School teachers in classrooms – not corporations – best assessors of students, says President

Education was the last bastion of society to hold out against commercialisation and privatisation, but it is under threat, Federation President Maurie Mulheron told Annual Conference.

“Privatisation of education in many forms is growing,” Mr Mulheron said, “and student assessment is really the frontline of the war.”

“We have to acknowledge what’s happening in the economic world in terms of education and schooling now being the last area of civil society that has not been commercialised and privatised.

“When you look at the past 30 years, you see energy, transport, communications, insurance and banking as largely privatised.”

Mr Mulheron said what the profession had learned recently is that whoever controls student assessment “controls what, how and when things are taught”.

“You don’t have to own the syllabuses or the curriculum, you don’t have to control the pedagogy, you control the assessment and you control teaching and learning,” he said.

“The corporations know this, that’s why the high-stakes testing agenda is such a fertile, profitable area. [If you] own student assessment, in the backwash you get the curriculum as another side-effect because you need to dictate how teachers should teach.

“This is the time for us to reassert … no-one is able to assess kids better than the people working in the classroom as school teachers.”

Mr Mulheron said vested interests are still dominating student assessment, big software companies such as Pearson and ACER.

“There is an industry out there that has spent their entire existence avoiding working in a classroom,” he said. “They have built an incredible career of travelling from conference to conference explaining what teachers should be doing in the classroom. And their greatest fear is to actually front a teacher and say this is what I think you should be doing.

“So this incestuous amplification of stupidity is driving a universe that is parallel to the real work we should be doing. There is a reason the teaching profession is ignored because we tell it like it is, because we are real teachers in real schools with real children.

“So we need to develop assessment strategies developed by teachers, used by teachers to inform teaching and learning, derived from syllabuses written by teachers and managed by teachers.”

He told delegates the stakes were high regarding commercialisation of education, pointing out that software companies are saying they are on the verge of being able to replace teachers with artificial intelligence.

“This is not nutcases out there on the fringe, these are the big players, the Microsofts, Hewlett Packard … Apple and of course Pearson through Bridge International, who boast they think teachers don’t have to do any teaching and content delivery.

“Teachers can kind of just sit there as pastoral workers, to give emotional care, while the kids sit in front of a laptop.

The President labelled the Department’s Local Schools, Local Decisions policy as “a catastrophic policy failure”.

“But it is doing exactly what it was designed to do,” he said. “It was meant to be catastrophic. It’s no accident; this is no by-product.

“It was meant to bring in a stricter accountability regime. Once you lose that control over what schools are doing and the capacity to drive the change in an organic way, in relation to your teaching workforce, you’re going to replace it with accountability mechanisms.

“This emphasis leads to external data; it leads to pointless work that is driving you all bloody crazy. We’re never afraid of hard work. We didn’t come in to teaching to do soft work, we came into teaching because we know it’s hard work, but we’re sick of pointless work.”

Reports of teachers walking out of the profession in large numbers, in some reports at a rate of 50 per cent, in their early years was a myth, Mr Mulheron said, and there is a mountain of statistical evidence to show otherwise.

“The resignation rate of all teachers, that’s the entire workforce, is just 1 per cent, not 50 per cent,” he said. “Teaching has one of the lowest attrition rates of any of the professions and that’s something we should be proud of.

“Our teachers are not quitters, we are committed to our kids, to our schools, to our career and to our colleagues. There’s a reason for this stability in the system, the union and a bloody good union at that.”

Fragmentation of the system, funding cuts to public schools and attacks on the testing agenda were topics that are confronting education unions around the world.

“We’re doing a pretty good job,” he said. “There are not too many huge issues that this union isn’t confronting, grappling with, trying to be strategic and fight. There’s not much really we’re letting go through to the keeper without a fight.”