Australia - the blinkered country

A recent essay by an African-American high school student, Melony Swasey, entitled `School System Shock" has struck a nerve in the USA. It is also highly relevant to our own situation.

Melony writes that she was doing well in her inner-city school and was consequently confident of gaining access to a good tertiary college. However, when she transferred for a year to a suburban high school, she found herself in a different league: `The classes I have as honours at Kennedy (her old school) are considered only regular classes in other schools. I realised that those of us who are top-notch at Kennedy might be cut down to average level in more competitive high schools -- schools that have higher standards of education..."

She goes on to compare facilities, academic standards, and comments on lower expectations. `Inner-city students aren't expected to excel... students in more affluent areas are expected to do more to get the same recognition. We are pitied by outsiders who sometimes try to `help" by giving us undeserved praise. Thus, we often don't expect much more of our own selves"

Melony concludes that she and her friends have to realise that they are `part of an unbalanced society where unequal education is permitted and accepted".

It is clear that Australia in general and Victoria in particular is also moving steadily towards an increasingly inequitable school system. This is not due to any single factor. Rather it is a combination of ill considered reforms to tertiary education, control of the teacher training agenda for many years by the pedagogues who insisted that knowing how to teach is more important than knowing what to teach, and a self-perpetuating class of government educational apparatchiks.

We now have state and federal governments faced with large deficits inherited from their predecessors making savage cuts in the one sector on which the nation's future relies - education - at a time when it is already in crisis. The result is a teaching service at primary, secondary and tertiary level as demoralised as it has ever been in recent memory.

Looking at each of these issues in turn, the rapid expansion of the university sector and student numbers means universities were - and are - generating students with degrees of dubious value. Students who enter institutions under-prepared in basic literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge are severely circumscribed in their choice of study programs.

These students, like Melony, have been cheated: by their schools, which haven't prepared them properly and by their universities who have allowed their illusions to persist while teaching them little or nothing of lasting value. While receiving training that does nothing for their employability or acquisition of life skills, they are accumulating a significant financial debt to governments that foisted this system upon them.

Meanwhile, Australia is increasingly short of skilled tradespeople. Most of the plumbers, electricians and motor mechanics I have met recently are middle aged or older, have more work than they can handle, and lead fulfilling professional lives. And yet we see this lemming-like madness persist among tertiary institutions, where TAFEs (Colleges of Technical and Further Education) are now desperate to move up-market and award degrees.

Perhaps our greatest problem is teacher education, especially in the sciences and mathematics. From the mid-60's many of our teacher training establishments contracted a largely American virus: that is the emphasis on teaching method over subject content. While teaching method is an essential part of teacher education, we have the situation in a number of States that 50% of junior secondary school mathematics teachers may have not studied a single tertiary mathematics subject!

This situation is as well known to state and federal governments as it is ignored by them. Some 10 years ago the federal government commissioned a report - the Speedy report - that identified this problem, and recommended a series of widespread far-reaching and urgent reforms. Rather than the current plethora of enquiries at both federal and state levels, all that is needed is the implementation of the recommendations of previous enquiries.

As teaching conditions worsen, it is once again the well-trained science and mathematics teachers who leave, as they are more readily able to find alternative employment than most other teachers. Many that remain are increasingly miserable and disenchanted. What chance have our children of learning to love their subjects if their teachers don't like teaching and don't understand their subjects?

Textbooks in Mathematics and Science are another problem. The high school mathematics texts in Australia are typically twice as thick, with a page area twice as large as their French and Japanese counterparts, to name but two. This is compensated for by a halving of content, and a massive increase in egregious errors. Simple concepts are explained in such long-winded, mind-numbing detail that they would turn off any capable student. Others would have their attention span exhausted before they reached the end of the explanation, assuming they could read it in the first place!

The gloomy teacher supply situation is exacerbated by the appalling career prospects for would-be teachers, who, upon graduation, may be granted a 10 month contract at an over-crowded, ill-equipped government school if they are fortunate.

You may wonder why the teachers' associations have not been protesting more vocally. This is perhaps because the teachers' organisations have become increasingly unrepresentative of their membership. The Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) for instance currently has an executive containing not a single classroom teacher!

Add to this sorry picture the fact that government departments overseeing school education are increasingly staffed by out-of-touch and doctrinaire staff who haven't seen the inside of a classroom for decades. Anecdotal evidence suggests that government consultancy work appears to be conditional upon a prior history of reports favourable to the relevant education authority, while other critical groups are effectively silenced by equally questionable methods. Because so many teachers are inadequately prepared, copious inappropriate support material is being produced which the teachers have little time to read and none to absorb.

Finally, we have the growth of state-wide testing at various levels, now to be expanded to national testing. This has been an expensive exercise of dubious value. Targeted in-depth testing has been shown to be both cheaper and vastly more informative - but of course is less instantly saleable.

Meanwhile, the VCE, a system designed to increase equity and access, has been shown to do precisely the opposite. The CAT system manifestly favours the middle classes who can afford external help, and can provide ready access to additional source material and to advanced technology in project preparation.

Desperately needed professional development of teachers in upgrading their discipline skills is also being effectively discouraged by government policies. Teachers wishing to upgrade their qualifications by further studies would firstly have to pay substantially increased HECS charges, especially if in the sciences. They would likely be given no time relief and even if they manage to overcome these barriers would receive absolutely no recognition in terms of increased pay or conditions.

Currently, professional development means very short term courses in areas such as equity and access, anti-bullying strategies and health issues. Important as these areas are, they should be in addition to discipline development, rather than taking its place.

What is to be done? The most urgently needed reform is in teacher education and conditions.

The content of primary teacher training must be bolstered. How many primary school teachers can answer the question `why is the sky blue?" with any authority - a question asked by almost every small child with imagination.

Opportunities for genuine professional development must be made available to teachers, so they can keep their knowledge and skills up to date, and be trained in new areas of their discipline. A career structure that rewards dedication and learning should be put in place, so that the profession of school teacher is once more seen as a desirable career choice.

There are models for enhancing teachers pay, status and education in Japan, France, Germany and Canada to name a few. Australia must stop blindly following the USA and UK and reproducing their mistakes.

All this will be expensive, but not as expensive as the alternative! As it is, our per capita expenditure as a nation is among the lowest of the developed OECD countries, and Victoria has the lowest expenditure of any State in Australia. It should be viewed as an investment in our future, so that young people graduate from schools well prepared for the next phase of their lives. The alternative is a continuation of the present decline, as we fall further and further behind the educational standards of our Asian and European counterparts, with the inevitable consequences for our economy - and hence, of course, for our society.

This is not an appeal to return to the good old days of the '60s. Rather it is an appeal to reject the false, evanescent values of the spin doctors and consultants whose only loyalties are to themselves. It is an appeal to recognise that there are subjects of intrinsic value that need to be taught; there are standards of value - of knowledge, of behaviour, of beauty that this most fortunate country is in the position to pass on to succeeding generations - and we will rightly be damned by them if we don't.