Tough Love: It is impossible to listen to the Fraser High School Principal, Virginia Crawford’s, speech without hearing in every word and phrase her passionate understanding of just how important education is to freeing people from the social conditions – and expectations – that imprison them.
THE PRINCIPAL OF Hamilton’s Fraser High School, Virginia Crawford, has been roundly criticised for warning her students about the strong correlation between truancy and failure in the world beyond high school. The push-back against Crawford’s address culminated in a walkout by around 100 of Fraser’s senior students on Monday 24 September 2018. But, what if she was telling the truth?
Very few people have been willing to test Crawford’s claims empirically. To ascertain whether the behaviours she warned her students against: truancy, substance abuse, petty crime; are, indeed, common factors in the much more serious social indices of functional illiteracy, long-term unemployment, prolonged periods on social welfare, repeated incarceration, mental health problems, sexual assault, domestic violence and, most disturbingly in relation to young New Zealanders – suicide.
This is strange, since a great deal of work has already been undertaken in this area by those convinced of the efficacy of the National Party’s “social investment” initiative. The whole point of the social investment project was to identify the “warning signs” of individual and/or family dysfunction so that the authorities could intervene and, hopefully, forestall, that individual’s and/or family’s decline into irremediable social pathologies. Those warning signs were precisely the behaviours alluded to in Crawford’s address.
“Every student who walks out of the gate to truant is already a statistic of the worst kind, highly likely to go to prison, highly likely to commit domestic violence or be a victim of domestic violence, be illiterate, be a rape victim, be a suicide victim, be unemployed for the majority of their life, have a major health problem or problems, die at an early age, have an addiction - drugs, gambling, alcohol or smoking.
“The more you truant, the more likely you are to end up as one or most of those statistics. I don’t want you to be one of those statistics. Economic research confirms everything I am telling you. It’s been proven. Some young people at Fraser today are still proving that message to be true.”
One of the Principal’s sternest critics is Herald columnist, Deborah Hill Cone, whose argument is best summed-up in the old aphorism: ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him.’ “Being told by an authority figure you are certain to become a grim statistic is more of a danger to young people than skipping class”, Hill Cone warned Crawford. “In some very pervasive, unconscious and dogged ways we become what we are expected to be.”
There is something quite touching about Hill Cone’s faith in the individual’s ability to rise above the awful impetus of social causation and statistical correlation. “And try to remember this,” she advises the students of Fraser High in her Monday column, “your principal, Virginia Crawford, has absolutely no idea what your life is going to be like. None of us do. And she has no right to tell your story.”
Many would argue, however, that Crawford not only has the right, she has the duty, to speak plainly and forthrightly about the awful statistics to which so many of the students attending Fraser High School are likely to contribute in the months and years ahead of them. Telling them, as Hill Cone would have her do, that: “It’s your soul, and your story to construct” is all very bracing and Kiplingesque, but it is highly debateable as to whether it will do as much good as telling them that buckling down and working hard at school is just about the only way out of the dead-end working-class suburbs which for so many of them constitute the boundaries of the known world.
A number of the parents of Fraser High School students have taken offence at Crawford’s comments and are threatening to withdraw their offspring from the school until such time as its errant principal is replaced. Like so many of us, they do not like to think too much about the uncanny ability of insurance underwriters to correlate specific behaviours with specific outcomes in the setting of their clients’ premiums. Rather than condemn Crawford for her predictions, might it not be more helpful for their children’s futures to ask themselves whether the behaviour they have been modelling in their own lives bears out or refutes the Principal’s fears?
Nothing did more to shatter the rigid boundaries separating New Zealand’s social classes than the First Labour Government’s ringing affirmation that every New Zealander “whatever his [or her] level of academic ability, whether he [or she] be rich or poor, whether he [or she] live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he [or she] is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his [or her] powers.”
It is impossible to listen to Crawford’s speech without hearing in every word and phrase her passionate understanding of just how important education is to freeing people from the social conditions – and expectations – that imprison them. She knows that there is a vast, beautiful, exciting and intensely rewarding world beyond the borders of “Nawton or Dinsdale or Western Heights” – just as she knows that the students of Fraser High School who play truant on a regular and prolonged basis are, statistically-speaking, the ones least likely to ever get to see it.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 25 September 2018.