NOTE: This a revised and updated version of an article first published in 2016.
State school teachers called a stop-work meeting in New South Wales, Australia in December, 2016. 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, they are 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, police and ambulance drivers and similar- won’t be able to live anywhere except in rented egg-box apartments.
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.
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 begging for places in private schools, 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 the nearby 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.
Privatisation at work
State Governments are not lacking in money. Here in New South Wales our State Government rakes in millions every weekend when there are auctions up and down the coast. Prices of apartments in Sydney went up by more than ten per cent last year. And larger and larger prices bring in bigger amounts in stamp duty. Speeding fines have more than doubled. We are selling off assets in every direction, and we are told that we have made millions. Yet we can’t afford vital maintenance for our schools? Yes we can- if they are private schools.
In NSW, the coalition government has already sold off nine billion dollars worth of housing. Perhaps it was a ‘fire sale’ and the property was offloaded at less than its real value, to property developers who had big plans for it. School properties have also been sold off, as James Robertson wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:
But the government has also sold off 384 Department of Education properties since taking power, properties that Finance Minister Victor Dominello said were deemed by the department to be "surplus".
That is despite reports that the state government is facing a massive 10.8 billion backlog in school maintenance, and a demographic explosion in school numbers.
384 school properties sold off! Where is the outrage from all the commentators and academics? This is a national disgrace. State and national governments are working in tandem. State schools and TAFE colleges are being run down, while ridiculous private VET-FEE colleges offering near-worthless courses are funded by governments. The Department of Education building in Bridge Street, Sydney is sold off, and money spent to hire fat cat bureaucrats in TAFE and schools. Consultants are hired by governments at great expense, but money doesn’t go to improve learning. As usual, nobody can agree on whose fault it is. And we are left with a familiar pattern.
Our two nations
For those who can afford it, we have an elite system. These schools have government-funded new facilities with air conditioning, well-paid teachers who are given leave and encouragement to study, and with an ample supply of young energetic males. For the rest, we have mass education: buildings that need work, dusty playgrounds and dilapidated school halls jerry-built during the years of Rudd and Gillard. These schools are staffed by hard-working teachers. But they are mostly middle-aged and older females, more and more tired and unable to cope with the boisterous energy of students. Especially boys, as I have said elsewhere. These teachers are worn down by unsympathetic bureaucrats, more and more difficult decrees from on high, and all kinds of damage from the media and warnings ‘you mustn’t do that’ from all sectors of society. Some critical problems and uneven shortages are outlined in a recent research paper.
All Australian children are equal; but some are more equal than others. Kids who go to many State schools are getting a very raw deal. Poorer kids condemned to a struggling school will find it hard to achieve in life, as the research shows. Privileged kids who already are better fed and have more books in the home and more organised sports are able to learn in far better conditions, and have far better life chances. No wonder that investors want their kids to join the elite system. Thus we have two nations in Australia, the rich and the poor. And to those who have much, more shall be given. This phrase was first used by Disraeli :
“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” “You speak of — ”said Egremont, hesitantly. “ THE RICH AND THE POOR.” [
It was written a hundred years ago and more. But it’s certainly true here and now. Meanwhile, Education Ministers at one level blame the other. ‘It’s not about money’. ‘It’s Labor’s fault’ (or the Liberals). They might as well say ‘It’s Johnny’s fault, ‘cause he hit me first’. We get the usual public relations waffle, with tweets and propaganda from public relations hacks, happily reproduced in the broadsheet press and the commercial TV shows. But nothing is done.
Everywhere we look, New South Wales privatises. Baird and his successor Berejiklian reduce TAFE teaching positions, and wastes money building expensive light rail built in Europe. That must do a lot for unemployment there, and not much to help the unemployed here. We see the usual privatisation charade: the more they talk about increasing prosperity, the worse life gets for ordinary people. “They fill the wealthy with good things; the poor they send away empty”, as the psalm might have said. And smart kids in poorer schools can’t learn properly. No wonder recent reports are showing that educational standards are falling. Yes, Simon Birmingham, it is appalling. You’re the Minister: do something. Until you do, many of the kids in the nation’s schools are going to suffer Third World schooling.
Anon (2016) ‘NSW Government Makes Whopping 35 Million Windfall from Millers Point Social Housing in one Night’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December.
Disraeli, Benjamin (1845) Sybil: or, The two Nations.
Hogan, Michael and Peter West (1980) Making Policy in a Changing Context: The Education Policy Process in New South Wales. Melbourne, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne.
Mitchell, Bruce (1975) Teachers, Education and Politics: A History of Organisations of Public School Teachers in NSW. St Lucia, University of Queensland Press.
Robertson, James (2017) ‘Government’s privatisation push Extends to $9 billion property sale pipeline’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September.
West, Peter (1987) ‘Investigating the Politics of Education’, in R. Macpherson (ed.) Ways and Meanings of Research in Educational Administration, Armidale, University of New England.
West, Peter (1999) ‘Boys’ Underachievement in School: Some Persistent Problems and Some Current Research’. Issues in Educational Research, 9 (1).
West, Peter (2005?) A Rooster in the Henhouse, OR, Why Education is No Man’s Land. Enquiry on Teacher Education, New South Wales.
West, Peter (2016) Best Practice in Boys’ Education. Summary of Report. University of Western Sydney and The King’s School.
West, Peter (2016) ‘Mike Baird’s Secret Agenda and the Triumph of the Barbarians’,