Last night on Q&A, the ABC’s politically focused panel show, education and schools was the topic of choice and held sway for the majority of the program. I hadn’t realised that it was going to be the focus and so was pleasantly suprised to see that the topics raised were not about the latest political distrations but instead about some of the key challenges and threats to the learning lives of current and future Australians.

The panel, quite ironically, included no practising teachers (both Dr Michael Spence and Jane Caro @JaneCaro are lecturers so have some direct participation in Higher Education at least) but did provide all the perspectives and feelings that are out in the community at large. There were times during which the discussion may have lapsed into the usual political mud-slinging but happily the non-political panellists (and, of course, TJ) kept the conversation focused on the issues and the reality of what is actually happening in Australian educational settings.

Class sizes were the first issue to be raised in relation to education. For a while now I’ve been aware that the research coming from many universities, and in particular John Hattie’s work, that class sizes have no impact on the learning outcomes of students. I really do need to look more into this as I suspect that “learning outcomes” (especially the kind being repeatedly hammered into the conversation by Christopher Pyne) means test scores. As a teacher at a school where academic progress is a critical part of a student’s experience at school, but not the only part, and where personal, emotional, physical, moral and spiritual development are also key areas of concern, it really does grate against my own educational philosophy to say that test scores = no change despite class sizes being reduced (but that in itself is a generalisation) = no need for further reductions is a convenient truth used for purely economic justifications of how to change, run and restructure schooling.

Several panel members raised the fact that for teachers of students with disabilities and severe learning and behavioural needs, small class sizes and increased numbers of trained specialist aides is not currently adequately addressed let alone ‘solved’ by the supposed reduction in class sizes over the last 10 years. I think we are too focused on the fact that we have had large class sizes for so long that it is the status quo and out basis for comparison and instead should think about how individual students would benefit from smaller classes and move up from there to a cap.

Jane Caro also interjected at one point with the argument that it’s not good enough to have these huge black and white arguments about class sizes when there are so many different contexts in education. One school may need particular structures that the neighbouring school does not. This year a school may need more teacher’s aides and next year they may not. The overarching arguments being that a) ANY more funding is better than none and b) education can’t be solved with a single mallet of reform being smashed against the current systems.

Teacher quality was also discussed and it was nice to see that the actual teachers who go through teaching practicum and the current NSW accreditation process got a mention. I absolutely support mechanisms to support and improve teacher quality and also moves to identify and let go of teachers who are not up to standard (after considerable attempts to help them improve). There are lacklustre teachers in the profession (just come and see me teach on a Friday afternoon), but there is a cultural resentment towards teachers who didn’t fit one’s own needs as a student and I believe that informs the attitude towards education much more than a focus on the inspiring and hard working teachers who outnumber the others by the hundreds. Many of the panelists agreed that there has been an increasing attack on teachers’ professionalism over the last 30 years, with no real attempt to reverse it.

I tweeted that if education was considered the national security issue that it is, I am sure that funding would flow it’s way more freely than it has before. Education is, and always has been, a national security issue as it not only helps students individually achieve whatever standard of understanding and skill they need to engage with the world as an adult, it also infuses them with values, ideas and methods of problem solving that – whether governments or parents or other forces want them to or not – they carry with them beyond graduation. If a student can understand their place in the world, maximise their school years to push the boundaries of their knowledge and skills and develop an empathetic connection to others, their education will have a direct impact on not just their economic participation in society, but their contribution to the national soul. What is the point of an education that just pumps out students who can pick up the hammers, pens and files of the previous generation and continue to chug along without attempting to make our world better? What is the point of having a healthy wallet if you can’t use it to improve the quality of life for ones self and ones family? Education has an immense impact on future Australian and future world citizens, for better or worse, and when we, as a society, choose to acknowledge that, we better be prepared to put our money where our mouth is.

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