The shortcuts allocation on the keyboard is fast running out, but I suspect shift-control-F7 should be assigned to ‘”Pauline Hanson’s comments are appalling …” to save future time and energy. La Hanson’s comments about the teaching of special needs children are still ricocheting around the public sphere. They’re part of a longer speech about education and Gonski, and it’s a real One Nation special (pages 12 and 13 of the Hansard, for those who want a read) concerning the demise of standards of English comprehension and expression — expressed in sentences about one-in-three of which is well-formed — the failure to instil a sense of competition, and the decline of running writing (or cursive), inter alia. But it’s Hanson’s remarks on classroom problems that have attracted outrage, and it’s worth giving them in full, rather than the truncated reports of such. Here they are:

“There is another thing that we need to address, and I will go back to the classrooms again. I hear so many times from parents and teachers whose time is taken up with children — whether they have a disability or whether they are autistic — who are taking up the teacher’s time in the classroom. These kids have a right to an education, by all means, but, if there are a number of them, these children should go into a special classroom and be looked after and given that special attention. Because most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them they forget about the child who is straining at the bit and wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education. That child is held back by those others, because the teachers spend time with them. I am not denying them. If it were one of my children I would love all the time given to them to give them those opportunities. But it is about the loss for our other kids. I think that we have more autistic children, yet we are not providing the special classrooms or the schools for these autistic children. When they are available, they are at a huge expense to parents. I think we need to take that into consideration. We need to look at this. It is no good saying that we have to allow these kids to feel good about themselves and that we do not want to upset them and make them feel hurt. I understand that, but we have to be realistic at times and consider the impact this is having on other children in the classroom.”

Well yes, this is expressed from the perspective of the non-special needs child, constructing the special needs child as the problem. It could have been done more even-handedly. But to go by the news reports you’d think La Hanson wanted any kid who likes trainspotting and has impulse management issues to be consigned to the workhouse in calipers. Hanson is saying nothing of the sort. As I read it, she is suggesting that education would be better managed for special-needs kids and non-special needs kids alike with some degree of separate teaching.

Her expression of the issue suggests a less than rigorous examination of the research, but let’s deal with that further down. The crucial point I want to make is that Hanson’s suggestion that both teachers and parents are anything from disturbed to at their wits’ end by increasing problems of classroom management is spot on and appears to be nowhere registered in the debate around Gonski and other programs. For reasons that are cultural and political, much of the debate has been conducted as the exact reverse of Hanson’s intervention: almost wholly from the perspective of special-needs children and their parents, and with an unexamined bias towards the doctrine of total inclusion.

Hanson’s statement about teachers and parents rings true to me, because I’ve been hearing it from state school teachers — especially primary teachers — for years, and in a way that has not been registered in the public debate. Many find themselves unable to teach because their attention, energy and focus is consumed by one, two or three students or more in each class with serious behaviour management issues. Such kids have extreme attention deficit problems, restlessness, poor impulse control, learning difficulties, anger management, extreme aggressiveness and other issues. Some of them have learning problems; others are gifted, advanced and bored, as well as having poor social skills.

This is hardly news to anyone with a child in school, but there’s a curious veil of silence drawn across it. Over the past three decades, such challenges have come to take more and more of many teachers’ time and energy, as the spread of behaviour and forms of subjectivity of children has changed. Nostalgic ideas about children dutifully learning times tables without a peep are an illusion, but so too is the idea that nothing has changed. In an industrial mass-culture society, behaviour could be more patterned and regimented because society was. In a post-industrial society with multiple flows of media, fragmented social structures and a degree of “everyday autism” among adults who live lives surrounded by screens, images and texts, such regimenting goes awry. If we now talk incessantly about a spectrum, it’s because our society produces large numbers of children spread right across that spectrum — of behaviour, of subjectivity, of integration of self, and with others.

Our culture and society have changed, the social-psychological form of children has changed — but the way they’re educated has not. Or not enough. The working assumption of the single-teacher classroom is that all the students can be shaped to purposive activity by their sought consent, and, beyond that, discipline. If we now have a culture where increasing numbers of children cannot govern themselves — even if they want to — how can the classroom then be governed?

That was, of course, one of the issues the Gonski process was set up to deal with. Its partial roll-out was utterly inadequate to that challenge, and everyone knew it. Gonski 2.0 will also fall short. But even the most generous implementation of it may do so, because it is arguable that what underpins the process is a bias towards total inclusion that has less to do with outcomes, and more to do with ideology. Many parents and teachers suspect this — I can only report that many such people are more open to me about these matters, and say they are, than they are to their colleagues and fellow parents; this may have something to do with my status as a man with no children, and no skin in the game — and many are sceptical that disrupted classrooms can ever be made functional if a small minority of children in them are in need of constant behavioural management.

For many of those parents and teachers, Hanson’s remarks will come as a burst of honesty, in a debate from which they have felt excluded, since the Gonski process was first inaugurated in the Rudd/Gillard years. Like much of what came out of that era it is both well-intentioned and oppressive to many: social-technocratic, top-down, expert-led, with consultation after the fact. For many teachers it is just another policy cloud that drifts across their working lives from time to time: the curricula that change with the government of the day, the endless shifts in benchmarks, goals, the switch from chaplains saluting the flag pole to two periods of compulsory banana-condom led by the double-denimed central committee of Socialist Alternative, and on and on.

They know that a lot of this means very little. They know something else too: that problems such as the steady rise in hard-to-manage classrooms has a social class aspect. Private schools find myriad ways to exclude the behaviourally challenged; increasingly that becomes a selling point for parents who can afford their fees. Consequently, state schools find the ratio of disruptive students increase. Many parents feel exactly that sense of panic that Hanson alludes to: that the more their children need a good education and good grades to get any sort of place in life, the more difficult it is becoming to get taught.

Crucially, this is not something that is felt only by the parents of non-behaviourally challenged children.There are many parents of behaviourally challenged children who feel that a bias towards inclusion is a) unrealistic about the relatively “fixed” nature of children’s subjectivity beyond a certain age; b) being used as an excuse to not provide special facilities needed; and c) the product of a simplistic, moralising idea of “potential”, connected to political ideology rather than evidence-based social practice.

Those parents and teachers who do feel that Hanson is airing a point of view that needs discussing, will not be reassured — to say the least — by the blast of outrage, emotion, first-person discourse, drama of the autistic child, “letter to my office” response that has come in relation to it. It will confirm everything many believe about this policy debate: that it has swung round overwhelmingly to the point of view of the special-needs child, that any social category — gender, race, sexuality and disability — will trump social-economic class in the list of progressives’ concerns, that their deafness to the concerns Hanson is articulating come from a progressive class identification with the autistic/spectrum child, rather than the unremarkable kid in a working-class state school steadily going backward because they are deprived of teaching time.

Here’s an idea — if nothing else, it will provide year 12s with an example of “clear thinking” — why not reply to Hanson’s arguments, her alternative proposition about education, with counter-arguments, rather than emotive breast-beating? After all, the notion of maximum inclusion and minimum separation needs to be argued, not simply asserted. Most people who support it, and say “Gonski” as a one-word response to every educational issue, have no idea of the evidence for and against it. The more we acknowledge the changing nature of children, and the spread of behaviours, the more consideration there might be for a more modular process of teaching, beyond the one-size-fits-all industrial classroom, which Labor figures tend to have too much of a hankering for (disastrously, in many areas, such as indigenous education).

And above all, let’s face what we all know: current regimes of inclusion depend on the mass use of prescription amphetamines for teenagers, without any real consideration of the long-term physical and psychological effects. This is a continuing betrayal of children that is not addressed, because it is simply too hard to do so in the current framework. It is more scandalous than anything Hanson has said.

So, another fail by the progressive class. A result of lack of attention, poor preparation, and NOT ANSWERING THE QUESTION PUT. Must try harder. If you think no one notices these desperate and inadequate responses, think again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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