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How Australia is getting education wrong ...
There has to be a story. There has to be a vision. There has to be a narrative. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to work each time, it needn’t guarantee everyone everything, but there has to be something for people to buy into. A teacher sitting under an oak tree, seventeen students in a semi-circle, someone mentions Wittgenstein, the teacher explains Tractatus, this leads to Austria, Vienna, Mozart, and someone decides to learn the flute concerto, and someone else asks wasn’t Hitler Austrian? Then the kids from another class (it’s a nice day) wander over, search the leaf litter, find a few bugs and run back to identify them, and another boy climbs the tree, and someone else says I’m tired, do we have to do this now? And it looks like chaos. But it also looks and smells and sounds like learning. The thing, so often in Australia, we start with, aged four or five, and abandon a decade or so later. Or if not abandon, structure out of existence, purge of flavour and risk and curiosity through a combination of over-regulation, vested interests, all the time, forgetting the wonder, the magic of coming to know what it is to be a human on Earth.
If schools are a function of the societies that make them, fund them, run them, what does this say about the Australian way of doing things? Every day, in thousands of classrooms, we continue, unfazed. We control, standardise, endlessly assess and test, assign children positions in pointless hierarchies, study, dissect and worship every rule as though, through greater adherence, we might gain greater wisdom. Though we hardly ever do. So, I want to tell you about the early years of my teaching career, and how I almost fell down the hole, never to emerge. I want to tell you what I’ve learnt, and unlearnt. I want to find out where the fun, the joy, the passion goes to hide when it works out it’s no longer needed.
Wake in Fright
March 1996. I emerged from a Dash 8, felt the fan-forced heat and humidity, smelt the mix of Avgas, Bundy and Lynx (after PE on a 40+ day), heard the cries of birds from a palm-fringed forest, saw Marlboro man slowly, ever so slowly loading our luggage onto a trolley. No other planes, or people, or anything. I waited like John Grant, attempting to escape Tiboonda in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright. I’d just accepted my first teaching job. Hervey Bay State High School. I assumed it was one of those hard-to-staff schools with challenging behaviours because no other education department was willing to hire me, fly me from Adelaide to Queensland, move my furniture, car, life to the far end of Australia. I dragged my soggy arse into the small terminal (in both senses of the word), waited until Marlboro man deposited the bags, asked about a taxi, and the woman (like she was auditioning for a part in a local production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) said, ‘You can cool him there.’ Indicating what might’ve been a Bakelite phone.
It might have happened like this. Or maybe the intervening years have warped the memories like a Datsun dashboard after a long, hot summer. Either way, I thought, What have I done? The flight north, orange juice and crackers as some consolation (all the time, Chips Rafferty droning: ‘Yeah, Tiboonda’s not bad. Course we do have a few suicides … they reckon it’s the heat’). Heat or not, I’d been naïve. After a science degree, a few so-so jobs, I’d enrolled in a graduate diploma in education. Educational theory and adolescent psychology (which missed the mark entirely), two practicums – one at an all-the-kids-are-well-adjusted inner east state school, another at Adelaide’s poshest college – and I assumed all students had the same desire to learn, to hear what I had to say about mRNA and fractions.
The next few months were tough. Aristotle ringing in my ear: ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’ Though I suspect he would’ve needed longer in Pialba. A chair thrown out a window, classic sixties teachers in long socks and grain-fed moustaches telling me to keep my chin up: ‘Confidence, that’s all you need. Terror, that’s all they respect.’ Fellow teachers helped me find a rental, cooked me meals (all the time, avoiding the various elephants in the room), and one took me to see Mr Holland’s Opus, a movie in which the titular character gives up his dreams of composing (in my case, writing) in favour of becoming a solid, reliable teacher. The future writ large, as I realised I was a teacher, the person, the people I most despised at school for being second raters. Either way, in Hervey Bay it was all about taking it easy. What mattered (and my wife and I soon succumbed) was cooling our pale, southern limbs in the sun-warmed shallows of the Pacific at 3.50 every afternoon, across the Esplanade for a beer at the Torquay, as we descended, as quadratic equations lost their former appeal (what there was of it), and we became part of the story.
God or no God
The story. Thing is, children have uncles and aunts and mums and dads and they cook things this way and believe in God (or no God) and some agree with a smack and others tell their kids there is (or isn’t) such a thing as gender and some are left-leaning and some are rampant racists and some value school (and some see it as childcare) and kids accept these narratives, and this machine churns like a Westinghouse 560, and it’s powered by social norms and dumb media and religion and it’s so hard to change things. Also, we live in a country where ideas aren’t so important, and our politicians are mostly dim, opportunistic and self-serving, and every child and adult and dog has an idea about what constitutes good education, and who am I to say they’re wrong (although most of them are)?
How can a school be more than we ask it to be? How can it be greater than the sum of the political decisions of which it’s made? How can it challenge parents who think they know best? How can it reach any sort of academic greatness if it’s all about sport? How can we get the best people if nepotism rules? How can we raise standards when reporting and assessment authorities keep dropping them? How can teachers offer opinions when they’re silenced by politically expedient codes-of conduct? How can we impart wisdom when older teachers give up and leave the profession in favour of cheaper-to-employ younger teachers (and vice versa). How can we pry tablets from the hands of game-raised kids? In short, how can we take the most complex social institution and make it something we consider ‘great’? How can we stop elite schools building wellness centres and stacking their boards with lawyers and CEOs? How can we have equity in an inequitable society? One child, his or her head full of what’s going on at home, tired and hungry, defeated, one of the 38.9% of Australian children presently living in ‘disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances’. The South Australian 2021 Child Development Council report ‘How Are They Faring?’ makes a clear connection between social disadvantage and educational outcomes: ‘Extremely troubling … is the disproportionate representation of students with disability, Aboriginal students, students in care, and students from low socio-economic backgrounds who are issued with exclusionary practices, limiting their access to quality educational opportunities and impacting directly on their education outcomes …’
Schools as Trojan Horses
This was a few weeks before Coronavirus. On a train out of Copenhagen, across the Oresund Bridge towards Malmö, hovering above choppy swell, the feeling that humans have achieved something remarkable. Malmö itself, my wife’s expat cousin, P, driving us through the suburbs: neat houses on small blocks, clipped hedges, and the feeling that nothing’s been overlooked. We arrived, met P’s wife, two sons, shared those awkward moments of relative-at-first-sight. We, somehow, fulfilling the role of visiting Aussies, simple, easy-going, like Crawford telling John Grant: ‘Y’ can always come to the Yabba in your holidays.’ And the Swedes, nothing gaggy, unnecessary, both sons switching between languages as we, the visiting colonials, started to feel … different.
Over lunch it became obvious: we were different. Not just language, home, bulging bookcases, North Sea salmon and sex, but the quality, the nature of ideas, the syntax and thoughts behind it, two worlds, one (IKEA-inspired) living room, like I was a flat-pack with a missing screw. Of course, this was just a first impression; conclusions to which I typically jumped, intimations I harboured in the absence of facts. Was this my sense of inferiority? Or was there more to it? Were the Swedes (I might as well continue my generalisation) a different brand of humans? Were they the Stensele, and I the Norråker?
Over lunch, I quizzed P’s sons about their school. To me, that’s the key, the way to understand a people, their values, what makes them unique. School, they explained, was fun. Fun? Since when was school meant to be fun? It was a friendly, happy place where they cultivated social skills, applied critical thinking and, most importantly (as I was discovering), developed independence. I heard about the free lunches (‘Of course, what do you expect?’), the foreign languages, the respected teachers (left to do their jobs without constant questioning and oversight), a school structure that aligned with the real world. A middle school (högstadiet) until Year 9, at which time students chose a high school (gymnasium) focused on a science or humanities stream. Unique schools for the disabled, and for the indigenous Sami people (sameskolor). No mucking around with watered-down curricula full of crap no one wants to learn, no employer needs, no teacher wants to teach. As I thought, What if Australian schools are Trojan horses, packed with irrelevance, led to the gates of possibility, then abandoned? Either way, this free education made sense. Why study chemistry if all you’ve ever wanted to do is draw? Like we’re delaying our kids’ choices longer and longer, keeping them at school (to keep youth unemployment figures down?) for no good reason, creating boredom, frustration and conflict because, somehow, the greater volume of learning will make kids smarter, wiser people.
What does this tell us about the Swedes? Here, a country where half of all households are childless, single adults; where kids leave home (on average) at 18 years of age. Here, a country led by competent leaders, quick to form consensuses on important issues or, if not, at least pretend to act like adults. Here, a people who wear bureaucracy lightly. Where 82% of adults don’t bother with religion (more on our school/religion obsession later). Joining the dots. The realisation that we are different people and give rise – not in any deliberate sense – to different education systems. Wittgenstein: ‘The world divides into facts.’ Thinking (as we returned across the Oresund Bridge that night), we have a lot to learn from the Swedes, the Finns, from systems that do things differently. And yet we keep returning to the same narratives, making the same mistakes, because we are (as far as I can tell) too afraid to take risks, too unwilling to admit we’re getting it wrong, too tyrannised by educational bureaucrats intent upon preserving the status quo.
Old money for new
Okay, I’ll lay my cards on the table. I haven’t said any of this up to now because I’ve been working in religious schools. Observation 1: writing essays (or columns, or anything) won’t have a positive effect on your career. The truth will not set you free; it will keep you in your pyjamas until three in the afternoon. Again, part of a system that’s hardly self-critical, original, risk-taking, anything. I learnt this a few years back when I published a series of articles criticising the facilities in the state school in which I was teaching. Gaffer-taped carpet; air conditioners that had to be switched off so I could be heard; teaching in asbestos-classrooms with the warning stickers peeled off; half the staff on short-term contracts, leading to low morale that couldn’t be acknowledged, discussed, lest the principal (in state schools, the most politicised appointments) caught a whiff of insurrection. Point being, after several years of annually renewed contracts, my contract was not renewed the following year. This is what (I think) education departments call consensus.
Most state education departments have become so ossified they’re no longer fit for purpose. The distance between young, idealistic teaching graduates trying to articulate what they find interesting, life-affirming about Homer or the multi-verse, and the administrative layers that suffocate their practice, is enormous. Above the teacher, departmental heads – often wise, often experienced, often corrosive – providing educational counterpoints to whatever it is that ‘makes’ great teachers; heads of teaching/learning/studies with (sometimes) academically-sound insights (mostly, teachers don’t doubt these insights, they just don’t have time to deal with so many ideas). Assistant principals, principals, regional directors – layers of legislated ‘wisdom’ implemented in every home group, every staff meeting, lesson, minute, hour, day and year of a career in the classroom. Rising (on its way to risk- and change-averse education ministers) through clusters, agencies, divisions, units, all more interested in analysing the loss of blood than stemming it. Directors, who ensure ‘evidence-based decision making is focused on improving student progress and achievement …’ (Role Description, Director, Educational Leadership, NSW government). Strings of words that fail to understand the basic nature of a student-teacher relationship. Deputy secretaries, executive directors, group directors, senior executives forming an impenetrable lattice that’s beyond changing, let alone improving.
In the private system, the relationship between board and principal is equally problematic. Principal and teacher. Teacher and student. Here, a different set of imperatives rule. The ultimate authority of marketing, promotions, publicity, reputation, social standing, the necessary incest of class and networking, the preservation of advantage, the inculcation (not in so many words) of these values into students from a young age (reinforced via the rise of school-based early learning centres), the selection of teachers who understand the game, of board members who know the rules better than anyone. This world constantly in opposition with state education like, somehow, this tension might be holding the whole thing together. The same kids profiled in the media every year – top schools, highest ATARs – as though this is all so inevitable, and listen, Darren, Kayeesha, don’t go getting any ideas now. In short, two houses of cards. And they collapse, don’t they?
So, perhaps, in the absence of any political vision, we need to approximate our own Australian model? Maybe we could call it the Malmö Model? Here, we create an outstanding, generously funded, arm’s-length-from-politics, nationalised system in the Scandinavian mould. Barnacles scraped clean, dead wood removed, best practice based on the best systems from around the world. Teachers (with their subsidised master’s degrees) teaching children, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses, making their own decisions about students’ progress (avoiding the present system in which governments obsessively test students on the faulty assumption teachers can’t be trusted – this is, I think, I’ll call the ‘NAPLAN delusion’). This model would require education ministers, politicians, principals, parents to agree on what state schools (and schools at a local level) might look like, how they might function, take advantage of existing strengths (geography, parents’ experience and education, local industries, tertiary education providers forming relationships with secondary schools). Maybe this model would see unusual timetables, vocational pathways, ‘unqualified’ teachers presenting less defined subjects with looser curriculum, elements of experimentation, kids in class for two or three hours a day, four days a week (no longer tied to an industrial model of teaching), free lunches, Montessori mornings, ideas, at last, characterised by possibility. All of this founded on a degree of devolution, decentralised control: schools as something more akin to community centres than people factories (though, it’s hard to imagine thousands of public servants conceding control). ‘Elite’ parents lacking sandstone schools in which to invest their time, energy and money making sure their local state school benefits from their personal strengths and generosity (having saved tens of thousands of dollars a year). Most elite schools have fine-tuned an educational model that takes advantage of government generosity (and the old nugget of an argument that if not for them, the taxpayer would shoulder the full burden), sponsorship, philanthropy, any means of creating a competitive advantage for their students. Theirs. Hardly egalitarian. Hardly Australian.
Then, add to this model, a market element in line with our own times. Give every parent of every student an annual education voucher to spend where and how they see fit. This idea, first articulated by economist Milton Friedman in the fifties, would disrupt the business model of ‘elite’ schools, reward and grow classroom and whole-school excellence as it develops, bring funds to underfunded schools and, as Friedman explained: ‘enable parents to have free choice … to allow competition and allow the educational industry to get out of the seventeenth century.’ Either way, we need to strip our schools back to basics, throw out what we don’t need, admit the $42,000 fees, the investments, the real estate do mean that children in this country start and finish their education in different worlds, walk into jobs that are sometimes deserved, sometimes not.
Witness the groundsman with his hours cut back, the kids playing on the only oval the school can afford to water; versus the suite of ovals and pool and gym at St Somethings. The trail of well-meaning graduates who staff many regional and rural state schools; versus the head-hunted, 99-ATAR-guaranteed teachers paid for results. In each case, overworked educators on six lines, teaching all day, marking at night, preparing on weekends, trying to come up with original, engaging content but being ground down (to the point of leaving the profession) because staffing ratios have nothing to do with the notion of a ‘full load’. And now we see teacher shortages in country towns, regional cities, the outer suburbs. Three, four teacherless senior classes sent to the library for supervision. Why? A business model that assumes a third of teachers’ work should be unpaid? A problem in a post-Covid, quiet-quitting world where teachers are no longer happy working for free. Maybe we’re not willing to pay for the education our students deserve? So, we’re left with the deadly, life-limiting characteristics of schools that fail our children every day: vested interests; avoiding risk; having to teach to the middle of the bell curve; trying to be too many things to too many people.
Burning the Stubble
1999. In Guilderton (name changed), the theme continued. A year contract as the agriculture teacher. One year. So, I’m not going to start building a house, am I? I didn’t know anything about sheep, wheat, pigs … agriculture, but they’d turned over a series of teachers, and needed fresh blood. Guilderton: its utefuls of cockies’ sons rubberising the main drag, the three-legged dog dry-pissing on lampposts, the silo fabricator across the street, the frock salon, the country-killed butcher shop (again, it might’ve been like this), made me wonder why I kept descending. I was expected to teach five lines, run an ag committee, develop a farm (with help from the groundsman), improve infrastructure, complete my professional development (not that I, or most teachers, learnt anything useful), organise the sheep, pigs, chooks, send them to the butcher, sell them to parents and staff, burn off the stubble, organise the seeding, the fencing, clean out water troughs on the weekend, chase feral kids off the property. I was from the city; I didn’t know how to do any of this. How much easier to train teachers, support them, ask after their wellbeing, help them. But none of this happened. That was the pattern – come, bear it, find a better job, leave. A pattern that continues to this day. And why? Teachers out-of-mind and out-of-sight educated baby-sitters who are paid handsomely, apparently (according to the Murdoch press). Point being, we expect miracles from teachers, and often there are reasons they don’t, can’t, deliver. Any statement of fact (like this) is soon howled down or ignored by a population who have been conditioned how to think about ‘teachers’, the six weeks’ holiday, the 3.30 finishes.
Hillcrest Baptist Sunday School
God. Money. Money. God. That’s how it rolls. Arriving at a job interview later that year, sitting in Reception, given a sheet of paper and asked to write responses, in your own time. How do you reflect the teachings of Jesus Christ Our Saviour in your classroom practice? Mm. And so much page to fill. Perhaps if I write big letters? Or maybe they really need an ag teacher, and it won’t matter what I write? Halfway through the interview, the principal bowed his head and said we should pray, and I wondered what I’d done, like this was some anti-Wake in Fright. I just smiled and said (in a desperate attempt to change the subject), ‘This school has a real buzz, a real feel.’
And over the years it’s become obvious. The federal government, state governments, parents, children have entered a relationship not so much with God, as the dollar. The school of my religious squirmings has doubled in size in the twenty years since I sat in that transportable office and did some of my best creative writing. Spread across a hillside, ‘given parents choice’, taken the pressure off the education budget, allowed various zealots to get their hands on our kids. I’d have to say, I don’t think it’s working. The brainwashing has to come from home, and if parents choose religious schools as an attempt to keep their kids out of the local state school, or because of the facilities, or some vague notion that religion ‘improves’ people, then the whole thing becomes sort of, disingenuous (as, I guess, I’ve been for the last twenty years).
Who I am
The train pulled into Copenhagen Central Station, we got off, descended into the bowels of the earth, caught the M4 back to Kongens Nytorv. A clean, quiet, driverless journey beneath the city. As I wondered about Australian wanderlust. The nagging feeling that there are better ways. We are a country reluctant to ask questions, let alone answer them; that never discusses happiness, wisdom, the generative power of imagination. Or, indeed, the point of education. Why does the bell ring and kids line up and file in and fill out worksheets about the GDP of South American countries? Who cares? Who remembers any of this twenty years later? Why do so many of our schools resemble something out of Dickens? Why the tags like ‘Respect. Diversity. Resilience’? Like random words might mean something we’ve missed? Why the reluctance to have a national conversation, and why the reluctance to listen? Why ‘Education is a Journey’? To where? Tiboonda? The Yabba? Or Malmö?
I’ll leave the last word to the American writer, James Agee. His vision of a family and child (him) sitting under a tree in a garden on a summer night in 1915. A boy learning about life, about ‘my father who is good to me’, about the voices ‘gentle and meaningless, like the voices of sleeping birds.’ This sense of awe and majesty we lose too soon in a world that misunderstands ‘learning’. ‘Sleep, soft, smiling draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved … but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever, but will not ever tell me who I am.’
That, I’ve learnt, we need to work out for ourselves.