TONY SMITH. Promoting ignorance over education.

Apr 30, 2020

True education is open minded and open ended. It is the antithesis of propaganda and works to free minds, not control them. The federal government has a minister who lacks any understanding of basic educational principles.

It was embarrassing but not surprising to hear federal education minister Tehan trying to express simple concepts recently. It was glaringly obvious that he lacks even the most rudimentary acquaintance with the rules of grammar. It makes me cringe to think that he might represent Australia at international conferences.

In the next breath the minister sought to direct teachers how to conduct themselves during the current crisis. The reluctance shown by many teachers to return to the classroom following the strict pandemic lockdown is perfectly understandable, particularly given the tardiness of the head boy in Canberra to recall the class to Parliament House. In the absence of any willingness to lead by example, the minister’s exhortations seem like heavy handed authoritarianism.

Teachers are rightly concerned that the lockdown conditions could be lifted too soon and for the wrong reasons. In the interim, the federal government has not matched state efforts to ensure that all students have access to online and remote learning opportunities. The federal attitude seems to be that schools should be open and that contingency plans are not warranted. In fact, parents and students should be grateful that the government which has overseen dreadful messes in the census, broadband and Centrelink is not ‘organising’ online education.

Like so many conservative ministers Tehan takes his lead from rabid right wing media commentators who willingly air his ravings. He has descended into the culture wars targeting all unions. The very language he adopts reflects where his loyalties lie. By asserting that teacher unions have their ‘foot’ on the neck of the premiers, he panders to the politics of envy dear to the hearts of some talkback radio hosts. It is a dreadful mistake to introduce such negative and divisive assertions when your role should be to inspire teachers to trust the federal government and support its policies.

Conservative ministers responsible for education often make an erroneous assumption when dealing with teacher unions. They think that they can drive a wedge between unions and those at the chalkface by telling teachers that the unions are being unreasonable. I have been at conferences where ministers have made this assertion about the New South Wales Teachers Federation and the National Tertiary Education Union and have been happy to see them corrected. Rank and file members of these unions have pointed out that they are the union. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Democratic decision making processes including elections ensure that union officials are genuinely accountable to the membership.

It is likely that these conservative ministers have no experience beyond the narrow worlds of political parties. It is understandable then if they assume that everyone attains their positions in the same way they do and have the same attitudes to responsibility. So they understand about duplicity, back stabbing, branch stacking and other political arts, but understand nothing about open debate, integrity and honest dealing. Similarly ministers display great skills at avoiding accountability, refusing to answer questions and mocking critics. They seem not to appreciate that this very attitude is an insult to the communities they so hypocritically claim to represent. In the final analysis, many ministers use their tenure to make decisions which favour those corporations likely to offer them post-parliamentary employment and directorships.

Tehan accuses teachers of rejecting medical advice. It seems odd however that he has had to exert pressure on non-government schools by threatening their funding unless they open. Of course, this then enables him to argue that if government schools remain closed, their students will be disadvantaged especially at the competitive final year assessments. He routinely uses division, coercion and threats which are aspects of ignorance.

State governments have been objective and sensible in their policies towards schools during the pandemic, just as they have been decisive in their general responses. To assert that teacher unions are dictating state education policies is an insult to education bureaucracies and ministers at the sub-national level. It serves rather to show the priorities of a federal government desperate to rule by fomenting division. The education minister’s intemperate remarks make a mockery of the slogan that seeks to have us believe that we are all in this together.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic. He also taught in primary and secondary schools, TAFE and a university education faculty.

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