Occassional Address: Speech Night 2010

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Occasional Address by Mr John Pilger to
Sydney Boys High School
at the Annual Prize Giving and Speech Night
Held on 16 February 2010

Thank you Dr. Jaggar, and to all of you for giving me the honour of presenting the prizes tonight. It’s very strange for me to be standing on this stage where I last stood in 1957 as a member of the Sydney High First VIII that had just won the GPS Head of the River. I was so proud. Why? We had shown that Sydney High, a state school, could deploy the determination and skill, the spirit and intelligence that have nothing to do with money and privilege, and everything to with a commitment that is human endeavour at its boldest. Most of our supporters on the river bank were not finely-dressed. They did not drive smart cars. They weren’t always confident and assured. But they represented the way we were.

When we won, my dad’s best mates, a taxi driver and a bookie, celebrated in the pub. They didn’t care so much about the Head-of-the-River. They cared that Sydney High had won.

That’s why being here tonight means so much to me.

I was not a successful student. History alone fired my imagination, thanks to one fine teacher. Maths and science were sent to torment me. What saved me from delinquency was the very idea of Sydney High, its sense of community – parents, old boys, supporters – and the way High was admired in the wider community.

For me, this translated into lifelong friends and a comradeship expressed mostly in rowing, which instilled an attitude of all-for-one-and-one-for-all.

That was my launch pad, my beginning.

Yes, High is an elite school – it comes eighth in the government’s new league tables. But that’s not why it’s extraordinary.

Secondary public education in New South Wales was pioneered at Sydney High, and today when international visitors drive into Sydney from the airport, past Moore Park, they glimpse a school where the amazing diversity of Australia is represented, and celebrated.

As this country has changed its Anglo-Irish characteristics for a nation drawn from all corners of the earth, Sydney High, along with other state schools, has led the way.

That’s something all of you here tonight -- students, teachers, parents -- should be immensely proud of.

But an elite status carries responsibilities. It’s not enough to turn out brilliant passes in the HSC. There is an obligation upon all of you to understand and speak out on issues that affect the wider community.

Issues like why Australia goes to war in countries that do not threaten us.

Issues like the way our governments treats refugees who struggle to reach our shores.

Issues like education.

The federal government’s recent publication of school league tables is an attack on our wider community – on the ‘fair go’ that is said to be at the heart of Australia.

As people rush to find out how their school rates, the hidden message of these lists is one of division and hopelessness to many young people and their families not fortunate enough to be at a school like Sydney High.

For example, I looked up the primary school I attended – in Wellington Street, Bondi. It rated No. 564 out of 1100.

Wellington Street Bondi is not fashionable. It never was. The parents of kids who go there often have to struggle.

However, not far away, Bondi Beach Primary is fashionable. Middle class parents fight to get their offspring in. And it’s more than 400 points up the list from Wellington Street.

In the West of Sydney schools that have the responsibility of teaching students with English as a second language, and dealing with the poverty that inevitably comes with refugees, find themselves way down in the list.

In the country, Boggabilla is near the bottom of the list. Its students come from the indigenous community: the First Australians.

According to a recent United Nations report on 90 countries, the Aboriginal people of Australia are so disadvantaged they have the worst life expectancy of any indigenous people in the world.

That’s shocking, isn’t it?

What will happen now to schools like Boggabilla that are named and shamed?

The students, teachers and parents, for all their efforts, are not supposed to feel proud, are they? Now perhaps they will feel more alienated from the Australian community than ever -- as a campaign of attrition is mounted against so-called failed schools, forcing some of them eventually to close.

Those of us who care about education and a fair go should ask:

What is the real aim of these lists? Is it ideological?

Is it to cut back state education and harness teachers to a dictated curriculum? Is it to undermine the solidarity of teachers? Is it to replace a democratic system with a corporate version?

I have watched this happen in the UK and the United States, disastrously. The media in both countries has been used to pressure schools into becoming small businesses. The same may happen in Australia unless we are vigilant.

Moreover, this naming and shaming is a distraction from the fact – the scandalous fact -- that the government bankrolls private schools at the expense of public schools.

A wealthy private school like Knox Grammar gets an aquatic centre and smart boarding facilities, largely courtesy of the taxpayer -- while the poorest schools, like Boggabilla, beg for funds for a library.

By 2012, Australian taxpayers will have given $1.2 billion more to private schools than to the schools where the majority of our children are educated.

This is morally wrong. It has no place in the Land of Fair Go.

We must defend a well-resourced public education system that provides opportunity for all youngsters, regardless of income, race and class. There’s nothing more precious in a democracy.

Without it, I wouldn’t be standing here tonight, and you wouldn’t be celebrating your achievements.

Without it, the esteem and confidence of our youngsters would be on sale to the highest bidder.

Let me quote you the words of the great American historian and teacher Howard Zinn, who has just died.

Professor Zinn was a champion of public education. His great textbook, A People’s History of the United States challenged the propaganda of established power that said democracy is handed down from the top, not fought for and won by the people, by us.

“I wanted my students,” he wrote, “to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

In offering all of you my congratulations on your achievements at Sydney High, I urge to go into the world and leave the safety of silence -- to speak up and act against injustice wherever you find it, and to make trouble – remembering that the most important trouble is calling to account those who assume power over our lives.

Always question, always stand your ground and, above all, be brave.

For those of you who may not be coming up to get a prize tonight, remember that success in future life doesn’t necessarily come from prizes. Neither does it come from endless testing.

What’s important, above all, is the person you are, the kindness you express, the compassion you feel, and the courage and wisdom you show at every step along the way.

And may I add this personal note. It’s fifty one years since Sydney High won the Head of the River.

High boys today are as capable and lion-hearted as we were. All they need is help, as we needed it. Surely it’s time.

Thank you.