Mining young minds: the challenges of private interests and education

Allowing mining companies to help educate children is not without benefits, but it is problematic. Mining image from www.shutterstock.com

The recent partnership announced between Nucoal Mining and Narara Valley High School in NSW has drawn some divided reactions.

The mining company says the aim of the new venture will be to improve the maths skills of students, support the professional development of maths teachers, and better prepare students to take up careers in mining. And the school gets more money and resources at a time when school funding is tight.

But the teachers’ union is concerned about the company’s influence on the curriculum (think climate change, for example) and on the potential narrowing of students’ post-school ambitions.

Journalists note the company’s connections elsewhere to the Eddie Obeid ICAC inquiry currently underway.

But along with these concerns, the mining company’s move also points to just how much the education system has changed.

Slow change leaves a big mark

There used to be a clear dividing line between state schools and private and Catholic schools. Private and Catholic schools could decide themselves what they taught, who they taught and how they funded their operations. State schools were funded out of the public purse, set up to teach all comers, and with a responsibility to provide a quality general education.

But differences on both sides have been chipped away. Non-state schools are funded generously out of public funds and their data captured on the My School website, and state schools have been encouraged to work more with industry - to seek new sources of funds.

While these changes to funding and curriculum have been underway for some time, is it OK?

First, we have to consider how far companies should be involved with public schools and at what point they step over the line and use them as a marketing mechanism. Does it matter, for example, what they sell?

Nucoal are promising some direct investment (“tens of thousands of dollars”, not, incidentally, a huge amount given the overall cost of schools or the profits of the mining industry) for the price of a little curriculum tweaking and naming rights.

In the past, Coles used schools to drive spending in their supermarkets by donating a tiny fraction of the profits to computers and sports equipment for schools.

Driving past many primary schools, you’ll see the details about the school dwarfed by the real estate advertising that sponsors the sign.

Today these developments tend to pass without notice. Objections arise only if there is a specific concern about sponsors’ products - such as the campaigns against McDonald’s at the Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital (unsuccessful) and campaigns to rid school canteens of commercial soft drinks (often successful).

Curriculum concerns

Curriculum content is probably the most contested area. In academic subjects, central curriculum policies set up frameworks of what all children are expected to learn in common, but with scope for local variation to study what is important to that community.

One of the criticisms by teachers of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority - ACARA - is that it is reducing this scope for local emphasis in subjects like history.

So including more attention to mining in a community where mining is important is not in itself a problem. But teachers have a legitimate concern if the new commercial sponsorship will reduce their ability to convey scientific knowledge, or to have students critically analyse debates and arguments.

And to what extent should schools be preparing students specifically for particular local industries? Today policies talk of job changes over a lifetime, lifelong learning, globalization, and the need to raise participation in tertiary education.

This suggests a narrow orientation to entry-level training for their first job may not be in students’ interests. But careers teachers in poorer areas also know how the competition for tertiary entry is stacked against their students - and for many getting into a first job and having good connections with local employers matters.

Show us the money

In both the UK and USA there has been a move to encourage companies and philanthropists to sponsor and manage schools (“Academies” in the UK; “Charter Schools” in the USA) with the philosophy they will do this better than local government authorities.

But research suggests some worrying quid pro quos. In the UK, Stephen Ball found companies with construction interests were sponsoring academies and gaining more in funding to build the schools than they had invested to win the contract.

In the USA, a new book by academics Mike Fabricant and Michelle Fine traces a direct relationship between the encouragement of this new non-public investment in public schools and reduction of the total spending per school and student that results from it.

It is understandable, given the lack of action following the Gonski Review, that schools are seeking new sources of funding. But we need to be careful about a downward spiral of responsibility for resourcing schooling, and about whose interests are being served in new funding arrangements.