REVIEW

Feminist educator Jean Blackburn fought against the odds to bring more girls into the education system

Jean Blackburn, by Robert Hannaford.

Jean Blackburn, by Robert Hannaford.

In the world of Australian biography, 2019 has been the year of the Blackburns: two biographies of Maurice and Doris, the first by Carolyn Rasmussen and the second by David Day, and now this penetrating biography of their daunting daughter-in-law, Jean Blackburn. Concidentally, we conclude 2019 with the nation's schools receiving an ignominious "fail" in the PISA rankings for competence in critical skills among OECD countries.

Despite two decades of recording-breaking economic growth, we have dropped down the ladder for reading, mathematics and science. Even Britain, despite nine years of cruel austerity and burgeoning child poverty, is doing better (though not by much). Moreover our children are among the worst behaved - in other words, the most unhappy in class - although not as bad as the French. Jean Blackburn, considered the nation's outstanding feminist educator, would be furious.

As idealistic and devoted to reform as her in-laws may have been, it was Jean Muir, married to their son Dick, who has left the greater imprint on Australian society. Rather than politics, writing and campaigning (although did her share of those), it was her hard, backroom work of research and policy formation that rewrote the educational blueprint for modern Australia.

She didn't have an easy life, and so (though much loved) she wasn't an easy woman. Her family belonged to what was once called the middling class - neither poor nor affluent, just barely comfortable. Family life was ruled by a father whose attitude to his wife and daughter bordered on misogyny. Jean's intimidated mother held herself distant from her children, but at critical times stood up for her daughter. She insisted Jean be allowed to take up her place at University High School rather than leave school at fourteen, and it was her persistence that enabled the family to find the money to allow Jean to study economics at the University of Melbourne.

It had not been a good start, and all her life Jean Blackburn struggled with depression. At times, her everyday existence required an immense effort of will, but her fierce intellect channelled both personal frustration and political anger into the university's Labor Club and then into the Communist Party. She stayed in the party until her increasing reservations about Moscow's aims drove her out in 1956. Her husband remained a member, and a certain estrangement, while managed, was inevitable. Life in Adelaide was sustained by good friends and colleagues.

She also had to struggle to pursue a career. Thwarted by the barriers to married women teaching in public schools, she taught in a girls' private school - scarcely her first choice, though she found supportive intellectual friendship there. Her breakthrough came when economist Peter Karmel recruited her to work on a report into schooling in South Australia.

Among the first acts of the new Whitlam government in 1972 was to establish the Australian Schools Commission under Karmel to investigate the condition of Australian education through a Commonwealth lens. Blackburn was an obvious recruit. A distinguished service to Australian education flowed from those years, including her work with the Disadvantaged Schools Program and on the Girls, School and Society report of 1976. She then took on the challenge of reconciling the vocational with the academic in Victorian schools with a common certificate that could somehow eradicate discrimination and difference. The sociologist Raewyn Connell considers her "the most influential feminist educator in Australian history."

After the shock at the findings of each report and the early enthusiasm for reform had died down, the monied and the holy clawed back their advantage. Government funding to church schools, instead of being used to remake the desperately needy parish schools, converted the church's posh colleges and convents into vast excellence enterprises for the Catholic upper middle class. Already richly endowed Protestant schools built new swimming pools and music schools to replace their old ones, multistorey underground carparks for their multitudes of staff, and new campuses to expand their constituency. Then the Howard government offered support for emerging low-fee private schools to help more to escape the public system.

Meanwhile, Blackburn's report on post-compulsory schooling had reshaped the end-of-school certificate in Victoria, introducing a system of assessment by project that inadvertently privileged learning styles favouring early developers and spawned an industry of mass cheating in private schools. Idealistic reformers had underestimated the ruthlessness of middle-class parents desperate to enable their children to hold on to their birth right.

Thus, while this book is a biography of Jean Blackburn the person as well as the reformer, it is also appropriate for us to assess her legacy - or rather the story of the persistent, duplicitous self-interest that sabotaged her ideas.

The reception the PISA results received this week says it all. Commentators have been quick to reassure those middle-class parents who can no longer afford private schooling that Australia's poor results are not the fault of the actual school systems. Indeed, public schools system are just as good as the wealthy independent schools, so long as you exclude all those disadvantaged students - in other words, the poor, the Indigenous, the refugee. (No matter that the rest of the OECD nations include them in their results, too.)

It is comforting that the advantaged middle-class child whose parents can help with homework and upper-secondary assignments need not miss out on their university of choice provided they live in a middle-class suburb. (I am reminded of a consultant at the Melbourne Women's Hospital in 1884 who advised that the worrying maternal mortality rate would fall if the hospital admitted a better class of patient.) After half a century of reports, reforms, changed funding regimes, political fights, selective outrage and a gargantuan educational research industry, it is still the case that the most important decision you make about your education and future chances is your choice of parents.

In this half century the central challenge has been to extend schooling to the whole population, to transform a system that worked for the elite to embrace the masses. This was Jean Blackburn's mission, and the early signs were good. Labor prime minister Bob Hawke was proud that during his time in office the school retention rate rose from 30 to 80 per cent. The proportion of Australians who now attend university is impressive, even if wasteful of students' potential and national resources. In the "great reform," technical schools and the colleges had to go because it was believed that they made people feel inferior; we are now having to undertake the expensive business of re-inventing them.

The very large elephant in the room in Australian education is inequality: inequality of material means, inequality of cultural capital, inequality of social respect. Even worse, the damage to the most disadvantaged children's life chances is largely done before they commence school. The terrible standards of functional literacy and school achievement in Tasmania, for instance, reflect deep, stubborn, intergenerational poverty that has lingered since colonial times. On the mainland, pockets of intergenerational poverty - material and cultural - fester in areas devastated by industrial decline since the 1970s and 1980s. Inequality is as bad for education as it is for health. Those countries that do better than we do, often with fewer resources, are more equal in incomes and social status and are committed to a democratic, universal school system that educates good citizens.

We delude ourselves that we are an egalitarian people living in the land in the fair go. For all our achievements as a modern democracy, it was in the free settlements - Victoria and South Australia - that the middle class took control of education, through the churches, to protect their caste and religious tribes. In Christchurch and Dunedin, they built high schools within half a decade of settlement; in Melbourne, we opened Scotch College, and the state left secondary education in the eastern and south eastern suburbs to the private schools until the mid 1950s. We have never really caught up.

Thus, as we slip down the PISA rankings, what distinguishes us is that we are the only OECD nation to subsidise private schools with taxpayers' money; the only OECD country not to pay university students a stipend, meaning our students struggle with work and study; and, of course, a pioneer in placing the cost of higher education on the shoulders of our children rather than ourselves. We are, thus, the only nation among our peers in which the government actually subsidises inequality.

So, what of Jean Blackburn's legacy? Her enduring achievement has been in the education of girls, though with an unintentional bias towards those that come from nice families and go to good schools. These girls now dominate most faculties of the universities to the extent that we should be worrying about the absence of boys studying the humanities, or becoming teachers or veterinarians. That's not good for us either. Unintended consequences of the best of intentions. .

  • Janet McCalman is a professor at the University of Melbourne and author of Struggletown (1984) and Journeyings (1993). She now builds longitudinal historical datasets mapping intergenerational poverty and ill-health.
  • Originally published on Inside Story.
This story Some unintended consequences first appeared on The Canberra Times.