Schools Does it take a pandemic?

Too many politicians think they know all about the ‘problems’ in schools and how to ‘fix’ them. It is a bug often caught by education bureaucrats, too – many of whom should know better. 

The problems they see are many: too many students not achieving better academic results; schools and teachers that are ‘coasting’; the need to professionalise teachers; an excessively influential and politically motivated union; insufficient data to analyse schools in the mechanical way they want to. You can keep adding to the list.

The fix is well-worn, and includes ‘going back to basics’; uniform pedagogical practice; a focus on standardised tests like NAPLAN; requiring teachers to produce mountains of data for dashboard analysis; operating the public education system as if it was a corporation, including managerialist performance targets; and diminishing the voice of teachers, among many other salves. Another key element of the fix is to give lip service to the welfare and wellbeing needs of young people while largely ignoring the complex ways in which these affect academic achievement and successful socialisation.

In this year of COVID-19, many of these ‘fixes’ have stayed with us in some form or another, and some have fallen by the wayside. The constant, onerous focus on literacy and numeracy, to the detriment of a broad curriculum, has remained – but widespread standardised testing is gone (for now), along with the data pumping and dumping, while faux strategic plans, reviews and other evaluations of minimal value have been interrupted or abandoned.

We have also seen something unexpected this year – unsolicited and genuine gratitude towards school staff for their efforts. Parents and the community trust us and value our work. This trust recognises that teachers, principals, and education support staff are dedicated professionals who know how to keep students engaged and learning through the lockdowns and the anxiety. Even some politicians, at least in their rhetoric, have echoed that trust.

So, does it take a pandemic for politicians to trust teachers? Time will tell whether the shift in the public attitude towards teachers is accompanied by a shift in politicians’ trust for teachers’ professional autonomy and judgment.

We may not have long to wait to find out. With workload the number one issue in the upcoming negotiations for a new Schools Agreement, we will soon learn just how much politicians value and respect teachers’ professionalism. Judging by the Victorian education minister’s ringing endorsement of the NAPLAN review recommendations – recommendations that seek to reinforce the worst aspects of standardised testing – it may take more than a pandemic for politicians to learn to trust teachers.

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