Interview on 4CA Mornings with John MacKenzie
International reports on student performance; Discipline in classrooms; Improving student outcomes

John MacKenzie: You know, how often do we have people calling into this show over the years saying the biggest problem we’ve got with kids is the bloody parents, because discipline no longer is- well, it’s almost illegal, certainly frowned upon. I mean, smacking children in New Zealand now sees you end up in court. So clearly discipline is very much under the pump all over the place and it’s having an impact, especially in our classrooms. 

Listen to this, the federal Education Minister has told parents of naughty children – parents of naughty children – to step up and do their job because bad behaviour in the classroom drags down national results. Now, his name is Simon Birmingham; he’s pointed to two issues cruelling outcomes in some disadvantaged Australian schools: dud teachers, and parents who fail to discipline their children. I won’t go on with all the details, but here’s an example: 46 per cent – listen to this – 46 per cent of schools in the lowest quartiles say students do not listen to what the teacher says. Forty-six per cent. This is mayhem. This is absolute mayhem. It goes on to say half of those schools say that classrooms are noisy and disorderly, and 34 per cent say that in advantaged schools. 

I mean, most of us are harking back to our school days and primary school; if somebody stepped out of line, very quickly they- well, in my particular school the nuns would come down with the cane, and a few years later the brothers would come along with those leather straps. But it happened everywhere; there was discipline in the classroom, and that’s the only way it worked. Now, of course, that’s a long-forgotten memory. 

I’ve got Simon Birmingham on the line to talk about this matter. Hello, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning John, and good morning to your listeners.

John MacKenzie: Mate, you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this. What has gone wrong over the decades?

Simon Birmingham: Well we really do need to heed this evidence, and these are analyses of several reports that looked at Australia’s international performance, and they show that in terms of our international performance we are, at best, stagnating, if not going backwards, not only relative to other countries, but in our own performance in key areas around maths and science and language skills. But this, of course, report is an analysis that goes deeper than that, in looking at some of the reasons and some of the factors within our schools. And we’ve long known that parents and the home environment are the most crucial factor in a child’s learning; the quality of teaching is the second most crucial factor. But of course, what is getting in the way of this appears to be issues around attitude and behaviour, and these are factors that teachers alone cannot fix, policy-makers alone cannot fix; it requires commitment right across the spectrum, including from parents, communities and families, to work together to address these issues.

John MacKenzie: Over the years we’ve had lots of discussions on this program about this, and it comes up every time. You get, for example, 46 per cent of schools say students don’t listen to what the teacher says, and people bring up – quite rightly – what about the other 54 per cent of kids who want to learn, who want to get ahead? And, of course, they suffer dramatically because of the appalling behaviour of the other 46 per cent. 

Simon Birmingham: Indeed, and this is clearly part of the problem when we look then at how it infects the performance, basically, across the rest of the classroom, across the rest of the school. So if you have a school environment that has a higher proportion of children who are disengaged and disruptive, then that doesn’t just impact those children, it impacts on the entire performance across that classroom and across that school. That’s why we need firstly to make sure we have clear and effective policies that empower teachers to take a zero-tolerance approach to disruption in the classroom. 

Now, that’s not to say that every child gets thrown out at the merest incident, that’s simply to say that you need to have appropriate gradiated(*) responses that teachers are empowered to use; that they’ve got policy backup from head office back in Brisbane in terms of their state schooling systems in Queensland, or anywhere else around the country; they’ve got the backing of their principals. But, of course, we also need to ensure there is support from families, not just in what teachers may do, but backing it up in the home environment. The children should come to school knowing that they will have to, and should be, showing respect for their teachers and for authority within that school environment.

John MacKenzie: That’s easier said than done though isn’t it? I hear so many teachers say they just cop a pizzling from parents. I mean, how do you quarantine the individual teachers from that hostility, if you like, of stupid parents who take the side of their little darlings every time?

Simon Birmingham: If it was easy, of course, it would’ve been done by now. Yes, this is a battle and I guess the first thing we need to do is acknowledge the problem. We now have evidence that clearly shows disruption is a factor in terms of performance and that it’s making a difference across schools where there is greater levels of disruption in the performance of those schools. But the evidence is there; we need to accept the evidence, we need to acknowledge the problem. And now, working through the solutions, as I say, dealing with the policy issues for teachers and principals and schools is one thing governments can do, and empowering and supporting them. 

Now, how we shift attitudes in terms of families and parents, that’s a much tougher question. But it starts, I guess, from the very earliest years in terms of the expectations that are set and how they’re formed, and that we need to make sure parental responsibility is a core part of that message.

John MacKenzie: Good to talk to you today, Simon. Thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, John.

John MacKenzie: That’s Senator Simon Birmingham, he’s the federal Minister for Education and Training.