“Primary-school teachers all have master’s degrees, and the profession is one of the most revered in Finnish society. … Polls show that the teaching profession in Finland is very high-status, and one of the country’s most sought-after jobs.”

That could be the secret. The importance of the early years is part of the culture.

Yeah, that’s a fair bit of it. They also allow teachers to make decisions in education, rather than bureaucrats. And they resource schools so that students who are struggling get ‘just in time’ support from an additional teacher to help them catch up to the other students: a *real* version of ‘No Child Left Behind’ rather than Bush’s Orwellian version.

Hehe, not sure about this notion of the nested discussion getting smaller and smaller – age discrimination!

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