Public education’s ‘elephant in the classroom’

Jun 28, 2023
Female Student Raising Hand To Ask Question In Classroom.

In the debate on the rehabilitation of public schools, there is an unpleasant issue that must not be mentioned. Not by the Unions, not the Government, not the Principals’ organisations and definitely not the private schools. ‘The elephant in the room’ is severe disruptive behaviour. 

Following the recent change in both Federal and NSW Governments there has been a ‘promised’ emphasis on the rehabilitation of public schools particularly the imbalance of funding levels. `There has been plenty of informed commentary on the substantial disparity that has been unashamedly orchestrated by years of Coalition control. Now, both Prue Car and Jason Clare, the relative Education Ministers are tasked with rectifying this inequity.

There is no doubt the imbalance of resources is an extremely important consideration and Pearls and Irritations has championed the main analysts of this disparity through articles by Trevor Cobbold, Tom Greenwell and Chris Bonner. However, there is another significant difference between private and public schools; the presence of students with severe, disruptive behaviour! This is an unpleasant issue that must not be mentioned, not by the Unions, not the Government, not the Principals’ organisations and definitely not the private schools. Severe disruptive behaviour is ‘the elephant in the room’!

The impact on a classroom, and therefore the students’ learning outcomes is significantly influenced by the absence, or not of these disruptive students. This is another important disparity, private schools, despite their claims to the contrary do not have students with extremely dysfunctional and disruptive behaviours.

I need to clarify what is meant by severely disruptive students. In recent years there has been an acknowledgement of the impact of early childhood abuse and neglect on a child’s cognitive abilities including impulse control and the appropriateness of their behavioural responses. It is estimated that between 1% and 11% of the population will suffer early childhood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); in some socioeconomic areas this proportion can be up to 26%. This difference is inevitably reflected in the numbers of students with severe, disruptive behaviour.

In very poor areas this means that in a school of 1,000 students, 260 suffer from early childhood PTSD. In a class of say 30 students almost eight will have this disability. This means that in every lesson a teacher in a low socioeconomic area may have to deal with eight students with severe behaviours. The result is a significant loss of learning opportunities for the eight students and the other twenty-two students not to mention the time the teacher spends on behaviour management! This is not a problem in private schools!!

The illustration below is a comparison of the brain of a normal three-year old child and one from the cruel Romanian orphanages employed by Nicolae Ceaușescu in the 1980’s. Granted this is extreme but there would be many of our students who have suffered the same level of damage. These students have a permanent physical disability imposed on them by abusive adults. Through no fault of their own they suffer a profound intellectual frailty, the result of their frontal lobes being reduced by 20%, their hippocampus by 12% and their ability to control impulsive behaviour is diminished.

Image: Supplied

There are students suffering other mental illnesses which result in behavioural issues that contribute significantly to this problem. The NSW Mental Health Commission provides statistics that indicate the dimensions of the challenge they represent. “Of the million or so school-aged children in NSW, about 100,000 will have mental health problems such as disruptive behaviour, anxiety and depression” that’s on average one in ten in each class.

Private schools will be quick to point out they do take students with disabilities and of course they do! They take students with disabilities such as physical, sight, anxiety, depression, etc. and yes, these kids do require additional support. But critically, the behavioural expression of these short-comings do not threaten the teacher or the other students and they rightly attract a compassionate acceptance. On the other hand, students with offensive, threatening behaviour have the exact opposite influence on their teachers and peers.

The contrasting inequity between private and public is also two tiered. In recent years there has been an explosion of, mostly faith-based ‘community’ schools. This is relatively new trend, previously there were the Catholic system and the elite private schools. Parents who could afford to send their children to those elite schools did so with an expectation that their child would not have to mix with these unrefined students, they were there to cultivate a network that will serve them in their careers.

The real issue that drives much of the drift from public to these private ‘community’ schools is that parents do not want their children to be confronted by the behaviours that exist in public schools. These parents have the resources to access a ‘private experience’ for their children.

Teachers in public schools are among those with the resources that facilitate this access and it is telling the number who choose not to send their children to schools where they teach, they send them to community schools. In my last school, of the eight executive teachers on my staff, seven sent or had sent their kids to a private school. The obligatory requirement for the parent to undertake to raise their children in the particular faith that was being peddled was an agreement that lacked sincerity on both sides.

Whenever I confronted these, and other teachers asking why that turned their back on the public system some said it was for religious reasons but when pressed they would concede that their child would not be distracted by the disruptive students and they would meet a better class of friends. These, on the whole were excellent teachers and had a compassionate attitude to those few students at our school who fell into the severe category. They worked hard to produce a calm environment for those kids and the others whose parents chose the public system.

There are two significant reviews currently being undertaken, one by the Federal government, led by Mark Scott. This makes no reference to this issue of dealing with children with severe behaviours. The second is more important. The NSW Department has undertaken to review the current Welfare and Discipline Policy. The existing policy consists of an inventory of motherhood statements and insincere promises of support; the only mandatory directive is regarding suspension.

The number of suspensions is a crude record of the behavioural character of a particular school. In a quest to improve their perceived performance the last Government made it progressively harder to suspend students, thus reducing the numbers as in indicator of success.

Given the current low-level support for those really disabled children this review must honestly address this inequity. The review must focus on the severe end of the disruptive behaviour continuum and if this is undertaken honestly, with all evidence considered the only conclusion will be a massive increase in support-resources targeted at communities where need has been identified. Although the Senior Education officers that have been tasked with this review have no reputation in this field the hope is they have the courage to really address this problem. It is time to recognise ‘the elephant’ that has hidden in plain sight for years!

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