Calwell High School: Whose Failure?

Calwell High School has featured in a number of articles in the Canberra Times, the words of which were repeated by other news outlets. Suffice to say, their editorial is a disservice to all, teachers and students foremost, and in equal measure, families, parents, and carers, and finally all of us as a community. Most of all the shoddy reporting has dumped widespread social upheaval onto the back of one school.

The opening headline referred to the school as a ‘war zone’, indeed sensational, and hyperbolic clickbait. Using a list of quotes provided by WorkSafe’s Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN), the article did nothing more that turn that list into a news article, devoid of context or timelines. While it is true that such incidents occur, hackery of this kind hides rather than reveals any truth, although many staff from schools across the country would recognise the experiences of teachers at Calwell High School. We are only too aware that problems begin well before students enter the school’s grounds.

School leaders, teachers and staff do all we can to provide optimal conditions for learning despite limited resources. Troubled lives and troubling behaviours only compound the complexities of any one school day. To stop for a moment, to actually consider what we give, and what it takes from all of us to be involved every minute and hour of the school day, defies easy description or comprehension, and most especially for those who have plenty of opinion but no expertise, or experience, beyond their own memories of school. A cursory glance at the vitriol on anti-social media concerning the Calwell case is testimony enough to recommend pause-for-thought. Consequently, it would seem necessary to emphasis the point that we are discussing problems which go to existential questions involving the lives of young people principally, their families, and all of us as a society. We should be asking this question: are any of our schools fit for purpose?

At one level, the purpose of education and the function of schools is to pass on the means to acquire what is deemed critical knowledge to the generations that are following us. Education’s purpose, and what it includes or excludes, has always been contested. For an educational process to be effective, it must be understood and emphasised that it is an activity which involves social relationships extend well beyond the school gate. The process of teaching and learning is in essence ‘relational’; a successful teaching and learning relationship is dependent upon unconditional positive regard; a teacher’s capacity to empathise; to keep our sense of humour, and to appreciate the context of our concerns for the troubles that any one young person carries within them.

Mindful of the relatively recent emphasis on social and emotional learning, and the additional care and concern we take over our students’ mental health, is why we should, when we can, condemn irresponsible reportage. Consider for a moment this. Year-8 students last had a straightforward year of teaching in their year-5. Disrupting the flow of continuity that schools have in the past been able to provide is the continuing COVID-19 pandemic of two years, and longer if drought, and bushfires (and now floods) are included. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, discombobulated, but nevertheless we are all still desperately trying to establish and maintain some semblance of routines that we believed defined normalcy.

Our social context is one of disintegration; the fragmentation of life and work, home and family. How can we pretend that social and economic disruption and hardship, all of which is inherently violent, is not affecting, and infecting, civil society? Can we say, with any honesty, that violence is an issue limited to schools, or even more extraordinarily, confined to one? Almost every public institution has a poster stating zero-tolerance for violent and disrespectful behaviour toward their staff. Even the inhabitants of our parliament house have had to be held up to scrutiny, the failings of which provoked the Women’s March for Justice of many thousands across the country.

Calwell’s story resounds with all those who are intimately involved with people’s lives, and who are regularly subjected to violence at work; child-protection workers, teachers and early-childhood educators and carers, aged-care workers, nurses, police, ambulance, and fire officers. If unionised workers from any of these sectors stop work to protest such occurrences, we are deemed lawbreakers and fined thousands of dollars. The organised violence of the state is to keep us silent and disorganised.  

All the elements listed in the Calwell PIN notice are widespread social behaviours. There is not anything that is happening, or has happened, at Calwell which does not have its expression elsewhere in our society. Looking for causes is vexed, there are short-, and long-term solutions, most of which would not to be found within any school’s corridors. What we do know is that there is growing inequality, those who identify their cause with the wealthiest are doing all they can to protect their interests by seeking the social and economic power that such privilege engenders.

The inequality so apparent in our school systems is a microcosm of our larger society. The implication that schools like Calwell are somehow failing points to a larger social tragedy inflicted upon multitudes. Ten years ago, the Gonski Review recognised that something has to be done to redress such blatant class privilege. Yet not one political party has taken steps to overcome power structures which can only benefit the wealthiest. The politicians, for the most part, are a cast of agents who perpetuate privilege. No matter who wins the elections we can expect little to change for the better.

Having spent the best part of two weekends applying for kitchen-garden grants, and with no prospect of $20 million raining on Calwell as it has for Canberra Grammar, I have had cause to reflect. Education is important, we are told, because it has the power to overcome poverty, that structural and systemic social and economic inequalities would disappear if everyone had a degree. Naïve? Most certainly. Yet this pap is regularly doled-out.

Public-school teachers now face the additional challenge of organising a response, part of which is exposing our reality not only to the wider public, but to each other. The WorkSafe report is but a tool to draw attention to a problem. The Canberra Times’s sensationalism is their editorial choice, they are playing their part. They are using us as a scapegoat to distract from our concerns and to obfuscate. The missing ingredient has been our direct involvement, as school leaders and teachers. We too have choices. We are only one of the many canaries in the mine, but we are not, and will not be victims. We are sounding the alarm as we can no longer accept the silence. We have been too polite for far too long.             

Peter Curtis

Peter Curtis Is a teacher and member of the AEU ACT. This is his personal opinion.

The Canberra Times ran stories on the situation at Calwell High School on 5 April, 6 April, 7 April, and 9 April 2022

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