I'm completely confused by Jason Clare. Seems like a lovely personable bloke. But since he took charge of education, it's as if the ghosts of Christmases past have materialised.
And who are those ghosts?
Let's go full Yuletide and I will (re)introduce you to Stuart Robert and Alan Tudge, briefly, variously, ministers for education in the Coalition. Robert was the bloke who nixed research grants back in 2021 because he didn't like what he saw (even though actual researchers had already been through, nitpicking, and approved the funding). And he did it on the night before Christmas. Jason Clare has moved to stop that ever happening again. Brownie points right there.
At the same time, he's pulled on his Tudge suit and that's deeply concerning. He's pretty much picked up where Tudge and Robert left off instead of finding his own path, informed by evidence instead of agendas.
In August last year, Jason Clare held a one-day roundtable about the teacher workforce shortage. It didn't look like there were any actual experts there (as in, people who research school workforce retention) but plenty of well-meaning, on-the-ground folks who could discuss anecdotally what the hell is going on in our schools. When the minister emerged at the end of the day, he said: "What came out really clearly out of the conversation today, and I got a better insight into it than I think I had before I went into the room, was that initial teacher education is screaming out for reform."
Now as one academic who wants to remain anonymous says: "Australian education ministers have form when it comes to pivoting from discussions of things they can do limited things about without spending a lot of money to things that are electorally palatable, and the brand new Education Minister scores 15/10 for this first effort."
Yep. Instead of working with the states to fix workload, to fix pay, to fix conditions, Clare decided to fiddle at the edges. He's encouraged the conservative commentariat to attack teacher education. And he's done absolutely nothing - nothing - to fix the core problems which would cost governments across the nation a truck load of money. Hell, fixing disadvantage (sadly more of that later) would cost the federal government money. Raise the bloody rate, you lot.
I loved my time reporting on education back in the, ahem, '80s. Now I spend some time working with education researchers at universities, the people who have spent years figuring out how to do the best by kids in our classrooms across the nation, turning their research into plain English. Like many researchers, they do not do a brilliant job of communicating their findings to the rest of us. Health researchers have had to pull their socks up. Climate researchers, similar. And all of them, especially their leaders, need to get out there and advocate.
And, yes, it's true I am a believer in universities as innately good places, staffed by people with fair values. They are fortunate they can go about their work without having to worry about making a profit, except in the way students can profit from the deep and serious work of their educators.
Most concerningly now is Clare's enthusiasm for adopting a bunch of junk policies which he assumes will fix the problems.
In short order, here are our pressing concerns:
- Students are badly behaved;
- Teachers leave their jobs and we have a catastrophic teacher shortage; and
- Australian students are not doing as well as other countries in their standardised testing results.
These are all true. But the key concern to me is the first one. I've said this before: Teachers are struggling because your children are awful. We have record levels of assaults at schools. Happens at public schools, private schools, Catholic schools. And they are behaving badly as early as kindergarten. My diagnosis is the problems are not caused by poor teaching. They are caused by a bunch of stuff we lump together under the label socioeconomic status (see disadvantage, above).
There is some pressure - a lot of pressure - to reform teacher education and make it even more practical. I'm a big believer in practice makes perfect - but I note we don't release doctors and dentists into the workforce without considerable learning time first. Mind you, I'd love a bit of practice for politicians. Anyone up for preselection should be forced to trail around after some decent practitioners for a looooong time before they are imposed on us innocent voters.
But pracs, work experience, placements, none of that really prepares you for what it's like when you work full-time at anything. I did a long, long placement at a newspaper when I was a girl. I can assure you it was nothing like being shouted at by a senior editor for using the word "seems" in my copy. You have to embody the traits needed for your job - and you don't get that through doing work you are not responsible for. And believe me, there is no way I would trust a work experience kid with my grandchlidren. Being responsible makes the difference.
But Clare's main aim is to reform initial teacher education. He's had a truckload of conservative ministers, including Tudge and Robert, to train him and now he's doing what they told him to do. He's issuing behaviour resources. Costs very little. Does very little.
So, minister Clare, here are my ideas to address our three key problems:
- Fix inequality (and that will fix lots of our discipline problems);
- Fix teaching as a profession. That includes pay, workload and conditions;
- I bet you anything that standardised testing results will shift once you've fixed one and two;
- And four, stop listening to the last lot. They had no idea. And we are still suffering the fallout from all those years of neglect and stupidity. Be your own person.
- Jenna Price is a Canberra Times columnist and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.