The head of an elite private school has railed against baseless attacks and misinformed opinions about teachers by politicians “who actually have no idea what they are talking about” while calling out their remedies for complex issues, such as falling educational standards, as simplistic.
Briony Scott, the principal of Wenona School in North Sydney, said teachers were trivialised, their profession bastardised and their contribution overlooked by a generation of political decision makers who see the world in black and white and have no comprehension as to the complexity of the school “ecosystem”.
In an impassioned speech at a conference about female educational leaders, Dr Scott said everyone, having attended a school at some stage, considered themselves an expert with their opinions often misinformed and too-rarely imbued with facts or evidence.
“Every couple of years an education minister or prime minister will say something along the lines of ‘we should focus on the basics of how to read and write’. And I’m like, oh, I hadn’t thought of that one,” Dr Scott said.
“They say schools must focus on character and values and in my head I’m thinking ‘have you heard of Aristotle? What do you think we have been doing for the last 2000 years’?
“And then I think, they have no training, but they [think they] know more about my profession, what I do with my three degrees and where I have worked on the ground for decades. Tell me again, how to do my job.”
Dr Scott elaborated on the complexity of the teaching profession by detailing what is not, in theory, part of her job, but is nevertheless intrinsic to it.
“I’m not a family counsellor, but I have sat with children and held their wrists as they were bleeding, patched countless self-harm injuries, told a child that their mother has died and they just found her body,” Dr Scott said.
“I’ve ridden in far too many ambulances to count, counselled warring parents, dealt on the front line with medical issues, accidents, alcoholism, mental health, breakdowns, suicide, domestic violence, murder, bankruptcy, unemployment, homelessness, and couch-surfing primary school students. Tell me again, how to do my job.”
She went on. “I’m not a medical doctor. But I have students who are walking around with defibrillators in case their heart stops, epi pens in case their body stops, nebulisers in case their lungs stop. And yes, I confess to the crime of talking about sexuality. I have talked to my students about sex and consent, long before it became a political football or an openly discussed subject,” she said.
“I’m not a police officer, but I give students advice about where to go when they’ve been assaulted or raped. What to do if someone stalks them online or at the bus stop. I explained over and over that child pornography laws apply to them if they send a naked photo of themselves online, even if their boyfriends ask them to, or how to get out of a car when the person who wants to drive has drunk too much. Tell me again how to do my job.”
Dr Scott said she is not an extrovert, but has dressed in too many ridiculous costumes to count to raise money and awareness for various issues. Neither is she an expert in cybersecurity but has found herself helping a 14-year-old take down a porn site she created so people would like her more.
She is not a lawyer, but has spent days in courtrooms as an expert witness, prepared subpoenas, “interpreted and misinterpreted court orders, parent restraining orders, and been threatened with legal action too many times to list”.
She said she had been imperiled, trolled and “silenced by those who think I should know better”.
“Education is my profession. And despite popular but lazy stereotypes, I don’t expel students for vaping or for being obnoxious or for having dodgy parents. I don’t turn my back on the quirky, the illiterate and the children who aren’t gifted.”
“The whole purpose of education is that it is given to every child so that they have the opportunities to make informed choices about who they want to be, what they want to do and where they want to go. I appreciate that it doesn’t always work this way and that we have huge inequalities that need addressing.”
Dr Scott said politicians had in recent months accused teachers of being extremists, of indoctrinating students on gender fluidity and climate change “because of this belief that we can’t be trusted”.
She said teachers were judged by school performance in various tests, such as NAPLAN, PISA, higher school certificate and ATAR – “all interesting measures but frankly, the equivalent of a butter knife in an operating theatre”.
In March, Stuart Robert, then acting federal education minister, blamed “dud teachers” for the decline in the academic results of Australian school students.
He told an independent schools conference that the “bottom 10 per cent of teachers” who “can’t read and write” were a key reason for Australia’s plummeting performance in the international education benchmark tests.
“Our society has the right to determine and influence what happens in schools. I have no problem with that. But schools are not political playing fields nor are we chess pieces to be moved at the whim of others,” Dr Scott said.
“Schools are complex ecosystems, interconnected and intertwined communities that require qualified practitioners to navigate and to educate so that we can give our next generation all the skills they need to make informed choices in their lives.”
Dr Scott said it was time teachers stood up and defended their profession because without doing so, they were “handing it to people who have no idea how to do this job”.