Why education needs politicians


According to David Armstrong, a behaviour expert from Flinders University, we should stop trying to manage students’ behaviour:

“…we need to avoid thinking about how we can manage children. Children are not cans of beans on a shelf, or the contents of our car or our finances. They are a human beings. So by thinking about managing a child, we are dehumanising that child instantly.”

This seems like an odd argument. There is a whole section of the workforce called ‘managers’, whose jobs involve managing other human beings. There are football managers. There are books on managing people. In this sense, management is about getting the best out of employees. But perhaps that’s dehumanising too?

In microcosm, the objection to ‘managing’ children illustrates the extreme disconnect between the theories current in academia and the rest of the population. Academics who study classroom behaviour often take such extreme and unusual positions. They see everything relentlessly from the perspective of the misbehaving child; a child whose behaviour is the result of an unmet need. Armstrong goes on to suggest that teachers need to figure out what these needs are and plan for them:

“So we need to think about, are we setting the right work that motivates children? Are we giving children space to follow things they’re interested in, obviously with an eye that we can then map them to the curriculum so we can meet our learning objectives, we need to get out as well.”

As you might expect, Armstrong is very much against excluding students from school.

I am no fan of exclusion. I believe that it is often the result of having a weak and inconsistent approach to lower level behaviours that then escalate to the point of exclusion. It is for this reason that top-down, bureaucratic bans on exclusion don’t work and lead to a decline in overall classroom climate for all students. Such bans don’t address the causes.

Whereas behaviour experts often see things entirely from the perspective of the misbehaving child, teachers and principals are also able to see these behaviours in terms of the impact they have on other students and on teaching staff. And they see them in terms of safety.

According to The Age, a school principal recently resigned over the issue of exclusion and the safety of teachers and students. A student had, “threatened another student with a knife from the school’s food technology room and repeatedly bullied a student with an intellectual disability.” The principal tried to exclude the student but this was overturned by the education bureaucracy on the basis that the school had provided inadequate support to the child. Yet the principal claimed the school offered, “sessions with a psychologist and created a mental health plan.”

Why do schools even need to be in the business of offering therapeutic services? How did we get to this point? There are primary care services that should deal with physical and mental health problems; doctors, clinics and hospitals. Shouldn’t schools be concentrating on teaching kids stuff? It is as if we have reached a point where everything is medicalised and we are all part of the therapy.

And this is why we should pause before we listen to siren calls to take the politics out of education. In this case, it seems that politicians will now intervene. The Andrews government, a Labor government, is proposing a change to system by which exclusions can be overruled. According to The Age:

“…principals will have a say at appeal hearings and students will be able to give evidence about how the behaviour of [the] expelled student has affected them.”

It is obvious to anyone outside the academic-bureaucratic education complex that there are some behaviours we simply cannot tolerate in schools because they are unsafe. Politicians, including those on the left, recognise this because they need to respond to public opinion and they need to get elected.

If you take politicians out of the equation, then it doesn’t result in teachers and principals taking charge. Instead, education bureaucracies will follow the ideas of people like David Armstrong.

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