Education is a vital component of any society’s present and future well-being. In contemporary Australia, education is in a free-falling state of crisis, across all its domains. The new volume of essays, Campus Meltdown: The Deepening Crisis in Australian Universities, edited by William Coleman of the ANU, focuses on the multifarious problems of that sector. In school education, and with regard to the teaching profession, just one politician spoke with vision during the federal election campaign about reclaiming it from the disreputable depths to which it has sunk in recent times. Tanya Plibersek, Labor’s spokeswoman on education, said that it was necessary to lift substantially the qualifications for entry into the degree courses taken by prospective teachers. Since resuming that shadow portfolio under Mr Albanese, Ms Plibersek has returned to the topic, tweeting:
Marks to get into teaching are getting lower and lower. The quality of some teaching degrees is simply not good enough. For years Labor has been saying we must take action to raise the standard. We believe our school kids deserve the best. When will the Libs do something to fix this?
From the federal government we hear nothing of this kind. As was noted in the Campus Morning Mail in June, with regard to the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (used for determining entry into university courses):
Instead of demanding higher ATARs, former education ministers Chris Pyne and Simon Birmingham both acted to enforce new teacher ed standards, notably mandatory literacy and numeracy exams for graduates.
And what has been the success rate of this supposed enforcement of new teacher “standards” during the tenure of those two federal education ministers? In May, the results from the 2018 Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Education Students revealed that nearly 10 per cent of the cohort did not meet the required minimum standard for either literacy or numeracy. Note carefully that these were Year 9 standard tests. That is, these matriculated undergraduates, destined for teaching “our school kids” had literacy and numeracy standards lower than those for fourteen-year-old children currently in secondary school. The test was taken “to ensure that graduating teachers possess literacy and numeracy skills akin to the top 30 per cent of the population”. But the results show that, so far from ensuring even that very modest outcome, the standard is dropping every year and, last year, some universities had up to 25 per cent of students failing this elementary test.
This essay appears in September’s Quadrant.
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What is federal Education Minister Dan Tehan’s response to this? He “defended the latest results, suggesting the test was working as intended by ensuring that graduate teachers had a high level of the essential skills needed to teach children”:
Our government recognises the difference high-quality teachers make to a child’s education. That is why we introduced a mandatory literacy and numeracy benchmark for teaching graduates. As the latest results show, ensuring teachers meet the prerequisite standard is as important as ever.
You wouldn’t read about it, as they used to say. But there it is: the minister evidently regards these appalling results positively on the grounds that the existence of the tests is evidence that testing is important and implies that “high” standards (he repeats the adjective, preposterous in the face of the evidence) are in place.
Those lamentable test results bring us back to the inescapable issue of the ATAR and its role in determining who does and does not gain entry to degree courses for teaching, and, indeed, to universities generally. Charles Sturt University, for example, has fifty degrees on offer with ATARs ranging from 55 to 65. The latest report from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, released late last year, revealed that nearly 40 per cent of teaching undergraduates had scored an ATAR below 70. But (it is reported), like his predecessors, “Mr Tehan has ruled out introducing minimum ATARs for entry into teaching degrees.” In other words, if you can scarcely read or write, or do simple arithmetic, the federal Minister for Education is content that you should be going to university and, what is more, training to be a teacher of reading, writing and arithmetic. Would he or his Health Minister colleague be as satisfied with medical undergraduates (typically requiring ATARs in the very high 90s) being admitted with ATARs below 70? Is the education of future generations of Australians that much less important than the future health-care of our people?
Mr Tehan “presents as a friend to classroom teachers”, the Campus Morning Mail notes. Evidently, the government’s benign policy towards the profession is not proving to be effective. Instead of friendship, some tough love is needed, in the interests of the intellectual and academic quality of the teachers themselves and of the students they are supposed to be adequately equipped for educating.
More encouraging is the news from the recently re-elected coalition state government in New South Wales. In handing down its budget in June, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet noted that “the state’s public schools will need to justify their funding by proving they are lifting standards”. This sounds good, but it still begs a fundamental question: How can standards be lifted if those engaged in the heavy lifting (as it would have to be, to address the plummeting results in the domains of literacy and numeracy) are incapable of doing so because of their own poor attainments at school and, later on, in their tertiary education training, to which that record of humble achievement at school nonetheless admitted them? How can those “with a history of academic underperformance” lift the academic standards of anyone else, asks Mr Perrottet’s colleague, Sarah Mitchell, the newly-appointed New South Wales Minister for Education. She is, in fact, the best news yet for the reclaiming of education in Australia. Although her portfolio applies only to New South Wales, nonetheless that is the most populous state and the largest employer of teachers in the nation. She may provide the much-needed wake-up call and principled leadership that other states, and even the federal government, might heed.
Ms Mitchell astutely identifies the source of the problems in the schools in that most problematic of Australian educational domains, our fatally-corrupted universities, where the lust for the almighty buck long ago trumped any consideration of the maintenance, let alone the improvement, of intellectual standards. This is just one aspect of what John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, described in July as “the deep sickness at the heart of Australia’s universities”. As Ms Mitchell writes:
These universities, instead of focusing on producing educational leaders, are focusing on boosting revenue—enrolling anyone they can in online teaching courses, with little regard as to whether these students have the intellectual capacity to teach our kids.
The revelation of the student-teachers’ literacy and numeracy tests, she reflected, highlights “the extent to which some universities have lowered standards”. But even in these welcome comments she is being far too cautious. It is not only “online” courses that have been degraded—although one can well imagine the depths of content and assessment to which they might have sunk—or only “some” universities (implying, which is palpably untrue, that standards have fallen away in a few places, while being rigorously maintained and even raised in others).
Where there can be no reservations at all is with Ms Mitchell’s pointed observation that education faculties are stacked with people who have forgotten that their primary function is to provide excellent teaching graduates, and who argue—in the typical manner of the social engineers who have taken over humanities subjects and faculties in universities everywhere—that what is of more importance than academic ability and achievement is that the profession witnesses to “diversity”; that it is necessary to have people entering teaching from “low-SES or English second-language backgrounds” to satisfy priorities of multiculturalism and inclusivity. So, in order that the teaching profession should be diverse, let us have people who are incapable of teaching engaged in it, to show how non-elitist and inclusive we are. Too bad, if such individuals have limited skills in English (which is still the official language of instruction in Australia, however lamentable that linguistic legacy of colonial invasion and oppression may be) as to inhibit their ability to communicate what they are supposed to be teaching. So long as the unquestioned shibboleths of multiculturalism, diversity and inclusivity are affirmed, these academic criteria can be disregarded. Forced to state the obvious in such a breathtakingly perverse context, Ms Mitchell points out that “teaching is a fundamentally academic pursuit”.
This blight of “racial self-flagellation” in educational theorising and policy, as Toby Young has recently described it, is by no means confined to Australia. In May, New York City’s education tsar, Richard Carranza, introduced mandatory “anti-bias and equity training” for the city’s 75,000 teachers at a cost of $23 million a year. During these “workshops”, teachers are told that “worship of the written word”, “individualism” and “objectivity” are all hallmarks of “white supremacy culture”. Education faculties across America, Young writes, have become “madrassas for indoctrinating teachers”. At the University of Washington Secondary Teacher Education Program, students are segregated according to race, sexuality and gender and “asked to rank themselves in the intersectional hierarchy of oppression”. If they are unfortunate enough to be white, they are “expected to apologise to the minority students who duly berate them for being privileged”. Meanwhile, in Britain, all 4700 employees of the Department of Education must undergo “unconscious bias” training—May 2019 being designated as “conversation about race” month.
Young notes that all such programs will face little opposition, as the teaching profession is, politically, overwhelmingly left-leaning. In the UK, 60 per cent of teachers vote Labour, with just 12 per cent voting Conservative. Unsurprisingly, in an environment obsessed, not with education, but with priorities of race and gender, the most underprivileged group in the English education system are white working-class boys.
With regard to our teaching training, a further concern beyond the matter of the entry qualification is the character and content of teaching degrees. Once, senior teachers and heads of disciplines (at least) had read for degrees in the subject they would teach, often to honours level. And, indeed, in the past, in my schooldays, many of these honours graduates would have been students of the calibre, in a later generation, who would have gone on to postgraduate study and even university posts.
Professor Jill Ker Conway, in her memoir The Road from Coorain, reflects on her time at Abbotsleigh School in Sydney in the 1950s, where she drew inspiration from the history mistresses, with their BA (Hons) qualifications in the subject. She later recognised, once she had pursued her own postgraduate study and distinguished academic career, that these women were of similar intellectual and pedagogic calibre to her peers in the academic world. Such careers had not been open to them then—or to many gifted men, too, in those days—because, amongst other reasons, the few and small universities did not have many positions available for postgraduates, let alone tenured lectureships, until their dramatic increase in size from the 1970s onwards, which has produced the bloated, dumbed-down behemoths they have become today. But also pertinent to our point here is that such high-achieving scholars and teachers did not regard it as some sort of second-best option to take their distinguished qualifications and deep commitment to and passion for their discipline into the teaching profession, in an era when teaching—precisely because of the presence of such teachers of stellar ability in schools—was concomitantly widely held in high regard. Of course, there were plenty of dud teachers then, as now. But they were not in the ascendant, and circumstances, such as ludicrously-debased ATARs, had not been firmly put in place to ensure that ascendancy.
Secondary school teachers in the past would have a BA in which they had majored in, say, English or History, or a BSc where they majored in Mathematics or Biology, and so on. They had three or four years of intensive and extensive study, at tertiary level, of the discipline they would themselves teach in secondary school. Now, the availability of choice of the BEd Secondary degree for those who plan to be secondary school teachers (or, as is often the case, given the low entry requirements, those who are unable to get into any other degree course: giving new meaning to the old chestnut that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”) means that the discipline-specific element is diminished. “Education” itself, as a subject, becomes central, instead of the discipline in which the teachers are supposed to be educating and inspiring the students. That subject, to which one would hope the student had his or her primary commitment (and which was so, in the days when the one-year Diploma of Education was added to the Arts, Science or Economics degree) is subordinated to the study of the subject of Education itself. The components of traditional degree subjects have been reduced in the process.
The terrible consequences of this are becoming increasingly apparent as the limited competence of teachers in any particular discipline is being progressively revealed. Then, in those cases where graduates go from their worthy discipline-specific degrees to a teaching qualification—typically, the MEd—they routinely report that instead of being given practical instruction in teaching methods, much of the time is spent (and many of them have told me, utterly wasted) in boiled-down, ersatz-philosophising about education and indoctrination in politically-correct theorising on race, gender and class, when what they wanted to learn was how to be an effective teacher of their subjects in the schoolroom.
Particularly disturbing, in this context, is the matter of the relationship of teachers of modest attainment in any discipline, at school and then at university, to gifted and talented students in their classes, who are not only of superior intelligence, in a general sense, but possessing superior aptitude for the subject that is being taught. Studies have shown that teachers who had themselves been, at best, mediocre students at school resent the bright and clever pupils in their classes and, in any case, would be incapable of properly nurturing an ability that far exceeds their own. Comments from teachers recorded in the study, “Can Empathy for Gifted Students be Nurtured in Teachers?”, included these resentful and revealing responses: “Gifted programs are elitist”; “Gifted students need to learn how to get along with others”; “Gifted students are know-it-alls who think they are better than everyone else”; “Gifted students are bookworms with poor social skills”; and, most tellingly of all, the politically-correct lie: “All children are gifted”. As Lewis Carroll wrote, in the world of nonsense to which we have allowed our education system to plummet, like Alice down the rabbit hole, “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.” That teachers should be wary of the talented child is hardly surprising: you would never know when such a child would call you out in your ignorance.
A much broader issue, however, confronts the profession and the difficulty of reclaiming it, for the high standards it should be rigorously pursuing and for the recovery of the respect which this noble calling deserves to enjoy. This is what is coming to be called the feminisation of education. The moment you mention such an issue and use this terminology, simply raising it for consideration, immediately the conversation-stifler of the denunciation “sexist” (only trumped today by that all-purpose debate-silencer, “racist”) shuts down frank and free discussion. It is a matter that not only needs urgent attention, but is the source of much that has gone wrong in school education, in particular, in recent times.
Needless to say, this feminisation has less to do with women as such, but with the characterising of learning and teaching in feminine terms, which can be at least as insistently demanded by men as by women. This process of feminisation reveals itself, for example, in the kind of language that is now increasingly used in educational theorising and policy. Charles Sturt University has a new alternative entry scheme for prospective students which “focusses on emotional intelligence, collaboration, empathy, communication skills, resilience”. People who are accepted into this so-called “Advantage” scheme, “become part of an exclusive nurture programme that will support them to develop their soft skills, prepare them for university, and connect them with a community of like-minded people”. Emotional intelligence, nurturing and, above all, that buzz-word of education today, empathy, are prioritised. There is not a single mention of intelligence or rigour or discipline, hard skills once regarded as essential components and requirements of academic work worthy of the name. Now softness dominates, as parents tell me that their children’s school reports rate their offspring in terms of their “empathy”. Inevitably, as Professor Frank Furedi has noted, this feminisation has now progressed to infantilised universities (note the reference, in his comments, to a tangible version of softness):
The age-old distinction between schoolchildren and university students is fast losing its meaning. On many campuses, the infantilization of university students has become institutionalized. College administrators treat students as if they were biologically mature children rather than young men and women. Administrators assume that millennials are so fragile that they require therapeutic support to make the transition from high school to the university.
In some instances, the infantilization of university students has become a caricature of itself. Many universities provide anxious undergraduates facing exams with soft toys and pets to stroke in designated chill-out rooms.
The university as a creche.
The predictable retreat of men from teaching is one of the most alarming by-products of this feminising of education. It was calculated some years ago that more than 90 per cent of boys in primary schools in New South Wales would never see a man in the classroom. The idea is now strongly in place that education is women’s business, and there are now more women undergraduates enrolled at universities than men, and in the teaching profession they have an overwhelming presence. It is little wonder that one of the by-products of this vanishing of male role models from the classroom, and the feminisation of curricula, is the now well-documented disenchantment with and disengagement from education by boys and young men, with ramifying and serious anti-social consequences. Further, with cases of prosecutions of male teachers for sexual misbehaviour—several of which have turned out to be groundless, but which have ruined the men’s careers and lives in the process—the message is getting out, as Bettina Arndt has noted, that:
we are fast reaching the point where men won’t dare work with children. The vigilantism and community hysteria surrounding sexual abuse accusations combined with our anti-male culture means all men are vulnerable to false accusations which can end their careers.
In other words, we have reached the point where you would think that any man who would go into teaching (especially of smaller children) must be out of his mind. Such a situation is bad for everybody, girls and women as well as boys and men.
So the teaching profession in Australia today presents us with many formidable challenges, most of which are being neither creatively nor effectively addressed. We wait for visionary leadership, from government, federal and state, and from the profession itself, to reverse the damage of generations in the interest of the future well-being and prosperity of the nation, and, most importantly, of its children.
Barry Spurr is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators and Literary Editor of Quadrant. See also his essay, “‘And Gladly Teach’: The Destruction of the University Teaching Culture on the Contemporary Australian Campus”, in Campus Meltdown (ed. William Coleman; Connor Court, 2019).