A Morale-Boosting Stunt In NSW Education


Last Thursday afternoon at the NSW Primary Principals Conference, halfway through a keynote presentation by nutritionist Dr Joanna McMillan, the email accounts of the delegates began pinging. An email from the NSW Director General of Education, Dr Michelle Bruniges, had landed in their inboxes. Or so it seemed.

Not everyone opened it. All staff emails from the Director General are not uncommon and, in the words of one school leader who understandably wants to remain anonymous, are usually full of irrelevant, anodyne rubbish. The response of those that did, however, soon had 100,000 teachers and school leaders in public primary and secondary schools across NSW following suit, and, as they read, gasping in amazement — and, most importantly, delight.

The email slammed the education policies of the O’Farrell State Government, particularly in relation to the $1.7billion worth of planned cuts. In perfect bureaucratese it stated things like; "It is an injustice that pledges made by the O’Farrell (government) at the last election regarding education in NSW have not been kept and that infrastructure in NSW is being given a higher priority than public education."

It went on to not so subtly suggest ways in which DEC staff could encourage members of their school communities to make their displeasure with the Government’s policies known; "Staff may not formally contact the media or the Minister’s office directly but students and family members are free to exercise their rights of free speech should they choose to do so."

The email closed with a dire warning, followed by a direct call to action:

"It seems clear that with the current dismantling of TAFE NSW by the O’Farrell Government, schools will be the next to be downgraded to allow for lesser qualified facilitators to replace the currently qualified teachers to deliver the educational content to our children. I can only hope that with enough formal protesting to the Ministers office, sensibility will prevail and that public education is not the victim of this short sighted NSW Government vision."

The recipients of the email were left reeling but excited. Many thought that Bruniges had decided to leave her position — and to do so in what they saw as a blaze of glory. Education Department staff were thrilled that someone in a position of authority finally seemed to have stood up for them, their schools and, most importantly of all, the children they teach. But their euphoria was not to last.

Within an hour the email was revealed to be a hoax.

Although it appears to have come from the DG’s IP address, it was not sent by her. Indeed, she was on leave at the time. It appears someone hacked her computer and sent the email in her name. The 100,000 recipients were not surprised. Long used to their employers being another hurdle to overcome in the increasingly difficult battle to get theresources and support their students need to learn, most shrugged and shook their heads at their own naivety.

Nevertheless, the boost to morale that the hoax email gave many beleaguered public educators was not diminished. In a way, it may even have risen. What practical use, after all, would be a DG whose heart might be in the right place, but who would undoubtedly lose her position? Better perhaps to have a mysterious champion, clever enough to pull off such a stunt, and passionate enough about the cause of public education to risk prosecution for what is, after all, a crime.

Teachers are, by and large, law abiding to a fault. They make their living by getting their students to follow the rules and are naturally inclined to respect and obey authority, but many could not help feeling heartened by this unexpected slap back at the people who are used to administering the pain rather than feeling any themselves. And there is more than a whiff of unexpected cool around this audacious stunt. A sense of the Scarlet Pimpernel and his modern incarnation, the mask-wearing computer hackers most often associated with Julian Assange who disrupt authority under the name of "anonymous".

And once again, thanks to the communication power that is becoming much more equitably spread due to computer technology, those who are usually silenced have hit back.

Come to think of it, what could possibly be more appropriate, given the mission of public education, than that?

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.