Scary school stories: from zombie data to systems at war

By Don Carter and Jane Hunter

Long-standing challenges in education confront the new Labor government: the teacher shortage; teacher pay and conditions; the equitable funding of schools; student performance in standardised tests; and student behaviour and attendance.

It has become all too common for news outlets to seek the opinions of think-tanks, rather than those who have first-hand experience and who might be able to offer solutions to the problems. So, in attempt to give ‘voice’ to these other views, we talked to six education experts: a former NSW education minister, a former principal and education commentator, the president of the Australian Education Union, a journalist, a maths teacher and a prominent academic. 

One voice often overlooked in education controversies  is that of the classroom teacher. Julie Moon is a recently retired teacher who’s taught in rural NSW and metropolitan Sydney, as well as Papua New Guinea. She was an organiser for the NSW Teachers Federation, involved in many negotiations with the NSW Department of Education. In her conversations with us, Moon highlights significant changes to  her workload –  it’s incessant and relentless data collection requirements, that is, data collection for the “sake of data collection”. She says: “It creates a workload that’s unnecessarily onerous.” As  a teacher she is continually collecting data but this task becomes burdensome when she is required to compile additional documentation that may or may not be read or acted on at other levels of the bureaucracy. 

Ongoing data collection was also raised by former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli who maintains that although initially worthwhile, data collection has now reached a “kind of tipping point where it becomes a negative”. Piccoli says we’ve reached a point where data collection now “drives teachers nuts”, adding to the constraints on teachers’ time and energies, and therefore limiting the opportunity to exercise their professionalism as classroom practitioners. 

Having worked as education minister (2011-2017), Piccoli is aware of the importance of establishing shared goals between state and federal governments. In fact, and even though he was a member of the NSW Coalition government, Piccoli says that it was “easier and smoother working” with the Federal Labor government and Peter Garrett than with the Federal Coalition government that assumed power  in 2013. Both  Piccoli  and Garrett held bipartisan education goals, promoting the Gonski reforms on school funding, and although there were often differences of opinion, he maintains that tension in education debates can be constructive, allowing for ideas to be “tested and challenged”.  

Realities of equity and school funding are close to the heart of former principal and education commentator, Chris Bonnor whose latest book scrutinises school funding in Australia. Bonnor argues that our education system has never been a ‘level playing field’ despite the best efforts of some governments; and decades-long neglect of key issues has seen the gap in academic achievements widen as the economic gap across the community widens. He also asserts that if a public education system is available to all but has to compete with a private system that has very few obligations: “it’s funding system at war with itself”. Consequently, the question of how the private and the public-school systems co-exist, must arise. 

cool This debate led us into a conversation of how education in schools is covered in the media. To gain some insights, we talked with The Age and Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Jacqueline Maley. While Maley’s writing interests extend beyond education she understands the political dimensions and the many polarising issues, for example, phonics. She is aware that certain topics will attract “blowback”; and as a result, Maley is careful to research her topics and adopt a measured tone and approach. We asked  about advice she might give to school students who are thinking of journalism as a career; her recommendations focused on an inherent “curiosity and an outward looking attitude” as well as a very “strong work ethic and an ability to think laterally when you’re looking at a story”. 

Although not preoccupied with education and the media at present President of the Australian Education Union (AEU), Correna Haythorpe’s most recent work has revolved around campaigning for reduced workload, improved conditions and a rise pay for teachers. She is investigating ways to alleviate the teacher shortage which she says in the latest AEU national survey indicates that the average working week for a classroom teacher is 56 hours, with much of it constituting unpaid work.

Possibly the current challenges in our schools are a ‘perfect storm of neoliberal discourses’ in education from the 1980s onwards. This is a persistent theme in our exchange with renowned education scholar Professor Alan Reid. In his latest book, Reid recounts the introduction of private sector practices – ‘corporate managerialism’ – where education became “awash with key performance indicators, vision and mission statements, strategic plans and intrusive accountability”. The mantra of ‘choice and competition’ became ubiquitous. Parents began selecting schools for their children, in much the same way as one might select an item of clothing from a rack in a department store. The thinking was that the best way to improve quality was to get teachers and schools to compete against one another, with the ‘customer’ being the parent and the school or teacher, the ‘product’. Many ‘big ideas’ in education were lost in the move toward a global education ‘industry’.

While many significant challenges remain for most Australia education systems and their communities, a new podcast series “Talking Teachers” by UTS teacher education academics, Dr Don Carter and Associate Professor Jane Hunter reveals there are many fresh ideas for Federal Education Minister Jason Clare and a newly elected NSW Labor government to draw on.

Dr Don Carter is a senior lecturer in the UTS School of International Studies and Education, he specialises in working with teachers to investigate innovative writing pedagogies to improve student performance and outcomes across the curriculum. Carter is a chief investigator, with Linda Lorenza, on the Emerging Priorities Program research into arts online learning.

Dr Jane Hunter is an associate professor in the UTS School of International Studies and Education, with expertise in pedagogy, curriculum, practitioner inquiry, technology-enhanced learning and teacher professional learning. In 2019 her research was awarded High Impact in the first Engagement and Impact Assessment by the Australian Research Council.

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