A right to professional comment

Teaching will never be a true profession until there is an assumption, enshrined in law, regulation or simply accepted practice, that teachers have a right to comment on matters related to their professional expertise.

At the moment, this is not the case. Employers are able to write codes of conduct or policies that effectively muzzle teachers from commenting. Anecdotally, the most heavily enforced such code of conduct applies to public school teachers in New South Wales. Section 13 applies to, “Managing your political, community and personal activities,” and makes the reasonable point that employees of the NSW Department of Education should make clear that any political comments they make are not on behalf of the department. However, the guidance goes further and gives examples of inappropriate public comment that include, “public comment about… dissatisfaction with current Government policy.”

Again anecdotally, I have heard of NSW teachers being admonished for simply sharing my Sydney Morning Herald article on the new NSW policy on suspensions on social media. This seems extreme.

Why may the silencing of teachers be a problem? Back in 2017, I wrote a post about ‘L3’, the NSW department’s early literacy initiative. I had been nudged in this direction by teachers and other professionals working in New South Wales who thought that L3 did not align with the best research in reading instruction and that, furthermore, it introduced a number of practical problems. I was confident enough in these criticisms to claim that, “L3 will undoubtedly collapse at some point.” Last week, the NSW Centre for Education Statistics (CESE) and Evaluation finally released a highly critical report and L3 has been killed-off by the department as a result.

If teachers were able to criticise L3 back in 2017 or earlier, we may have reached this point sooner and less public money may have been spent on an ineffective policy. I am not claiming that all teachers are of one mind and that all teachers would have been critical of L3*. According to the CESE report, many teachers liked it due to the fact that at least it provided some materials and guidance on how to teach early literacy, a topic that appears to be largely neglected during initial teacher education. However, we could have had an open, transparent discussion with the arguments on both sides tested, evidence exchanged and weak arguments found wanting. I find it likely that this would have resulted in earlier moves to address the weaknesses of L3, either by modifying or replacing it.

Without teachers, public discussion about education policy lacks critical information and a key perspective. Voters who essentially have the role of ratifying education policies at the ballot box, have little hope of hearing this perspective. Fundamentally, that is not right.

This is not a call for teachers to be able to criticise named individuals, identify children or otherwise settle personal scores with impunity. Such a scenario may be the fear of managers and bureaucrats, but the freedom to comment on matters of policy can easily be distinguished from personal attacks and score-settling by creating suitably framed guidelines. I doubt many teachers would seek to use a right to professional comment unprofessionally and the small number who did should be relatively easy to deal with.

And there would be added benefits. Once teachers become the recognised authorities on teaching, rather than platitudinous pundits or academics with an ideological axe to grind, they might start to be invited to panels and events to talk about education. Rather than the current tendency of the media to occasionally pat teachers on the head for being unsung heroes while otherwise ignoring them, we would see teachers on the news commenting on education in much the same way that lawyers comment on the law or doctors comment on medicine. This would enhance professional status more than most initiatives designed to do precisely that.

And if that does not persuade you, think of the simple efficiency of teachers being able to point out the obvious practical flaws in a policy prior to it being implemented at significant cost and thereby saving a politician the embarrassment of failed policy in an area they are likely just passing through and are only lightly acquainted with.

*There are those who may claim teachers’ views are already heard via unions or other professional organisations. Some such organisations do a better job than others, but the fundamental problem is that what we often require is a debate between the different views held by teachers. Moreover, a union official with a full agenda relating to conditions of employment and a background in teaching senior biology may not make the case about an early reading program in the same way as an early years teacher with skin in the game.


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