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Why we can’t go ‘back to basics’ in our schools

I looked through the window of one of my Year 3 classrooms at my school to see Brayden. He was crying, frozen in a combination of anxiety and pure fear. It’s not what any principal wishes to see in their learning spaces.

Brayden was a fabulous writer, so I was a little surprised when his teacher had called my office to tell me about his current state. It had never even crossed my mind that he’d struggle with the NAPLAN Writing Test. But Brayden’s parents, you see, had reminded him that this was a very important day in his life, for unbeknown reasons.

What also never crossed my mind was that Brayden’s teacher was anxious too. He was concerned, partly for Brayden’s welfare, but also for what his failure to even attempt the test would do to our school’s results, to his class results.

I hope you’ll be reassured to know that we casually removed Brayden from the class. We gave him a biscuit, a glass of water and a place to calm down.  I did the same with his teacher. We got through it.

We’re going back to the wrong basics

Well may our politicians sloganise a 'back to basics' rhetoric around school policy, but here’s the truth: we’d never have exposed Brayden to that kind of pressure in those supposed good ol’ days. Our system was built on trust for teachers to do what’s right, the freedom for kids to learn in emotional safety and for parents to partner in the whole process.

They’re the basics we should be discussing and not pretending their neglect isn’t what’s behind our slow, steady comparative demise against other countries.

Brayden’s resilience is not the problem. Brayden’s teacher isn’t the problem either. I was able to help him see that the pressure he felt around NAPLAN results was a perceived one. NAPLAN itself isn’t even the problem. These are all mere system outputs, symptoms if you will, amongst the thousands of outputs any large system produces.

As awful as isolated case studies of teacher resignations and even principal burnout are, they alone are not they problem. They are simply more outputs.

Competition kills collaboration

The problem is that we’ve created an education system so inherently competitive and impersonal that to expect anything other than such outputs is the definition of foolishness. When applied to real, emotional, personal and collaborative people like teachers and children, is it any real surprise that there’s a palpable friction between the system and its implementers?

We’ve pitted school systems against each other and we’ve castigated those whom we perceive to have performed poorly, merely because they help students who need the most help. We’ve allowed equity, a fair go for all kids, as a key aspiration of the system to drown in a sea of selfish fights for funding. Our education system is no longer about all kids, but my kid.

We’ve pitted teachers against teachers discouraging them from sharing good practice and wonderful ideas. We’ve told them that the joy of learning can’t be measured and thereby doesn’t matter. It’s firmly implied that joy doesn’t matter either. The alarming output of that is hundreds of teachers fleeing the system at a rate of around 50 per cent within the first five years of commencing what many would refer to as a calling.

We’ve pitted schools against each other, leaving them desperately trying to impress potential ‘clients’ through only the window dressing of their educational offering. By any global measure, a great education system is not defined by how many rowing tanks or freeway billboards a school can afford.

We’ve made schools compete on so many planes that they have no idea what they stand for any more. As a result they stand for both everything and nothing, leaving them under attack for failing against hundreds of standards. Many parents no longer partner with their school, they compete with it for supremacy over who’s right about socks, haircut length, responses to behaviour and canteen prices.

How can we be satisfied with a system that undermines its professionals to the point where they are at commensurate risk of injury, just for being educators, as commercial fishermen and firefighters?

Our system, including the NAPLAN regime, highlights and publishes perceived deficits and failings. It ranks schools and encourages excuse making and envy. Any teacher worth their salt knows that you can’t build on failure and yet we continually refuse to look at what we do well. We refuse to let them fulfill their purpose. Ask yourself how many stories we see about what’s right in our education system compared to those about what’s wrong.

An unlikely role model

One system that we observe in disbelief, even more so with the release of the latest Borat film, as it zooms by us is that of Kazakhstan.

How can we be behind Kazakhstan? Well, I’ve been there to see what they are doing that we’re not and what they don’t do that we shouldn’t. If I were to boil it down to four points, I’d suggest this starting point.

Help, rather than judge, our teachers by:

  1. Training them to execute a sincere moral purpose around building great learners and empathic citizens, instead of spending their professional learning time interrogating data.
  2. Respecting them as experts in their field rather than criticising them for the inability to resolve of all of society’s ills. Education is not always the answer.
  3. Allowing them to collaborate with and learn from colleagues rather than be cage-matched against them.
  4. Hearing their voices within the conversation about how we can help kids learn and grow through education.

We hear a lot of governmental bluster about getting 'back to basics'. Well, perhaps it was time that these points were our new basics. 

Adam Voigt is a former school principal and system leader who is now the founder and CEO of Real Schools. Adam is also the author of Restoring Teaching, a book aimed at restoring esteem for the role of educators through establishing strong, productive and restorative cultures around Australia’s schools.

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  1. Kathryn (Kathy) Lancaster

    Hi Adam,

    I love your article on “Why we can’t go ‘back to basics’ in our schools”. I totally agree and as a teacher for 27 years teaching all students, mainly low ability students, from Kindergarten to Year 12, I feel I have a massive grasp on what is needed to assist the learning of students in this day and age. Yes the government needs to butt out and let the teachers do their work of teaching each student to read and to cope with society. Truly, most of the bad behaviour in schools these days can actually be traced to low literacy for these students. I am also a Learning and Support Teacher so I see this every day and in every school in which I work. So yes let the teachers do their job and stop all the competition so the kids can relax and do their best, finally.

    Kathy Lancaster

  2. I completely concur. Now, for the ‘leaders’ (who are not into listening and change) to listen…

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