Bri Lee had always believed that the apex of academic and intellectual achievement was the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.
She had always been, self-described, “starry-eyed” about the scholarship program, thinking it was home to some of the smartest people in the world. But when she went to visit her friend Damian there in 2018, she began to think differently about educational institutions like Oxford and The Rhodes Scholarship, and the role privilege plays in allowing one to enter these kinds of spaces.
“It’s a very extreme and privileged place to find yourself in. Typically, that is reflected in who is even aware of the program and who is encouraged to apply and who can get the types of letters of support you need to win,” Lee shares in an interview on the latest Women’s Agenda Podcast episode.
“I was shocked to realise just how much these places are stuck in the past. And just how much these places revere a bygone time in which very specific, and small groups of people were allowed in.”
In Lee’s recently released third book, Who Gets To Be Smart, she shares her experience visiting Oxford University and also interrogates educational privilege in Australia, writing about the intersection of class, gender and religion, when it comes to the schooling system. She says there are “overwhelming and undeniable trends that show the rivers and streams of silver and gold still do flow in particular directions.”
As Lee explains in the podcast, about four decades ago, only about 15 per cent of students in Australia went to private school. Now, in Sydney and Melbourne secondary schools, half of the student population attends a private school.
“You’ve got schools where they’ve identified kids are turning up hungry and they want to be able to run a breakfast program and they can only afford to do that three days a week,” Lee says. “You’ve also got schools in Australia who have firing ranges and orchestra pits and two storey swimming tanks so that kids can learn how to scuba dive.”
The problem is that both kinds of schools in Australia receive government funding.
“I’m sure we can agree that if we’re talking about children being hungry at school, that’s not equality of anything,” Lee says. “If you want education to be a free and open market, then why are these very, very rich schools still getting so much government funding. It’s extraordinary.”
“It’s middle-class welfare at its worst.”
According to Lee, of all OECD nations, Australia has the fourth most segregated by class education system, and it is completely out of step with comparable nations like Canada and the UK.
“Any kind of student with higher needs, that could be kids with disabilities, but it’s also English second language kids or kids in poor and regional areas…they are being overwhelmingly left behind in a system that keeps talking about choice,” Lee said.
While writing the book, Lee said that a lot of the things she learned made her mad. The inequality was palpable. But the thing that made her really sad, was realising that one in five five-year-old’s in Australia start grade one not being able to meet their developmental milestones.
It speaks to our flawed and expensive early childhood education system, that ensures only the most well-resourced children are provided with the educational support they need in their early years of life.
If Lee could change just one thing about our education system, it would be to provide all Australian kids with access to early childhood education, and for us to all stop calling it “childcare”.
“For some reason we consider education for people aged four and below, welfare. And 20 per cent of kids are struggling because of it,” she said.
“If I could change anything it would be for Australia to acknowledge that we have enough money to treat every child’s right to an education as something that commences from birth rather than five. And that would be huge.
“I really think we need to pivot our framing of the conversation to acknowledge that early childhood education is right.”
Listen to the interview with Bri in the latest Women’s Agenda Podcast. Her interviews starts around 21 minutes in.