Jill Blackmore

Is COVID-19 heralding a new way of the media representing teachers?

The sport and politics of teacher bashing, and in particular teacher union bashing, has a long and inglorious history in the Australian media. Whether this is connected to an anti-intellectual bias in Australian society, the glorification of sport and the physical as opposed to the intellect, is unclear. However research suggests that mainstream media plays a critical role in creating dominant representations of particular groups in society and these representations directly impact individuals and the groups involved.

During April 2020 when schools were rapidly moving to and from remote teaching we collected and analysed a range of media articles focussing on schooling issues. What we found makes us believe the COVID-19 pandemic might yet be an opportunity to reset the often-antagonistic relationship between the teaching profession in Australia and the Australian press.

In this post we want to tell you more about our research and why we think it could be an opportunity to herald change in the way the media connects with our teaching profession.

Major disconnect of perceptions before the COVID-19 pandemic

Two pre-COVID-19 surveys of Australian teachers and public perceptions of teaching revealed a major disconnect between the public perception of teachers as respected and trusted, and teachers own views of their reputation. In the nationwide survey conducted in 2019 with both public and non-government systems, teachers were asked to indicate their agreement with the statement, I feel that the Australian public appreciates teachers.  71% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. In contrast, a second survey of the general public conducted simultaneously reported that 82% of respondents felt teachers were well respected or moderately respected. In addition, 93% of respondents in the public survey felt that teachers were trusted or moderately trusted.

This disconnect between teachers’ perceptions of respect and trust and the public perception has serious direct consequences for the education of our children and young people, particularly in terms of teachers’ well-being, the retention of teachers in the profession and even educational outcomes. The survey reports that in order for teachers to remain motivated and committed to their profession, public recognition by politicians, communities and society of the importance of teaching is critical. They further report on international research which has “found a correlation between teacher status and student achievement”.

Why media concentration in Australia, and media discourse, matters

It has been regularly noted that the concentration of media in Australia is one of the highest in the world. And although levels of public engagement in traditional media outlets such as newspapers and television have declined rapidly, their ability to shape public opinion and political policy remains high.

Of the 58% of teacher respondents in the 2019 survey noted above who indicated they wished to leave the profession, 10% cited a lack of appreciation as the main reason for their departure. One respondent’s unsolicited comment typified these responses:

I feel under-appreciated and disrespected in community, public and media”.

Recent studies of principals shows that negative representations of teachers in the press deleteriously impact on the health and wellbeing of principals who are expected to manage the media, particularly in time of crisis. As a society we all pay the price and are poorer for it.

The COVID-19 outbreak and media representations

Health workers are rightly valorised by politicians and the media for the front-line role they are playing in the pandemic. However, teachers have been shamed in the media, for example by the Prime Minister, for raising the issue of risks associated with keeping schools open, but also sometimes praised for being on the frontline by continuing to teach.

Nevertheless at the beginning of this pandemic we were hearing more about parents doing schooling from home (not home schooling) rather than recognition of the work of teachers teaching online and face-to-face, often at the same time. 

Our research project

As part of a large scale Australian Research Council Discovery Grant examining school autonomy and social justice, we collected a range of media articles which discuss the particular issues facing schools and systems as they tackle the move from face-to-face schooling to remote learning, and back again.

We analysed 18 articles collected from a range of state jurisdictions and from a cross-section of the traditional media, as well as one article drawn from social media, written by Lyndsay Connors, a highly respected senior education adviser for the New South Wales and federal governments. These included the more right-wing News Corporation (or “Murdoch press”), the more traditionally centrist newspapers owned by Nine Entertainment (formerly the Fairfax press) and the Saturday Paper, an independently funded, left-leaning newspaper. The articles range from ‘hard news’ pieces, opinion pieces and letters to the editor.

They were collected across April 2020, a month which spanned the shift from the closure of schools across Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic to their gradual reopening as restrictions gradually eased. As states gradually lifted their lockdown measures, there was increasing pressure from the federal government for schools to reopen across the nation so that workers could return to employment and fuel an economic recovery.

However, given that Australia is a federation and funding and governance of public school systems is a state responsibility, there were differences in opinion between the various state governments and the federal government as to the wisdom of reopening schools. This is where teachers and their portrayal within the media becomes revealing.

Prior to the debate about reopening schools, there was a brief time when the Prime Minister and Federal Government more broadly appeared to be in consensus with the media that teachers were front-line workers and required respect and trust. Lyndsay Connors reflected in her opinion piece on 15 April 2020 that

The shock of dealing with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic has forced our prime minister to realise that schools are fundamental to our democracy and that teachers are on the front line of society and should be valued accordingly (Connors, 2020).

This statement appeared to be borne out by a range of commentary both in the Murdoch press as well as in the former Fairfax media. For example, in a wide-ranging opinion piece, Teachers earn belated respect (paywalled) published in News Corps’ Herald Sun and Courier Mail,  David Penberthy argued that  “one of the most derided  professions in this country has historically been teaching” but that hopefully this perception was changing, forcing a “national rethink when it comes to the perception of teachers”.

The article was a welcomed and nuanced discussion of the competing medical advice and messages that were being faced by state governments in regard to whether it was safe for teachers and students to resume face-to-face teaching. The article finished with two keywords, “thank you”, which the journalist noted were too often lacking in the Australian public’s attitude towards teaching and teachers.

Welcome though this opinion piece was, it appeared on pages 47 of the Herald-Sun and 56 of the Courier-Mail on a Sunday, not the most newsworthy day of the week or a prominent position in the papers.

The following week in a highly critical opinion piece, Not a very class act from teachers’ unions (paywalled) published in the Sunday-Telegraph, a Sydney News Corps paper, Bella d’Abrera, the Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute Public Affairs, castigated teacher unions across Australia for “being reckless when they ignore the science and fight to keep students out of classrooms”. This was in response to news reports, for example, in the Weekend Australian (paywalled) where the Prime Minister was quoted as taking a “swipe at teacher unions, saying that workers… were showing up each day at work despite the risk”, the implication being that teachers should take that risk also.

In keeping with the more centrist approach of the former Fairfax media, a range of articles appeared that were broadly sympathetic in their representations of teachers and the dilemmas facing teachers as workers. These included letters to the editor in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled, “Teachers can be heroes but only with proper resources”.

Media matters

Media discourses form a crucial part of a broader discursive framework of how teaching is perceived and enacted. They can also inform policy which is often used symbolically as a means to solve a ‘problem’. These discourses also shape the professional identity of teachers in ways that have profound and ultimately negative impacts on their work, their ability to commit long term to the profession and their motivation to continue in a vocation for which many have felt a deep calling. This is the cost of a constant negative media barrage about teaching.

The opportunity presented by COVID-19 media coverage

We believe COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to reflect, reconsider and set aside the poisonous politics of the media and society’s teacher blame game. Are we ready and willing as a society to grasp the potential it offers us and our children?

Jane Wilkinson is Professor in Educational Leadership, Faculty of Education at Monash University. Jane is Lead Editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the Australian Council of Educational Leadership, Victorian executive. Jane’s research interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice, with a particular focus on issues of gender and ethnicity; and theorising educational leadership as practice/praxis. She is a lead developer of the theory of practice architectures (Kemmis, Wilkinson, Edwards-Groves, Hardy, Grootenboer, & Bristol, 2014). She also draws on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work and the philosopher, Ted Schatzki. Jane has published widely in the areas of women and leadership, refugee students and theorising leadership as practice/praxis. Jane is on Twitter @JaneWillkin1994

Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education, Deakin University, Australia. Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, educational research history, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina is a former anthropologist, archaeologist and primary and secondary teacher in Victoria, Australia. She tweets at @drfreersumenjin

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), Associate Professor Scott Eacott (UNSW and Associate Professor Richard Niesche (UNSW).

Public schools DO account for their funding: Public school autonomy processes are onerous and exacting

Among the turmoil generated by COVD19 for schools – are they open, are they closed, staggered attendance, online learning – and significant planning and workload on schools leaders and educators, the New South Wales Auditor-General released a report reviewing needs-based equity funding under the NSW Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform.

The timing of the release was perhaps curious however the reaction to the report from public school principals was loud and immediate.

The Local Schools, Local Decisions (LSLD) reform was introduced in 2012 in NSW by the NSW Coalition Government.  It gave public school principals new powers to spend funds and make local decisions. In 2014 extra needs-based funding was allocated directly to many disadvantaged NSW public schools to for them to spend on the unique needs of their students.

Lack of accountability

The NSW Auditor-General’s report highlighted a lack of accountability for funds being spent. The report found that the NSW Department of Education “has not had adequate oversight of how schools are using needs-based funding to improve student outcomes since it was introduced in 2014.” And it accused the department of not being “able to effectively demonstrate the impact” of equity funding.

 This is consistent with recent political pushes reported in mainstream media where political leaders suggested public school principals needed to earn their autonomy and that extra funding has not delivered better results.

Reaction to the report of “lack of accountability”

This message from the Auditor-General was however met with counter examples from overloaded public schools principals working hard despite contradictions to achieve equity within their schools.

In response to the Auditor-General’s report and newspaper articles on the topic, many principals took to social media with stories of what accountability under Local Schools, Local Decisions was like for them.

A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated
Permission was sought and granted by Ann Caro to include the screenshot of her Tweet in this post.

Examples teachers gave of what funds were used for included hiring paraprofessionals to provide tuition for students, subscriptions to software programs to support student learning, updating technologies and learning spaces, resources (e.g., science equipment, textbooks, calculators, musical instruments, and novels), additional counsellors, and professional learning for staff to be meet the needs of students in the school.

These are hardly extravagant and as mentioned in the tweet, all auditable by the system.

Our project on School Autonomy and Social Justice

The NSW Auditor-General’s report and the reaction of NSW public school principals was of particular interest to us. We are a group of educational researchers conducting extensive research across four Australian states in order to generate an evidence base and new knowledge around the impact of greater autonomy in our school systems. The ongoing tension we are currently witnessing between oversight of spending and the freedom to deliver context-sensitive solutions, is consistent with data we have generated as part of our ongoing Australian Research Council funded project on School Autonomy and Social Justice.

Our interviews with principals

While bureaucrats and politicians bemoan the lack of explicit accounting for dollars spent and direct links to impact and performance, school principals and educators are spending more and more time on administration and accounting for activities.

Interviews with principals and principal groups in our research project have reported numerous concerns with increased workload and burdensome administrative accountabilities (compliance) under Local Schools, Local Decisions. In addition, there has been the reduction in systemic supports for the work of schools. For example, some responses we collected include:

There are a lot of people in principal positions now who feel pressured to comply with everything, all the time. They are being pursued by people in the department. They are being pushed. And the stress levels have gone up enormously. People are burning out…people are having nervous breakdowns; people are drinking too much. And that’s something the department should be concerned about. I don’t see that level of concern. They just lay on more and more requirements that go against the spirit of autonomy. (Erin)

So much has got pushed back on the schools that principals were just coming apart at the seams. (Charles)

So, I think burnout is a big issue and health and well-being is a really big issue (Ursula)

Well part of the issue for principals is there is so much work…it’s the emotional labour…quite often because of the way they have to operate, quite often they are isolated. (Ursula)

The role is now sort of 24/7 principal…you have got to be contactable at all times; and you have got to manage situations when they pop up. (Russell)

There’s a lot more compliance, policy implementation that’s mandated…because there’s no consultation to it, there’s no feedback, or the famous thing when we’re doing policy implementation review – “look the deadline for that is tomorrow, can you get your feedback on that policy by 4pm tomorrow?” and you are ‘well I am just trying to stay afloat here at the moment’ (Russell)

 The high stakes of achieving equity

There are very few who disagree that context matters in schools. And there are very few who disagree that those closest to students and schools should be making decisions on how best to meet educational needs. However, the tensions for school principals in terms of increased autonomy, compliance and accountability with public funds remains difficult to balance. This is particularly important when the equity funds are to alleviate disparities for disadvantaged schools and communities and are not necessarily ‘extra’ funding above what public schools need.

Granting additional funds to compensate for social disadvantage while reducing systemic supports means that the schools needing to do the most work to achieve a socially just education are left with a higher share of the burden. Generating more administration and compliance further takes educators and school leaders away from the work that matters – providing high quality education to all students.

Delivering a high-quality equitable education for all students is always a challenging task. The diversity of communities makes a one-size-fits-all solution next to impossible. Finding the balance between systemic supports and local context-sensitive initiative remains the desired utopia of school autonomy reforms.

The stakes are high. Australia is often considered to have an inequitable school system and finding an approach that delivers high-quality context-sensitive schooling is the key to addressing inequities.       

Scott Eacott is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. His research interests and contributions fall into three main areas: i) developing a relational approach to scholarship; ii) educational leadership; and iii) school reform. You can find out more about his work at scotteacott.com. Scott is on Twitter @ScottEacott

Richard Niesche is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney. His research interests are in the areas of educational leadership, the principalship and social justice in education. He has published his research in a number of peer reviewed journal and books. His latest book (co-edited with Dr Amanda Heffernan) is “Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research” published with Routledge in 2020. Richard can be found on Twitter @RichardNiesche

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190100190) with Deakin University as the administering organisation. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or Australian Research Council. Other investigators include Prof Amanda Keddie (Deakin), Prof Jill Blackmore (Deakin), Prof Jane Wilkinson (Monash), Dr Brad Gobby (Curtin), and Dr Katrina MacDonald (Deakin).

Big business ideas for the future role of universities in Australia are skewed and should be called out

It is not unusual these days for big business to want to have a say in what is going on in education. Ernst and Young (having now rebadged themselves as EY) is one of those big businesses with an interest in education. It is a multinational accounting firm headquartered in London and it has special interests in our universities both as a producer of position papers, but also as management consultants.

Recently EY released a report on Australian universities Can Universities Today Lead Learning for Tomorrow where it outlines what it thinks Australian universities could do “to transform themselves to serve a changing society and a profoundly changed world.” This most recent report builds on one released by the same firm in 2012, University of the Future: A Thousand Year Old Industry on the Cusp of Profound Change.

We were moved to respond to this particular report because we believe it shows an extremely limited understanding of the role of university education and the role of universities in Australia and is both misinformed and potentially misleading.

What the report says

The report offers advice on how universities should position themselves in the context of five perceived disruptors to the sector: the changing nature of work; the blurring of industry boundaries; evolving digital behaviours; increasing international competition; and the rise of continuous learning. We agree those disruptors are indeed upon us, along with others that can be identified, such as the growth of global education businesses and the influence of wealthy philanthropists on national education policies, both in Australia and elsewhere.

The report outlines four possible future scenarios available to Australia in responding to these five disruptors of universities. They range from making no changes, to having all students enrolled in virtual universities. The scenarios aim to stimulate thought and debate about the future of the Australian university sector with regard to teaching and learning.

As practising teaching and research academics and as researchers who specialise in the study of higher education we welcome debates about the future of Australian universities. However it is here that we believe the EY report is misinformed and misleading because the four scenarios it suggests as a basis for discussion make assumptions about Australian universities that are significantly flawed.

Australian universities mean more to us than just another way to make money

Overall, the report characterises universities as having purely commercial purposes, presupposing that the only things that count are those with a monetary value. This ignores the role of universities in providing social and cultural benefits for public good, which underpin Australia as a civil and democratic society. Good citizens are more than workers, and universities play essential educative roles related to social inclusion while also addressing key issues of inequality both in teaching and also research.

Universities not only contribute significantly to the Australian national economy, as the EY report emphasises, they also underpin local and regional economies and communities, driving innovation and social and economic change. Ask the citizens of Geelong, Newcastle, Cairns and Wollongong, for example, to imagine their futures without their local university. Most critically, the EY report does not recognise the specific historical, cultural and political conditions under which Australian universities exist relative to USA and UK higher education systems that are the report’s key points of reference. For example, Australian universities were not initially funded by the church or private enterprise like universities in the UK and the US but were always conceived as part of important institutions that serve a public good. As a result they were always more reliant on state funding with a strong utilitarian and vocational orientation aimed at educating the rising middle class for the professions. More recently, Australian public universities to varying degrees have become amongst the most corporatised in the world, with the principles of markets and managerialism embedded in everyday practice.

University students and teachers in Australia are more than just consumers and ‘talent’

The report depicts the university of the future as a hollowed-out de-peopled organisation in which students have no role except as consumers and academics are ‘talent’.

Most notably, student and academic voices are absent from the scenarios suggested despite teaching and research being social practices whose success is underpinned by pedagogical relationships and not just customer service. The real risk is when universities engage in decision-making about teaching, assessment and research without sufficient input from students and practising teachers and researchers. Lack of academic and student voice results in reduced innovation and academic entrepreneurship, outcomes that are directly at odds with Australia’s National Science and Innovation Agenda.

Decoupling teaching and research teams will have negative (not positive) results

The fourth virtual scenario predicts an ‘unbundled value chain’ in which academics become fully outsourced workers. Overall, teaching is decoupled from research and restricted to knowledge transfer while research is reduced to a commercial transaction for economic gain.

This ignores how teaching and research teams are integral to both good teaching and knowledge production. It also ignores that much research is undertaken through cross-institutional and cross-national research communities which rely on building and maintaining ongoing relationships within and between teams that have significant institutional support.

Australian universities are already at the forefront of technological developments within teaching and research

The EY report fails to acknowledge that some Australian universities are already at the forefront of technological developments within teaching and research. Significantly, it characterises educational technologies as being value free rather than being socially constructed through processes involving multiple (and often competing) economic and political interests due to the involvement of multinational technology firms packaging and ‘delivering’ online courses in competition with as well as cooperation with universities.

Face-to-face teaching still has a vital role to play

The report is overly optimistic about the benefits of educational technologies for students and industries, ignoring empirical evidence that whilst many students value the flexibility of online delivery, they retain a strong preference for some face-to-face contact with academics and fellow-students. This is particularly the case for undergraduates and international students who come to Australia to gain the benefits of English language and cultural immersion. Additionally, the language of ‘content’ used in the report de-professionalises academics by portraying them as knowledge transmitters and fails to recognise academics and students as co-producers of knowledge in a pedagogical relationship.

Soft skills are a big part of the future

Employers value the 21st Century soft or relational skills of communication, team work, interpersonal and intercultural understanding, problem solving and critical thinking that develop above and beyond any hard credentials. These are paradoxically not foregrounded by EY in its report but are a big part of our work as university educators.

Industry is not so easily prepared to invest in and with universities

The report is underpinned by an assumption that industry is prepared to invest in and with universities. Historically this has not been the case in Australia in terms of either investment in research or professional development. The issues that contribute to the notable lack of industry investment in research and development in Australia will not be addressed by reforms to the structure and function of the university. They are, instead, underpinned by broader structural issues such as de-industrialisation and lack of national industry policy amongst others.

Additionally, the report appears to assume that industry would want a role in developing curriculum with universities when there is no evidence that they would see this as part of their core business. Universities already know from the traditional areas of teaching and nursing, that work integrated learning on a large scale is expensive and complex for both universities and employers.

Markets alone should not be allowed to determine what knowledge universities produce

Finally, the report significantly underplays the role of the university in knowledge production, and the significance of this to teaching and research. Whilst the relationship between teaching and research is often problematised, universities still generate much of the knowledge that forms the basis for their courses. Knowledge that is produced in global knowledge hubs or elite research universities, as the report implies, will lack the local content and context that contemporary Australian students both demand and deserve.

Knowledge generated by Australian universities also serves wider purposes, as stated in the National Science and Innovation Agenda, which describes research as having social, environmental and other benefits as well as economic ones. Markets alone cannot be allowed to determine what knowledge is valued because this directly undermines the nature of the innovation-based society, which is a key focus of the Australian government and of all governments globally.

We believe EY’s report’s depiction of a purely instrumental and market-based university reflects its own commercial interests in education. In contrast, Australian universities must continue their role in educating the next generation of Australian professionals and researchers who can critically analyse how our lives are being reshaped by global and national forces including business.

Indeed, university-based expertise is central to democratic debate, more so now we are in a post truth era in which the authority of expertise is being challenged. Certainly, the financial reliance of universities on international students and government funding creates risks. In this context vice-chancellors are actively and continuously rethinking how to manage the complexity of heightened and competing responsibilities, demands and expectations of universities. There is little in the EY report Can Universities Today Lead Learning for Tomorrow that will assist in this process.

 

Dr Julie Rowlands is a senior lecturer in education leadership within the School of Education at Deakin University, Australia and a member of the Deakin strategic research centre, Research for Education Impact. Julie researches in the areas of education governance, education leadership, higher education systems, academic quality assurance, and organisational change, taking a critical sociology of education perspective to her work to explore dynamics of power. Recent publications include J Rowlands and M Ngo (forthcoming), ‘The north and the south of it: academic governance in the US, England and Australia’, Higher Education Research and Development; J Rowlands (2017) ‘Deepening understandings of academic and intellectual capital through a study of academic voice within academic governance’, Studies in Higher Education; J Rowlands (2017) ‘The domestic labour of academic governance and the loss of academic voice’, Gender and Education; and J Rowlands (2017) Academic Governance in contemporary Universities, Springer. Julie’s current research is focusing on the effects of academic workload models and research assessment on research practice.

 

Dr Jill Blackmore FASSA AM is Alfred Deakin Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University and founding Director of the Centre for Research in Educational Futures and Innovation (2010-15). Her research interests include, from a feminist perspective, globalisation, education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; educational restructuring, leadership and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; teachers’ and academics’ work, all with a focus on equity. Current higher education research focuses on disengagement with and lack of diversity in leadership, international education and graduate employability. Recent publications are J. Blackmore (2016) Critical Perspectives on Educational Leadership: Nancy Fraser. Routledge; Blackmore, J. Sanchez, M. and Sawers, N.(eds) (2017) Globalised Re/gendering of the Academy and Leadership, Routledge; J. Blackmore and J. Kenway (eds) (2017) Gender Matters in Educational Administration and Policy (Ed. 2), Routledge.