Putting Schools Under The Microscope


As a high school teacher with 13 years experience I’d like to talk about a state education system that seems paralysed by political and public indifference, a lack of funds, ageing teachers, low professional morale and a modus operandi that seems firmly rooted in the 1950s. I’d like to talk about public education in South Australia but, by extension, I suppose I could be talking about schools from Hobart to Hermit Creek. I’d like to ask why there’s no real big picture for our schools, despite Kevin Rudd’s "education revolution" rhetoric.

High schools, it seems to me, are all about bulk — the maximum number of children through the door, in the classroom, sitting on wobbly chairs, struggling for the odd, occasional geriatric computer. Schools are staffed to a formula: one teacher per 25, 26 or 27 kids. The number is not important, because the reality is that children are not taught as cattle are vaccinated; the formula never considers learning difficulties, teenage apathy, failure to engage, dyslexia, problems at home and a list of concerns that teachers deal with every day.

Similarly, teachers are tasked to work to formula. At my last school it was 1350 contact minutes per week. Yard duty, preparation, marking and tutoring were squeezed into the gaps. Bulk. Quantity versus quality.

Surely any half-decent education system should be engaged in a discussion of quality. How do young minds develop, learn, retain, process, create and imagine? These are issues dear to the heart of most teachers, but topics that rarely get discussed. The average day for the average teacher is fourth gear, top speed, brakes, collapse, go home. The first precondition for a quality education system must be more time for teachers to stop, consider what they’re doing, listen to new ideas, learn new things and embrace the challenges of 21st century life.

Apart from stale curriculum and stale teachers, students are sitting in stale classrooms. Most South Australian high schools are two-storey meat lockers built in the 1960s when the state’s population started to grow. Today, I teach in the same rooms in which I learnt about calculus and ancient Egypt. Same carpet. Same rattling heaters. Sometimes I close my eyes and smell the industrial strength disinfectant wafting in from the hallways with their "Beware Asbestos" stickers, broken lockers and scratched windows and imagine it’s still 1981.

Alas, it doesn’t take much imagining.

The South Australian Government is trying to solve this problem by amalgamating three or four school on one site. These "super schools", we are promised, will solve all of our educational problems (not to mention the millions raised by selling off the old sites). No child, apparently, will have to walk more than two kilometres to get to school. There’ll be no overcrowding, tension or fights. The libraries will be big enough and quiet, withdrawn or special needs kids won’t be bullied and there’ll be more than enough vegetable lasagna for everyone. It’ll be just like Goodbye, Mr Chips, although it’s unlikely Mr Chips will remember all 3000 of his pupils’ names.

I wouldn’t be so worried about super schools if I thought our present ones were half-decent. I recently visited a school whose science faculty had only 18 low-power and 20 high-power microscopes for a student body of 900 kids. Many had missing mirrors and broken lenses and they were all old. But there was no money to replace them with the latest digital microscopes that should be in every Australian school. The problem with digital microscopes is that you need a laptop to run them and this science faculty only had one.

One. That’s a very small number. But it’s the same as the number of televisions the faculty possessed. Two is a slightly bigger number, big enough to describe the number of projectors in classrooms. Then there’s three: the most number of computers in any classroom.

Which brings us to the education revolution. For most teachers, it’s difficult to imagine a school where academic staff and students are given laptops. Even if this could be imagined, there is no way to know how the requisite technical support could ever be given by one or two underpaid, overworked techies. It’s hard to imagine a whole class bringing their computer, having the cord, not having spilled breakfast on it, not using it for games or not dropping it on their little brother’s head.

Throwing money around doesn’t necessarily solve problems in education. Computers don’t automatically make kids smarter, although if the Rudd Government does commit to appropriate long-term support, upgrades and staff training, this could be a good first step. Most teachers, though, say that the local Cash Converters will be rubbing their hands in glee.

Nothing in schools works without the goodwill of teachers. In South Australia teachers have been involved in a long-running dispute over pay and an ill-conceived "per student" funding model that the Government is attempting to introduce. Although South Australian teachers are annoyed about being the lowest paid in the country, their real concern is over the funding model — over quantity versus quality. Over a new system that will see class sizes growing towards and over 30 students and on top of this, most schools losing one, two or three teachers. Over bulk.

Education and economics are not good bedfellows. Teachers would like 18 per class, but we understand the country only has so much money. Still, most people with any sort of vision agree that the future lies not in minerals, manufacturing or building navy frigates, but in intellect, imagination; the ability to see and create the future. All of this relies on schools as places where children are inspired and pushed to their own personal boundaries, not just babysat. The Rann Government’s decision to increase the school leaving age to 17 solves nothing — it’s merely designed to lower the official rate of youth unemployment in a state that specialises in it.

For our state schools to become living, breathing organisms, not just 40-year-old bleached rats preserved in formaldehyde, they have to become more vocal, more politically engaged. Parents and Citizens committees need to harass local politicians and remind the community (and the media) what’s stale about our schools. Teachers need to feel free to not so much criticise as critique their schools. They also need to be paid more and given more time for preparation and professional development.

I, for one, believe we could give up an extra week of our school holidays to make this happen. I also want to be made more accountable, but only if those with political muscle are reading the same script, and not determined to demonise teachers as lazy, left-wing fools who weren’t good enough to find real jobs.

Finally, every level of government should start talking to teachers about what would really make an education revolution. I suggest it would be along the lines of less bulk, more microscopes, less quantity and more hydraulics labs, books, and time to sit and discuss what was really getting up Lady Macbeth’s nose.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.