A right to teach?

The demands on teachers in New South Wales public schools

I was genuinely shocked to read in The Guardian on Sunday that teachers in New South Wales can be on temporary contracts for up to eight years. I knew that temporary contracts were an issue, but I didn’t understand the scale. On a temporary contract, you can’t get a mortgage or plan for the future. I imagine any teachers with a choice would either move to the independent sector or change career.

But contract work is not the only factor impacting on teachers’ conditions of employment in New South Wales public schools. Another factor, unearthed by a Union inquiry, is the fact that the number of children with a disability has increased by almost 300% in less than 20 years.

So what? Shouldn’t schools be able to cope with this?

The problem is the way that the law in Australia views disabilities - disabilities that include disorders such as ADHD and ASD. It is possible that many whole-class or whole-school strategies could help students with these disorders - strategies such as explicit teaching and clear classroom routines - but these are not recognised in a legal framework that requires specific, individualised adjustments for every disabled child and a paper trail to provide evidence of this.

Now, imagine you are trying to teach a class of 25 students in which there are ten disabled students who you are expected to make individual adjustments for, often written into your planning, and you start to understand what we are asking teachers to do.

Do schools often fail to meet this standard? Yes. Do parents of children with disabilities rightly object when schools do not deliver on their legal duties? Yes. And so we can now add conflict between teachers and parents to the mix.

Why has there been such an increase in the number of children with disabilities? One reason could be an increased prevalence of disability and we should probably be setting up inquiries to look into this. Are there environmental factors, perhaps, that have led to this rise?

Another reason could be a shift towards ‘inclusion’. Whereas in the past, a greater proportion of disabled students were educated in specialist settings or ‘alternative provision’, now many of these students are educated in mainstream schools.

The concept of inclusion is one that has been driven by advocates in academia and supported by campaigning organisations. Clearly, the ideal of educating as many children as possible in mainstream settings is a humane and progressive goal worth pursuing. And equally clearly, the pursuit of this goal needs to be grounded in pragmatism and supported by a practical, problem solving approach.

Unfortunately, inclusion advocates do not tend to take a pragmatic, problem solving approach. Instead, they seem to assume that any failures of inclusion are due to a lack of will from teachers and schools and that the solution is a mix of education coupled with further regulations and legislation: Teachers, you must do this because it’s the law! This domineering approach is compounded by the fact that few inclusion advocates are classroom teachers who have to make these policies work on a day-to-day basis and so they can afford to live in world of abstract principles.

This is the context in which the New South Wales government decided to review its Student Behaviour Strategy.

One of the main bugbears of the inclusion movement is school suspensions and expulsions. This is because children with disabilities and disorders are disproportionately represented in these statistics. This over representation is not, as we may naively imagine, because teachers are prejudiced against children with disabilities, but because many disabilities and disorders affect behaviour. Often, poor school behaviour can form part of a diagnosis.

In my experience, suspensions and expulsions are not applied frivolously by schools, but are the last resort when a child’s behaviour threatens the safety of teachers and students or, despite multiple interventions, has a sustained impact on the learning of other students. Often, schools will continue to educate a child long after that child has committed acts that would, in other contexts, be dealt with by criminal law.

Inclusion campaigners across the world frequently seek to restrict the ability of schools to suspend and expel students, viewing these practices not as the consequences of poor behaviour, but as a cause. The logic would be similar to closing down prisons and then claiming there is less crime because there are fewer people in prison.

Inclusion advocates saw their opportunity in the New South Wales Student Behaviour Strategy and, last year, it looked like the minister, Sarah Mitchell, would introduce new restrictions on suspensions and exclusions. I was so concerned that I wrote an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

However, the final decision was deferred. It now seems to be coming to a head again and the New South Wales teaching union, The Teachers Federation, have been prompted to again outline their objections. They claim, “In its current form, the proposed policy fails to protect the right of teachers to teach and students to learn in a classroom environment free of persistent and sustained disruption.”

This provoked an interesting reaction. One inclusion advocate noted that, “The ‘right to teach’ is often invoked but it does not exist in law.” Which I guess is true.

So, that’s something for the temporary teachers of New South Wales to reflect upon the next time their classrooms descend into chaos.