Blame the teachers, duck the issues

Dinoo Kelleghan

The government’s efforts to blow smoke in the face of meaningful education reform by calling into question the competence of teachers was unfair and unproductive, Gonski review panel member Ken Boston told Federation’s Principals’ Conference in a hard-hitting speech.

To talk of “teacher quality” in looking to fix problems in uneven educational standards across schools was to use a totally different approach to that used to analyse any other problem, said Dr Boston, a former director-general of the Department.

“We do not talk of ‘doctor quality’ or ‘dentist quality’: we talk of the quality of health care or the quality of oral health, and that quality varies greatly.” The variation was not explained by the quality of the medical staff but by their number and the availability of specialist treatment and ancillary support. “It is the same with teaching. We should talk not about teacher quality but about teaching quality or the quality of education.

“The teachers in our most disadvantaged schools are at least as good as those in our most advantaged schools. The issue is not their competence, skill or commitment. The issue is that their number, resources and support are unequal to the task.”

Dr Boston congratulated Federation for having, as he said, nailed its colours to the mast in campaigning hard for the Gonski funding reforms to be fully implemented by the Federal Government so that differential performance across schools — a product of the pupil catchment area and not “teacher quality” — could be resolved.

He used more medical metaphors to emphasise the urgency and critical nature of the problem.

“The schools at the lower end of both the scale of aggregated social advantage and the scale of educational performance are the emergency wards of Australian education,” he said. There was a small rural school that he had visited many times, which took children from the long-term unemployed, some suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome, some of whom have never held a book.

“Children entering such schools require immediate diagnosis of need and immediate intensive care if they are to be saved. They need smaller class sizes, the ready availability of tier 2 and tier 3 interventions delivered by fully-qualified personnel, speech therapists, counsellors, school/family liaison officers including interpreters and a range of other support.

“If children don’t get the support they need when they need it they are deprived of education as a public good …. They are consigned to the bin of under-achievement.”

Dr Boston had a word of warning for the Abbott government, saying sentiments such as meritocracy, a fair go for all young Australians, maximising human capital and creating a clever country resonated well in Coalition ranks and that Gonski had strong national support from state governments and oppositions, parents, churches — including influential elements within Catholic education — and universities: “formidable opposition, based on strong grounds morally, educationally and in terms of our national economy”.

It was because he lacked the nerve to confront these forces that the Federal Education Minister scrabbled for diversionary tactics such as attacking teachers.

In reinforcement of Dr Boston’s warning, recently, Nationals MP Troy Grant called on the Abbott Government to honour the Gonski funding agreement for NSW students, saying “a deal’s a deal and that’s the way the Nationals operate”.