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How schools entrench Australia's two nations

By Peter West - posted Monday, 5 December 2016


This week state school teachers in New South Wales will call a stop work meeting. More industrial action looks likely. Teachers are seeking better pay and conditions of work. The usual complaints will be made by the press: teachers are irresponsible, abandoning children, they already have lots of holidays, and so on.

Yet teachers have a long list of grievances. Teachers' pay is low, compared to other professions. That word itself applied to teaching is controversial, with a number of references in the literature to the 'Cinderella Profession'. Working conditions for teachers are poor - look at the staffrooms into which teachers are crammed.

Life for most teachers isn't that great. Children are increasingly disrespectful. Playground duty in a hot or freezing playground is tedious. And these days few teachers can get a permanent job. I have worked in education since 1968 and I can say without hesitation that teaching is now far worse paid relative to many other jobs, and conditions in the state schools are worse than they have ever been in that time. Housing is far worse a problem than it was in the days when many teachers lived fairly cheaply in the Headmaster's cottage. Pity help any teacher who wants to own their own home in Sydney, where skyrocketing house prices are creating a situation in which teachers and nurses won't be able to live anywhere except in rented egg-box apartments.

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So you scoff, and imagine that a teacher's life is a breeze? Try taking a group of Year 8 kids one Friday at 2.30pm. Or walk into a group of school-kids all jabbering when they come out of school. Watch security guards struggle with shouting, jeering teenagers who make a nuisance of themselves in shopping malls. I write as someone who helps student teachers learn, and I visit a wide range of primary and secondary, state and private schools as part of my job. I have seen enough students defy teachers in state and private schools, and look at me with a calculated glance before they decide to goof off. And I watch parents fail to manage their own children on buses and in shops." No, Johnny, don't do that, no…I said no… please….".

Men - in teaching?

Teaching is no man's land these days, as I argued in submissions to federal and state enquiries. Particularly in state schools, and especially in primary schools. The reasons I provided are these. First, if boys are generally not engaged at school, why would they want to stay in school as teachers? Second, education is culturally coded feminine. Universities have many Departments of Women's Studies, but few for Men's Studies. And men at university in sociology and education feel they are in the sights of very hostile feminists. It's a war against men, as one male said. Third, teacher pay is low and advancement limited, compared to engineering, law, accountancy and many other professions. And there is suspicion that a man's interest in kids isn't always wholesome. In sum, as one man said, "teaching would be a good job, if I was a woman". Similar arguments are made in the USA, in many parts of Europe and the UK. Teachers are leaving their profession because of the poor respect they get, poor behaviour by children, too much paperwork and constant changes in curriculum. A man can't afford to keep a family on a teacher's wage. Even with two teachers earning, it's a strain.

State and private schools

But Australian schools are not equal. Read this celebration of new buildings in one school in Sydney:

In the past three years an extensive re-development of facilities has commenced, with new Primary and Secondary buildings opened in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Primary school improvements include the construction of 16 new Primary classrooms and bathroom facilities, a refurbished Primary Library and Primary Computer Lab. In June 2015, our Trade Skills Centre opened which was largely funded by the federal Government's Trade Skills Centres program. This $1.5 million facility is an impressive facility and allows VET Construction to be taught and will expand the range of technical subjects offered in all secondary years. A second building, containing art studios, a computer lab, 9 classrooms and seminar rooms will be complete by the end of 2015 and be open for 2016.

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Or read about the $23m capital works program in another school. The federal Government has been generous. No surprise - these are private schools. No wonder Education Minister Simon Birmingham says some private schools are over-funded.

On the other hand, there are lists of state schools desperate to have maintenance done in NSW. Naturally, the lists had to be extracted by means of Freedom of Information legislation. One might well ask- why is one sector being amply funded, while the other languishes? And where will all this leave us? Answer: with middle class parents - who might defend the state schools- being forced to go private, to their increasing cost. And with the state schools in many suburbs becoming schools of last resort. My arguments are based on NSW, but similar things are true around the nation: overcrowding as a result of a boom in babies being born; state schools bursting at the seams; teachers stressed beyond their capacity. And kids achieving well below their capacity in the under-resourced schools.

A complicating factor is that some selective state schools (and part-selective schools) are doing well. I give workshops at schools with a good academic record which are attracting not just smart children, but foreign investors buying up land in the catchment area which will entitle their children to go to a selective school. Nobody in Sydney would be surprised that such investors are often Chinese, and have been for some years. Such schools are virtually state schools acting as private schools, with teachers eager to join them and children who behave because they want to learn.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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