I find it hard to think of a time when the management of the education of our children is in such disarray. Recent announcements by the NSW Minister for Education and I assume endorsed by her senior bureaucrats have exposed what I believe to be a level of incompetence not previously experienced by the teaching profession. The implementation of an increased level of the supervision of teachers’ and schools’ performance implies that they are not of ‘quality’ resulting in the unrealistic and inconsequential levels of accreditation, the purpose of which seems to reflect a complete distrust of the teaching profession. The latest initiative is to provide lesson plans to support the teachers, perhaps the most ill-informed and insulting policy I have seen.
As always, in a time of crisis there is plenty of well-meaning and intelligent advice to be offered which I can’t fault. Amongst these are the obvious ones:
- Addressing the critical lack of funding for those schools that have the most need contrasted by the over-funding of already wealthy schools
- A call for the reduction in the teachers’ workloads
- Increase in the rates of pay for teachers
- Promoting a culture of respect for teachers
Other innovations that have been adopted but which I feel are of little real value and are compounding the problem include:
- An emphasis on leadership training, the idea that you can successfully train leaders is a top-down approach that resonates in the echo-chamber of academia, bureaucracy and the professional learning community. The people who promote this fallacy are the same ones who complain about the lack of ‘educators’ in the top levels of the Education Department. They realise leadership depends on experience and ‘corporate knowledge’ which is only gained through actually doing the work. Leaders emerge from the classrooms and schools – the bureaucratic skill can be gained after the foundations are in place.
- Addressing teacher wellbeing is another distraction. I believe that teachers’ levels of stress, anxiety and depression are at record levels and there is good reason for that being the case. The term bantered about is to increase the teachers ‘capacity assuming there is no limit to the workload that can be addressed. This implies that the teachers are only exhausted because they are not up to the challenge.
There is a glaring omission from these opinions and this is the lack of recognition that there are children involved. Of course, there will be a righteous outcry that all these are proposed with a view of improving the education of the children. I contend there are two factors in the present attitude to learning that fail to get to the fundamentals of effective education.
The first of these is the stated aims of education. The NSW Education Department has the following mission statement – ‘ED’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access’. This ambition of global competitiveness is reflected in most other documents relating to the goals of education, which infers education is preparation for competition, particularly in economic terms. Having our children ‘job ready’ means the needs of commerce direct curriculum.
The second impediment to true education has been the adoption in the mid 1990’s of outcomes-based education. This represented a narrowing of the focus of the curriculum offered in schools. The goal was to narrow the focus of what should be taught instead of developing an expansive learning experience where teachers had more freedom to tailor their lessons to the specific needs of their students. Of course, this complemented the rise in the rationalist approach to all things managed from above – outcomes-based education conveniently lends itself to measurement. The Department could judge the efficiency of their ‘machine’ hence the obsession with the meaningless NAPLAN testing and reward or punish schools accordingly.
On the other hand, the United Nations’ second principle of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child states:
The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.
Those of you who have followed my work will not be surprised that I support these principles. I do not totally dismiss the need for students to be able to enter the workforce neither am I totally against having a purpose for our curriculum. These things are undoubtedly important but they are secondary to what I believe is the real purpose of education.
While writing my last book I discussed behaviour modification where the conduct of students whose behaviour was extremely dysfunctional. I was faced with the following challenge – to what do we change their behaviour? I spent many hours researching different philosophies and examining my own beliefs. Eventually I came to the following four targets for the modification and these represent my goals of education.
Sense of Self
Every student has the right to believe they are special, precious and unique. Not all children are born into homes that support these characteristics. Too many are raised in poverty, in abusive and/or neglectful families and develop a fragmented sense of their value. It is in our classrooms that these deficiencies at least have a chance of being addressed and how to do that is the focus of all our Newsletters.
We are an extremely social species and so many of our needs can only be satisfied through the interaction with other members of the community. Social skills are not instinctive, they are learned and how this happens again depends on the early childhood environment. Eventually relationships in a broad sense are transactional, that is we are entitled to have our needs met in the presenting environment but we have to be responsible to contribute back into that setting. Children have to learn how to do this and again the classroom may be the only place this can happen.
Autonomy differs from relatedness in that as adults we can operate in our community in a manner that respects the needs of others but we do not compromise our own beliefs. Autonomy emerges as the child develops from a completely dependent being, up until they can take control of their life. This journey in a sense parallels their brain’s development. It must be recognized that healthy independence is not that you have no need for others, of course everyone needs others and relationships are crucial for satisfying your personal needs. Autonomy is the process of establishing these relationships while maintaining independence.
A healthy life is one that has a purpose, a direction. If you examine people who you would consider successful and contented you would see individuals involved in a range of endeavours. It doesn’t matter what these pursuits are as long as they are related to the individual’s intrinsic goals. In best cases an individual’s purpose is reflected in their vocation. I started my working life as an electrician, it was a good job but I did it just to provide me with the resources to pursue other activities. Later, when I became a teacher there was a change, I no longer worked only to get resources my work became my purpose and this has sustained me for nearly fifty years. Not everyone will be this lucky but people do need a purpose and schools should expose their students to a range of opportunities to explore.
Somewhere it is proclaimed ‘build on the rock and not upon the sand’ and in education it is the child’s qualities that provide the foundation, not the array of concerns and approaches outlined above. For too many kids their early environment does not provide the conditions that will allow them to develop such foundations. These are the kids who misbehave, are disengaged are ‘problems’ in the classroom. These are the kids who need their foundations repaired because without that any improvement in the quality of the teacher, their leadership skills or the manipulation of the curriculum will fail to make a difference.
John is a Principal of Frew Consultants Group. He served for 10 years as the foundation principal of a NSW secondary school for students with Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Disturbance. He is the author of five books on managing severe behaviours in children and adolescents.