Simon Birmingham

‘Zero tolerance’ is the wrong approach to classroom behaviour management

The Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has demanded a zero tolerance approach to students’ bad behaviour in Australian classrooms. He was reponding to key findings from the latest PISA report which found Australia scored “significantly lower than the OECD average” for classroom discipline levels. From the perspectives of the students surveyed, Australian classroom environments were not “consistently conducive to effective learning”. In part the results “indicated a poor climate of classroom discipline”.

We can only wish a simple solution such as a zero tolerance approach would fix the problem. However from my teaching experience, and as is recognised in research evidence, control and quick fixes more often exacerbate behaviour problems in schools. As I see it, the Minister’s response appears to be aimed at punishing students’ non-compliance where a proactive response, such as focusing on practices to increase student engagement in learning, has the potential to be much more effective.

Student behaviour in contemporary schools can be a contentious political issue for policy-makers. Regular negative media coverage creates concerns for politicians, principals, teachers, parents and students.

For teachers, the prevalence of low-level disruptive behaviours can be especially difficult and frustrating to manage. Indeed, a disruptive classroom climate can hinder the learning process and lower the achievement of the entire class. As such, reducing disruptive behaviours in the classroom has a positive effect on students’ learning.

However, it is unlikely that students will flourish as learners in classrooms that are narrowed to obedience and sheer compliance.

I would much rather see students taught to self-regulate their learning and behaviour within productive and supportive learning environments. This is an alternative to teachers viewing classroom behaviour management as the use of tools, tricks or interventions to control students’ behaviour.

The emphasis on controlling student behaviour

Historically, classroom behaviour management has been viewed with an emphasis on controlling students’ behaviour. Behaviour management is usually focused on actions taken by teachers to establish order, elicit students’ cooperation and engage them in learning.

In both the UK and the US there are moves to give teacher control of student behavior more emphasis in teacher education. In the UK the talk is about “expectations of compliance and effort” and the “3Rs of the behaviour curriculum”: Routines, Relationships and Response strategies. Similarly, in the US, five key strategies for effective classroom management were identified that include rules, routines, praise, consequences for misbehaviour and active student engagement.

I argue that there is a serious omission here. There is a fourth R: teaching students to take Responsibility for their learning. The ideals of students sharing the responsibility for their learning are not included as a future priority for effective classroom behaviour management in either of these strategies.

Also there is the added layer of complexity in that teachers might think about instruction as teacher- and student-centred, and then view classroom behaviour management only through the teacher-centred lens.

Approaches matter

I believe the approaches teachers choose to take to manage classrooms and behaviours impact on students, now and into the future. And yes indeed teachers do have an overall responsibility for providing all of their students with access to high-quality schooling.

However when teachers try to seek compliance by administering rewards and consequences, students have limited opportunities to regulate their own learning. Hence, a vicious cycle can be established and perpetuated through excessive teacher control, with the potential to compromise a conducive learning environment. For instance, it is possible that students’ compliance reduces when opportunities to regulate their learning are not met, which in turn increases the likelihood that the teachers’ quest for compliance will continue through implementing control, or worse an arsenal of punishment for non-compliance.

Also it should be noted that students who are compliant can be quietly disengaged from learning.

Self-regulated learning

Providing opportunities for students to engage actively to self-regulate their learning, shifts the aim of classroom behaviour management beyond the function of maintaining order in the classroom to a focus on learning, being responsible and having fun.

Self-regulated learning integrated into classroom management can empower students to take control of their own learning and can empower teachers to share the responsibility for creating positive classroom cultures. As opposed to a teacher reflecting on “how well did I manage the students’ behaviour in the classroom?” the emphasis is on whether the teacher provided opportunities for the students to regulate their learning within a social environment. After all, no one has control over the students’ behaviour and learning success more than the students themselves.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has developed the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) to provide a clear vision of what teachers are expected to know and be able to do today. These call for an approach to creating environments for learning that can inspire students as self-regulated and lifelong learners to connect with a learning desire. This goes beyond the teacher just maintaining acceptable standards of behaviour. For teachers in contemporary classrooms, this shift in thinking considers the needs of all their students to feel responsible and respected.

I believe understanding and valuing the development of students’ self-regulatory capabilities can lead to an approach to classroom behaviour management that offers a pathway for fostering lifelong learning skills.

When teachers provide their students with opportunities to set goals, monitor progress and reflect on their learning within supportive social communities, the approach to classroom behaviour management moves away from thinking that students are not capable of controlling their own behaviour and what becomes important is teachers knowing their students and how they learn.

This shift in thinking requires the policy makers and the teaching profession to recognise the value of a proactive approach for “improving student learning as opposed to controlling behaviour”. The challenge is for those involved in education to understand the classroom as a social system for learning and to see beyond the immediate behaviour of students with the aim of knowing who they are and how to engage them in learning.


Karen Peel has extensive experience as a classroom teacher.  She shares her expertise in making the connections between practice and theory as an initial teacher educator within the field of classroom behaviour management at the University of Southern Queensland.  Karen’s current research is situated in the primary to junior-secondary school transition years and focuses on exploring teachers’ proactive pedagogical approaches that empower young adolescent students to take control and responsibility to self-regulate their learning.

Karen will be presenting at The Learner conference in July in Hawaii- The Learner Research Network: “A Pedagogical Model for Self-Regulated Learning: Why aim for behavioural compliance when we can inspire learning?

A new phonics test for Australian six year olds is a BAD idea

The recent announcement by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, of a nation-wide phonics assessment for six year olds is of great concern to me. I believe, as do many of my fellow literacy expert colleagues, this new test will not help improve our literacy levels.

Australian children have been “marking time” or “falling behind” when compared on international benchmarks like PISA since high-stakes testing has been introduced and ramped up in this country. This latest mandate is part of the political cycle associated with testing regimes. Continuing this kind of assessment will not improve student literacy outcomes.

Evidence from the UK and USA, where similar tests have been used, may show improvement in performance on the phonics test over time but do not correlate with an improvement in children’s literacy levels. In fact what can happen is a narrowing of the literacy curriculum.

No evidence that phonics training preceding meaning making helps

 As renowned English author Michael Rosen explains, the difference between a phonics test and learning to read is that a phonics test merely requires children to pronounce a list of words, while learning to read is about making meaning of a text.  Phonics is only one part of the literacy story. And there is no evidence that phonics training should precede meaning making in literacy learning. It is much more productive to address decoding skills in meaningful contexts.

Absolutely the drilling of phonics will help some children do better in phonics tests, but there is no correlation with ultimately learning to be literate.

What the evidence says

We do know that six year olds should not be subjected to this kind of assessment. There is emerging evidence that teachers and students are finding the test-driven approach to education in Australia is anxiety producing.

Early childhood contexts and the first years of schooling should be centred on engaging in creative play with language including poetry, songs and rhymes, developing children’s confidence in talking about and responding to story, building a rich vocabulary and developing an understanding and love of literature.

One of the best predictors of literacy success is access to books in the home, as well known research tells us. In addition, shared reading, storytelling, talking about books from an early age and the opportunity for children to read widely are all important in learning to be literate.  Many children living in poverty do not have access to a wide range of books and shared reading experiences from an early age. If we want to spend more money in Australia to develop literacy we should be investing in the provision of quality literature for all Australian children and better resources for teachers who teach disadvantaged children. We need more teacher librarians in our schools. At the moment, however, we are seeing a reduction in teacher librarians in public schools.

A new research brief from Save our Schools supports the argument that the continuing gap in access to education resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the world and the OECD. Disadvantaged students in Australia continue to be denied equal opportunities to learn because they have less access to qualified teachers and resources than their more advantaged counterparts.

Data from PISA 2015 published in a supplementary report by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more teacher shortages, higher teacher-student ratios and more shortages or inadequacy of material educational resources than advantaged schools.

If we are serious about improving literacy levels in Australia we should be investing our money more wisely than in another useless test. Widening socioeconomic inequality will be a much larger determiner of children’s literacy achievement than performance on a phonics test.


Robyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices. 

Why Simon Birmingham is wrong about school funding

Education ministers from all of Australia’s governments, state, territory and Commonwealth, met on Friday to begin negotiations over school funding. Various claims have been made and strong positions taken.

The Turnbull government’s education minister, Simon Birmingham, has claimed the model of school funding famously recommended by David Gonski had been “corrupted” by deals made with different education authorities around the country before the Coalition took power.

Education minister from NSW, Adrian Piccoli, who is a member of the Liberal National Party state government, wants the Turnbull Government to roll out the last two years of Gonski funding. He has declared a “war over fairness” and accused the federal government of abandoning public schools. Other ministers echo his claims and concerns.

It is time to cut through the spin and have a hard look at what is really happening with school funding in Australia and what is called the “Gonski model”.

So who is responsible for school funding and how is it shared?

While technically (under the Constitution) school funding is a responsibility of the states, continuing the arrangements that existed prior to Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth government has been increasing its policy and funding role since the 1950s, and especially since the 1970s, when the Whitlam Labor government began providing recurrent funding to all public (government/state) schools and private schools (nongovernment schools, Catholic and independent). This was in large part an effort to decrease educational inequalities, but over the successive decades, due to a patchwork of decisions and competing agendas from different governments, it has had the opposite effect.

Since the 1970s Commonwealth funding to private schools has increased much faster than that to public schools, and far in excess of the private sector’s enrolment growth and relative need. There has been a particular surge in funding since the so-called SES (Social Economic Status) funding reforms to private schools were introduced by the Howard government, under which school fees were no longer considered by the Commonwealth when calculating their relative need, and under which the Howard government “no school would lose a dollar”, not even those found to be over-funded.

Fees at private schools have also increased disproportionately and far above inflation. While all school sectors have a mix of students of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, an overwhelming and increasing majority of socio-economically disadvantaged students, disabled students, indigenous students and rural and remote students attend public schools.

States still retain responsibility for schooling, and provide most of the funding that public schools receive (as well as giving a bit to private schools), but the Commonwealth provides supplementary funding to all schools and attaches an exhaustive list of conditions to that funding, which influences what schools and school systems (including states) can do. The impact of this ranges from non-existent to mediocre to damaging.  This is because it is quite difficult for the Commonwealth to enforce things to happen in schools, and in school systems, when it runs neither.

And quite often, the Commonwealth’s “new” initiatives are recycled ideas from the states (Victoria has had independent public schools since the early 1990s) or its ideas are bad, or impractical given the division of responsibilities and their lack of administrative expertise and capacity compared to the states in the schooling domain (a point emphasised in the Gonski report).

Making this intergovernmental policy settlement more complex, Australia also has a growing number of national authorities jointly “owned” by all the governments, such as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) which is responsible for the national tests (NAPLAN) and Australian Curriculum, among other things.

What Gonski recommended

The Gonski Review, commissioned by Commonwealth Education Minister Julia Gillard was the broadest review of school funding of all sectors and all levels of government since the early 70s. David Gonski and his fellow panellists were charged with figuring out what was wrong and how to potentially fix it. His review found that inequalities in Australian schooling were increasing, that student background had a large and unacceptable link to student educational outcomes, and that funding for needy schools was inadequate. It proposed a cash injection, distributed using a sector-blind, needs-based funding model, composed of a base amount per student, plus top up funding for six different types of disadvantage. The neediest schools would, hypothetically, get the largest increases, reflecting the greater investment required to ensure those kids got decent opportunities and that birth lotto didn’t determine their educational outcomes.

The Gonski Review also said that although the Commonwealth should use this model to determine how much funding it gave to the school systems, the school systems (state education departments, Catholic Education Authorities in each state etc.) should continue to be the ones that allocate the funds to individual schools, and that they can use their own needs-based models (compatible to the Gonski model) to do this, on the proviso that all school funding be transparent.

This would allow states to learn from each other about variations in their school funding formulas. For example to explore whether it is better to have a higher base amount or higher supplement amounts, or more funding for one supplement (such as poverty) than another (such as rurality) and then see which formulas get best results for students.

Why the 27 different agreements is NOT a ‘corruption’ of Gonski

Funding amounts would be set in bilateral agreements with each state and school system. (Not one single national agreement). This is why 27 different agreements is not a “perversion” of Gonski but a reflection of Gonski. These bilateral agreements took into account the different starting points. They were to enable the transition from a hodge-podge of different recurrent (ongoing) and short term funding programs (such as National Partnerships), where similar schools in different places got different amounts, to a coherent, needs-based system.

The two ‘flaws’

The “Gonski” implementation plan had two major flaws. One was the promise by Julia Gillard that “no school would lose a dollar” (not even the richest schools charging fees double or triple the base funding amount). The other was that the implementation (and transitional funding arrangements) would be phased in over six years, with about half of the funding increase not flowing to schools until the fifth and sixth year.

Because the Commonwealth budget only goes for four years, opponents of the “Gonski” plan, including the current Commonwealth, Coalition government, could claim the final two years, and big cash boost, was “unfunded”. This is why the Abbott and Turnbull governments have sought to forge a new funding agreement to start in 2018 (which would have been the 5th year of the 6 year funding agreement forged by the Gillard and Rudd governments).

The Gonski Review also emphasized governments needed to cooperate with each other and to be transparent about funding with each other.

Axing Gonski now cannot be justified

While educational performance as measured by national and international standardized tests (a limited measure) have stagnated or fallen in most states as government funding for schools has increased, this is largely explained by the fact that this government funding has not been allocated to the schools that most need it, and it has not always been allocated to the most effective programs, such as investing in teachers and investing in high quality early education (such as preschool) for all kids, so that they are better able to amplify their development and learning at school.

The “Gonski” plan is still only half-implemented.  It’s only been a few years, transition agreements are still in place, and most of the funding increases have not yet flown to schools. Schools needing the greatest boosts have not yet received it. Axing it would be premature and harmful.

Minister Birmingham announced his intention to cut funding via national media, to whom he also released some select figures. He did not shared the full figures and analysis with the other education ministers prior to their meeting to allow an informed discussion. Such moves are neither transparent nor cooperative.

The future is messy

Any new agreement on school funding would not begin until 2018. Forging a new agreement is far easier said than done and may not even be possible. This is because the “Gonksi” funding amounts were enshrined in formal intergovernmetnal agreements between governments AND because these transition arrangements and final funding amounts are also enshrined in Commonwealth legislation – The Australian Education Act – which means the approval of the lower house and the Senate is required to pass it.

So unfortunately the politicking and game playing will continue for a long time yet. I believe each government minister will do what they thinks is best for their own government’s agendas and priorities. This was a central finding of my PhD on school funding reform and Australian federalism.  Such agendas sometimes reflect party lines, but just as often do not.

We need to match investment to where needs and opportunities are greatest. This is a responsibility all Australian governments have, not just to our school students, but also to the whole country.


bron-hDr Bronwyn Hinz is a Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University and holds a PhD in political science and education policy from the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examined how federalism influences school funding reform in Australia. She has written widely on this topic and in April she was the invited Australian speaker at Forum of Federation and UNESCO symposiums on federalism and education policy in the 21st century. A version of this post first appeared on her personal blog and thoughts on this blog are her own and don’t necessarily reflect those of her current or previous employers. For those interested, much more background info and analysis in earlier posts, in the publications and media page of her website, and in her PhD.