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Why Conservatives are wrong about Education

Victoria’s Liberal opposition leader Matthew Guy has a plan for education that involves “bringing back traditional values”, as opposed to the “progressive, post-modern values” he claims have taken over education in recent times. 

According to the ‘Liberal Nationals Education Values Statement’, the opposition wants to “take the politics out of our schools”, “get back to basics”, and scrap programs such as Respectful Relationships and Safe Schools, which “impose a radical, post-modernist worldview” on our young people. 

Instead, he is calling for a return to rote learning and to celebrating Western civilisation, replacing the current “well-meaning” Humanities curriculum with one that promotes “Australian history and values”.

“Three critical elements of our education system have broken down in recent years: teaching the basics, maintaining discipline and instilling sound values,” the document says.

As far back as the 1970s, Australian education started to shrug off the traditional top-down notion that students were empty vessels merely waiting to be filled with a fixed canon of information. Our ideas about what makes a good education began to reflect the Socratic method. For Socrates, learning was about exchanging ideas and theories. Students were encouraged to take an active role in their education. There were no absolutes. Debate and disagreement were fundamental to the education process. It was all about broadening the mind.

When teachers broke out of the straightjackets of ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’, their students found that education meant something to them; it was something they could relate to. Where their parents had done as they were told, these students were encouraged to think. And, even more radically, to challenge the world around them.

English became about more than passively learning to recite Coleridge or Blake; it became about discovering a language that you could relate to and learning to express yourself and your culture. History became about looking at why things had happened, rather than memorising dates. Science became about questioning the world and its formation.

Returning to an era when students sat still and did as they were told is a fantasy. The world has changed and so have students. Now, more than ever, we need them to be asking questions about who we are. Some of these questions were uncomfortable then, and remain so now. But the shift in culture, inside and outside the classroom, was immense and energising. 

Conservative politicians regularly push back on this approach to education in favour of a return to more traditional modes of instruction. Some seem nervous about encouraging young people to question the world or to pursue their own forms of self-expression, so target the “politically correct gender and sexuality agenda” (Guy’s words) of programs such as Safe Schools and Respectful Relationships, which foster that engagement.

In almost forty years of teaching, I have witnessed the impact of political agendas on our education system. I have experienced the damage – for myself, my colleagues and my students – of repeated attacks on teachers and on public schools. How easy it is to breed fear about falling student results – blaming a lack of teacher quality and a dearth of ‘values’ – while starving the system of adequate funding.

It’s the eternal story: we want “better” outcomes but we don’t want to pay for them. Instead, we hear the usual ideas floated about how to make teachers do even more with less. Predictably, Matthew Guy is a fan of incentives, citing the need to “recognise and reward our best teachers”. 

What this concept always ignores is something anyone who has spent any length of time in a classroom knows: that most genuine educational ‘outcomes’ are immeasurable. You can’t quantify them.  

Improving teaching standards across the board, from teacher training to teacher performance, is obviously desirable. But any approach that links teacher ‘rewards’ to student results is deeply questionable.

Teaching isn’t about getting students to top the state. Most teachers who have had students top the state will tell you that’s the easy part. The real challenge is helping students with low self-esteem and learning difficulties reach their potential.

How do you compare the teacher who has helped a student who struggles to read a book with one who has guided a privileged, well-resourced student to reach their goals? When a student achieves beyond their expectations and feels good about themselves, that’s when teachers feel we have truly achieved something. This is what good teaching is all about. For most of us, it’s the reason we stay in the profession.

On what basis is Guy going to reward our ‘best teachers’. Best at what? Filling in forms? Disciplining oversized classes? Raising standards with shrinking resources?

We burden our teachers with piles of pointless assessment procedures that mask our students’ true results but satisfy bureaucrats’ need for accountability. If politicians are genuinely interested in motivating teachers, they should support a system that trusts our professionalism, values the need for collaboration, and abandons tests like NAPLAN, which only serve to narrow the curriculum and make students and their teachers miserable.

Education is not a competition, but a collaboration. Together, we’re all aiming to get the best from each and every one of our students, whatever their ambitions or limitations. What gets in the way of that is not a lack of motivation among teachers; it’s a lack of resources to meet our students’ needs.

Generalisations about teaching and education don’t serve any purpose except to pump up politicians’ tyres. As Socrates argued, education is about asking questions, not looking for pat answers.

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