EDUCATIONAL ISSUES IN THE NT – Articles 1 – 6 published in “The Suns”

These articles were published during July and August 2013
Readers are welcome to copy and use providing they acknowledge the author and the fact they were published in “The Suns’ newspapers in Darwin.

SUN 1- 6

SUN 1

Dr Jim’s Forgotten Advice

In 1978, the Department of Education became the first department to be placed under the control of the Northern Territory Government. This localisation and separation from Canberra marked the start of a ‘new beginning’. Until then and over time Territory Education along with all Government function had been largely under southern control.

In March that year, School Principals were invited to meet in Katherine. We were addressed by our Director, Dr Jim Eedle. A couple of years earlier, Dr Eedle had been appointed as director and oversaw the transition of education as a department responsible to the NT Government.

Dr Eedle likened our takeover to a new dawn. He told us never to forget that ‘schools are for children”. His other advice was to remember that structure and organisation should always be about reinforcing his key message: “Schools are for children”.

To myself and other school leaders of the time, that was a key and enduring driver – the prime focus of our schools and our leadership.

Over the years and with the passing of time, we have drifted away from Dr Eedle’s advice. Educational infrastructure has grown like Topsy. We have become burdened by systemic requirements that increasingly magnify formal accountability and compliance requirements. It seems children, far from being the prime focus of attention, have become a means to an end. Rather than being personalities, they are ‘objects’ to be tested, measured, evaluated and assessed.

Shifts and changes that have evolved in the years since 1978 are not all instigated from within our Department and Government. Indeed, with the passing of time and particularly over the last decade, our educational agenda has been increasingly set by the Australian Government. Allocated funds come with strings attached. This takes system ownership increasingly out of our hands.

All this might be fine if the focus, as suggested by Dr Eedle, meant we were preparing children and students for the whole of life. Indeed, the Melbourne Declaration on Education, signed by all State and Territory Education Ministers in 2009, committed to holistic education – social, emotional ands moral development along with academic considerations.

It seems to me this vision of need has vanished into the ether. Focus on formal compliance requirements have taken over. Increasing volumes of paperwork and justificational requirements are becoming educational distractions. We have become beholden to the agenda being set for schools, departments and State/Territory Governments by Canberra’s dictates.

There is, in my opinion, a need to revisit Dr Eedle’s 36 year old statement. “Schools are for children.”

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SUN 2

Safe Yesterday, Insecure Today

“Kids alone hits home” was a story recently published in the NT News (20 June) “A shortage of places in after school care is forcing working parents to leave their children home alone … 20 per cent of children aged 10 to 11 are left to their own devices after school” suggested the story. There was also concern about children going home to homes without adult supervision after school.

The story caused me to think about how unsafe the world has become: With the passing of time, concern about the safety and security of children has escalated. Not so many years ago children walked or cycled quite long distances to school. After school, at weekends and during holidays they played in parks, on footpaths, ovals, down at the beach or out in the bush. They went on buses, visited the shops and even did jobs – all without supervision.

I don’t think parents were neglectful in allowing children free reign to move independently about the community. Rather, they trusted the fact that their children would be safe from harm, danger and interference from others. At home too, in the absence of adult supervision, children were safe because it was expected there would be no interference from the outside world. There was an absence of high fences, many less dogs than now and the feeling of a lesser need to lock and bolt doors.

It is awful that our society has had to plant into the minds of parents and caregivers, a sense of worry and fear for their children because the world is no longer a safe place. Children are faced with not only physical aspects of safety: Their security is confronted by exploitation that can occur through nefarious application of technology. Cyber bullying, abuse of privacy by the posting of images, online discussion of what should be secure data, strip away at both security and the rights of young people to private lives.

‘Stranger Danger’ advice has been part of the cautionary message about personal care offered to children for many years; that advice is understood and practised by the majority. That message is constantly reinforced in our schools. So too, are messages about the need for care in the use and transmission of data using electronic devices. Worry and anxiety parents and caregivers feel is understandable. However, children and young people have to be allowed the opportunity of growing up with confidence and independence into a world where they are going to be tomorrow’s adults. These twin issues, the need for nurture and the need to encourage independence, play on the minds of parents.

Being a parent and caregiver with responsibility for the growth and development of children is not easy. Sadly, the world has become a place where far too many prey upon the innocence of young people. Maybe that has always been the case, the difference being that we are now far more open in recognising and addressing these issues. Awareness about protecting our children and young people is a positive consequence.

Henry Gray
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SUN 3

INDIGENOUS EDUCATION AT THE CROSSROADS

Along with many thousands of Australians, I recently watched the Memorial Service held for Doctor Yunupingu in Arnhem land. Over a three hour period, many tributes and testimonials were offered, confirming his contribution to education and music.

One of the things that stood out most particularly was the way in which “older” Indigenous Australians spoke. What impressed me was evidence of the education obviously offered to them as young people. Their confidence, articulation and capacity to hold an audience through their conversational logic took me down the historical path – back to the “Mission” days of schooling and immediately post that period.

These speakers were at school during a time when education was far less resourced materially but when education for Indigenous Australians was much more effective than now.

Children who are now senior adults used to attend school regularly and learn a way that offered them sequenced, progressive and English based learning.

Since those days, education has become far more occasional for Indigenous Australians. This is particularly the case with government schools but also affects the private sector. It is a sad fact but true, that irregular school attendance has negatively impacted on education.
A great deal of soul-searching goes on because Indigenous Education these days is not very successful. Certainly there are highlights now and again but all too often the downside of education is revealed. In my opinion it all comes down to one major issue – school attendance.

“Tempting” children and students to school

There are many inducements held out to encourage regular school attendance in community schools. Extended excursions often interstate, are offered to reward long-term school attendance. Sport programs may be on offer. In some places there is a “no school, no pool’ policy. A significant number of communities offer meals provided to children when they attend school. These are but some of the “carrots” offered children in an effort to entice them to attend school
.
While school staff and government agencies do their level best to encourage school attendance, it is up to parents, primary caregivers and children themselves to respond. Far too many communities have school attendances in the 20, 30 and 40 percentile ranges; It is no wonder very little learning progression takes place. Neither should there be surprise that so many of the upcoming generation are functionally illiterate and not able to negotiate in the major language of our country. English is our transactional language and without it citizens are not going to succeed.

Unless there is a significant and uniform upturn in school attendance (and inducements don’t really make change happen – it has to come from the heart) nothing is going to alter except for a continuing diminution of educational outcomes. Attendance and punctuality habits must improve if our younger Indigenous Australians are to go anywhere near emulating the achievements of their elders.

Next week I will show that the issue of school attendance and punctuality has impacts beyond Indigenous education and remote schools, impacting on children and students Territory-wide.

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SUN 4

ABSENCE AND LATENESS ARE BIG ISSUES

Last week I wrote that a spoiling factor for Indigenous Education was so many children missing huge amounts of schooling. The issue of school attendance and punctuality is not limited to remote areas; It also impacts on town and city schools.

Lateness means Lost Learning

A matter of real concern in many schools is that of “lateness”. Significant numbers of children and students have an ingrained habit of being regularly late to school. A student who is 15 minutes late each day, misses out on 9.5 school days (nearly a fortnight) each year. It’s time that children can ill afford to lose! The early part of each day is key learning time. The need for teachers to repeat what has already been covered for latecomers is unfair on their peers.

Absenteeism

One empathises with children who miss school because of illness and hope for their speedy recovery. There is however, a lot of absenteeism that occurs for reasons of a non-medical nature. Children miss school for a myriad of reasons – and all distract from learning! It may be a case of birthdays, relations visiting, extending camping trips, taking extra days before and immediately after school holidays, adding to weekends– and so on.

When lateness and absence are added together, there are for many children, a significant number of school days and weeks missed each year. This detracts from education and learning opportunities, playing negatively on student learning outcomes.

School Attendance and NAPLAN

Each year the ‘NT News’ publishes NAPLAN results for all schools. Sadly, the two page spread shows a “sea of red” indicating performances below the Australian average. The results are for all students in years three, five, seven and nine. The results take account of students sitting the tests on testing days. School absences during the year are not taken into account.

If there was a second set of data published including only the results of students attending school for at least 80% of the year, there would be far less red and far more white and green outcomes. This would confirm our regular attenders as students achieving or bettering the Australian average in tests.

Skewed Holidays

In the Territory, a detractor from school attendance is the timing of annual family holidays. During school holiday periods airfares are at their peak with accommodation costs considerably hyped. It’s very expensive to holiday during the holiday season!

Many Territory families take their holidays during school time because to do so is considerably cheaper and more budget friendly. This is an economic decision and one easily understood – however it impacts on school attendance and detracts from student learning opportunities.

I have sometimes wondered whether, in the interests of education, airlines could be persuaded to up costs of travel during school term time and decrease airfares and packages during the student holiday season! I doubt this will ever happen, but I certainly wish it would!

Critical

Irregularity of student attendance in our schools is a major factor, one contributing significantly to reduced student learning outcomes. Sporadic attendance has a negative and challenging impact in far too many Territory Schools . Without doubt, greater attention to attendance and punctuality would lift our student learning outcomes.

Henry Gray

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SUN 5

THE IMPACT OF ‘GONSKI’ AND “BETTER SCHOOLS”

The Gonski “Better Schools” plan currently being debated within educational circles around Australia reflects Australian Government motivation and its desire to influence policy in what has been a significant State and Territory domain.

One of the things we always seem to assume in our thinking is that any “new” plan for educational development and advancement is the “first” plan that has been developed. To a greater or lesser extent we tend to welcome these “plans” with open arms, without considering the impact of earlier initiatives.

I believe the Gonski Plan is somewhat loose, because it commits futures funding, not dollars in the bank. It also prognosticates so far into the future as to be fraught with considerable uncertainty. There is no guarantee that the plan will become reality.

Discounting the past

Plans tend to build on assumptions that nothing in the past has ever worked. It often seems that Genesis 1:1 applies; we are always ‘in the beginning’ and starting over rather than building on what has gone before. Plans seem to be predicated by the fact nothing succeeds and all past intentions have failed.

Many good things have happened and are happening in education but we never seem to take these into account. We always seem to be breast beating, flailing ourselves over poor results. Planning to fix issues and overcome deficiencies is a major preoccupation – and one reinforced by urging under the “Better Schools” proposals.

“Better Schools” motivation

To me ‘Gonski’ and the “Better Schools” plan is largely about a determination on the part of the Australian Government to nationalise education, stripping initiative from States and Territories. In the interest of standardisation, that may have merit; however the way it is being done leaves a lot to be desired. Duress rather than appeal to reason seems to be a key element of negotiation. Barry O’Farrell the New South Wales Premier recently wrote (Australian Teacher June 2013) that the (then) Gillard Government was using a carrot and stick approach to education funding through the Gonski Model. From negotiations occurring between the Australia Government and our State and Territory Government leaders, this is obvious. At the very best this negotiation is based on “forceful persuasion”.

The issue of nationalisation

For a long time I have been of the belief that nationalisation offers a lot of positives. We have States and Territories vying with each other, vigorously upholding their own individualised and protected positions. This creates educational schism within our country, detracting from the notion of togetherness and cooperation. Within negotiation, there has been a manifest unwillingness by States and Territories and indeed the Federal Government to depart from specifically held viewpoints. Recognising the merit of alternatives does not appear to be on the radar.

Common sense suggests there would have been merit in a national curriculum, national teacher registration and then national testing. As it stands, testing came first. There is little accord on the subject of national curriculum. National teacher recognition including portability and transfer across State/Territory boundaries is a long way off. Things are being done in the wrong order!

Focus

What we need for education in our country is a certainty and confidence that at present does not exist. We also need to appreciate student qualities, teaching excellence and the good things being done for students by teachers and support staff in our schools. That WILL lead to better schools.

Henry Gray

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SUN 6

WHAT YOU SEE IS THE ICEBERG TIP

The work of teachers and school leaders often reminds me of an iceberg. An iceberg reveals only 10% of its mass. The other 90% is hidden beneath the water, visible only to marine creatures. In the same way what is seen of the work done by teachers and school leaders is 10% seen and 90% unseen.

Perception

The all too frequent public perception of teachers and school support staff is that they work for six hours each day five days a week. This 30 hour working week is complimented by 12 weeks “holiday” each year. Those working in schools are deemed to be people on Easy Street when it comes to occupational comparison.

There are of course some who appreciate the job of teaching and education as being in depth; however the idea that the job is rather superficial appears to be held by many people.

One of the criticisms heaped on teachers, support staff and school leadership teams is that teaching is an easy job, generating far too many rewards. I have heard people say that teachers should go and get themselves a “real job”. Letters to newspapers regularly decry teachers as being too well rewarded for the tasks they undertake.

What is entailed

Teaching is far more than what is depicted by the professions percentage of public visibility. In fact, teaching is but one small part of the educational equation. Detailed planning, preparation and programming, taking many hours of time, preceding the act of classroom teaching and direct engagement with students. Beyond teaching there is the recording of outcomes, (testing, measurement and assessment), review and then the considerations of revision and extension. These educational elements go well beyond teacher and pupil interaction in the class room.

After hours commitment

A drive past most schools before and after hours, on weekends and during holiday periods will reveal a growing number of parked teacher’s cars. Staff members are inside working on the huge number of tasks that embrace the teaching profession. Salary recognises teachers for around 37 hours per week, yet many in real terms many are working upwards of 60 hours during the same period.

These days, there are more and more meetings in which teachers and staff members are required to participate. Staff and unit meetings, moderation meetings, performance management meetings and a plethora of other gatherings have proliferated. Most are held outside the scope of the normal working day and week. Teachers organise extended excursions. They coach and manage teams and groups involved in sporting and cultural exchanges of several days duration. Preparation for their normal classes before going is part of the deal. They are part of fundraising activities, school council committees and school improvement planning groups. The list goes on.

A ‘giving’ profession

Unlike many occupations, teaching does not pay overtime. The incalculable number of unpaid hours devoted to their task by educators makes ‘giving’ one of the key characteristics of those engaged in the profession.

Don’t knock teachers and school staff members. They are selfless, giving and caring . Most teachers are there for others and without the work they do our society would be the poorer. Theirs is one of society’s linchpin professions.

Henry Gray
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