Case of the teacher who wasn’t kept in

Tony Abbott, The Bulletin, 1987

Doctor Fredrick Toben has achieved what many thought impossible. He has been sacked for “incompetence” as a teacher in an Australian school.

Despite the quoted desire of NSW Education Minister Rod Cavalier to weed out “malingerers in the staffroom”, dismissal is not a threat our teachers normally face. Educators contacted by The Bulletin said that any dismissal was rare and dismissal for alleged incompetence almost unknown. The picture which emerges is of teaching authorities  who take a benign, almost parental view of their employees’ failings.

Most teachers dismissals follow significant criminal convictions. Others occur only after the failure of an elaborate counselling process. In Australian schools, complaints against teachers are normally handled by principals. If not resolved, they are referred to the department of education.

The Victorian Ministry of Education, which employs 55,000 teachers, dismisses “three or four” for incompetence each year - usually when “an element of senility” is involved. An official of a Catholic education office in Victoria, employing about 1000 teachers, said that he had “never written a letter of dismissal”.

As a spokesman for the NSW Education Department - which employs nearly 48,000 teachers and has dismissed “a very few” - put it: “If someone has successfully passed teachers college, there are usually personal reasons for sub-standard performance…Quite often, with a particular group, a person may not feel comfortable…We would usually transfer such a person to another school where there was more motivation and security…”

Only when subsequent inspection shows no improvement and when a teacher declines to resign, may formal disciplinary proceedings be instituted - possibly leading to dismissal. Most teachers resign at this point. Fredrick Toben stubbornly refused because he had done nothing wrong.

Toben’s troubles began in 1983 when the Goroke Consolidated School principal, Ray McCraw, withdrew approval for his permanency application. McCraw said that Toben’s classes had deteriorated.

Toben said that McCraw felt threatened by his qualifications - Arts degrees from Melbourne and Wellington universities, a doctorate from Stuttgart University and 17 tyears’ teaching experience in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Goroke is in far western Victoria. In a small town, small school atmosphere, rumors spread that McCraw was unhappy with Toben. He became something of an outcast in the staffroom. Some pupils began to disrupt his classes. Victoria - unlike other states - has no provision for formal inspection of teachers thought to be unsatisfactory. Toben asked several times for inspection. Instead, in mid-1984, a “support group” was set up. It comprised McCraw and three other teachers as well as Toben’s nominee, fellow teacher Glenn Duncan. After four weeks’ observation the group agreed that Toben’s classes were unruly and that his teaching methods were inappropriate.

Duncan - who signed the group’s report with some reservations - recently told The Bulletin that Toben “didn’t really get a fair go” and that his problems were the result of a “personality clash” with McCraw, compounded by philosophical differences, which had gradually infected the whole school.

Next, a formal inquiry was held in October 1984. It was conducted jointly by a union  official and a senior officer of the Victorian Ministry of Education who wrote to Toben beforehand saying that the inquiry was "“act-finding, rather than judgmental”. Despite this, the inquiry endorsed the support group’s assessment and expressed a “strong preference” that Toben be “dismissed from the teaching service”.

Toben’s case was finally heard by the then Director-General of Victorian Education, Dr Norman Curry. According to Toben - and this has not been denied by the ministry - Curry said: “Give me a good reason why I should not act on the inquiry’s recommendation that you be dismissed.”

Normally , these hearings are quasi-judicial - both sides call and question witnesses. In his case, Curry questioned Toben and four of his supporters but Toben did not have a chance to question McCraw. Toben was not represented. On February 4, 1985, Curry informed Toben that he had been dismissed for “incompetence”.

Since then, Toben - who now drives a school bus - has been trying to re-enter the teaching profession. The ministry has said that it will re-employ him after “evidence of successful teaching”. But no school, so far, has been prepared tot ake him on. The Ombudsman has refused to investigate without evidence of “clear injustice”. That, however, is precisely  what Toben hoped an investigation would determine.

Toben’s former union, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association, told The Bulletin that correct procedures had been observed in his case as far as it was concerned.

A senior state educator, who requested anonymity[Steven Macphersons], admitted that “…it’s not a fair world…Toben was not the worst teacher in the system and there are hundreds who are the same…Toben may have been unlucky…”.

Bad luck or injustice? Professor Lauchlan Chipman, of Wollongong University, said that “even awkward and unpopular people have rights”. He said Toben’s case “typified the fate of the one-off model in Australia.

While school authorities are making determined efforts to lift teaching performance and elaborate procedures are in place to ensure that this does not occur at the expense of teachers’ rights, it would be ironic if one of the few sacked for incompetence turned out not to have deserved it.


Classy driver on road to nowhere

Ross Brundrett, Sunday Press, 26 July 1987

Australia’s most over-qualified bus driver is still travelling the road to nowhere. Dr Fredrick Toben, who holds two arts degrees and a doctorate in English literature and philosophy, is still going broke in Goroke.

It’s 2½ years since he was dismissed from his $27,000-a-year job as English teacher at the Goroke Consolidated School and took up driving the school bus for just $10,000 a year. His wife Georgina has been forced to return to full-time nursing to support her husband and six-year-old son Karl. Despite the hardships, the frustrations and the soul-shattering rejections, Dr Toben, 43, is determined to stick it out in the small Wimmera township of Goroke. He says he is fighting for personal pride …for justice.

“Nothing has changed really. They still won’t let me teach and I still won’t give up,” he said. “I still believe I will triumph in the end…that our society will rise above the pettiness and prejudices and I will be reinstated.

If nothing else, the persistence of the man is to be admired. Dr Toben admits to having applied for teaching jobs all over Australia (“Queensland, NSW, everywhere…”) and has been knocked back for every single one of them. His credentials are impressive. Arts degrees from Melbourne and Wellington universities, a PhD from Stuttgart University, and 17 years’ teaching all over the world.


But whenever he applies for a teaching job, the question arises: Why did he leave his last job?

“I have to tell them I was dismissed, for incompetence…that’s always the end of the interview,” he said.

He would like to tell them that his dismissal was more a case of a personality clash with a school principal, and a concerted “slur” campaign by a select few students who set out to upset his classes and ruin his credibility. He would like to, but no-one wants to listen. Not after they hear the word “incompetent”.

And that’s what drives him on, the fight to clear his name in the face of overwhelming  indifference. It’s what makes him and his family struggle through, living just a kilometre away from the school which caused all the heartache.

It’s quite ironic that the dozen teachers who taught the 50 secondary students at the school (there are also 100 primary students) when Dr Toben was dismissed in February, 1985, have all since left. Only Dr Toben remains. The one teacher, it seems who actually wants to teach at Goroke. The one teacher who can’t.

For his wife, Georgina, the situation has become so desperate that she has broken her silence with an open letter to Education Ministry official Dr Ken Boston. She talks about her husband’s “unjust dismissal” and how she had become the main breadwinner ‘while watching my husband and son suffer so. I have remained silent till now because it is painful for me to think about what my life should have been like and so I try to shut it out of my mind…I don’t think we deserve the hell on earth we have lived in for the last four years. is there no compassion in your heart?”

Both Mrs Toben and her husband pay tribute to the “sympathetic” people of Goroke. Dr Toben says it was a minority who caused problems at the school. “There were three families who made the trouble.”


And children who mocked Dr Toben’s German background and strict discipline by calling him “Hitler”.

Dr Toben admitted to demanding discipline in the classroom, but her never raised a cane to a students: “There was no suggestion of that.”

Recently, fellow teachers Glenn Duncan and Geoff French have come out in support of Dr Toben. Mr Duncan was a member of the inquiry panel which agreed that Dr Toben’s teaching methods were inappropriate and his classes unruly. But he says that he never considered Dr Toben incompetent.

In a letter to the Wimmera Mail-Times he said there were “many pieces of unpleasant yet interesting evidence strangely ignored by the Education Ministry’s official inquiry”. He confirmed Dr Toben’s claim that there was a “conspiracy” against him, saying one parent even boasted, long before the inquiry, that he was “getting rid of Toben”.

But despite the support, Dr Toben admits he is no closer to getting back to teaching. He has contacted the State ombudsman, he has obtained legal advice, but there was no good news there.

“But I have been told by one Education Ministry official that if I manage three months of successful teaching somewhere, then I may be reinstated,” he said.

But that’s Catch-22 material. They’ll let him teach again only if he can prove himself as a teacher, but they won’t give him the chance.

The Victorian Secondary Teachers Association, the Victorian High Schools’ Principals Association sa that Dr Toben’s dismissal was within the rules, end of story. ”They’ve closed ranks,” said Dr Toben.

There are times, while he drives the school bus the 30 km from Goroke to Edenhope when things “churn up inside”. You begin to doubt yourself. You wonder whether all those years of training were worth it, whether anything was worth what we have gone through,” he said. “You get plenty of time to think when you drive a bus.”

Whether that’s a good or bad thing, he wasn’t so sure.




One man’s fight to clear his name

Michael Barnard, The Age, 15 December 1987


If I had to nominate a Victorian Battler of the Year - perhaps “fighter” is more appropriate here - an eminent candidate would be Dr Fredrick Toben, the Goroke school teacher dismissed by the education department amid a swirl of local controversy three years ago.

Dr Toben, it was alleged, was incompetent. Since then he has been fighting doggedly to clear his name, mostly at great financial and emotional cost, He weathered the humbling and frustrating transformation from his chosen calling as a highly qualified English and philosophy teacher - arts degrees from Melbourne and Wellington  universities  and a PhD from Stuttgart - to the only alternative local job then available, that of school bus driver at less than half the salary, and has faced many other challenges besides.

The Toben case has been aired sporadically by newspapers and television, and taken up by MPs. But every time it surfaces the department and ministry remain adamant: all the correct procedures  (such as appointment of a teacher “support” group and a panel of inquiry were followed in assessing Dr Toben, they say, and the case cannot be reopened.

The 43-year-old former teacher, however, with 17 years classroom and tutorial experience behind him in Australia, NZ, West Germany, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, simply will not let the matter rest.

He was, he says, manipulated out of his Goroke post, teaching English, because of his firm attitude to discipline and insistence on a rigid literacy program.

Newspaper columnists are bombarded with special pleading and cases of alleged injustice and soon learn the wisdom of not jumping to conclusions. I first became intimately acquainted with Dr Toben’s fight the best part of two years ago and still do not claim to be able to arrive at informed conclusions on all the rights and wrongs in the tangled differences between Dr Toben and the then principal ( a much lesser academically qualified man) and various fellow teachers.

But there are disturbing features about the case, sufficient to make one ponder the fickleness of the machinery by which a skilled man’s career in education can effectively be killed stone dead, without any subsequent avenue of appeal or wider inquiry.

What is reasonably clear is that personal antagonism played a significant part in the events leading to Dr Toben’s demise, not only within Goroke Consolidated School in 1984 but, once the gossip started, in the wider community as well. Even a full year after the dismissal, swastikas and abusive slogans attacking Dr Toben and Mr Edwin Mitchell, a former Goroke school council president hounded from his council post because of alleged bias towards Dr Toben, were daubed over Mr Mitchell’s newsagency (Wimmera Mail-Times 3 January 1986).

The swastikas are revealing. Dr Toben was born in Germany in 1944 but he left before he was a year old.

The really disturbing features, however, lie in other areas, notably the strong defence Dr Toben has received from some fellow teachers of the day and other key players. In a detailed letter to the Mail-Times of 5 August 1987 - some three years after the main event - farmer Brian Mann, a school council member  during the crucial period, posed a series of questions, culminating bluntly with: “Can a teacher faced with a personality clash have no right of appeal against trumped-up charges?”

Dr Toben , he said had been “well-spoken, well-dressed, clean-cut, a non-smoker and of sober habits…and an example others might have followed.”

Glen Duncan, now an art teacher at Ringwood Tech., has been even more forthright, saying that Dr Toben was a “marked man” months before the inquiry that resulted in his dismissal. “There were many pieces  of unpleasant yet interesting evidence strangely ignored by the Education Ministry’s official inquiry…I even found out much later through Toben’s Freedom of Information documents that lies were told about me. Why?”

“Isn’t it interesting’, Mr Duncan asks, “that of the 40 parents whose children were taught by Toben, 30 signed his petition saying they were pleased with his teaching?” (Of the other 10, Dr Toben tells me, three were hostile and seven just did not want to be involved.)

Another teacher, Geoffrey French, now at Ballarat High, wrote to the Mail-Times (24 July 1987) suggesting that Dr Toben had, in part, been made a scapegoat for poor discipline.

“it was obvious to me that Dr Toben’s lessons were innovative and thoroughly planned. I could only assume thse people were deliberately attempting to get rid of him for some particular personal reasons, as I could see the time and work he put not only into his teaching but also the school radio station, which he set up with the students.”

One could go on. For instance, testimonial to Dr Toben over the name of Professor S. D. Atkinson of the department of educational foundations, University of Zimbabwe: “His performance in the classroom was very impressive…I believe Dr Toben to be a man of high principles and exemplary character.”

(Perhaps I should emphasise at this point that none of the criticisms cited above are meant to reflect on the present state of Goroke Consolidated, or its present administration.)

Possibly there are criticisms of Dr Toben that may be sustained. By the same token, the defence quoted here does little more than scratch the surface of what may be found in his favour.

At issue is a man’s career. Dr Toben has travelled thousands of kilometres seeking teaching posts in Victoria and interstate, but always his “record” becomes a stumbling block. The catch-22 is that the department says it will reconsider his position if he can demonstrate a satisfactory spell of teaching, but he cannot get the chance because he has been labelled incompetent.

Late this year he did, for two days a week, gain a job tutoring nurses in sociology at Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education, making round trips of 500 kilometres in and among his school bus driving between Goroke and Edenhope.

But Dr Toben wants more. Specifically, he seeks exoneration and reinstatement at Goroke, where his family lives. Bureaucracies, however, are always loath to admit that they might have been even a little bit wrong.

A nagging thought is that had Dr Toben been a homosexual, female or black, a vociferous lobby group might well have already precipitated a review. Perhaps incompetence of sorts does feature in his sad story. The question is, whose? And how does a person caught up in a system like this ever clear his name, once given that it deserves to be cleared?



An education experience of the worst kind

Frank Devine, The Australian, 18 April 1991


…You take my life

When you take the means

whereby I live.


That is from The Merchant of Venice. The lines - and, in fact, the entire play - have painful relevance for Fredrick Toben, unemployed school teacher of Goroke, Victoria.

Toben is not, unfortunately, the only 47-year-old person now out of work, in debt and hovering on the edge of despair. But he is probably the only one able to put part of the blame on Shakespeare.

In 1983, as a newly hired “temporary”, Toben set his Year 10 English class at Goroke Consolidated School, located in sheep country in north-west Victoria, to studying The Merchant of Venice.

The principal challenged Toben to tell him what use Shakespeare was to kids whose lives would be spent scrabbling for a living on remote farms. Not having thought much about utilitarian measurement of Shakespeare, Toben gave a vague response.

“They don’t need it,” the principal declared flatly.

Toben none the less persisted with classroom study of The Merchant of Venice. Before long, however, he became aware that his Shakespeare “obsession” was being derided by other teachers at the school, notably the principal, with the result that the incipient interest of his students gradually changed to sulky resistance.

Toben’s relationship with the Goroke principal deteriorated. Toben was castigated for correcting spelling and grammar in creative writing exercises, for speaking “sarcastically” to unruly students and sending them out of classes. Other teachers recall a bitter personality clash between Toben and the principal.

Indeed, Toben seems to have been an odd-man-out from the start at this bush school - highly educated and cultivated, widely travelled, meticulously dressed (usually in dark blazer, striped tie and grey slacks), speaking in the precise, accentless tones for whom, like German-born Toben, English is a mastered but not native language. Even the new car Toben had traded up to -a  white Volvo - got backs up.

In 1985 Toben was dismissed from the employ of the Victorian Education Department, an event of the utmost rarity even for a temporary teacher. the grounds given were that he was incompetent and disobedient. Ever since, Toben has campaigned for reinstatement, claiming to have been done down by lies and deception and to have been victimised because he opposed the "equal outcomes” philosophy of Victoria’s public education system.

In 1989, a Melbourne County Court ruled Toben’s dismissal “void and invalid” and awarded him back pay. Toben immediately resigned from a job as a school bus driver in anticipation of returning to teaching.

But the Education Department refused - and still refuses - to give him a job, asserting that the County Court invalidated his dismissal because correct procedures had not been followed in charging Toben with disobedience. But the judge had found no procedural shortcomings in respect of the incompetence charges.

Ergo, departmental procedures having been applied correctly, Toben remained an incompetent, unworthy of employment as a teacher in Victorian public schools.

As often happens when individuals get entangled with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Toben has become obsessed. Trying to force the Victorian Education Department to take him back consumes his life.

His marriage has broken up and he is on the dole. He applies constantly for private school teaching jobs, but a 47-year-old who has been dismissed for incompetence is not a prime contender for employment in these hard times.

Toben spends most of his days enjoying intermittent custody of his 10-year-old son and preparing to represent himself in three pending defamation actions against Victorian Education officials.

He and I have been penfriends, fax friends for several months. If the Toben document archive grows much larger, I will have to move house. I have avoided people like him for many years on several continents.

But no Ancient Mariner has ever talked as sensibly to me, and practically nothing smells right about the Toben case.

It doesn’t smell right when I call a senior officer of the Victorian Education Department, whom I know to have been centrally involved in the matter for several years, and still to be, only to be told, at first, that the officer recalls little of the past  and knows nothing of the present state of affairs - and subsequently that, on legal advice, neither the officer nor the department will comment.

A strong aroma arises when  one considers Toben’s background in the context of his alleged incompetence. He has a BA degree from Melbourne University and a PhD (in philosophy) from Stuttgart. He has 17 years of teaching experience - mainly in New Zealand, Germany and Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the most crucially, Toben grew up in north-west Victoria and attended a small country school like Goroke Consolidated. His father, an immigrant from Germany, farmed nearby for 30 -odd years. His twin brother still farms in the district. When he started  teaching at Goroke, Toben was offended by the principal’s contemptuous remarks about the town and the district’s farm families.

Having set off with his brother for a European adventure when  they were in their mid-20s, Toben stayed abroad longer than he had intended. In Zimbabwe, observing British expatriates, he realised to his horror that he was, in his mid-30s, at risk of becoming like them - a man without a home. He married the girl he had been going out with in Zimbabwe, and jumped at the chance of a teaching job in Goroke, determined to establish himself in a part of the world where he felt he belonged.

The Toben affair smells when one learns that 30 out of the 40 Goroke parents whose children Toben had taught signed a petition praising his work with them.

It smells when one considers how markedly different Toben’s teaching philosophy is from the one that has prevailed in Victoria.

There is a stink around when  a teacher union official publicly declares: “I don’t think Mr Toben will be employed again by the Education Department. He has criticised the department. He has even criticised the union.”

Once at a social gathering Toben managed to seize the ear of the then education minister, Joan Kirner, and plead for her intervention.

She said: You’d be surprised how little influence a minister has in such matters.”

Surprised? If that is true, I am terrified.



Bad Lesson

They sacked Fredrick Toben after he insisted on teaching Shakespeare

Simon Plant reports, Herald-Sun, 15 May 1991


From his study in the tiny Wimmera town of Goroke, Dr Fredrick Toben is preparing to wage war.

The study looks like any other, but this book-cluttered nook, deep in the heart of Victoria’s sheep country, is where the 47-year-old teacher is plotting the next phase of his seven-year battle against Victoria’s Education Department.

Dr Toben was sacked from Goroke Consolidated School in 1985 on the grounds of alleged incompetence and has been fighting to clear his name ever since.

The fight, waged in the County and Supreme Courts, has taken a heavy toll on Dr Toben’s family life ( he separated from his wife, Georgina, in 1987) and his finances  (he is $40,000 in debt and surviving on dole cheques).

But like a battle-hardened warrior, the German-born educator refuses to admit defeat.

Dr Toben issued five defamation writs last year against Education Department chiefs and former teaching colleagues at Goroke Consolidated, and anticipates they will be heard in court before the end of the year.

“They (the Education Department) know I can’t last much longer,” he says. “But I’ve drawn the line and I’m saying, ‘No further’. I’m not giving up or running away because I know I’ not incompetent.”

The long-running Toben affair is a critical test of Education Department policy, but as it has unfolded in the papers and the courts, the case has also come to symbolise a wider battle raging in Australia’s public education system.

It mirrors a tug of war between the forces of tradition, who want a return to exams, discipline and the three Rs, and the forces of change who believe these trends are out of step with egalitarian education initiatives in the 1990s.

“Dr Toben is the very embodiment of a basic philosophical clash,” Professor Lauchlan Chipman, of Woolongong University, says. “Here is a dedicated teacher in the Mr Chips mould who believes in the old ideal of developing students’ full potential, and an education system which regards intellectual excellence as some thing to be traded away if the case warrants it.” Dr Toben, who holds arts degrees from Melbourne and Wellington Universities and a PhD from Stuttgart, is a self-confessed conservative. Dressed for this interview in buttoned blue blazer and tie, he readily declares his support for no-nonsense teaching.

“I’m not afraid of students,” he says. “Far from it. Put me in one of the rougher schools in Melbourne’s western suburbs and I’d soon fix them up.” But in his travels over 17 years as a teacher in Australia, West Germany, New Zealand, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, Dr Toben has championed one issue above all others: literacy.

At Goroke Consolidated, which he joined in 1983, he carried on the crusade by teaching Shakespeare to year-nine students, organising spelling bees and enforcing a rigid literacy program. The school principal apparently expressed reservations, and some of Dr Toben’s colleagues, who allegedly treated him as something of an outcast in the staff room, suggested he abandon Shakespeare. “The attitude was, don’t rock the boat, don’t stress the students,” Dr Toben recalls. “They must fit in, even if they can’t read or write. Well, I’m sorry, I couldn’t accept that.”

Dr Toben’s stand prompted the school to appoint a “support group” to observe his teaching methods over four weeks in July 1984. Later in the year, another panel comprising teacher unions and Education Department representatives conducted an informal inquiry. The Director-General of Education, Dr Norman Curry, finally dismissed Dr Toben in February 1985 for “incompetence” but six years on, the victim is convinced he was singled out for political reasons. “If you don’t tie the line, you’re out. I’m frightened there are a lot of dedicated teachers who are being sidelined because they are prepared to worry about education.”

Professor Chipman, former president of the Australian Council for Educational Standards, says there is also a growing rift between teachers of the “Old Left” who have traditionally championed excellence as a passport to self-improvement and those of the “New Left who believe education should reflect what the mass of people are likely to reasonably achieve. The result of this clash is inevitably an averaging down of standards.”

The Institute of Education Administration disagrees and insists that the VCE and other initiatives are encouraging personal excellence by combining different testing procedures.

“All the available evidence , on balance, suggests that in the basic areas of achievement, we have been improving slightly,” Institute director Gerry Tickel says. The Liberal-National Opposition has promised to reassess the VCE and school standards generally if it wins the next state election but there is no guarantee that a change of government in Victoria will benefit Dr Toben. On paper, he is still an “incompetent” teacher.

When the County Court overturned Dr Toben’s dismissal and awarded him $16,000 in lost wages in January, 1989, it made no finding on his competence. Nor did it order the Ministry of Education to re-employ him. The Ministry declined to comment, but according to Dr Toben, it is prepared to consider his re-employment if he can provide “evidence of Successful teaching”.

While he is labelled “incompetent”, though, there is no way any school (public or private) will take him on.

“This is like the Dreyfus case,” Dr Toben says. “I’ve been banished to Devil’s Island and I’ve got to return and clear my name. I want to go back to teach. It’s my aim to work for another 20 years.” Friends in Goroke have suggested he pack it in, change his name and seek employment interstate. But Dr Toben, raised in nearby Edenhope, refuses to leave the remote Wimmera town. “Why should I?” he says. “This is my home.”


Not too clever

 Editorial, Herald-Sun, 16 May 1991


The quality of mercy is decidedly strained in the case of Dr Fredrick Toben reported in this newspaper yesterday. The highly qualified teacher’s problem began in the early 1980s at Goroke Consolidated School. in pursuit of his continuing crusade to instil literacy, he taught Shakespeare to year-nine students, organised spelling bees and enforced a rigid literacy program.

This rash presumption led to a head-on philosophical clash with his peers, leading into a series of inquiries into his teaching methods and finally to his dismissal in February, 1985, for “incompetence”. In 1989 the County Court overturned the dismissal, awarded him lost wages, but did not find on his competence.

At the heart of the Toben affair is the wider debate between traditionalists, who believe in developing a student’s full potential, and the ideologues who seek to impose a grey sameness as a tactic in the class war. As a former president of the Australian Council for Education Standards, Professor Lauchlan Chipman, remarked: “The result of this clash is inevitably an averaging down of the standards.”

But while the debate continues on whether education should exploit each student’s full potential, or whether it should be the great leveller, Dr Toben remains in limbo, still labelled “incompetent” and unable to get a teaching job.

On the evidence, it seems unjust he should continue to suffer; the standards he values might just be what we need to make this the clever country.



School Discipline

Mail-Times , 25 September 1992


Sir, - School discipline, the final word on this timeless problem. Concerned, Mail-Times, August 26, and Valerie Webb, September 2, highlight a problem which has, and always will be, with us - undisciplined children.

What is new is the degree of violence we now see in our schools. In recent years some Australian schools have seen a whole range of violence, from student-student and student-teacher bashing to outright murder in the classroom.

Society at large also reflects this rise in violence. That’s why it’s heartening to see Victorian Secondary Teachers Association assistant secretary, Mary Bluett publicly admit that our schools have a disciplinary problem. I believe this is the first time the VSTA has admitted this.

But I find it disturbing that she blames the attack on the Northcote High School deputy principal on economic hardship and frustrations caused by the recession. Nothing excuses such uncivil behaviour and our society must not tolerate it.

In any case, teachers at private schools must have laughed when they read Mary Bluett’s explanation.


A review of aspects of the school discipline debate over the past decade highlights interesting facts.

Since 1983, when Labor and the teachers’ unions took over the Department of Education. Fashionable twaddle surrounded the Glasser discipline model. The time-out room was supposed to free teachers from inevitable student-teacher confrontation.

A number of schools adopted this consensus discipline model, without much success.

In September, 1983, the last director-general of education Dr Norman Curry expressed the department’s new discipline policy, two years before Minister for Education, Ian Cathie, removed him from office: “The main thrust of this new approach is to encourage each school to develop its own policy on student discipline within the guidelines provided and thus to involve parents, teachers and students in a co-operative endeavour which reflects the views of the school and will thus be more accepted by all. The present procedures relating to student discipline were recommended to the minister by a group which consisted  of parents, teachers, principals and specialist departmental staff. In no way are they anti-teacher in tone or in practice. They recognise that through co-operation between  schools and parents more will be achieved for all students.”


A year later, when he disciplined a teacher who had been convicted on a  drug charge, Dr Curry made a remarkably disturbing decision. He merely ‘slapped the teacher’s wrist and admonished him for being ‘a naughty boy’. The VSTA can confirm this incident.

In contrast, a teacher who ‘thumped’ a class-room thug was demoted and transferred to the correspondence school.

VSTA-protected teachers in trouble would invariably swell the 6000-odd pool of teachers out on stress-leave.

In 1988 a remarkable thing happened when then editor of Education Age Geoff Maslen ran a critical series on classroom discipline. A respondent, Frank Dando, principal of Ashwood Boys School, summed up the problem thus:

“…I have this year been teaching without a break for 40 years and I have a master’s degree in remedial education so I have some practical and theoretical understanding of the teacher’s job in the classroom and considerable sympathy for my colleagues in the state system. It is not possible to do any meaningful work in the classroom unless you are in control; whether you are apparently in control is irrelevant - I am quite capable of convincing my class that I am - running a democracy!

To control a classroom you need as a last resort to produce a short, sharp and non-negotiable punishment otherwise the class gets out of control and you go out on stress. I am quite ready to be told that there is no place for punishment in an ideal classroom but I would prefer to be told by a practising teacher. Could this be pondered by someone high up in the state system, preferably someone who had been teaching lately.”


Two years later, the general discipline situation in our state schools had not improved. It also became more difficult to blame individual teachers for not coping with unruly students. Teachers with an unblemished record began to speak out.

Chris Curtis, Victoria’s youngest senior teacher lamented bitterly: “My 15 years of experience in subject co-ordination, curriculum development, the day-to-day running of a school, not to mention classroom teaching itself, including a 92 percent pass rate, are lost to the system

Why? Because the headaches, shortness of breath, sleeplessness and chest pains caused by the modern classroom jungle became unendurable. A highly recommended assessment for promotion has not protected me. Excellent references from past principals, colleagues and students have not protected me. Ministry reorganisation, curriculum reform, school amalgamation and career-four restructure mean nothing.

When a teacher walks into a classroom today, he is on his own. I have a thick folder of incidents from the past 15 months of my career which support my views of other teachers and education experts who say we have a discipline problem. Those who belong to the other camp, who believe the problem does not exist or is under control, simply do not know what it is like out there in the real world that actual teachers face every day.”

Curtis got his senior teacher grading from now assistant general manager of the Department of School Education, Jim Betson.


Since then, more teachers and parents have cried out against the chaos in the classroom. But our education bureaucracy, supported by teachers’ unions, continues to follow the absurd ideology of indulgence which merely encourages students to become hedonists.

Students are encouraged to follow their feelings without being urged to think about any consequences, to please themselves and do what makes them feel good. Unfortunately, life outside the classroom isn’t like that.

Also, the ideology of choice, of diversity, has been pushed to its limits. When a 40-odd subject choice is offered to Victorian Certificate of Education students, one may well wonder how students will ever achieve unity of mind. If thinking is to become purposeful, if students are to rise above the immediate pleasurable moment, then surely we ought to focus their minds upon essentials.

Further, the Department of School Education has as yet not dared to draw up a code of ethics for its employees, as has the Police Department. Such a moral framework also would literally help students to find a home within themselves, rather than have them vent their frustrations on individuals and social institutions.


Finally, discrimination, the essence of developed, sophisticated taste, is presented to students as unreasonable behaviour, to be pursued by anti-discrimination tribunals. It amazes me that basics, such as the fact that learning cannot take place if environment and students remain undisciplined, have been ignored for so long.

However, it will serve no-one’s interests to have the force of law brought into our schools, except perhaps in the form of the friendly police officer who may occasionally have to remind students of their civic rights and duties.

Our current disciplinary problems appear to have reached a point where individual schools have no alternative but to tighten up and discard the nonsense disciplinary ideologies of the past 20 years. It is a facts that the 1950s and ‘60s did not throw up too many serious discipline problems, but then these decades were not afflicted  by drug problems either. Nor was there the pernicious sexual harassment ideology to tear apart male-female relationships. Any primary teacher knows how to deal with rude behaviour without recourse to sexual harassment thinking; unfortunately teachers cannot follow Frank Dando’s advice for fear of having a writ slapped on them by some aggrieved parents.

And there we are, at the crucial point, the family unit. Is school discipline merely reflecting what is happening in our families? How many students are left to their own devices while father and mother work to keep the family home intact?

Or, is this question another form of scapegoating, of teachers relinquishing their professional responsibility by not ensuring that schools have a disciplined learning environment?

Fredrick Töben, Church Street, Goroke 3412