School Education – a tangled and conflated web of public issues
It is easy to feel confused, disillusioned and a little disheartened by current critiques and critics of school education as it is portrayed in the media. There are many competing agendas, and a series of conflated issues raised by policy makers, politicians, media commentators and many graduates of the school sector. There is a lack of clarity in the language we use, and feelings we have about education as a society. in some respects, we may have lost sight of the significance and power of a strong, vibrant and robust schooling system, as an asset of our country.
I love education. I am committed to contributing solid, innovative and rigorous education for pre-service teachers. I have rich partnerships with many amazing schools across public and private schooling sectors. I have a deep commitment to social justice, and believe that for every success we experience in life, we should contribute something back for a "greater good" in/for society.
I offer this precis of some of the key issues:
The National Curriculum – In brief, curriculum is what we intend to teach, as well as what we actually teach in a classroom. In sophisticated settings, curriculum is developed in a sequential way that both deepens and broadens knowledge as the learner becomes more capable of dealing with complex information. In the Australian past, what is taught in schools is often the jurisdiction of State Governments. In the mid-90s, there was a first attempt to bring curriculum to the Federal table, which initiated some strong responses in State curriculum policies. Back to the future, the arguments for the National Curriculum are focussed on parity, benchmarking and the mobilized student demographic, as well as a need to get back to basics, and to compete on the world stage (as in get ranked on PISA like Finland). The arguments against the National Curriculum tend to be based on being able to address diverse Australian student population, an acknowledgement that the basics are based on an Enlightenment model of education which does not address current students’ future needs, and that the process of developing the current curriculum has been limited in consultation and written by people who are not necessarily the best for the job.
The crowded curriculum – the crowded curriculum acknowledges that the face to face learning time of students and teachers is approximately 6 hours a day. By the time, content which is considered fundamental, such as English and Maths are taught, and then the other important learning areas (usually, Science, History, Geography, The Arts, Physical Education) it is almost impossible to address ALL the other things which a society expects to be taught: drug education, values education, addressing obesity, and any other issue which comes up. Often, things which may have been taught at home in the past, are being placed on the agendas of school curriculum. This tension, reflects a growing confusion about the purposes of a school for the individual and for the society. A useful document for thinking about this is the Melbourne Declaration on the Goals of Education for Young Australians (see
Teacher Quality – The discussion around Teacher Quality is hazy, and not explicitly linked to the current industrial disputes. There are many aspects to this debate. Formally, the Australian Institute for teaching Standards and Leadership (AITSL) have been working with localised teacher accreditation bodies to develop a set of standards which map the career development and performativity of teachers in schools, and generate a common language for talking about quality. Often, the quality of teaching, or lack thereof is often linked to the ways that students are performing on tests. This is a poor indicator of teacher quality, as there are often questions about the validity of some of these tests for this specific purposes. Research around the world indicate that the quality of teachers can be linked to teacher education, both pre-service and in-service. In countries such as Finland and Taiwan, much value is placed on the education of teachers. In Australia, this is not as evident.
Money and Education – Money in education and for education is a hot topic. There are many issues which focus on money. One issue at the root of industrial action across a couple of States is the payment of teachers. It is often argued that until teachers are adequately paid, they are not given the professional respect and acknowledgement of service which is due to them. Another much more problematic issue in the outcomes of the Gonski report which broadly suggests that there is not adequate funding in the whole of the school system. The complexity of this issue has seen an emergence of a historic debate over the division of resources between the public and private sector, and quite frankly – this could get ugly. This issue also highlights a fallacy that by throwing money at a system it is automatically fixed, and surely people have realized after the disastrous Building Educational Revolution that this is a bandaid approach.
For me, these issues lead to some very serious reflections about the perceptions of School Education. School Education is not "a system" in Australia, nor is it a corporate operation. School Education has been neglected as an entity in Australia, from a systemic perspective, and this cannot be fixed by short term, feel good strategies. To build an educational approach which is enduring and robust is to remove it from the winds of political change. To build an educational workforce is to offer education and conditions which are reflective of the role and conditions we afford to those who are doing important, or unimportant work, as the case may be.
It is time for great vision in Australian school education, and for great leadership. It is also time to educate our society about education and its possibilities. It is no longer acceptable to bash at a system, which does not exist or to fall back on default approaches which have shaped us as a Western culture for hundreds of years. Before funds are distributed, a mediocre National Curriculum implemented and more sensationalized conflation a of educational issues continue to be published, it is time for action, and time for change.