Edited version published in NT Suns on August 22 2017

 

ABSENCE MAY BE UNAVOIDABLE

 

The issue of school attendance in both remote and urban school situations is one continuing to attract attention. That has been so for the past 40 years. Solutions are proposed but often not followed up by authorities.

In 2009 the enrolment of school age children became compulsory. However, there are still many school aged children in the Territory who have never been enrolled.

For children in urban schools, absence for a host of reasons occurs during term time . A major factor is that of families taking holidays during school terms when airfares and accomodation are cheaper. Attendance can be a problem for all schools.

Lead from the front

Principals, school leadership teams and school councils need to be proactive when dealing with attendance issues. One strategy that works, is to encourage students on term time holidays, to develop a travelogue covering their experiences. This helps reinforce the learning children do while on family travels. Using media (photos and videos) to embellish adventures, adds to the written word. Trip diaries can be shared with classes and may even attract commendation and awards from classroom teachers and principals.

With a little imagination and by recognising travel as providing learning opportunities, these times away from school can become significant learning journeys for children.

While some parents request holiday assignments and worksheets, these are often not completed. That does not justify the time and effort taken by staff setting up these individual programs.

More than legislation needed

Legislating to solve attendance problems can be pretentious. The Tasmanian Government has decreed that from the beginning of 2018, no family holidays during term time will be allowed. Families will be liable for penalties of up to $2000 if they fail to follow this attendance directive.

Tasmania could have learned from the NT. We have legislation about school attendance, but when tested in court it has had very limited success. Further, the many steps that have to be actioned prior to any court hearing, are both lengthy and onerous.

There needs to be some follow up for all students on this issue, including recognition of children with outstanding attendance records. Mention in school newsletters and the presentation of merit certificates are two ways of acknowledging conscientious attenders. However, absences which result from family circumstances ought not be punitively treated. Encouraging children toward educational enrichment through their travels is a better option.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NAPLAN DETRACTS FROM EDUCATION

An edited version of vthis paper was published in the NT Suns on August 15, 2017  

 

NAPLAN DETRACTS FROM EDUCATION

NAPLAN outcomes and results are again in the spotlight. Media is involved in reporting and commentating on state, territory and overall Australian results. As usual, the NT is shown as being on the bottom rung of the performance ladder.

School Educators in the NT are made to spend far too much time dealing with the issues of NAPLAN preparation and fallout. Preparation for the May tests in reading, writing and mathematics is on from the first day of every school year. While the key focus is on children in years three, five, seven and nine, whole schools and their communities are affected by preparation for NAPLAN as the number one priority on Australia’s educational calendar. It seems at times that little else matters.

There is a lot more to student development than these tests, yet NAPLAN envelopes the annual educational calendar. System leaders talk of the importance of teaching methodologies and strategies that lead to enhanced student results and data improvement in tested fields. The agendas of staff meetings in many schools are dominated by a preoccupation with data outcomes. Meetings of principals and school leaders have, for many years, had the issues of NAPLAN and data very high on discussion agendas.

After ten years and the expenditure of billions of dollars on NAPLAN, very little has changed. In terms of comparison with the rest of the world, Australian student performance is at best, mediocre to poor. A few schools here and there celebrate. Most of these are in green belts that boast community stability and family affluence.

Comparasion specialists seem to get a great deal of satisfaction from pointing the finger at the NT because of our coverall results that place us last on any comparative table. This negative approach goes all the way back to the ‘seas of red’ (school underperformance) that used to attract a double page spread in the NT News.

Few people ever stop to think about how students feel about this testing regime. Without doubt, children are pressured by constant talk of testing, particularly when so much of the conversation is about negative outcomes. They must also become both frustrated and bored by the constant practice commencing many months prior to May’s testing week.

There should be much, much more to education than an annual reporting regime, magnified beyond its real worth.

 

MONEY MANAGEMENT CONSUMES SCHOOL LEADERS

Published in edited form in NT Suns on August 8 2017.

MONEY MANAGEMENT CONSUMES SCHOOL LEADERS

From time to time, what appear to be mixed messages about money and its availability to schools gains traction in the media. People might be forgiven for believing that the matter of money for education means that all aspects of school programs are covered and money management is not as issue.

That is far from being the case. While global budgets gave principals and school councils greater autonomy in the way money was spent, there are obligations that mean care has to be taken with expenditure. Utility costs (power and water) and contractual needs ( cleaning and grounds maintenance) have to be met. Checks and balances have to be in place to ensure that money is on hand to meet these periodic accounts.

Without careful planning and awareness, school budgets can be prematurely drained. Allocations are received twice each year, with income having to meet accounts to be presented in the following months. Detailed planning is necessary because cost accountability is each school’s responsibility.

Global school budgets were implemented in Northern Territory Government schools in 2015 to reduce red tape and provide schools with increased autonomy. The Education Department identifies three benefits for schools.

“• increased flexibility and autonomy in decision making
• a clearer financial framework for use in planning
• greater certainty and visibility of the overall resources available to the school including staffing.” (Department of Education website)

School budgets are based on student needs. School location and the specific
needs of each child are taken into account. The following factors help determine the amount
received by each school.

• year level of students
• Indigenous status
• socio-economic status and community affluence.
• remoteness of the school.

The system aims at being fair and simple, but there are issues.

Staffing is one of the main problem areas. The salary allocation for each school is fixed, but pay rates and entitlements for teachers and support staff are variable. More experienced staff command higher salaries than those who are in their initial years of service. In order to save on salaries and spread staffing dollars, school councils may consider replacing experienced teachers with those beginning their teaching journey. While employment for permanent teachers can be guaranteed, those on contract do not have similar security of tenure.

Making sure there is sufficient money to meet every need is a challenge. Principals can become so busy with administration, they don’t have time to be the educational leaders they aim to be.

 
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TEACHERS ARE UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

 

TEACHERS ARE UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

Teaching comes under more external scrutiny than any other profession. This is quite aside from professional development and performance management requirements set by professional organisations and education departments. are also standards and expectations set by AITSL that teachers are urged to attain. This goal setting is supported by both education departments and professional organisations.

There is a great deal happening happening otherwise that adds to observation and evaluation of teachers. Included is the development of personal plans that consider the effectiveness of each staff member. Individual plans for continual growth and development derive from these meetings. Teachers and staff members are encouraged to self evaluate, measuring themselves against these plans. Everything about these processes takes account of AITSL recommendations for personal and organisational growth and development.

In an effort to build confidence in teachers and schools, parents and members of the public are encouraged to quite minutely scrutinise what is on offer within our classrooms. I believe teachers are willing to share with parents, appreciating the opportunity to converse with them about classroom programs and children’s progress. However, this needs to be done at a time appropriate to both parents and teachers. Conversations on issues with teachers at the start of the school day, while classes are in progress and immediately the school days concludes, are not possible. Teachers are preoccupied with their students and learning at these times. Conversations work best when parents make appointments through school front offices to meet with teachers. There are also programmed parent – teacher interview sessions at least twice each year.

In the interest of fairness, parents and caregivers should initially raise matters with teachers before going higher. Similarly, if the issue is one involving school leadership, the first call should be to the principal or a member of the school leadership team. If issues raised are not able to be resolved at those levels, taking the matter up at a higher level is then appropriate.

School leaders, teachers and support staff act with the best interests of students in mind. To this end, most schools are doing a commendable job.

 

Edited version published in the Suns newspaper (NT) on July 11 2017.

 

 

 

DON’T FORCE UNDERSTANDING

This column was published (with abridgment) in the NT Suns on June 20 2017.

DON’T FORCE UNDERSTANDING

We need to be very careful that the development of young children is not detrimental. Little children need time to absorb and to understand the world into which they are growing. In these modern times, that world is increasingly complex and difficult to understand. There is a tendency on the part of many to advocate the ‘forcing’ of learning and understanding on children before they are mature enough to grasp concepts.

Recent Early Childhood supplements in the NT News and the Suns point to the wisdom of gradually presenting learning opportunities to children. Articles in these supplements laid stress on the importance of play and providing relaxed, enjoyable places of learning for young children. The building within them of a desire to learn and having confidence in their learning, will not come if unduly hastened. ‘Force feeding’ knowledge into children goes against both common sense and espoused recommendations.

A significant point made in the Suns EC supplement was that ‘Play makes a lasting impact’. That article went on to confirm that “skills developed through quality early childhood education last a lifetime.” The critical importance of quality parenting, well prepared educators and empathetic schools count for a lot, in terms of young children growing up.

Against this backdrop of thoughtful reflection about development, come Australian Government directives that amount to premature expectation and force feeding of knowledge beyond the ability of young children to comprehend.

There are two recent examples of this imposition. The first was Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s decision that all preschool children in Australia should be introduced to the Japanese Language. How can little children possibly comprehend ‘Japan’ and the ‘why’ of this language, when they are still in the initial stages of literacy development in our mother tongue. A directive like this is confusing for them and distorts their key educational needs.

More recently PM Turnbull has decided that ” three year olds in childcare and students from preschool … upwards will be taught about suicide awareness and mental health … .” ( “Aussie youngsters get mental health boost’, NT News, 8.6.17) Specific suicide discussion could happen with children as young as 8 years of age. Introducing children to complexities beyond their comprehensive ability poses distinct risks. It is far better to provide for the emergence of happiness and satisfaction through carefully structured learning experiences, than attempting to educate through hastily conceived programs.

KEEP, CELEBRATE OUR SPECIAL DAYS

Published in the NT Suns in June 2017. This is the unedited text.

 

WE MUST CELEBRATE OUR SPECIAL DAYS

School principals and staff members are increasingly confronted by the issue of recognising and celebrating special days on our Australian calendar. Christmas and New Year coincide with school holiday periods and do not impact during term times. Others, including Australia Day, Easter, Anzac Day, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day take place during the school year. They are acknowledged in classroom programs and by schools.

Historically, there was no problem with celebrating these occasions. As a matter of course, classroom teachers covered them as days of significance. Australia Day, coming at the start of the school year, was a day recognising a period of changing direction in Australia’s history. Acknowledging and appreciating contemporary Australians and their contribution to society became part of the celebration. Easter cards, letters and cards for mothers and fathers and ANZAC commemorations were regarded as thanks and appreciation opportunities. Easter was about Jesus’ character of sacrifice and forgiveness. ANZAC recognition focussed on our defence force, their families and their selflessness in upholding peace and security. Mothers and Fathers days are timely reminders of the important part parents play in the upbringing of children.

In recent years, community resistance to celebrating these days has been rising to the surface. Some people see Australia Day as having negative connotations for Aboriginal Australians. Easter, in recognising our traditional religious base, could be embarrassing to migrants and others who have alternative belief systems. Others may use ANZAC Day as a chance to comment negatively on the roles played by governments in denying entry to some who would like to call Australia home. Finally, the celebration of mothers and fathers is seen by some as failing to recognise single parent families and families of same sex parents.

The character of Australia’s population has changed. We now have a truly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic population. The definition of ‘family’ is changing. Our evolving society has become more empathetic and aware of the role filled by Aboriginal Australians which was misunderstood for a long time.

While some modifications may be wise, there is no way our special days of celebration should be vacated. Abrogation would be very unfair on people and their need to rejoice as Australians in the country we call home.  Part of this is recognising values, beliefs and people who contribute as family and societal members, to the growth, progress and well being of our country. Broadening the scope of celebrated days to incorporate our diversity would be a wise option.

 

CHILDREN NEEED CONFIDENCE AND REASSURANCE

Column published in NT Suns June 6 2017

CHILDREN NEED CONFIDENCE AND REASSURANCE

A prime focus of education is planning towards meeting the future needs of children. Preparing children and young people to become tomorrow’s adults and leaders is a key educational commission. This should be a shared responsibility involving parents on the home front and teachers in our schools. Taking advantage of learning opportunities is also a responsibility resting on the shoulders of students. Parents and teachers offer development and educational opportunities for children but cannot do the learning for them.

In a world of educational pressures and global confusion, it is important to be careful and responsible in planning learning opportunities. Part of this is to offer a stable and understandable environment. The opportunity to ‘grow through play’ and the way in which children learn to understand the wider world are both important.

Play

The importance of play and social interaction children have with each other is sometimes discounted. Abundant research confirms that children learn about the world through play. This along with other stimuli supports their social, emotional and moral/spiritual growth. Young people can be and often are exposed to the pressures of academics too early in life. Making haste slowly and ensuring these other elements are taken into account, supports the stable development of young people. Pressuring children academically might produce ‘high fliers’. However, confidence and maturity come from socialising and play, without which children can be left in isolation. Playing together is one way children begin to understand one another and the world into which they are growing.

Unease

In these troubled times children’s self confidence needs to be supported by parents and teachers. Distressing events, particularly terrorist attacks, climatic catastrophes and other disasters have an unsettling effect on everyone. This is particularly the case for children who can and do become distressed by such events. Trying to shield young people from these events or attempting to brush them off, will only heighten their anxieties.
Awareness of terrifying events creates distress which “… may be shown in all sorts of ways.
This can include aches and pains, sleeplessness, nightmares, bed wetting, becoming … snappy or withdrawn or not wanting to be separated from their parents.” (Parry and Oldfield, ‘How to talk to children about terrorism’ The Conversation, 27/5/17)

Children need the confidence and understanding that grows from play and they need reassurance about the good things in a world into which they are growing. It’s up to adults to see that both these needs are met.