The PC has gone mad in public education

The Productivity Commission’s interim report into Australian schools confirms what those of us working in the system have known for years: the education gap is widening for students from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds, students are falling behind their international peers, and teachers are overworked and underpaid.

Yet while the report acknowledges genuine problems, its solutions at best tinker at the edges and in many cases will only make the problems worse. The report’s recommendations fall into four areas: supporting all students to achieve national minimum standards, addressing inequality, supporting student wellbeing and enabling quality teaching.

For all students to achieve national minimum standards and for inequality in education to be addressed, schools must be resourced to do so. The commission claims that “despite the large increase in public funding since 2018, student outcomes have stagnated”. This is obfuscation. Many public schools are still not fully funded. At the same time, billions of tax dollars have poured into private schools, making Australia’s one of the most segregated and unequal school systems in the OECD. In the past decade, government funding for private schools has increased at five times the rate of public schools.

The commission’s report proposes some superficial fixes to address the inequality in outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for those with English as an additional language, such as more individualised instruction and tutoring. Teachers already do their best to support this; proposing it as the only solution would only add to the significant workload teachers already have, which the report acknowledges. What is required is a massive funding boost to increase the number of teachers to better provide individualised support.

The report highlights some alarming statistics regarding student wellbeing. One in five high-school-aged students have high levels of psychological distress, and one in seven students aged between 4 and 17 experienced an episode of mental illness within the last twelve months. Yet the report falls extremely short in proposed solutions. Like some corporate wellness program, the commission never acknowledges that the structure of Australia's education system, with its frequent high-stakes assessment and the lack of genuine safety measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission is itself contributing to poor student safety and wellbeing. 

A study of 20,000 NSW students found that year 12 results could be predicted in year 11 with 93 percent accuracy—evidence that that extremely stressful final year assessment could be done away with. The top performing school systems in the world, Estonia and Finland, have abolished most of their summative assessment pieces for students throughout their school lives. But it appears that Australian state governments are ignoring the latest research, as well as the success of international systems. Instead, they are implementing more system-wide assessments, from the Victorian government introducing phonics testing in year 1, to Queensland’s new high-stakes, final year 12 exams. Education ministers throughout the country are doubling down on the hated NAPLAN tests, despite their uselessness to teachers and to instruction.

The report highlights the challenges posed by the pandemic, but again, falls short on solutions. There are no calls for system-wide ventilation systems, CO2 monitoring and air filtration—strategies that have proven to significantly reduce the transmission of airborne diseases including COVID-19.

The report recognises the massive workload burden that successive Labor and Liberal state governments have forced onto the shoulders of teachers. According to the commission, Australian teachers work more than the OECD average. Some of the proposals to address this are desperately needed—such as taking low-level administrative tasks like data entry and playground duty from teachers and teacher aides. But investments in teacher aides have already been increasing, yet our workloads haven’t decreased. That’s partly because schools often hiring teacher aides as personal assistants to principals and deputies rather than to provide support in classrooms or to relive teachers of playground duty.

The greater workload for teachers has also coincided with greater and more complex workloads for teacher aides as well. To genuinely address this, governments must dramatically increase funding for more teachers and teacher aides. Yet the Productivity Commission explicitly rules out changes that would actually help, by seeking feedback on how to implement changes “cost-effectively”.

Other recommendations to enable “quality teaching” will actually add to teachers’ workloads. More meetings, more professional development and more promotional positions. Teachers need to be trusted to do the job we are qualified to do and given the time to plan and collaborate with colleagues.

“System-wide benefits of trusting teachers and children by giving them more ownership and leadership regarding teaching and learning in schools would unleash these human capacities and lead to much-needed renewal in both excellence and equity in Australian education”, Finnish education expert and Australian academic Pasi Sahlberg told the Educator magazine in September.

Yet the commission recommends the opposite—for teachers to be given additional tasks to “improve” their teaching.

A root cause of the current teacher shortage is the low pay relative to other, similarly qualified professions. Yet successive enterprise agreements across the country, agreed to by education unions, are increasing the gap. The Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union pushed its members to agree to an offer from the Labor state government, which caps pay rises at 1.5 percent per year. Even the much-lauded Queensland government’s pay offer of 11 percent across three years (a pay cut in real terms) will result in our pay falling behind those of other professions. NSW teachers are in their second year of a dispute with the Perrottet Liberal government, pushing to raise a public service salary cap that is well below inflation.

Teaching conditions are learning conditions. The teacher shortage is resulting in many teachers providing instruction in areas that they are not trained in, increasing their workload and reducing students’ opportunities, as the report acknowledges.

As Sahlberg told the Educator, the commission’s report, as well as state and federal governments, doesn’t properly deal with “the root causes of teacher shortages”, which are “unproductive working conditions and non-competitive pay”.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist, or a maths teacher, to figure that out. But the obvious solution is unpalatable to politicians who, decade after decade, have trashed our education system and teachers’ conditions.

Tim Arnot is a Queensland teacher.

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