EDUCATION FUNDING SHOULD BE BALANCED

EDUCATION FUNDING SHOULD BE BALANCED

Over the years, “steady state” advancement and predictability have not been hallmarks of education. Nowhere is this better illustrated then in respect of providing physical facilities.

Prior to 2000, it was extremely difficult to obtain capital works money for major school improvements. Budgets were limited and competition for building programs quite fierce. Rejection and deferments of funding submissions were common and approvals rare. It was not unusual for a program costed at say $4 million, to be funded to a level of $2 or $3 million without the full amount being approved.

Applications for Minor New Works had no guarantee of being approved. Repairs and maintenance money carried qualifications and could not be used for everything that needed fixing. In total, the amount of money available for capital needs was strictly rationed.

This all changed when the Gillard Government introduced the ‘Building Educational Revolution’ to support and upgrade school infrastructure. From that point in time onward money has been poured at schools, but with the proviso that it be used for construction of physical facilities.

In the NT, Gonski funding came unattached to requirements that it be spent on classroom focussed programs. This allowed the NT Government to use the money for capital works. Henbury Avenue and Bellamack Special Schools were constructed using this money, while Acacia Hills (Alice Springs) was significantly upgraded.

Weekly reading of tender invitations in the ‘NT News’ confirms bountiful dollars still being found to support the extension of school infrastructure

Most recently, the Northern Territory Government has promised $300,000 to each Northern Territory school. However that money has to be used for physical upgrades and capital expansion.

There needs to be more to education expenditure then supporting the construction industry. While good physical facilities are necessary, so to are programs that best support students and staff in teaching learning situations.

It’s ironic to consider that schools have to constantly and minutely scrutinise internal budget management for the sake of teaching and learning. If the recent $300,000 per school allocation could be used to support these programs, that may have been a wise investment. It is the way in which students are educated now that will translate toward the future of our Northern Territory.

Educational expenditure needs to be balanced. Facilities are important, but teaching and learning programs are really what education is about.

MORE TO EDUCATION THAN YEAR 12

Column published in NT Suns in February 2017.

Education is for the whole of life and the foundational years of schooling are the most important. Year 12 is one year of and along the continuum of learning and development.

MORE TO EDUCATION THAN YEAR 12

Year 12 is often portrayed as the pinnacle year of education. Stories and conversations lay stress on the importance of this final year of secondary schooling. The years leading toward year 12 and those following, are often far less illuminated.

Year 12 is important as a year of study culmination. Stress is placed upon its importance to young people as they reach this crossroads in their education. Inability to earn a satisfying TER score is portrayed as a frightening concept.

Year 12 does not have to be a frightening year or threatening period. Neither should it be regarded as a stand alone year on the educational pathway.

Every year of school is important. Perhaps the most significant years are those from preschool through to year three. These early years are the foundation period during which key principles and precepts of basic learning take place. For schools focussing on holistic education, it is when principles of social, emotional and moral/spiritual development are added to a focus on academics. When undertaken in partnership with parents, this approach is one offering a stable base upon which character and educational development can take place.

Early childhood is sometimes discounted as not being all that important. This is entirely wrong, for the building blocks of education are set in place during these initial years of schooling.

Wise students are those who build upon previous learning year by year, gaining the most from school. This positive attitude will ensure that each educational challenge is met with fortitude, not worry or fear.

In the years leading to year 12, students have the opportunity to choose either academic or technical/vocational pathways. Appropriate choices will open up future options, academically or in trades occupations.

Year 12 is often portrayed as presenting new, possibly insurmountable challenges to students, but this only applies in cases where students have not made the best of their years leading to this point in time. While parents and teachers can help young people keep focussed, it is their inner motivation that counts. And those attitudes are born during initial schooling years

Our Territory needs young people who become future contributors to the economy. Whether or not we ever achieve statehood depends on our ability to consolidate the NT on a sound, sustainable economic footing. And that largely depends on today’s students.

AVOID TECHNOLOGY PITFALLS IN CLASSROOMS

AVOID TECHNOLOGY PITFALLS IN CLASSROOMS

Computers were introduced to school classrooms during the 1980’s. Initially, schools set up dedicated computer rooms and classes were rostored to have one or two periods each week. Students learnt about computers and how to develop documents for print-out.

Schools then moved to a number of units in each classroom and more time was devoted to student use of these tools. With the advent of iPads many schools encouraged each student to have their own personal device. In 2017, we would be hard pressed to find a school without computers or iPads. When electronic smart-boards and other supports are added, schools almost drown in technology.

The cost of purchasing and maintaining hardware has increased, becoming a major cost item for schools. As well, items purchased are often outmoded within months of being bought.

Additional costs are significant. Software is not cheap and neither are licences needed to authorise multiple users. When maintenance needs are added to purchase costs, schools are faced with significant and ongoing budget commitments.

There are classroom pitfalls that need to be avoided.

Students tend to digress from what they should be doing with computer and iPads, drifting from learning 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 and need to have an educational purpose. Entertainment programs without educational merit distract students and waste learning time.

*Children sometimes play with networks that have been set, causing programs to crash or corrupt.

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 acknowledging their sources.

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 point of detracting from genuine student learning.

POLICY CHANGES SNEAK IN DURING HOLIDAYS

This column, my first for the Suns this year draws on our Northern Territory experience. But this happens everywhere.

POLICY CHANGES HAPPEN DURING HOLIDAYS

Schools are closed and teachers may be away during the Christmas holidays. However, policy decisions and priority setting does not stop during the festive season. When school leaders and teachers return for the new year, they are often introduced to new initiatives apparently developed during the holiday season.

That has again been the case during the past few weeks. Urban school staff begin the school year on Friday January 27. Their counterparts in rural and remote schools return to duty on Monday January 30. They will be greeted by new educational initiatives.

During the past few weeks, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of teaching Indigenous languages. There is a strong move in place to have traditional language study added to the school curriculum. Part of this is based on language being a support for cultural understanding. A parallel concern is that of Indigenous languages vanishing into history. The need for their preservation is one of the reasons driving this position.

Introduction to a language other than English (LOTE) is now an Australian Government priority for all preschools. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is keen to have the program introduced as soon as possible. There is an anticipation that LOTE will also focus on older students. This initiative has been tagged as compulsory.

A third push is for the study of NT History to become obligatory in NT Schools. Former NT parliamentarian Matthew Bonson has urged that Territory history should be brought into focus in our classrooms (Sunday Territorian 26.12.16). Past administrator Ted Egan stated that it is ” … a big mistake that Territory and Australian history is given so little respect by not making it compulsory.” (Op cit)

Curriculum changes should never be based on ‘spur of the moment decisions’ about new priorities. The volume of teaching content confronting teachers and schools, demands that add ons are fitted in by dropping some previous programs. That should happen in order to make things fit and is also a matter of common sense.

Unfortunately, there is systemic reluctance about dropping curriculum content. Obligations on schools come with the expectation that staff and students will cope. It will be expected that extra content announced during this holiday period, will be managed within existing staff resources. Staff preparing for 2017 may feel the academic year ahead is a glass mountain they have to climb.

Holiday pronouncements about curriculum change should cease being a standard practice.

BUILDINGS AND FACILITIES DON’T GENERATE STUDENT SUCCESS

This piece was written for the Suns and published on November 6 2016. It is based on the NT, but has wide ranging applicability.

During the last decade, building and construction programs have significantly upgraded Australian and Northern Territory schools. Previously, capital works money was scarce. Many established schools, both urban and remote had to make do.

The Rudd Government’s ‘Building the Education Revolution’ (BER) program reversed this trend. A $16.2 billion cash splash lead to frenzied construction of school halls, libraries, science blocks and classroom spaces. Within the NT, there was an unparalleled school building boom. The opening of completed school facilities by politicans became a weekly event.

Then came Gonski. The NT did not sign up to the Gonski reforms (of 2011) but still received big dollars from this initiative. Not signing, meant that government and the Education Department were freed from restrictions about the use of this money. Rather than being spent on programs in classrooms, it was used to further capital works. The new Henbury and Bellamack Special Schools and Acacia Hills Special School upgrades came from Gonski funds.

The sale of TIO and the leasing of Darwin Port provided the CLP Government with funds for further infrastructural development. Many schools benefited from a substantial infusion of money for major works on buildings, grounds and surrounds.

Last Saturday through the NT News (Gift time for schools: Green light for minor new works programs) the government announced that all schools can begin applying for $300,000 allocations, to be rolled out over four years from next July. The money is for renovation and construction programs.

There is plenty of money for buildings and facilities at schools. However, support for in class programs and teaching initiatives is in far shorter supply. Educational outcomes are measured by student successes, not by the quality of facilities in which learning is taking place. In a way, it is paradoxical that while school structures are receiving such focus, Australian and Territory educational outcomes are failing.

Since 2000, every major report comparing Australian and Territory students with their overseas peers shows them to be slipping further and further behind the world in key competencies. The latest comparisons show many of our students are heading for new lows in tested areas. (Kids are slipping through the gaps, NT News, December 1)

There needs to be an urgent change in priorities. Its time for spending on structures to become spending on teaching and learning programs. It is in the area of student learning outcomes that NT Education has a major systemic weakness.

RAISING THE TRAINING BAR

A lot is being talked about in the community and reported in the media on the subject of teacher quality. The soul searching and almost daily comment around Australia and in the Northern Territory is futuristic and forward looking. I believe in looking forward, those responsible for teacher preparation need to reflect on past teacher training practices, revisiting and including some of the key elements in our 21st century teacher preparation courses.

I worry that critical teaching and preparation methodologies are insufficiently stressed. Rather than prospective teachers receiving that understanding while in training, they graduate with degrees and as neophytes are expected to begin acquiring practical teaching skills and dispositions upon full-time entry into classroom teaching positions.

VALUE and LEARN from EDUCATIONAL HISTORY

While based on the Northern Territory, there is a need for educational history to be appreciated and respected on a global basis.

EDUCATIONAL HISTORY SHOULD NOT BE DISREGARDED

One of the sad deficits confronting Northern Territory Education is the lack of recorded history. Very poor attention has been paid to recording past developments.

When appointed as the CEO of Northern Territory Education in 2009, Gary Barnes highlighted this issue. He said there was little documentation on system history to which he could refer. This limitation put him in a challenging position. He identified the lack of historical information as a major oversight.

Nothing happened before 1992

The Department of Education computerised many of it’s systems in 1992. Manually compiled records developed prior to that date are not readily accessible. Inquiry about earlier matters often go unanswered because nobody has access to requested information. It is not uncommon for long term and now retired educators, to be rung and asked if they can recall answers to historical questions. It is almost as if the foundational years of NT Education never happened.

A priority should be retrieval and electronic recording of what remains of NT educational history. Ideally, that project should embrace individual schools, educational regions and the system as a whole.

A way of starting might be to create a web page which invites people to input information either anecdotally or more formally. This could be periodically moderated and formatted.

Some Data

Some schools have better historical recall because of document preservation. School newsletters, yearbooks and school council documentation are three sources providing information about their past. A few have even compiled school histories. Parap School for example, celebrated its 50th anniversary with the release of a book which summarised its years of growth and development

However, there has been no concerted effort on the part of our system or most schools to compile a documented record about development.

This deprives newcomers the chance to appreciate the background of schools. It also means that principals and system leaders are “starting over” when it comes to considering future school and system direction. Changes made without considering history can lead to past mistakes, or poor policy decisions being revisited.

It is important to look ahead. However, awareness of the past should inform the future. Reflection can help avoid revisiting pitfalls at both school and system level. It is rather sad that public education in the NT, in looking forward, seems to discount what happened in the past. Our lack of recorded history needs to be addressed.