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How might we reimagine education in 2023?

By Madonna King
Chair, Catholic School Parents Australia

Immediately, I think of the dad who told me he was ‘lost’. He couldn’t understand the gender identity debate that had enveloped his daughter at her big Catholic school in Sydney. He wanted to be a good parent, he said, he just needed help.

A year 12 student at a Melbourne Catholic school also springs to mind. She told me how her interest in attaining the ATAR to capture a spot in Medicine had evaporated during long, lonely lockdowns. She just wanted ‘connection’ and university was now off her to-do list.

And our teachers, too, are an anchor in that triangle of education success, along with students and parents. This remark from one teacher at a big Queensland Catholic school keeps me awake at night. Why do so many students mourn the marks they lose, he asked, rather than celebrate the marks they get?

That perfectionism, particularly amongst female students, is a growing challenge as is how schools navigate gender identity. The anxiety that grips too many children, young and younger, needs to be addressed head-on. Body image, consent, bullying, friendships and social media also fill a list of challenges to be addressed as we move forward.

Some of those issues point to the state of mental health in our school population; an unwelcome legacy left by COVID. With almost one in seven Australian children aged four to 17 suffering a mental health disorder, we can’t afford not to act. It needs to dominate our conversations around and within our schools, and involve parents, educators and our children. Our students are our future, and their voice is crucial to ensure they are match fit to lead, engage and embrace a world that will continue to change.

Our schools need to be filled with educators who grow our children’s hearts along with their heads; educators who teach our children to never put a ceiling on their own potential. And we, as parents and carers and the community more broadly need to respect and value their vital role.

That doesn’t diminish the role of families in their child’s education. It’s at home where many school lessons are practiced. It’s also at home where other crucial skills are learnt – from the value of teamwork to the importance of forgiveness and communication.

It’s when that triangle of education works – parents, teachers and children – that everything works. Take a cog out of the wheel, and it struggles.

As I pen this, another inquiry is underway, due to report in 2023. It’s into the phenomenon of ‘school refusal’ when emotional distress prevents a child from attending class. It’s now happening on a scale not seen before, mirroring challenges like eating disorders and anxiety.

In the past year, I’ve spoken at dozens of schools to engaged, thoughtful and ambitious parents all wanting the best for their children. I’ve interviewed hundreds of educators, principals, teachers, psychologists and school counsellors. We all want the same.

Perhaps 2023 is the year when the confluence of challenges faced by our children leads to a tighter triangle of engagement amongst parents, educators and students.

Even the reasons why we choose a particular school are changing. Policies around emotional well-being didn’t feature when my children walked into a prep classroom, now they would be a determining factor. In busy families, geography becomes crucial, as does the school’s reputation beyond its academic achievements.

Word of mouth has never been so loud.

So how do we reimagine education in 2023? I want a partnership where my children’s minds are stretched along with their hearts. Where they learn the value of balance. Where the academic successes are celebrated – but so too are those that will determine, post-school, how they give back to the world their cohorts will one day lead.

Do they value forgiveness? Inclusion? Diversity? The role of teamwork? The skill of communication? The art of nuance?

Can they, on graduation, walk into a room without a phone, look someone in the eye, and dissect what’s happening in Ukraine, discuss whether footballers should wear helmets and recommend a good tofu recipe in the same conversation?

That’s how I’m reimagining education in 2023.


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