Education minister calls for zero-tolerance in disrupted classrooms

Keeping students interested in the classroom, motivated and out of trouble are often the toughest tasks for a teacher.

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The principal of St Andrews Cathedral School in Sydney, Dr John Collier, says his teachers are adapting new strategies to keep their classes relevant and interesting.

“We need to keep their attention. And initially keeping students’ attention and stimulating them with the joy of learning and the processes of learning is vital to actually have them achieve. And so we’ve built technology platforms into our teaching methodology, as we’ve endeavoured to be ’21st century learning’ in our approach and as we’ve adapted to the way young people have changed. Most important part is a strong sense of belonging and purpose in what they’re doing, so that it makes sense and they can see that it matters.”

But many Australian schools are not achieving.

That’s reflected in the findings of two reports: the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Sciences Study, or TIMMS.

They found that one in three students is not listening to their teacher in affluent schools, and it is worse for disadvantaged schools where the rate is closer to one in two.

Noise and disorder are a big problem in all classrooms and, when it comes to discipline levels, Australia scored “significantly lower than average”.

The co-author of both reports, Dr Sue Thomson, adds that one in five year four students is bullied regularly.

“So the one of the main findings was that the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is large, it’s about three years of schooling in all subject areas. And it hasn’t changed in the last 15 years.”

Dr Thomson says Australian results in reading, science, and maths are also down compared to other OECD countries.

“We’re ranked at about in the middle in science, our rankings have decreased slightly in science. We’ve declined a bit in reading, so we’re ranking about in the middle of the OECD in terms of reading, and our maths scores have dropped quite substantially. A lot of kids are taught maths and science by teachers who are teaching out of their field of study, so they’re not necessarily qualified or trained to teach in those areas and that does create problems.”

The poor report cards have left the federal government searching for answers.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham says the focus needs to be on stamping out ill-discipline.

“Now this is not a problem that money alone can fix. It’s not a problem that teachers alone can fix. It’s a problem that requires effort by parents, families, communities, working with schools and policy-makers, to ensure that teachers are empowered to take a zero tolerance approach when it comes to bad behaviour in the classroom.”

But Labor’s education spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, disagrees.

She says the focus needs to be on closing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.

“We’ve got an education minister who’s blaming everyone but himself for what’s happening in our schools. The point about discipline in classrooms is a minor point in a report that really focuses in on disadvantage in our schools.”