When Our Schools are Class Enemies

It’s a common question: “How can he have got to Year 10 when he can’t read?”

And there in a sentence is one of the major structural problems with the education system in Australia. It’s not unusual for students extremely deficient in English and Mathematics to be found in high schools. As for the other subjects, they’re usually complete failures there too, even in the electives they’ve chosen, as literary and numeracy underpin so many other areas.

How can this happen in a modern First World country? It’s actually easy to understand.

First, many students, particularly in remote areas of the country, are chronic truants. I once taught a Year 9 English class where a student – let’s call him Jimmy – arrived for the first time in June. For several months I’d marked him absent for every lesson. He arrived at my classroom in the mid-morning, being guided there by another student. The Office had registered them both in as late, and then issued Jimmy with his timetable and asked the other student to accompany him to the relevant classroom – necessarily so as Jimmy was completely unfamiliar with the school.

Wanting to ease him into the work, and have a good time so he’d return, I got him seated alongside a friendly boy who could help him with what we were doing. I lent a hand in what was hopefully a non-overbearing way, but it was obvious Jimmy could barely follow one in five of the words in the handout we were using. He had no hope, it seemed, of deciphering the metaphors of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

It was only another 20 minutes before the bell rang for the lesson changeover. I never saw Jimmy again.

Chronic truancy can exist for a number of reasons. The state system I worked for had a teaching assistant attached to each school, called a Home Liaison Officer, whose job it was to follow up on such absences. I asked ours about a week later about Jimmy. “His mum told me to go away”, she said. He had previously attended school for eight days in Year 8.

If Jimmy had returned – maybe he did – at the beginning of the next year, he would automatically be placed in the next grade. How he could possibly handle Year 10 English? But this would not have been asked. He would have been placed without question in a class, there to flounder and grow further discouraged, which would likely encourage him to skip school again.

There were, and are, mechanisms to help such students. Maybe Jimmy could have received help from an English as Second Language teacher. That particular school also operated a small unit for “Aboriginal students from traditional backgrounds”,and maybe he could have been enrolled there. The unit was particularly good – it operated on a primary school model with the same teachers and assistants all day, rather than the multi-lesson and rooms timetable secondary schools usually follow. Then again, students often saw such a placement as a “shame job” and they were the subject of derisive comment from others.

So, what to do?

Jimmy and anyone in such a situation really should not have been allowed to “progress” through the world of learning in such a way. At the end of each year, he should have been tested and if he did not meet yearly criteria, he should have been held back.

Learning progresses sequentially. In primary school English, for example, students learn words, then sentences, and how a single-strand story progresses: “Jane runs. Jane runs up the hill,” and so on. “Chapter books” follow, and by the end of primary school capable students are beginning to head into the world of multiple-strand narratives, flashbacks, and other literary devices. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, follows Lucy through the wardrobe, and into Narnia, where she meets Mr Tumnus. But after her return, the narrative switches to her brother Edmund, who after mocking her, goes through the wardrobe himself, and meets the White Witch. Only a sophisticated reader can follow such a dual narrative system, but it is part of the joy of reading to do so. Uneducated students will never, sadly, enjoy such reading unless they can catch up.

Promoting students by age without ensuring that they have the necessary skills is condemning them to a life of low education, and all that comes with it. They will likely have lower incomes through not being able to attain the necessary qualifications – not being able to properly read technical manuals – as well as a lesser lives through not being able to understand books, comics, films and so much more.

It would be kindness, not cruelty, to hold back such children if they can’t pass a national benchmark test. Schools used to have such a concept, especially for the leaving of the primary system, but over the years it has been dropped. The main reason seems to be so as not to harm a child’s “self-esteem”. But the present system merely delays an absolutely massive battering to self-esteem: the huge blow to one’s ego through discovering an apprenticeship is not possible, nor is anything else that matches qualifications to a better job and higher pay.

Successful countries usually have some sort of criteria at which to aim. Singapore, for example, has the Primary School Leaving Examination, and then sorts its secondary students into three streams through teacher, parent, and student negotiation. Australia has really nothing now, beyond the concept of a year 12 score, but by then the disadvantaged students have usually fallen through the cracks to disappear into a disappointing life. Rather than continue with this, the Federal Government needs to introduce a national benchmark for each year. It also needs to start tying Centrelink benefits to school attendance for those who are being failed by the system.

We really are badly off by international comparison. The Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills, placed Australia 21st in the 2018 worldwide ranking average score of math, science and reading. New Zealand and the UK beat us, and needless to say Singapore and China did too – the last two countries being places where education is taken extremely seriously. Not so here.

Dr Tom Lewis OAM taught in the high school and adult areas for over 20 years. A former naval officer, he is also a military historian, with 20 books published. His latest is Attack on Sydney, a study of the failures in command combating the midget submarine attack of 1942

16 thoughts on “When Our Schools are Class Enemies

  • DougD says:

    I got an excellent education in the late 1940s – 1950s in Qld state primary and secondary schools. There were annual reports to parents by teachers [with “fail” grades if warranted ] and external exams in the last year of primary school and at the end of the junior and senior high school years. All my high school teachers had a three-year university arts or science degree and a one year post-graduate diploma of education from a teachers’ college. School inspectors checked on teachers’ class room performance. My self-esteem came from the marks I received and I don’t recall being overcome by stress. Both my parents finished primary schooling only. Perhaps we do not need to look to Singapore or Finland to see how to improve students’ performance, only back to what worked so well in the past. But I expect the universities and the teachers’ unions would oppose that.

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      Me too, bush school with sixteen kids, six of them aboriginals, all did scholarship, all passed, all the aboriginal parents had jobs, all their kids grew up to be solid citizens, QED. My formal education stopped about then and it was correspondence and night school, anything to escape chasing the backsides of milkers. Our six kids all have excellent uni degrees in solid professions but there it stops for about half the grandkids have uni degrees in professions yet to be invented thanks to Gough Whitlam and his ilk making it possible for the illiterates to gain Uni degrees and then teach illiteracy to school and Uni attendees, something they do rather well.

      • BalancedObservation says:

        I know it usually goes unchecked here blaming Gough Whitlam for absolutely anything but blaming him for lowering university standards is quite erroneous. More recent Coalition and Labor governments are to blame for that.
        Making university education free while maintaining a cap on places for which students had to compete on merit would probably have raised standards. A greater pool of students was seeking the same number of places so competition for those places probably intensified. Smart students who previously couldn’t afford uni were now able to compete for places.
        But subsequent policies of both major parties which have removed caps on places and consequently lowered entry standards have arguably lowered overall standards. We’ve seen the effect of that in huge and increasing numbers of students now dropping out. Far more than during the Whitlam years. Students who should never have been at a university, regardless of whether they paid part of their fees or not.
        Universities have huge financial incentives to get as many bums on lecture benches as possible under the policies of recent Labor and the Coalition parties. That lowers standards.
        That’s included of course huge numbers of students from overseas. So much so that pre Covid our top university in Australia had 40% of its entire student population not simply from overseas but from one country: Communist China. Just imagine what that phenomenon does to standards, political views, course content and free speech on campus.

    • mrsfarley2001 says:

      The issue of education is multi-pronged. This article deals with some of it.

      Much of what is taught in so-called “educational” establishments is rubbish and there seems little difference between the private & government systems. Currently in WA, we apparently have a greatly-increased level of assaults & attacks on school principals and teachers. Perhaps one element driving this is that the attackers resent the paucity of the product.

      Years ago, exodus took place from high schools of non-academic pupils after Year 10. These, both male & female, entered apprenticeships, leaving a core group to finish Yrs 11 & 12, many destined for higher education. Then, to camouflage escalating unemployment levels, suddenly all were retained until Yr 12. This doesn’t work, for the usual set of Blind Freddy reasons, top of which list is that everything has to be dumbed down.

      Nowadays, another nettle that needs grasping is that no social consensus exists any more as to right & wrong. Moral absolutes have been smudged to nothing by relativism pushed relentlessly by mainstream media. Social media was & is a Faustian bargain. Schools, like other institutions, are suffering badly from this problem.

      Very depressing all round.

  • Daffy says:

    ‘The gap’ will never close while being in the gap is rewarded with sit-down money. Nor will it close while families and communities fail to prize education. But then, why bother with education and a job when you can happily rely on the relatives through endless humbugging?
    This is not good for anyone; and it is not because of ‘colonialism’ (whatever that is).

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I know a bit about the loss of self-esteem occasioned by being forced to repeat a year. But in my case, it came about because, at boarding school, I had been at the top of my Fourth Grade class, had passed the year end Fifth Grade examination, and was encouraged to skip Fifth Grade. Already up to six months younger than my Fourth Grade cohort, I was at least a year younger than most of my Sixth Grade cohort. But I managed to keep up by working harder, and progressed to the end of Year Eight passing all my exams no lower than the middle.
    However, by then I was struggling socially, and was being targeted by the inevitable bullying that exists in most schools. So the decision was made that I should repeat Year Eight to return me closer to my age cohort. At that point I switched off, thinking that I knew everything, and became a disruptive nuisance. I never regained my former work ethic and under-achieved thereafter until well into my mid-twenties when I finally grew up.
    I don’t know the answer to these problems, but I do know that skipping and/or repeating classes are fraught.

    • BalancedObservation says:

      Thanks for your comments. Was good of you to give us the benefit of your own experience.
      Even though it’s in a round-about sort of way arguably what you’ve said does point to the fact that there’s more to this than simply ensuring no one gets automatically promoted till they achieve the previous standard. Intuitively most would tend to agree with the article, but there’s obviously more to it
      I say round-about way because your problem was being promoted too far through your own ability. And then being held back. But the same principle probably applies.
      There are ways that these problems can be tackled. There are ways that many of our problems in education can be tackled but there seems little will nor nous to do it.
      Despite massive increases in education funding our comparative education standards have tended to actually fall. Gonski increased funding hugely but made no significant difference to falling comparative standards. So at least we now know that pumping more and more money into the system is probably not the answer.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    I entered an Australian High School in Sydney’s Outer West in 1954 at age eleven, a year younger than the others, a July birthday, returning from passing the Eleven Plus in the UK. The area was one of small-scale farming and new post-war immigrants, many, including us, in public housing. The intake year had streaming. 1A, academic, 1B academic minus Latin, 1C Commercial, 1D basic trade skills and home economics (gender specific), 1E remedial and 1F – well, it may have involved finger painting. People could move between streams, although in practice not many did. I think 1D to 1F was an attempt to deal with those who didn’t want to be educated, or who couldn’t be. At least their special needs did not hold the others back. Many could probably have been more kindly encouraged and developed. Sports was a good leveller.
    It may have been an unfair system in social class terms, but there was room for a bright child to rise or a less bright one to fall back. All of the boys at any level ‘wagged’ school occasionally, but most attended due to fear of ‘the welfare’ in the form of a truant officer. Some the the boys stayed home to help on the farm at times. This was acceptable.

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      I was 10 when I started First Year High School in 1951. I turned 11 in June. Even having repeated Year Eight, I was still only 16 when I did my Leaving Certificate. I wouldn’t wish my experience on my worst enemy.

  • john mac says:

    With the feminist domination of education , bringing “compassion” “empathy” “feelings” to the forefront , deriding competition both in academic and sporting pursuits – everybody gets a prize- . well , what could go wrong? Not to mention pulling the weeds of “Toxic masculinity” early on , creating a generation of facially jewelled , man-bunned , sexually confused mask wearers tip toeing on eggshells around girls .

  • Phillip says:

    Dr Tom, I agree with your sentiments and a good literary education is one of the foundations to form a strong person.
    Competition in the real world today, sadly, for employment is driven by identity and not merit.
    My employer, an Australasian infrastructure services company has adopted a mantra “… to achieve 40% women, 40% men and 20% any gender in leadership roles across the business by 2030…” No thought given to safety, intellect, contractual compliance or profit… No way purely just identity.
    Australia blindly follows the madness of the USA education system, incorporating;
    1 Transgenderism before truth and
    2 Satanism before traditional Christian values
    3 An identity before a reality..(eg ‘I think I am a gecko therefore I want to be respected as a gecko’)
    Education is being destroyed by a society (specifically employers) which puts more importance on your skin colour, your homosexuality, your mental transgender disorder, your secular anti Christian behaviours and this appalling mantra of gender ratios.
    Education is not being supported for its traditional importance in the wider community. Something like “Educational Knowledge is the Strength” is not the target outcome of government education systems.
    I do not know if I could find a school in Australia today where the teacher ratios proves males outnumber the females. Is this due to a female teacher intellect merit being superior or low wages or a gender ratio identity policy before considering is the outcome of producing a child with a strong valuable education across all disciplines required.?

    • lbloveday says:

      One example of why male teacher mates of mine would not recommend teaching to a young man.
      My mate, a school teacher, was on yard duty when he saw 3 well-known bullies had bailed up a well-know nerd. Mate stepped between them and said “Back off”. one bully stepped forward, within inches of mate, who put his hand on bully’s chest, and firmly pushed him away.
      Note, pushed, not hit, a student who was threatening a student and then him (believe me, he could have decked the bully if so inclined; we trained together).
      Result? Bully whimpers to Mummy-dear who sees the female Principal and complains, mate hauled before principal and told he had to attend anger management classes. Mate refuses to do yard duty any more, applies for a transfer and leaves his Year 12 Specialist Math kids mid-year.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    We have a massive problem with our school education systems : over the last decade or so there have continued to be huge increases in funding and our comparative education standards and outcomes have generally continued to worsen. That points to a systemic failure in our overall management of school education.
    However there’s been a tendency by many to assume that there are basically simple cures to fix what are essentially systemic failures. There have been a variety of ad hoc suggestions to address perceived individual problems.
    We see people advocating the removal of “social” education around gender etc. We see others advocating more and more funding. Others see the private school sector in need of pruning back from what they regard as its privileged status. Others are set on widespread use of phonics as a major answer. Others, usually government school teachers, see the measurement of their effectiveness as the problem.
    And perhaps the weirdest one of all, many, usually in the government sector, see the actual objective measurement of overall outcomes and progress of students in general as a major problem. When it obviously has to be part of the answer. It’s at least currently telling us we’re failing. The answers by some to that failure are to measure outcomes differently so we won’t look like we’re failing or not to measure outcomes at all – certainly not objectively.
    And yet no one seems to realise what should already be obvious: the problem is so large it’s systemic in nature. The real answers are likely to involve a thorough rethink about how we go about education in Australia. And I’m certainly not talking about a third Gonski. We already know Gonski 1 and 2 have failed.
    Allowing pupils to be promoted who haven’t reached the required standard is such a comparitively minor problem compared with the systemic failures in our school education systems.
    However even with those systemic failures and even though we’ve poured increasingly more and more resources into education – while our comparative standards and outcomes have continued to fall – I still believe there’s room for optimism.
    Why would I possibly think that?
    There’s so much scope for improvement – we have yet to even recognise that we have a systemic problem. And rather than improving our education systems we’ve actually been making them worse. So if we just stopped making them worse it would really help with outcomes.
    So many things which would make a huge improvement have not been tried in the bulk of our schools and our overall school funding models.
    We know a number of schools are highly successful. That’s got to show it’s possible for others to be. To think that’s simply because they’re funded better has already been disproven. We’ve massively increased the funding in our government schools and their comparative standards and outcomes have actually fallen. There’s far more to success than increased funding.
    Surely our continuing failures are eventually going to become so obvious that we as a nation won’t be able to ignore them any longer and something effective will be done. We won’t simply have a third Gonski. Gonski 1 and 2 were essentially more money with very similar approaches and the evidence is now in : they simply haven’t worked.

  • Henry Van Zanden says:

    During my 30 years of teaching, I have witnessed the demise of our educational institutions. It could be traced back to the ‘march of the left through our institutions’ beginning in the 1970s in our universities. Although it was subtle at first, there is no longer any pretense. You are now a ‘radical’ should you be brave enough to teach the orthodox or conservative point of view. Indeed, in many cases, there is now only one point of view.
    Discipline has become increasingly more difficult for teachers to implement. This is particularly true for students who consistently refuse to accept any punishment. The result is that punishing a student’s indiscretion can take weeks for the ‘street smart’ student who knows how cumbersome the system is. For instance, a student can abuse every teacher in the school for the entire day, yet the only punishment they can receive is a suspension warning. The student must repeat the SAME offense on three separate days for a suspension to occur.
    There needs to be specific and definable standards that are transparent to students and the whole community. A minimum standard test in English and Maths should be held for each year in term four. It should be expected that the brightest students would receive 100%. Those who are struggling could easily be identified and placed in remedial classes where they are not forced to follow a rigid curriculum but instead are taught the basics.
    Our education system resembles the bed of Procrustes, who was a Greek legend who robbed his victims. Procusthes had an iron bed on which he compelled his victims to lie. If the victim was shorter than the bed, he was stretched on the rack to fit the bed. If he was longer than the bed, the victim had his legs cut off to make the body fit the bed’s length.
    This is today’s education system. The student is forced to fit into the ‘iron bed’ instead of the bed being adjusted to fit the student. A one system fits all does not work. It does not consider the variations of ability, progress, behaviour, and desired curriculum.
    Not every student wants to attend university or be a public servant. Greater attention must be paid to those students who wish to engage in a trade.
    Students not succeeding should not be forced into a curriculum designed to fail. New courses need to be developed that allow students to learn at their level of ability and their individual needs. By Year 10, students should sit for a basic English and Maths exam so at least employers can judge students on their merits.
    Presently, an HSC student can fail every exam, but if they genuinely attempt most assessment tasks (and still fail) and attempt the HSC exams (and fail), that student will receive an HSC.
    By rewarding mediocrity, the HSC loses much of its credibility.

    For the most extreme examples of students misbehaving, violent students, or chronic truants, specialized schools need to be set up where students will be compelled to attend overnight accommodation. Unless there is a consequence to the most extreme of poor behaviour, the behaviour will not change.

    Teachers must be allowed to discipline students in a timely manner. The consequences of a refusal to follow the discipline or teacher’s instructions must be real.

    Although I did take on extra responsibilities, working 60-70 hours per week was not unusual. Too much time was taken on unnecessary administration meaning less time was allocated to teaching.

  • Henry Van Zanden says:

    I should have pointed out that immediate suspension can occur for violence, or drug use,

Leave a Reply