Comment: When it comes to education, politicians never learn

Education Minister Christopher Pyne waits to speak while the state ministers hold a press conference at the Education ministerial council meeting in Sydney last year. (AAP)

If we're to effect any meaningful change, a fundamental shift in how we approach education is needed - and a bit of respect for the analysis of experts wouldn't go astray.

Once again Christopher Pyne has waded into the unfamiliar depths of his portfolio, and once again he has decided that he should fix what’s broken. Having already decided that all the woes in education could be found in the Australian Curriculum, Mr Pyne now sees teacher training as the harbinger of bad education. Training standards should lift, claims Mr Pyne, and so too the entry-level requirements for those called to the profession.

This is not a new thing. As demand for graduate teachers increased in the early 2000s, so the entry-standards for education courses dropped. Mr Pyne’s complaints that ‘we are not attracting the top students into teacher courses as we once did’ and that the standards for entry and exit for these courses are too low echo what Julia Gillard claimed two years ago, and what many observers have documented in the last decade.

In 2012, education courses were the least popular for school leavers with ATAR scores over 90. Almost a quarter of those selecting teaching as a profession had scores under 60, more than half under 70. This trend has continued in 2014, with many teaching courses offering entry to ATARs less than 60, and boasting high percentages of offers to students below that still. An entire body of a profession who undertake educating the future generations of Australia is being diminished by inexcusably low standards of acceptance.

Teacher training courses are staid, uninspired affairs. Delivered often by those retired from the active profession, or from those who try to fit it around other teaching commitments, they are rushed and confused, and offer little in the way of practical advice for teaching careers. The benefit of these courses is in the placements – the time the student teacher is able to spend in an active classroom under the guidance of a professional teacher. For those seeking to teach, it is where they learn the most. For many, though, it amounts to barely a fraction of the course.

Unfortunately, the education profession is suffering from the monotony of single-minded politicians like Mr Pyne, who can only focus on one item at a time. Once it was open-plan learning and team teaching. Then there were the protracted wage and contract disputes, and broken promises from those wanting to lift teacher wages toward a semblance of professional reality. Gonski was abandoned, then reinstated, and finally forgotten. Last month, Mr Pyne was driving his curriculum reforms through political and religious ideology. Now, having left the curriculum in the hands of Kevin Donnelly, Mr Pyne sees fit to freeing teaching from ideological agendas and lifting the training standards.

Education needs a paradigm shift. The way it functions as a profession and the way it is viewed by society needs a complete overhaul. Of course standards need to be lifted in training courses, but then so too do the wages for those who become teachers. We need to provide working conditions that welcome and encourage those new to the profession, through effective and advanced curriculum, as well as contractual support. To focus on one aspect will be to the detriment of the rest.

We need the profession to be viewed for what it is: an immeasurable necessity, that can’t be contained by hourly rates or standardised tests. A fundamental change needs to occur in how Australia treats education, and that needs to apply to how politicians discuss the profession. Despite 18 years’ worth of experience, Ann Rennie wrote earlier this week that her ‘social standing is second, heading towards third tier’ and that other professions’ wages are ‘stratospheric’ compared to hers in teaching. If politicians like Mr Pyne truly wish to improve education standards in Australia, they need to look beyond the rhetoric and the fashion, and accept that they are not ‘experts on education’. The dismissive condescension that is reserved ‘for those who teach’ has gone on too long. We need to cut out the experimenting and proselytising, and let teachers teach.

A good teacher, Mr Pyne says, makes a difference. This is true. But as anyone in education would know, a good teacher is aware that governments come and go. That education policies change and fashionable pedagogies become outdated and irrelevant. A good teacher knows that it matters not whether the classroom is in an open-plan learning space, or an asbestos-ridden relic. They know that each class and each student may require radically different strategies and methods. They also know that no matter what changes occur the students turn up each year, each term and each day, and that they deserve an education.

A good teacher knows teaching. They know their content, they know their students, and they know the best method of providing an education. They also know that methods are only the theory, the practice depends on so many factors – and a changing government is not one of them. Teachers know how people learn, and it’s time we valued that.

Craig Hildebrand-Burke is a writer and teacher from Melbourne.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch