“SUNS” COLUMNS 33 – 36 ON EDUCATIONAL MATTERS

These columns were published in the Darwin/Palmerson/ Litchfield Suns in March and April 2014.

Readers are welcome to quote and use, but I would appreciate acknowledgement of the Suns Newspapers.
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ENTERPRISE BARGAINING – STILL A LONG WAY TO GO

The present industrial action confronting Northern Territory education is detracting from educational efforts within the public school sector. It is spoiling what should be oneness and unity between parties engaged in the education of children.

Both the NT Government and the Australian Education Union (NT) are presently trading verbal blows. Each is brick-batting the other while claiming the moral high ground in justifying their position.

Background

Every three or four years the Northern Territory Government and AEU negotiate an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) that establishes salary and employment conditions. It stands until the EBA expires and re-negotiation commences for the next period. This process is a part of the Australian industrial relations (IR) landscape. On occasion, the transition from one EBA to the next can be without major confrontation and therefore quite seamless. More often than not, the process is rocky and uncomfortable. Negotiations in the late eighties and again around 1996 were particularly gut-wrenching. The 2013/14 negotiation looks like being another that is protracted and bitter.

The process can, as has happened this time around, drag on for months and months. The ‘current’ EBA under which teachers are employed expired in August 2013. This means we are seven months into the ‘new’ period, while teachers continue to be employed under expired conditions. The time drag alone, confirms this negotiation as one on the negative side of the ledger.

The 2013/14 Stand-off

Movement toward a new EBA appears to have stalemated. A major sticking point from the AEU’s viewpoint is government intransigence about reinstating teacher positions removed from schools at the end of 2013. The union maintains that the impasse is about resources (namely the number of teachers employed in schools); salary is not the key issue. Government is responding by suggesting the union is misguided in its position. There is also a suggestion that the AEU(NT) is deliberately being counterproductive in negotiations, somewhat like ‘a fly in the ointment’.

There were strikes in the latter months of 2013, when teachers withdrew services. This necessitated some school closures, with others offering severely curtailed services on strike days. Last Friday saw a continuation of Territory-wide strike action into 2014.

The Present Situation

At the moment, the Northern Territory public-at-large have a perception of this dispute as being never-ending. They of course, are not party to negotiations going on behind the scenes. If things are moving, parents of children attending territory government schools are unaware of progress.

Grandstanding and brinkmanship are elements of the negotiation culture. The public are all too aware of the points-scoring methodologies being employed. Key players uphold their viewpoints while belittling the other party. In turn parents and community members align with the viewpoint of one party or the other. This is obvious from the spate of letters, online comments and texts appearing in the NT News. It is not a good look.

This dispute has galvanised public opinion in a way that may well tarnish the reputation of public education. For the past six or seven months, turbulence and uncertainty surrounding public education has contrasted starkly with the fact that everything seems to be tranquil and settled on the private schools front. This may well persuade some parents that ‘private’ is the better option for their children. That would be a pity. For the most part, government schools are good schools.

Where to from here?

It is to be hoped the EBA issue will soon be resolved. The Government (with the Education Department its mouthpiece) and the AEU( NT) cannot afford to further destroy good-will held for our schools and staff members. It is time this dispute was settled, but that will require give and take by both parties. It is time for the qualities of compromise and understanding to impact upon negotiations.
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SOCIAL PRESSURES DETRACT FROM EDUCATION

Matters relating to the appeal of education and schooling are often misunderstood. We also underestimate the challenges confronting today’s young people. Distractions on offer can and do take focus away from education and school.

Young people growing up today, do so in an increasingly complex world. We are constantly assailed with stories confirming the social challenges they face. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, SMS and other social media contexts engage them in a way that has many addicted for hours on end to ‘small screen’ sending and receiving text and picture messages. It seems few young people are seen without electronic gadgets to hand. Addiction to electronic devices disengages them from the real world.

Historically, school was often looked forward to by many children – indeed for some it was a real highlight. Social and recreational opportunities were not available as they are today. In 2014, invitations to young people that they concentrate on school and educational betterment can be seen as an offer of monotony and boredom.

Schools and staff are often criticised for the fact that schooling is not sufficiently effervescent and bubbling with excitement. The inference is that teachers have to be 100% responsible for motivating students. However the desire for deep learning has to come from within students themselves. While learning needs to be stimulating, there is more to education than tinsel and glitter. Unfortunately, the attractions of these modern times offer diversionary activities that have greater appeal than schooling routines.

Social pressures

Increasingly we read of social pressures placed on young people. Years ago smoking a cigarette behind the school shed or toilet was considered an act of bravado. Drugs as they confront today’s youth were a future issue. So too, the more liberal attitudes existing these days toward alcohol. While tobacco has become taboo, attitudes to an array of drugs and alcohol are liberal by comparison. While use of drugs within school environments is a ‘no, no’, that concern is not apparent within the wider community. I respect awareness programs offered at school. However, it seems that young people in social contexts, are ignoring educational advice and warnings.

Dunlevy’s findings

Sue Dunlevy a national health reporter, highlights the issue. She recently reported:
* One in three teens aged 12-17 are consuming alcohol even though illegal.
* In many cases parents were purchasing alcohol for their children.
* Principals are concerned about this major social problem ” … that could harm their children’s future and … developing brains.”
* Unsupervised parties lead to teenage drunkenness and drug use.
* The Australian Council on Drugs found this behaviour was often a fallout from cyber bullying.
* The survey found a significant amount of time is spent by teachers in the classroom trying to help students who drank on weekends catch up on their work or in dealing with disruptive behaviour while other students look on and wait.
* Students who drank alcohol and used other drugs came to school late, tired and often with a poor attitude. They were also in danger of developing a pattern of non-attendance.
* Three out of four schools run drug and alcohol education programs, so the effort to create awareness is significant.
(Dunlevy, ‘Drunk and confused: Weekend drinking is hitting the performance of our teenagers in schools’, Australian March 5)

Where to

There is much on offer educationally for young people. However, if students fail to see the importance of education, preferring to overly indulge in social and recreational pursuits, educational outcomes will suffer. Decisions young people make today have implications that will last a lifetime.
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BEWARE OF TECHNOLOGY TAKEOVER

Many years ago children were told there was ‘a place for everything and everything should be in it’s place.’ This simple yet wise suggestion can be applied in many contexts. Within education it is important to achieve balance between teaching and material resources available to support students. It is of concern that technological devices, important as they are, can be carried a mile too far when it comes to equipping schools and classrooms. We have reached a point where technology, in hardware and software terms, has become the dominant element within our classrooms.

Background

Computers were introduced to school classrooms during the 1980’s. Initially, schools set up dedicated computer rooms. Classes were rostored to have one or two periods each week in the room, often with a computer teacher. Students learned about computers and how to develop documents for print-out.

As the technology grew and computer products were refined, we moved to a number of units in each classroom. More time was devoted to student use of these tools. With the advent of iPads many schools moved toward each student having access to this technology on a 1:1 basis. In 2014, we would be hard pressed to find a computer or iPad deprived school. When electronic smart-boards and other support devices are added, the picture becomes one of schools thoroughly immersed at the technology font.

Cost Awareness

Without doubt the cost of purchasing and maintaining technological hardware has escalated to become a major budgetary item for most schools. There is a constant urge through advertising, for schools, to spend, spend, spend. This is exacerbated by the fact that the technology purchased is outmoded within months of being acquired. Advertising is enticing, appealing in almost the same way as a toy catalogue to children.

Add on costs are significant. Software is not cheap and neither are licences needed to authorise multiple users. Networks add significantly to program outlays. When maintenance needs are added to purchase costs, schools are faced with significant and ongoing budget commitment. Some of the expenditure is recouped through grants and support offered by the Department of Education. However, with financial controls ever tightening, the responsibility of cost management is increasingly a school responsibility.

Pitfalls

* Students tend to digress from what they should be doing with computer and iPads, drifting from learning regimes to entertainment sites. It is imperative that students sign agreements about use of search engines, with teachers monitoring that commitment. Engaging with inappropriate sites can lead to big problems.
* Games sites need to reinforce and extend student learning. They need to have an educational purpose. Entertainment programs without educational merit defocus students and waste learning time.
* Misuse of technology by students can lead to cyber bullying and other inappropriate online conduct. Cyber bullying has reached epidemic proportions.
* Students working on topics can be lulled into thinking that googling the topic, then cutting, uploading and pasting segments from existing sources into the text they are developing is fine. It isn’t! It is important that students think about and own their work, in order to understand topics. There is a distinct danger they could become plagiarists, taking the ideas of others and using them without source acknowledgement.
* Spell-checking and grammatical correctness are automated tools in many software packages. It is entirely possible for students to create and edit text, without understanding what they have written.

Computers, iPads and other devices can help support learning. However, they should always be used with care by students, under teacher oversight.
There is every chance that gadgets can become relied on to the extent they diminish learning and detract from student outcomes. Balanced use is absolutely essential.
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LOOKING THE PART

The NSW Department of Education has recently bought into the issue of teacher dress. This was reported in the NT News last week. (“No thongs as teachers told to dress the part”). The story reported that “shabby, tattered and revealing clothes will be banned in class under a mandatory dress code for public school teachers. T-shirts, ripped jeans, strapless dresses and mid-riff tops will be banned … with male teachers required to wear collars…”

The issue of dress

The issue of dress standards for teachers and students is one that does the rounds of most systems. It is a talking point for principals, teachers, students and community. The Northern Territory is no exception. A number of years ago the Northern Territory Department of Education, at the behest of Government, introduced uniform requirements for students. Until then it was a case of “Raffertys rules” and anything goes. It was left up to principals and school communities to develop dress codes, which varied from school to school. Nothing other than exhortation could be used to try and maintain that code.

When introduced a number of years ago, uniform rules required primary school students to be in full uniform. Middle School students were expected to wear a school T-shirt but there was no other stipulation for dress requirements. I’d call that a “half uniform” requirement. The situation for Senior Secondary schools (year 10 to 12) still remains that any clothing will do, with students expected to dress appropriately.

Students attending private schools are required to wear full school uniform. Their uniforms are distinctive and add a quality of distinction to the student group.

Public school situation

Teacher dress is left to personal discretion. The expectation is that teachers will dress to reflect their profession. While this happens in the majority of cases, dress issues arise from time to time. If there is an issue, school leadership teams have to be careful not to impinge on the rights of the individual or transgress in terms of impacting upon privacy. I found the need to speak about dress standards could be done diplomatically and in a non-offensive way. When raising the issue with female staff members, it was appropriate to have a female member of our leadership group discuss the matter with the teacher in order to avoid embarrasment.

There is a variation in dress standards between urban and remote area teachers. The question of shorts, thongs, T-shirts (as compared with collared or dress shirts) comes into play for men. Similar variations apply for female attire. I personally believe that people in remote area schools are respected by members of their communities when they dress as they would in an urban school. Dressing appropriately and comfortably is important. However, standards should never be abrogated.

Reflection

The way in which students and teachers dress certainly reflects upon their schools and communities. I have been told on a number of occasions of the variance between dress standards of teachers in private schools compared with their public school counterparts. That may not be the case but it is certainly a perception. It may also be one of the factors that attracts parents of school age children toward the private sector.

One of the “niceties” about some schools is that support staff members (and in some case teachers) wear uniform shirts identifying them with their schools. The wearing of uniform by students certainly links them with their schools. Uniform also confirms the pride students have in the schools they attend. Dress can be an element that promotes the awareness of particular schools. That may persuade parents with enrolment intentions.

Certainly, the uniform policy developed for students has been uplifting and positive. Whether or not the Northern Territory ever follows the example of New South Wales with regard to clothing standards remains to be seen.

The issue of dress is certainly one taken by community to show the level and degree of respect that people have for their profession. Dressing the part is of consequence.

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