CHRIS BONNOR. SMH Schools Summit flies many kites

Feb 21, 2020

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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