Beware of Despair
Working in the highly stressful conditions of a modern school have been the subject of many of our Newsletters however in recent times I have seen a worrying shift from the high levels of stress working in such a demanding environment to the emergence of a culture of despair amongst teachers and principals. Despair differs from anxiety or worry in that it represents a complete loss of hope that things will recover.
This feeling that things are profoundly wrong is reinforced by the evidence that public schools have been abandoned by our governments both state and federal who continue to differentiate the provision of resources and the work/time demands on employees in the public sector in comparison to the private system. It is as if our employer has abandoned any effort to deal fairly with the issues facing our public schools.
In a renowned speech made by John Ralston Saul in Canada, a jurisdiction much like our own he draws attention to the strength of a democracy being reliant on the strength of its public-school system. The systems built on privilege, like our own where wealthy schools for kids from rich families are based on a philosophy of institutionalised selfishness. In Australia this selfishness is supported by the governments who, unlike other countries provide significant funding of tax-payers’ money rather than have these individual schools being completely self-funded! It is an example of social engineering by the elite class and supported by the government to reinforce privilege; a situation that has historically ended badly!
The perennial inequity has grown from its origin in 1964 when the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies did a deal with the Labor Party’s break-a-way group the Democratic Labour Party to fund catholic schools in return for their support to form a government. Because of the poor state of the existing ‘parish’ catholic schools this was hard for following governments to reverse this support. However, from the late 60’s and beyond, neo-liberal philosophies permeated throughout the western world and Ministries of Education of all persuasions supported non-government schools. The inevitable partition between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ happened when the principles of market-based competition and consumer choice was introduced into the school systems.
The funding for public schools per student is now at a scale that see public school teachers being asked to compete against private teachers while facing a huge disadvantage. For example, funding per student in Victoria is 80% higher ($11,528 per student per year) in the private sector than in public while in NSW it is 60% higher. Comparisons between results in tests such as NAPLAN or Matriculation show no evidence that there are educational values for the increased expenditure. However, teachers in the public system have to work in such disadvantaged condition it’s no wonder they despair!
As we close in on the end of the 2021 school year and look ahead to 2022 one acute issue that will fill the teaching staff with a sense of dejection is the serious staffing shortage they are facing. In NSW, the current circumstances are:
- 3,000 school teaching vacancies
- 95% of teachers say that teacher shortage is a significant issue
- 93% of schools struggle to recruit casuals to fill vacancies
- 51% of permanent teaching positions are not filled
- 60% of those teachers employed are teaching outside their area of expertise
- Students in Broken Hill are going into 2022’s HSC without having teachers qualified to teach their subject
- More than half of the classroom teachers surveyed would not recommend teaching as a career to family members or friends.
- 85% of respondents said they did not think that the Education Directorate was sufficiently resourced to meet the demands put upon schools
And, if you want any more evidence that teachers are living in despair, 58% of teachers are considering leaving work due to the workload.
The move to privatisation since the 1970’s has been supported by the adoption of a neoliberal approach to management which encourages the use of market forces reflected in the increasing support for choice. Parents have been encouraged to make a choice for their own children and governments have set-up so-called contrivances to base that choice on. These are things like the NAPLAN test and the My School website where comparisons could be made. However, any close examination of this site could only conclude that sending a child to a private school will make no difference in their learning outcomes yet the drift continues to grow.
These changes have been ‘legitimised’ by a tidal wave of specialists who reinforce this reliance on the market-based approach to management. These consultants have concluded that the inclusive systems that prevailed before are no longer viable if we want to move to a competitive system. This movement away from the professional educators that existed in the public service has not been cheap with over $9.3 million being spent on just four companies, KPMG International Limited, Deloittes, Ernst and Young and Price, Waterhouse and Coopers. Their advice is based on the modern management model and pays only marginal lip-service to any educational expertise. The corporate knowledge of those who have served public schools is at most downgraded and the call to ‘get rid of the lifers’, that is remove those with years of experience, echoes throughout the education bureaucracy.
We end 2021 with this inescapable feeling of depression and despondency. There is no real expression coming from any government that would give teachers any hope things will get better. The current Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell, when asked about the teacher’s union’s concerns about staff shortage claimed "The current NSW Teachers Federation campaign is misleading and simply untrue”. She went on to accuse the Teachers Federation of ‘peddling misinformation’. There is an all-too familiar reliance on denying the facts!
I have called this essay ‘Beware of Despondency’ because I understand that the feelings teachers have always enjoyed at this time of year, watching the students move on in their education or finally graduate on to a productive adult life have become much more difficult to recognise. This is particularly so in public schools who have been purposefully and systematically weakened and for what purpose.
I think it was Carl Jung who, when discussing the importance of motivation in behaviour said if the motivation is not clear then look at the outcome and infer back to the motivation. The outcome for public education is that it has become an under-funded, resource poor, residualised system where we have a class-based structure. This is a betrayal of the principles of democracy. Strong public schools are at the heart of all flourishing democratic societies and so I must conclude the motivation of our current system imposed by our elected government is to return to a class-based, ‘me first’ political system. I for one, see the inherent dangers in this with the emergence of class dictatorship.
This outcome will only be avoided by the actions of our teachers in our public schools and so I would urge those of you who are feeling that legitimate despair to turn that despair into energy to resist this unfair and dangerous situation!