NEW IDEAS ARE OLD HAT
Hardly a day passes without us becoming aware of a major educational change or new initiative. Change impacts on systems, schools, teachers and students. Some change is necessary, with implementation of new ideas definitely adding value to educational practice. However, many initiatives are more about change for change’s sake, while other ‘new’ ideas have been tried, applied and discarded in times past.
The most obvious recycled change in NT Education is that of our departmental title. When responsibility for system administration was passed from the Commonwealth to the Territory Government in 1978, we were known as the Department of Education. Since then the department has had numerous name changes. We have been the Department of Education and Training (DET), Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) and the Department of Education and Children’s Services (DECS) to name a few titles. In 2014 we returned to 1978, again being the Department of Education (DoE).
The costs associated with departmental re-branding are astronomical. The system has spent hundred of thousands of dollars in returning its name to exactly what it was 36 years ago.
Our department has changed its structure and re-vamped its organisational chart, time and time again since 1978. Some of the shifts include the following:
* Education has gone from centralised to decentralised models of operation. Regional models have changed on at least three occasions.
* Curriculum services have been expanded, reduced and expanded again on a regular basis.
* Teaching and learning priorities are being constantly reviewed and changed, with alterations making it extremely difficult for teachers to focus on any one approach in key subject areas for any length of time.
* Student services which supports children with special needs has been similarly destabilised.
* The system and its schools has moved from linear classrooms to the open plan model, returning to single classrooms and back again in a dizzying manner.
* Technology is in a constant state of change. Hardware systems and associated software are never the same for long.
* There is quite constant locational movement within our Department. Divisions are regularly moved from one location to another.
The question needing to be answered is whether constant change is necessary or takes place to satisfy the whims of people moving into new positions as departmental heads or school leaders.
Change is very costly. The department and its schools need to carefully consider budgets and priorities before committing to change related expenditure.
* Changes in curriculum emphasis means an outlay of many thousands of dollars to purchase the latest materials. New approaches often vary little from what has been superseded, but existing resources are generally dumped rather than being modified.
* Technology upgrades come with an astronomical price tag.
* Changes to school architecture consume tens of thousands of dollars.
* Relocation and office shifting within the department ensures almost permanent engagement for some removalists.
Change needs to be carefully considered. Importantly, incoming leaders and those promoted to senior positions should study the history of what has happened in the past. They are likely to find their new ideas and changing priorities have already been tried and discarded. The education of children is best served by a steady, predictable system rather than one becoming destabilised through constant change.
EBA INACTION IS NOT GOOD FOR EDUCATION
The present dispute existing between the Northern Territory Government and the Northern Territory Branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU(NT)) has reached a point of stalemate. Since negotiations for a new EBA commenced in September 2013 there has been an ongoing tussle between Government and the Union. On the one hand, the AEU(NT) insists that Government reinstate teachers removed from senior secondary schools at the beginning of 2014. It was contended that teacher loss would remove some program options available to students and unfairly load other staff who would have to pick up the shortfall. The Government has insisted the disputation is really about salary increases and condemns the union for not accepting pay rises on behalf of all teachers.
I believe union thrust is primarily about the staffing quotient, not simply the salary issue. Thirty five (35) teachers were removed from senior secondary schools. Over the years, there have been many changes to staffing formulae, including both decreases and increases of teacher to pupil ratios. This change generated more than the usual outcry.
Staffing reductions for the 2014 school year impacted on the senior secondary sector. Primary school staff have always been more accommodating of staff loss than their secondary colleagues, who zealously guard the boundaries of their conditions. Non-acceptance of the EBA on the grounds of its staffing impact has resulted.
This scenario has been playing out in the Territory for nearly twelve months and doesn’t look like being resolved any time soon. Both the union and government have run extensive print media advertisements espousing their viewpoints on the issue. There have been radio bulletins and television interviews. These have added to community confusion because people do not know what to think about the matter.
This is particularly the case for many new arrivals who have been in the NT for less than twelve months. What they have walked into is an ugly issue portraying public education in a bad light. For them and indeed for many long term Territory residents, the alternative of private education with its greater stability becomes the preferred enrolment option for their children. There has been an upturn in private school numbers, due in part to the non-resolution of the EBA issue. Perceptions of instability in government schools caused by this dispute, is harming public
EBA negotiations were distracted by the Blain by-election, where the matter became embedded in statements and positions on education made by candidates. Indeed the AEU(NT) President Matthew Cranich took leave to stand as an independent candidate. The union executive, responsible for EBA campaign then put this industrial issue on the back-burner while it sorted out internal matters. With the arrival of a new president still to take up his position, the dispute will again be re-visited.
Semester two will commence with EBA issues again front and centre for the union. Undoubtedly, negotiations with the Public Service Commissioner will recommence. Teachers are still working and being paid under an agreement which expired in August 2013. There are many hoping resolution will come sooner rather than later, enabling government and union to work together as one, rather than pulling public opinion and public education in opposite directions.