Australia continues to passively abuse disadvantaged students

Dec 29, 2023
Globe against the background of a school class Australia.

The recent Senate Interim Report on ‘The issue of increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms’ has attracted the usual short-term media indignation followed by the ever-present indifference from our education leaders and politicians.

This is not the first time there is an acknowledgement that severely disruptive kids exist. Statistics such as: almost a quarter of teachers feeling unsafe at work; principals reporting intimidation at an extreme rate; physical violence and bullying amongst students is twice the OECD average. This increase in the expression of dysfunctional behaviour is not new. There is no other workplace where these statistics would be tolerated and any application of the WHS legislation would have them shut down and their employers fined!

What is not acknowledged but has been demonstrated is the damaging effect the behaviour of these students has on the learning of their classmates. When leadership understands this yet fails to deal with it, this knowingly constitutes abuse!

However, it would be naive to think this problem is not being addressed in the style that would please devotees of neoliberalism; rich families can buy their way out of this problem! Schools no longer consist of a very few, expensive, user pays private schools, a smattering of poor parish schools and the vast majority of kids attending their local public school. What is claimed we have now is a market place where parents get choice!

This is the legacy of Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister who is unaware of the damage she has inflicted on public schools. Although it had already started with successive Coalition Governments over funding private schools, Gillard’s belief in the principle of choice condemned schools in low socio-economic areas into becoming the dumping ground for these disruptive and highly damaged children.

The concepts notoriously known as meritocracy, grit, freedom and choice are used by those with social and economic advantage to ease their conscience with their supposition that the only reason others do not share their privilege is because they don’t try hard enough! Of course, they will point to outliers who succeed despite coming ‘from the other side of the tracks’ but these are exceptions. Choice is a concept that is the root cause of our fractured school systems.

The constraints such as socioeconomic background, cultural influences and access to opportunities that apply to individuals equally applies to schools.

Both Federal and State Labor Governments face the problem of bringing equity into the schools and much has been written about the unfair distribution of resources and rightly so. But there is no discussion about the inequity pointed out by the Senate Report.

The loss of learning opportunities for children who share a classroom with one or more dysfunctional children is well documented and easy to understand. Our attention is always focused on what is the most significant activity happening at the time. When a teacher is explaining the significance of Hamlet’s soliloquy and another student is throwing a chair, a child’s focus will be on the chair; understanding Hamlet ‘is not to be’.

Dysfunctional behaviour can have many causes; disorders such as autism, attention deficit disorder, psychosis, etc. are the result of neurodivergence, that is, there is a biological basis for the behaviour and these are in a broad sense equally distributed across socio-economic boundaries. But, the most prevalent cause of severe disruptive behaviour is early childhood post-traumatic stress (PTSD) the direct result of childhood abuse perpetrated by adults.

Investigations into the prevalence of this disability puts the range from between 1% and 11% of the total population. However, the social distribution of childhood PTSD is not in dispute. By far the vast majority of sufferers, up to 26% come from low socio-economic areas. Based on this statistic, in a classroom of say 30 students up to eight of these damaged kids would be expected in each classroom. For the teacher and the other class members learning is replaced with survival. To exacerbate this problem many schools organise their classrooms on academic results and obviously those with this debilitating mental illness congregate in the lowest class along with those with learning difficulties.

This is not a situation parents living in the catchment of such schools want for their children and those with the resources will seek to move them out. Gillard’s permission to allow students to enrol in schools ‘out of area’ and our taxes pay for the transport offered one escape route. Other public schools gratefully accepted the ‘good kids’ but refused enrolment of those damaged ones. However, there were still some dysfunctional kids so those who transferred were not completely free of disruption.

Free-market thinkers, masquerading as religious schools saw this as an opportunity to create a product to attractive to those parents who wanted to avoid this ‘problem’. They guarantee that their schools would not tolerate such kids!

The then State and Federal Coalition Governments who relish exclusivity, especially from the ‘deplorables’ unashamedly financed the rise of relatively cheap, private, mostly faith-based schools giving the customers what they want; a guarantee that their children would never share a class with severe, disruptive behaviours!

Well-informed parents with the financial resources now send their children to the ever-increasing number of these private schools. In my last school, a proud public school, the number of teachers who sent their kids to private schools far outnumbered those who sent their kids to their local public school. I used to listen to them laugh about promising to adopt the ‘required’ religious values followed at the school, a ritual that neither the parent nor the enrolling school took seriously, this is a business transaction. But, I was disappointed that they didn’t stay and fight to have our school better funded and supported!

Labor is facing a real test they don’t even acknowledge. These kids whose behaviour is the result of early childhood abuse are condemned to their increasingly residualised comprehensive schools. The parents of these children do not have the resources to take up Gillard’s offer of choice. Equity is the provision of resources according to need and these kids who have been significantly damaged in an unprotective society will not only be ignored they will be condemned to attend classrooms where learning opportunities are almost nil. I’m prepared to take bets that in the new funding agreement the resources to immediately address this problem and the needs of the poor will be ignored. After all it’s their fault; they should try harder!

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