CHRIS BONNOR. SMH Schools Summit flies many kites

If you want a headline or two, put on a big event. That has just worked for the SMH with its current Schools Summit.

Everyone who was anyone was there, with some of their revelations making news on the same day. The SMH especially reported on the NSW Premier’s keynote address and Dr Rachel Wilson’s disturbing paper on teacher recruitment and training. So what are the big issues which should keep us awake at night?

Let’s start with Gladys Berejiklian’s speech. Now that Adrian Piccoli and Rob Stokes are safely out of the way it seems that we have another ‘education’ premier – the last one was Bob Carr and that didn’t always end well. As the Herald reports, the Premier has flagged micro-managing teaching on a macro scale: teaching methods, identifying best schools, all verified – one assumes – by assessment regimes. None of that is new, and when mandated and standardised, it is useless.

It aligns quite well with the musings of a born-again education politician, Mark Latham. As the SMH reported just a few days ago, Latham’s parliamentary inquiry has called for, amongst other things, school inspectors to check classroom teaching and an independent commission to monitor test results. While others have tried to pour cold water over Latham’s sillier ideas perhaps the Premier is feeling pressure from that direction.

Fortunately, SMH editor Lisa Davies has urged some caution. She reminds readers that solutions must acknowledge the complexity of the issues and the diversity of students. Debates about improving schools, she says, must also not be an excuse to wage war on classroom teachers or principals who are already overworked and underpaid and struggling to deal with contradictory demands. She reminds us of the need to also provide more independence to teachers and declutter the curriculum. Maybe Lisa could send both Gladys and Mark a copy of the second Gonski review, theReview to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.

Fortunately the summit addressed many real issues. The SMH deservedly gave space to Rachel Wilson’s study, The Profession at Risk. Teachers and principals have long known that too many students enter teacher training courses with very low ATARs, but Wilson puts disturbing numbers around the problem. As Jordan Baker reports in the SMH, the number of students accepted into education courses with ATARs lower than 50 has grown fivefold over the past decade. In recent years fifty per cent of students have failed to complete their training. That is simply frightening.

The SMH also published Wilson’s opinion piece and she doesn’t pull any punches. She argues that Australia is a long way from international benchmark standards. These suggest that all teachers should be recruited from the top 30 per cent of their age cohort, equivalent to an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank above 80. She asks: how can we bemoan trends in NAPLAN and PISA without addressing this problem?

What is especially telling is this finding: overall, the numbers going into teacher education each year grew by about 5000 over the decade, yet the numbers completing grew by only 500. Large intakes and low completions are good for university coffers, she says, but poor for the profession.

Now you have to forgive me, a former teacher in an era of a high standard scholarship-entry training. But that was the 1960s, a time when university was virtually free – an acknowledgment of the public good and economic benefit generated by tertiary education. The rest is more recent neoliberal history: user pays, burgeoning enrolments, overcrowded classes – many more fee-paying bums on seats in overcrowded rooms. Combine that with a teaching profession that has always struggled to achieve a status evident in places like Finland. Why would anyone be surprised at the end results documented by Wilson?

Rachel Wilson’s solutions include a national teacher recruitment strategy to determine entry into the teaching profession. “It would provide full transparency and graduated targets for lifting standards at entry to teaching degrees and for completion rates, and also consider pull factors such as teacher pay and conditions”. All accompanied by public education and media campaigning, a better top-end pay to attract high achievers into teaching and HECS-free scholarships for teaching degrees.

Finally one thing is certain: I am a perennial optimist – but if I was starting out now maybe I’d think twice about a career if my idealism and professionalism might morph into some colour-by-number daily grind, if the purpose, value and love of learning was to be described by meaningless measures, where our leaders exuded a lack of understanding and trust, where what I did risked being reshaped into ammunition for some mindless cultural warfare. And, as a consequence of all this, where the communities I served would undervalue the contribution made by me and so many others.

Chris Bonnor is a retired principal and a former president of the New South Wales Secondary Principals Council.

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6 Responses to CHRIS BONNOR. SMH Schools Summit flies many kites

  1. John Thomas says:

    Actually, Michael, teachers need to be lambasted as much as possible. As a Head of Department at a regional school 120 kms north of Brisbane in the early 2000s I tried to in-service the teachers in my department to bring them up to a professional standard over several years. The best response I got was a resistance to ‘John’s convoluted s**t’, a comment from one of my senior teachers.
    I know that Rachel Wilson’s report is about the quality of teacher trainees but at a broader level there has to be a root-and-branch re-organisation of the way our schools operate, especially in the fields of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Ironically, a wonderful program called New Basics was developed in Queensland in the ’90s by academics from several universities in Queensland and beyond that could have been a blueprint for the renovation of education right around the country. Sub-elements in New Basics included Productive Pedagogies, Rich Tasks and Literate Futures. New Basics was given a perfunctory trial in a few resistant schools and then abandoned by the then Education Minister, Anna Bligh. (Who would have thought.)
    Input from The Sydney Morning Herald, Gladys Berejiklian and Mark Latham is just a waste of time and space. There are actually education experts in our universities (although most of them have probably retired by now) but no-one listens to them.
    Unfortunately, I doubt whether most Australians in this highly anti-intellectual country (yes, just a bit of bitterness and twistedness) could care less about education.
    Of course, my criticism of teachers extends to managers in schools, the bureaucrats in education departments, some of the academics in universities and naturally our appalling politicians.

  2. roma guerin says:

    Bring back dedicated Teachers Colleges. Please.

  3. Jon Buttery says:

    The article hits the nail on the head. Speaking from personal experience after 30 years in the bureaucracy, having just got back into teaching, I don’t wonder why people are choosing other things. I’m at a very good school and enjoying it at a low part-time fraction and certainly not doing it for the money – the pay has not kept pace. The kids are great and are of course the reward, but … the job seems far more restrictive and bureaucratic than it was and I think I’m qualified to speak on this side.

    I expected computers to have transformed education far more than they have. Except in one way: there are rules and admin everywhere – rolls taken in each class rather than just at the start of the day, documentation everywhere, emails to read and answer, long long reports, National curriculum, even risk assessments before science pracs – I thought I had escaped that nonsense. I groaned when I read the textbook telling the students to do a risk assessment before their pracs!

    I met a teacher recently who said she had given up teaching and could earn the same money in half the time tutoring. And escape all the administration. Teachers weren’t well respected 30 years ago either, but it seems to me that at least you had more time, agency and freedom to teach. I’m very glad I’m not full-time.

    At a broader level, pessimism does seem entirely appropriate – I find it hard to identify any drivers for real change and improvement that could lead to such a teaching strategy.

  4. Michael Furtado says:

    Well said, Chris; the key problem is the lack of teacher morale and this won’t be improved by lambasting them!

  5. John Thomas says:

    Sorry, Evan, but I won’t be applying that logic to my doctor, dentist or airline pilot. Or ………………………. etc etc etc

  6. Evan Hadkins says:

    It would be interesting to see some study of the quality of the teacher and their ATAR results. Being able to pass exams isn’t necessarily an indicator of ability to teach.

    And the 3R’s push of international testing is dubious too.

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