Revelations that WorkSafe ACT inspected four other public schools last term, beyond the seemingly out of control Calwell High, which it shut down, should only confirm the need for Education Minister Yvette Berry and the Education Directorate to change their tune on the situation.
Whether COVID-related or not, teacher shortages are being blamed for the bouts of bad student behaviour and, in Calwell High’s case, actual attacks on teachers.
There are no official details about why WorkSafe needed to visit the other schools, but there have been allegations of violence, use of illicit substances and sexualised behaviour at Amaroo School.
The Directorate has put in place measures to get Calwell High back on track, including seconding a senior school leader, which only serves to illustrate how those supposedly running the place lost control.
But whenever confronted with the reality of the situation in the classroom, halls and schoolyard, usually thanks to some parents going to the media and blowing the whistle, the Minister and the Directorate respond in mind-numbingly anodyne language designed to hose down the concerns as much as possible.
Canberra public schools may be “by and large, supportive” and safe environments, and ”mechanisms” may be in place, and the Directorate may be “committed to working with WorkSafe” but what parents at Calwell High, in particular, and all schools want to hear is that the government will take action to fix the situation and stop trying to pretend that these are just isolated instances.
It should also stop dropping a cone of silence over schools and trying to contain the fallout when inevitably the truth comes out.
As the Minister, Ms Berry needs to start devoting more energy to taking school communities seriously and assuring them that she will act, instead of reverting to familiar defensive patter about the ACT’s quality education system.
She should stop worrying about reputations and show which side she is on.
In short, she should be putting a rocket up the Directorate and demanding to know how schools could get to a Calwell High situation without intervention and that it shouldn’t happen again.
The ACT is not immune to a nationwide teacher shortage, something the teachers union says is hard to fix, and that does put pressure on class sizes, but it should not be an excuse for losing control of a school.
It may be unpopular to say it, but the feminisation of the teacher workforce may also be a contributing factor, given that teenage boys, in particular, can be revolting towards women staff.
Parents also can’t be let off the hook. How many knew about what was going on at Calwell and other schools but kept quiet and didn’t pull their children into line?
Perhaps, a simple lesson on the difference between right and wrong, with consequences, might prove more effective than expensive reviews, recommendations and programs that perpetrators can smell a mile off as ineffectual.
It may not be exactly the blackboard jungle across the entire school system, but what is happening is serious enough and some transparency, honesty and proactive initiative, instead of carefully crafted, ministerially approved statements and damage control, would go a long way to restoring faith with school communities wanting leadership.