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Stop Blaming Teachers

Thursday, December 08, 2016

School children working with their teacher in the class room
 ‘When are we going to face up to the fact that we have got our priorities all wrong?’ Photograph: davidf/Getty Images

News that there we have slipped further behind in global rankings in maths and science in our schools has brought the usual responses from the usual suspects. The federal minister for education Simon Birmingham says that “he is embarrassed” at the “appalling results”.

He says this has nothing to do with funding but everything to do with “teacher quality”. That old chestnut. Nothing to do with class sizes either. Birmingham is on the record quoting research that says smaller class sizes don’t make a difference. 

Let’s just put that one to bed once and for all. 

Just because classes of 45 are manageable in other cultures doesn’t mean they are here. We are culturally very different to many of the countries on the rankings ladder. What can a teacher do in an Australian school do if a student tells them to “fuck off” or tosses a chair out the window or doesn’t do their homework? Nothing. Where is the support for such situations? In the principal’s office? The same principal who is so weighed down with the demands of the parents, the departments and the education bureaucracies that they are unable to get out of their office even if they want to?

When are we going to face up to the fact that we have got our priorities all wrong? When are we going to stop the blame game and take the steps that need to be taken to improve conditions in our schools for both teachers and students and, in doing so, inevitably raise standards?

Is it any wonder 30%-50% of new teachers drop out in the first five years of teaching? Is it because they have been badly trained or have poor skills? Or is it because they discover that teaching in contemporary Australian schools involves so much work outside the classroom that they never get to do what they are trained for? That is, teach. 

Our obsession with accountability means that every spare moment of a teacher’s life is spent not preparing lessons or finding resources but satisfying the bureaucratic demands of the job. In other words filling in forms. Doing paperwork, most of which could be done by anyone.

Young teachers need mentors. We all know that. It’s not easy controlling a class of teenagers whose respect you have to earn. That’s right, earn. Our culture does everything but respect teachers. Why would anyone think our students would be any different? 

We have very different disciplinary expectations to some of our “rivals” on educational ladder tables. We also have students with a range of special needs. They are not going to get where we want them to be on their own. 

It’s astounding that we can’t make the link between the appalling social conditions endured by some of our communities and their educational results. People in living in abject poverty aren’t doing well in maths and science. Who’d have thought? Must be the teachers. People living is disadvantaged areas aren’t doing well at school? Blow me down. You know who to blame. People who have escaped war torn regions and for whom English is a second language are struggling in class. Really? Must be the fault of that young teacher trying to control a class of tearaways. 

Here’s a simple suggestion to get the ball rolling: remove all but the most essential paperwork from teachers’ inboxes and give them the space to devote the time they need to prepare lessons for their classes. Provide them with the physical and emotional support they need in the way of mentors. And, sorry Mr Birmingham, in this country, keep class sizes manageable.

A conga line of politicians from both sides of the political divide have pointed to increased funding over the years as though this in itself is the panacea. As Gonski and now the Grattan Institute have pointed out, it’s not the money it’s how it is spent. By providing resources on a needs based formula we will go a long way to getting it right. 

To start on the right foot with this we need to once and for all put an end to the tired old private v public debate that chews up way too much air time and is preventing the kinds of advances being made that we desperately need.

The government doesn’t even need to increase funding – it just needs to identify where it is most needed and, as Grattan’s Peter Goss says, make that transparent. Only a tiny fraction of private schools – 1% – are seriously over funded. That could be redressed with the stroke of a pen and most of those schools would accept the cuts because, surprise, surprise, they are teachers at heart and most teachers support Gonski’s recommendations. Then cap the next 2% of private schools that have adequate funding and increase on a needs-based formula for those private schools that are struggling. Similarly, cap funding to the better resourced public schools and reallocate that funding as needs be. 

It really is time we took the politics out of this debate. On both sides. And stop looking for scapegoats. If we want to lift our rankings on global educational ladders we all have to contribute. 

After all, in the end these are all our children.

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