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Wednesday, 24 March 2004
Page: 21877

Senator SANTORO (6:51 PM) —Educating boys is not an easy task. It is as difficult and challenging as educating girls. Educating young people of either gender is always going to be challenging. It is a fundamental and vital task of any society to bring up its next generation of workers and leaders. In fact, if we do not find it challenging from a policy perspective and in terms of constantly rising outcomes, we are not doing it correctly. There is at present a national debate about gender balance in the teaching profession. Falling proportions of male teachers coincide with falling levels of academic attainment among boys. We need to note that they coincide; they do not necessarily correlate. But it does seem to me that boys in the classroom need male role models in that environment.

I spoke in the Senate last year on this issue. It is one of the things I set my mind to when I came into this place in 2002. It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that in this country we have a historic opportunity to put right one of the things that has been wrong with our system of education. In the Australian newspaper last week, the academic commentator Ross Fitzgerald suggested that Australia needed to make education a bipartisan issue. I think that is a sensible proposition. There can surely be no fundamental argument over the benefits of education. Issues of emphasis and certainly a standard curriculum can be overcome at the national level. Fitzgerald wrote:

Parents increasingly want national standards applied to schools, with a national curriculum, testing systems and tertiary entrance benchmarks.

He also wrote that teacher unions needed to note:

... parents want results, not political or social activism or Emily's List-style gender agendas.

It is in this context that Australia needs to examine scholastic achievements and devise ways of improving levels of achievement among the school cohorts that show significant failure. Among those who are failing as a group, regrettably, are boys. Boys do need access to a social environment, even in the classroom—perhaps especially in the classroom—in which there are relevant and appropriate male role models. It has been fashionable to sniff in dismissal at such things, yet those who do so—and I note that the feminist Dale Spender was doing some sniffing in the opinion pages of the Brisbane Courier-Mail today—entirely miss the point.

The argument is not about bringing men back into the classroom to `redress the gender imbalance'; it is about providing young Australians—of both genders, actually—with access to the appropriate role models. It has been fashionable for some years to sniff at the concept of role models too, as if this is somehow no longer appropriate. Perhaps the subliminal argument is: why place emphasis on human relationships when everyone is in a relationship with their personal computer? Yet we know from our own responses to all manner of things that human society has actually changed very little. And all of us who are parents understand very well that loving firmness, strict moral precepts and strong social codes unquestionably remain the best way to help our children grow up into warm-hearted, sociable, sensible, community-minded adults.

The focus of the moment is on boys' academic achievement levels and how to improve these. As I said in my speech on this issue in this place on 5 February last year, it is vital for Australia's future that we reverse the dangerous trend of falling school achievement levels in boys. Unlike girls, who tend to be collegiate, cooperative, lateral thinking by nature and—as they never tire of telling mere males—capable of doing so many things at once, boys need a firm focus, a clear set of rules and a clear knowledge of who is in charge. Their interests as well as their capabilities are dissimilar from those of girls. There is nothing wrong with that—it is the way nature has made the human species. We need to recognise that—some ultrafeminists more so than most—and step away from mistaking gender equality for gender convergence.

I think this is at the base of much of today's debate about male teacher numbers in schools, particularly in primary school classrooms, and it is something that unites many people across party lines. There has been plenty of movement on this issue since I spoke about it in the Senate 13 months ago. The Howard government has acted on this issue under the strong leadership of the Prime Minister. Labor, under new leader Mark Latham, has unfortunately only reacted—and that is a pity. It is a pity because it demonstrates that, for all his own public activism on returning male teachers to the classroom, the member for Werriwa is still the caucus captive of Labor's femocrats, among them, apparently, his deputy.

The Minister for Education, Science and Training has acted strongly and in a highly focused way throughout the process begun by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training report Boys: getting it right, which, of course, the minister co-chaired. There is a proposal—and it was still alive at last report, at least—for amending legislation to clear the way for proactive measures to increase the number of young men who choose teaching as a career. It was no surprise to see that Labor's education spokeswoman and teacher unions are as one on this issue. They think it is a bad idea. They apparently have a predisposition to preference hypocrisy when it comes to voting on education issues. We have seen this highlighted particularly over teacher scholarships. But it is a pity because Labor and the teachers unions are missing a historic opportunity.

We need to move away from stereotyping and from knee-jerk responses to fundamental policy issues in education. As a society we need to understand that the present debate is not about the relative values of male versus female teachers. There is no such issue. Australian teachers are among the best in the world; in many respects, I would contend that they are the best in the world. The fact that, by an increasing majority, they are women is peripheral. In this debate we really are arguing, or we should be arguing, for a reversal of the usual enjoinder to look to the quality and not the quantity. There are strong arguments to suggest that boys do benefit from being taught by men and probably in all-boy classes.

There are two linked but essentially separate matters at stake here. The first is academic outcome, which basically rules future earning capacity, career options and life choices; the second is the crucial need to educate boys in the broader sense, as civic citizens and, later, as good fathers. These are absolutely vital achievements for the future health of our society. This has nothing to do with old stereotypes about he-men and she-women and everything to do with giving every Australian child, female and male, the best possible start in life.

Some academic commentators point out that the data shows falling school performance by boys is patchy. Beth Gaze, an associate professor of law at Monash University, is the latest to give voice to this opinion, in print at least, in the Melbourne Age on Monday. But, to a large extent, that response begs the question. It is a cop-out. Falling performance by boys in Australian schools may well be patchy, but the national task is to ensure that boys do not fail within the school system, whether in patches or across the board. It is certainly no argument to suggest—and this is the subliminal message of much criticism—that it is not so much of a problem because the data shows it is only a patchy problem. It could be, in fact, patchy data. That is another problem that would be solved by a shift to a truly national curriculum under which apples—bad or otherwise—could be compared with apples.

Other critics may be right when they say that teaching is undervalued in the monetary terms by which our consumer society measures worth. But so are a lot of occupations, and even more so vocations, under that scale of measurement. It is true, as Dale Spender argues in her comment in the Courier-Mail today, that some of the decline in boys' school performance is relative. She notes that 30 years ago as many as 30 to 40 per cent of boys could not read or write proficiently and they are probably doing better today. But that also begs the question of whether it is a cop-out. A relative decline in education outcomes is a decline nonetheless. It is the decline we must combat, not the relativity. What we are in danger of falling into here is, as the minister for education said at the weekend in another educational context, a situation where political correctness overtakes commonsense. Ross Fitzgerald put this most aptly in the Australian:

The great political debates in this country are generally conducted by and between relatively small numbers of interested people.

I suggest that education is not—as he suggests, and I agree—fundamentally a partisan question. It is much too important for that.