Report from Australia -- poor grades for teachers

As most teachers know, the end of terms and years is the time for reports on children. We entered 1981 with a pile of reports, sufficient indeed to distract us from actually getting on with any teaching. But the reports suggest that the teachers are ill-equipped to teach, that what they are teaching is irrelevant, and the students are not satisfied with the diet they have been getting.

Interviewing applicants for teaching positions reveals much about the state of teacher education and training. In the present climate of doubt about education it was inevitable that governments would turn their attention to what occurs in the institutions that are responsible for the training of teachers. We have had a plethora of reports culminating in the federal government's National Inquiry into Teacher Education.

The national inquiry was set up in 1978. Among the terms of reference was one which requested the committee to examine "the objectives of education in Australia for the next 24 years and the education, experiences, and competencies required of teachers at various career stages to fulfill the roles perceived for them."

The committee report is a rather dull and bland affair. It makes 38 specific recommendations and these would add about $125 million to the federal government's expediture.

The paths to teaching in this country vary: degree plans and a one-year diploma; degree in education (four years); diploma or degree in education (three years).

The report favors an all-graduate, four-year trained profession. It also cals for sabbatical leave for all teachers (There are 180,000 at present.), and a leave of 13 weeks after seven years on full pay. Commitments to in-service training are also spelled out.

The issue of in-service is rapidly assuming great importance as vacancies for teachers dwindle and as the percentage of new graduates entering schools falls. Regeneration of teachers must become a principal concern of administrators.

In-service courses have burgeoned in the last decade. Any day of any week in any school one can find any number of teachers absent from their classrooms. In February I received notification of a Bike Education in-service course! The course was held at a trotting complex and each participant required a bicycle. Wisely the committee suggested that "professional development of teachers can best ensured within a framework of staff development planned and organized at the school level.

Just as schools closed for the summer vacations -- a much shorter vacation than the American summer equivalent -- the Schools commission presented us all with a rather gloomy Christmas present. Under the guidance of its former chairman, Ken McKinnon, the commission produced Schooling for 15- and 16 -Year-Olds.

The intention of this report as set out in the preface is "to raise and explore secondary schooling issues in a way which stimulate the community into considering what should be done about them." It is, as the report notes, a difficult time for schools.

In Australia nearly 50 percent of all the students entering secondary school leave at or before Year (Grade 10). That 50 percent are all job seekers. This fact places obvious pressures on the schools. The report rightly asks the question:

"What are the limits of their (the schools') responsibility?" "Too close a connection between the substance of schooling and the demands of a tight job market may be a perilous course: There may be no jobs or what jobs there are may best be served by having taught students to adapt.

"A major conclusion of this study, however,, is that in their general orientation most schools have lagged in their adjustment to the needs of the full range of students for the last two decades of the 20th century.

The report advocates a wholesale reappraisal of the schools' approach to those years of schooling which are compulsory. Largely the schools have been dominated by and preoccupied with preparation for further study. (universities, institutes, and colleges of advanced education.)

The report's response to the bleak picture is delineated in a chapter on something called "The Adaptive School." Such a school would have the following characteristics:

"* A warm and friendly relations between students and staff, based on mutual respect.

"* A range of course options which gives the emphasis to both practical and theoretical knowledge and to practical and academic skills.

"* Comprehensiveness, not merely in the range of students for whom they cater , but also in the range of educational services they offer.

"* An awareness that the prime purpose of their existence is to serve all students while they are within the compulsory schooling period.

"* Programs consistent with the motion that all post- school options for students require them to be able to function autonomously and effectively.

"* Close connections with the community being served and through it with the wider society."

Adaptations will depend greatly on the teachers.

Whether the schools or their teachers are in a position or have the disposition to take up the issues of these reports is questionable: The Australian new year began with a strike in one state, a threat of a strike in another, and general disenchantment among most teachers. We are still paying heavily for our very centralized and highly bureaucratic structures. Postscript

Recently, the High Court of Australia handed down a decision relating to a matter raised in a previous article: State aid to nongovernment schools.

In a 6-to-1 decision the court upheld the government's activities in this area. The immediate reaction of the president of the DOGS (Defense of Government Schools) was to say the fight would move elsewhere; the president of the Australian Teachers' Federation remarked that the battle would become political.

Meanwhile, nongovernment schools bask in ever-increasing subsidies -- some are approaching 25 percent of runn ing costs.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.