EDUCATION FUNDING PRIORITIES NEED REVAMP

This was published in the NT Sun on November 13, 2018.

EDUCATION FUNDING PRIORITIES NEED REVAMP

There has been a significant change in the setting of funding priorities for schools during the past ten years.

Prior to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008, it was extraordinarily difficult to attract money for school capital works programs. Principals and school councils were often frustrated by the delays in gaining initial approval. Generally works were included in treasury’s forward estimates.

In some cases, approved works remained in abeyance for so long, they were re-announced as new initiatives before gaining final funding approval.

Minor New Works programs for infrastructure projects up to $250,000 were similarly queued for lengthy periods of time.

The GFC consigned this scenario to history. In order to stimulate building and construction, the Federal Government created the Building Education Revolution (BER).
Many billions of dollars were released to state and territory educational systems. ‘Build, build build, like there is no tomorrow’ became the order of the day. Along with all educational authorities, the NT Education Department was overwhelmed with BER money.Funds were allocated for major construction in every Northern Territory school.

A BER downside was the prescription placed on the use of money. Buildings had to be for science laboratories, school libraries, classrooms, assembly halls and physical facilities. When particular schools had higher priorities they were discounted. Timelines attached to the program required projects to be completed and funds expended by specific dates. This meant that building and construction programs had to be undertaken during term time disrupting school programs, in some cases for weeks on end.

Although the BER is now history, there has been a significant shift in funding priorities for NT schools. Compared with pre BER days, it seems that limitations on capital and minor new works funding have been relaxed.

Government tenders in the NT News each Wednesday confirms that money is being allocated for playground equipment, shade structures, irrigation upgrades and other works that were rarely funded in past times.
Previously, it had been up to school communities to fundraise for these ventures.

It is a worry that major funding for schools seems to be based on the fact that projects must support the building, construction, and infrastructure industry. There is a need for funding to recognise and support teaching and learning programs in classrooms. The ‘heart’ of the school is the teaching/learning interface. Buildings and facilities are necessary but should not be prioritised to the detriment of core learning needs.

Funding balance is important. While facilities are necessary, the support of students through classroom programs must not be compromised.

NT EDUCATION MUST NOT BE SEGMENTED

This piece was published in the ‘NT Sun’ on June 12 2018

NT EDUCATION MUST NOT BE SEGMENTED

Michael Gunner’s thoughts about Indigenous Education that could be included in a treaty worry me greatly. If a treaty were to eventuate, the Chief Minister suggests that schools in indigenous communities could be given the right to run themselves. “The Government (would provide) money for education and the community (would take) responsibility for how it is delivered locally. Locals could take control of the curriculum … control of children attending school, teachers employed and seeing even more locals becoming teachers.” (Gunner will sign treaty, Sunday Territorian, 3.6.2018) In her story, Judith Aisthorpe reported that several people in high places thought this to be a great idea.

To declare all remote area schools as ‘independent’ and being able to set their own curriculum priorities would be a step backward, not forward. If still working as an educator in remote areas, schools set up under such loose guidelines would be places where I would not want to work.

Some years ago, a Territory politican who represented remote communities, offered a counterpoint. He said that in a mainstream Australian society, English Literacy and Mathematical understanding were key skills. They were necessary for transactional purposes. They were also skills all Australians needed for communication and survival.

Mr Gunner’s suggestions run counter to advice given to me by Aboriginal people in communities where we worked. They wanted ‘proper’ education. A prominent Indigenous Leader at Angurugu in the early 1980’s put it this way. “We want our children to be educated in the same way as children in towns and cities.” That was the brief with which we were charged. There is a place for bilingualism and for education to be culturally relevant. But to deny the need for competence in literacy and numeracy would be totally wrong.

This can only happen if a curriculum emphasising key academic skills is supported by qualified teachers. It is absolutely essential that families play their part by ensuring regular school attendance.

One of the downsides for Indigenous Education (and indeed for education as a whole) is that it has become politically cluttered. Those with and those without qualification feel it necessary to add their opinion to educational debate. People working in schools are busy reacting to what comes down as directives from on high. They have little opportunity to contribute meaningfully to sharing the realities of schools and programs. To uncouple education from an approved Australian curriculum supported by qualified teachers would further weaken remote area education which is already challenged.

STRESS NEEDS TO BE MANAGED

This was published in the ‘NT Sun’ on 30 January 2018.

 

 

STRESS NEEDS TO BE MANAGED

Teaching is a very stressful job. A great deal of that is due to the increasing demands placed on schools and teachers.

Whenever issues of community concern are raised, schools and staff are expected to be fixers. The most recent example of this is the expectation that schools will take the issue of cyberbullying on board and immediately fix the problem.

This will add to a requirement that on the first day of every semester, principals have to inservice all staff on the subject of any inappropriate conduct they might see happening to any child they teach. All staff and those connected with schools have to sign a disclaimer that they have been inserviced and understand their responsibilities to report any and all concerns about student well-being.

These requirements add to educational expectations held for schools and teachers. Curriculum requirements are being constantly broadened and deepened. Content is regularly tweaked and modified to include changes and this also comes with the need for school staff inservice. Professional development is occupying more and more time for teachers either before or after teaching time. Periods of weekend and holiday time are increasingly taken up by compulsory professional development requirements.

A drive past most schools early on most mornings, after hours, during weekends and at holiday times confirms that many teachers and support staff seem to spend almost more time at work than at home. This may be necessary in order for staff to meet obligations, but it distorts life and work balance.

There have been significant educational developments in the Territory since self government in 1978. While some changes have been excellent, others have been insufficiently considered. One of the major and ongoing issues has been an exponential increase in workload levels for school leaders, teachers and support staff.

This overload is due to the fact that advice offered during the 1980’s was ignored. We were told by an experienced educator, Jim Spinks, that our system and schools were in danger of being overwhelmed if we simply added things into curriculum requirements and dumped on teachers. Spinks said that order to achieve educational balance, we also needed to drop some requirements off school agendas.

The school year should be one where balance is considered. If not, teacher stress and lack of wellbeing will continue to be major issues.

 

EDUCATIONAL DISAFFECTION A REAL ISSUE

 

Published in NT Suns on October 17 2017

 

EDUCATIONAL DISAFFECTION A REAL ISSUE

Rather than being straightforward, education these days has become a kaleidoscope of confusion. Many graduate teachers are quickly disappointed by the realities of a teaching profession that fails to meet their preconceptions.

Rather than finding that teaching is about “teaching”, they discover there is a huge emphasis placed on testing, measurement, assessment and evaluation, often of areas outside their teaching fields. It seems the children are forever being monitored and confronted by batteries of tests.

It quickly becomes obvious to teachers that education is being driven by data. Teaching and teaching methods are dictated by data requirements.

Academic competence is important. However holistic education (the social, emotional and moral/spiritual elements) seem to be given scant attention. Graduate teachers have a strong desire to work as developers of children. Many are quickly disillusioned because education seems to be about a fairly narrow band of academic outcomes.

For many graduate teachers, the gloss of teaching soon wears off. They find themselves unable to cope with the ‘teaching for test’ dimension that now underpins education. The brief years they spend in classrooms are disillusioning. In turn, they may share their perceptions of the teaching profession with others, negatively influencing their thoughts and opinions.

The discounting of their observations is a hard reality for classroom practitioners to accept. Unless verified by formal testing, teacher evaluations are considered to be be invalid.

Preoccupation with the formalities testing and examination are not always priorities generated by schools. Rather, requirements are set by departmental administrators and schools have to comply. In turn, these priorities are not necessarily what administrators want, but are a compulsory response to the demands of politicans.

Sadly, Australian education is deeply rooted in the art of comparing results at primary, secondary and tertiary level with those achieved by students in overseas systems. Often those students are from countries totally unlike Australia, but that is not taken into account. The fact that educational objectives are dictated by comparison to overseas systems is an undoing of Australian education.

Education should be about the needs of children and not influenced by the desire of political leaders and top educationists to brag about how good Australia education is, compared to other systems. Many graduate teachers find themselves caught up as players in this approach, quickly wise up, and quit the profession. Our students are the losers and perceptions of education are sadly discoloured.

This column was published in the ‘NT Suns’ on October 3 2017

 

REPORTING TIMES ARE IMPORTANT MILESTONES

Reporting on student progress is a top priority. It has been traditional for schools to offer parents written reports at the end of each semester, in June and December. Most schools report orally through parent teacher interviews toward the end of terms one and three.

Change over time

In the 1970’s and into the early 80’s, reports for primary school children were standardised and handwritten. They were issued twice each year. Parent teacher interviews either did not form part of the reporting process or were in their infancy.

Since those beginnings, changes have been adopted as schools endeavoured to recognise and report to parents on current educational curriculum and reporting methods. Schools have developed their own reporting documentation, but are required to report on key areas determined by the department.

Handwritten reports are a thing of the past, computer generated reports the ‘in thing’. Preparing the twice yearly reports for printing and distribution should be easy. However, technical glitches that invariably occur can make the exercise quite nightmarish. One of the most common template glitches is that data, once entered, cannot be edited or changed. High levels of concentration are necessary and document preparation is often a fatiguing process.

Reporting priorities

A very high priority is placed on reporting by the Education Department. Reports issued at the end of each semester take many weeks to prepare and finalise. The process is very time consuming.

The reporting focus is on academic outcomes, with achievement being the main area targeted. They are often wordy, but according to many parents lacking in substance. Reports are often criticised for use of jargon and ‘eduspeak’ which make it hard for parents to interpret what is being said.
The inclusion of comments relating to student effort, attitude, conduct and character development is held to be less important than once was the case. That is unfortunate because there is much more to the development of young people than academics.

Accountability

Students need to be held accountable for their attitude and effort toward schooling. Progress and development is personal, with reports showing just how much students are doing toward their personal self development and progress.

The most effective reporting is that which focusses on conversation and understanding between students, parents and staff. Nothing is better than a partnership where responsibilities are shared, appreciation exists and positive outcomes are enjoyed. Ideally, reporting should be about celebrating student progress and achievement.

School Based Policing Needs a Revamp

 

 

 

An edited version of this comment was published in the ‘NT Suns’ on 26 September 2017.

SCHOOL BASED POLICE PROGRAM NEEDS REVAMP

The reduction and diminishment of the once strong School Based Constables (SBC) program available to NT schools is regrettable. A strong element of support was offered to urban and some rural schools over the years through this program. Attached to high schools, each School Based Constable (SBC) had a number of feeder primary schools he or she attended. Constables would visit their schools to conduct Drug and Alcohol Education (DARE) classes with children. They extended their role to include stranger danger awareness and issues such as bullying. Children used to appreciate ‘their’ constable in a way that helped them build positive feelings toward police. In turn, constables learned a lot about community matters of which they needed to be aware. Many potential problems were nipped in the bud because of advanced awareness.

Sadly and with the passing of time, this program has been redefined and significantly dismantled. School Based Police these days are known as Community and Youth Engagement Officers (CYEOS). They are no longer based in schools but visit (a lot less frequently than in the past) from suburban and town police stations. DARE programs have lapsed, along with the contribution SBC’s made to the sharing of children’s learning and the development of their attitudes.

The ‘personality’ of this program, was such that while adults may have had adverse attitudes about police, their children were developing positive attitudes about the force.

The ‘community’ aspect of their revamped role, involves CYEOS in work that has to do with the safety and security of homes. This aims at crime reduction and dealing with issues confronting householders. While necessary, these activities stretch the officers and have meant less time being available for activities in schools.

A point of alarm is that the training of police to fill this particular role has been largely discontinued. It may not be long before the program, one of Territory significance and copied by state and overseas jurisdictions, will be extinct.

A police sponsored program, the Blue Light Disco, has been reduced in urban areas. The program was also been rationalised for schools within our remote communities. The emphasis on Blue Light Discos is a sad loss.
Not only has this program filled an important place in the lives of young people but in social and recreational terms, has given them an enjoyable, supervised outing. I believe in recent times there has been a rescheduling of some Blue Light discos.

The reinstatement of School Based Policing as it was previously organised would be a step in the right direction.

SCHOOL STAFFING A 40 YEAR OLD YO-YO

 

Edited version published in the NT Suns on September 5 2017

 

SCHOOL STAFFING A 40 YEAR OLD YO-YO

It’s on again! For the past 40 plus years, the issue of class sizes has occupied the minds of educators. The subject is one that has dominated the thinking of parents, classroom teachers, principals and system administrators. Documenting the changes that have taken place in both primary and secondary schools, urban and rural over the years, would fill the pages of a large book.

The argument about class sizes grows from educational theory and classroom practice. It includes issues of student age and ability. It differentiates between desk based learning and more practical lessons requiring the engagement of specialist teachers and equipment.

The current Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) between the Department of Education and teachers is due to expire in October. Among changes being sought by the Australian Education Union (NT) is for Territory class sizes to be reduced from 27 to 25.

The NT Government became responsible for administering Territory Education in 1979. During the 38 years since, there have been innumerable expansions and contractions in class sizes. These changes have been endorsed as part of the process attached to policy management and shifts in educational priorities.

The staffing formula once used to determine teacher entitlement took one side of an A4 page. In recent years, that has changed. Calculating exact teacher numbers for schools is no longer a simple process. It is one that has been made more complex by the fact that student classification (including special teaching needs and behaviour management) is taken into account when determining staff entitlements for each school. What was a simple process is now a complex issue.

Practical matters also cloud staffing considerations. When teachers are absent, it is not always possible to employ relief staff to cover classes. There are generally more positions in schools to be filled than relief teachers available for employment. Relief teachers will not always accept employment because of travel difficulties and other problems.

When causal teachers are not available, groups may have to be split, with students adding to the numbers in other classes. For primary, middle and senior schools, teachers may have to forego release time.
Assigning specialist teachers to general classroom teaching duties is another ‘solution’, that while necessary, is certainly not desirable. It can mean program changes and students missing out on art, music, physical education and other specialised subjects.

It is one thing to develop a formula for class sizes and another altogether to make it work.