September.2.2021

Learning is not a race but politicians think it is. Now wellbeing is in peril.

By George Variyan

Pasi Salhberg is right, we need to prioritise wellbeing during the endless lockdowns many of us are enduring. But this message is only partially right, because wellbeing isn’t just what’s important ‘right now’, it should always be the most important thing in learning. Unfortunately, our schooling systems have never understood this. In fact, mass schooling systems have their roots in nation-building imperatives that had, and continue to have, little to do with individual flourishing.

You only have to listen to politicians crooning about NAPLAN results improving during lockdown to know what’s important to our leaders. There is a relentless focus on student achievement rather than wellbeing. Luckily though, not all educators think this way, probably not even many of them. Yet, we all seem to be caught in the groupthink of policy by the numbers in education, while anchored to industrial-era thinking about the role of education while lip service is paid to the young human beings effaced by the numbers.

Wellbeing has always been a lesser priority for policy-makers, rather than the core focus. They seem to love to talk like it’s important, but when it comes down to it, academic success, measured by numbers, is always first. Even the latest Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (FISO), from the Department of Education and Training Education Victoria, bundles “whole school approach to health, wellbeing, inclusion and engagement” down the bottom of their list of eight pre-conditions for school improvement. It is quite literally at the end of the list, and oddly, what looks like wellbeing seems to be more about building the capacity of children to cope with the system rather than policy attempts at transforming it. 

What’s really odd is that for things that should be a race, like vaccination rates, politicians are inclined to think they’re not, and for things that shouldn’t be a race, like learning, they are only ever conceived as precisely that. No one is allowed to fall off the pace, lest, heaven forbid, the NAPLAN numbers turn sour, or the ‘Olympics’ of PISA ratings have us slipping down the medal tally. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, in the last 40 years especially, we’ve turned our schooling system into an individualist zero-sum game of mass-produced insecurity. 

Politicians seem to be more interested in getting our kids vaccinated just to get them back in class, to get them back to their ATARs, and the schools back to their competition for academic achievement and climbing league tables. Yet, COVID-19 is a disaster that doesn’t seem to want to go away. Teachers have been reporting ‘shattering’ work pressure, and things aren’t letting up with so many still under lockdown. Mental health issues amongst our young has doubled during the pandemic. And, as has been pointed out, “children and young people can be particularly vulnerable to the emotional impact  of disasters and they look to the adults around them for reassurance and protection”. This isn’t going to be easy, when there are many adults who are barely coping themselves and seeking help in record numbers. 

Educators are well aware of the wellbeing issues that are on the rise. But they are caught between parent anxiety, the need for someone to keep the kids occupied while parents struggle with working from home, and the structures of schooling and assessment that are unrelenting in its focus. There are a number of ‘elephants in the room’, but parents’ longer term anxiety about their children’s futures can be eased by a fundamental restructuring of education away from the hyper-competition it has become. As some are already suggesting, it’s time to abandon the ATAR factory and start thinking about alternatives. We should have been doing this all along, but the ATAR ‘perfect score’ has long dominated the media imagination. If we can head off these obsessions, just maybe, wellbeing could then be front and centre ahead of other curriculum priorities rather than an afterthought. If we get wellbeing right, we just might find ourselves on the path to the optimal environment for learning rather than the hypercompetitive one that we have.

Dr George Variyan is a lecturer in Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His background includes teaching, learning and leading in schools in Australia and overseas. George’s engagement in research is based on a critically orientated sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Key interests include educational sociology, gender, social justice, and ethics.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “Learning is not a race but politicians think it is. Now wellbeing is in peril.

  1. Thanks George a much needed article. The Victorian Education Dept has listed their 3 major aims of Education – Achievement, Wellbeing & Engagement. But you are right, Wellbeing & Engagement are low priorities.

    Our School attracts many disengaged students from other schools who want to focus on other aspects besides achievement, many have wellbeing issues. Our staff are as good as any that i’ve seen, but they simply don’t have the resources to deal with the number of issues they have to address. Worse the Regional Directors are constantly critical of us for not getting better ATAR scores! In their many briefings with us, they ignore our improved measures of wellbeing and engagement & focus only on ATAR and NAPLAN.

    Our school is fairly typical of most suburban high schools with only around 30% of Y12 students going on to Uni, so why then do we focus on ATAR? What about the other 70% of students?

    The Ed Dept has basic student surveys to capture some engagement and wellbeing measures, but as you say these are a low priority.

    Maybe a small way forward is for schools to use more detailed ways to measure Wellbeing & Engagement, are there any tools like this around?

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