“Today at school I will learn to read at once; then tomorrow I will begin to write, and the day after tomorrow to figure. Then, with my acquirements, I will earn a great deal of money, and with the first money I have in my pocket I will immediately buy for my papa a beautiful new cloth coat,” said Pinocchio. The goals of Carol Collodi’s famous puppet character expressed in 1883 are no different from the goals set for today’s students across the globe. Become educated so that you can make decisions about your future. But education is more than a pursuit to fulfill personal goals. It is also about responsibility to others and to the community. Pinocchio begins to understand this concept as he contemplates buying Geppetto a new coat.
UNESCO conceptualizes education as a human right, a public good and a public responsibility, key to developing opportunities, creating pathways out of poverty and foundational to global sustainability. Today, January 24 is the UNESCO declared International Day of Education, where all countries are called upon to invest in people by prioritizing education. UNESCO calls for a reduction in global poverty and the removal of the political barricades which prevent inclusive and equitable education. Each country, but especially the richer countries like Australia need to step up to address global educational responsibilities and this can begin by ensuring equity is a priority in our own educational system.
Australians hold interest in education. This can be seen in the political and media attention raised from the latest report on education released by the Productivity Commission. Equity or rather inequity is embedded in the report’s results. These results are presented as something new. However, the report reinforces what has been known for a long time – educational attainment, as measured by standardized testing is linked to parental educational background and certain groups in Australian society, such as rural students or students from Indigenous backgrounds are less likely to meet the set minimum standards. Australian education is not equitable.
Education minister Jason Clare said on breakfast television that he did not wish Australia to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your parents are or where you live or the colour of your skin. If this is the case, then the questions must be asked, are these students who are failing, the same students who do not have access to community facilities, such as libraries, sporting grounds and swimming pools? Are these the same students who live in areas with unreliable public transport? Are these the same students whose families are struggling with mortgage stress or who are unable to get a stable rental property? Are these the same students who are locked out of extra curricula activities? Are these the students who do not have a computer at home? Are these the students who in their first few years of life did not have access to child and maternal health and later to high quality child-care? Are these the same students who come from families who have had no support to maintain their first language or whose cultural practices are not valued? If yes is the answer to any of these questions, then perhaps the focus for educational reform should begin by looking outside of the school gates.
The inevitable catch cry ‘back to basics’ has begun. In the same interview as Jason Clare, Deputy leader of the Liberal party, Sussan Ley called for a ‘back to basics’ solution. This is the backhanded rhetoric that slams teachers. It implies that teachers have veered away from good, relevant teaching and are wasting time in frivolous pursuits. Similarly, Jason Clare’s solution is insulting. He suggests teachers need to spend less time lesson planning and more time in the classroom. Before reducing a vital component of the teaching role, let’s consider less time on bus duty, bin duty, lunch time supervision, endless meetings and paperwork to negotiate the red tape around NDIS requirements. Teachers planning lessons to meet the diverse needs of their students is the real back to basics. In most schools, planning is a collaborative process, which also addresses teachers’ ongoing professional learning. Planning sessions allow teachers to share what is working well for their students and seek advice from their expert colleagues about students who are facing challenges.
Schools and teachers constantly address professional improvement. Teachers want what is best for the students they teach, not only in literacy and numeracy but across all aspects of academia and wellbeing. That’s why they became teachers! The lens has to shift away from schools and educational reform for a while, to spotlight issues of societal inequity.
On this International Day of Education, let’s consider human rights, public good and global responsibilities. Let’s also consider out national situation and not be puppets pulled by the strings of rhetoric that call for reform in a so called failing educational system. Rather, let’s look at what is working well in schools, listen to the voices of teachers who respond daily to student diversity and work towards a bipartisan movement that addresses the issues of inequity which create the disparity evident in the Productivity Commission’s report. It’s our global responsibility to do so. Surely, this is not just a fairy tale dream.
Dr Helen Cozmescu is a member of the Teacher Education Group, at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She lecturers in pre-service and post-graduate language and literacy subjects and delivers professional learning for in-service teachers. Helen’s research has intersected critical literacy, the early years of schooling and First Nations texts. Her current research involves understanding the role of literacy professional learning for in-service teachers and the nexus created by theoretical perspectives, research and practice. Helen has had significant experience working in schools, as a primary school teacher and leader, and as a literacy consultant.
Header images from the Facebook pages of Jason Clare and Sussan Ley.