IS THE NT THE NT OR THE DARWIN CBD ONLY?

Darwin needs to be defined.

“Darwin City is the heartbeat of the Territory. It is the engine room that must fire on all cylinders. We, along with City of Darwin are committed to driving discussion on a range of matters to ensure our CBD is thriving for the benefit of residents, visitors, traders and property owners. We can make this happen with the right policy and regulatory changes.”

Ruth Palmer recently wrote the above on Linked In following a city planning meeting. I responded

I came to the NT in 1975 and moved to Darwin in 1987. I’d respond to Ms Palmer’s enthusiastic post as follows:

What about the REST of Darwin? What about Darwin beyond the CBD?

Why is there no apparent care or concern for businesses and for people beyond the CBD?

We are fed story after story and story and intention after intention after intention about the CBD, but interst seems to stop at Tipperary Waters and the Daly Street bridge. Why?

My question and concern is as much for the COD Council as it is for any interest and CBD support and promotional

group.

Plenty of interest and excitement about the CBD (where vision and reality are poles apart with life at night but little during the day, with some vibrant businesses interspersed with empty premises) but no interest in or inclination toward the Darwin beyond the CBD. That is with the exception of a few affluent pockets which include Cullen Bay, parts of Bayview, a bit of Larrakeyah and a pocket of Fannie Bay.

Where is the Territory at?

DISAFFECTION WITH EDUCATION A REAL ISSUE

Rather than being straightforward, modern education 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 in 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’ emphasis that now underpins education. The brief years many spend in classrooms before resigning, 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 invalid.

Preoccupation with the formalities of 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 compelled by 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 a weakness of Australian education.

Education should be about the needs of children. It should not be influenced by the desire of political leaders and key administrators to brag about how good Australian education is, compared to other systems.

Many graduate teachers find themselves caught up as players in this approach. They quickly wise up, and quit the profession. Our students are the losers and perceptions of education in schools become sadly discoloured.

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.

AN ANGLE ON DISTANCE LEARNING

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.

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.

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.

MEDIA INFLUENCES YOUTH

From time to time the issue of media influence on shaping the values of young people comes up for discussion.

It is often asserted that what young people see, hear and experience has no influence on the shaping of their attitudes and values. People are scoffed at if they suggest otherwise. Researchers and others connected with empirical study assert that young people know that games are for amusement. Therefore, playing these games will have no impact upon their lives.

I believe that to be totally wrong. Many young people immerse themselves for hours on end, day after day, week after week in playing these games. Common sense suggests this has to impact on their thinking and attitudes.

Young people may become so totally absorbed in this “escape from reality“ that it becomes their reality.

While some of these amusements are quite benign, many of the more popular ones are about murder, massacre, slaughter, and macabre behaviours. It stands to reason that young people (and those who are not so young) who become totally immersed in these activities will be influenced by their addiction.

The fact that so many young people these days are “I“ and “me” people who do not think about others, may well be a result of exposure to online gaming. Lack of manners, slack, disrespectful speech, the inability to focus on real life tasks in school and elsewhere, disinclination toward real life activities all point toward cyberspace influence. The key characters in online games generally behave in a way that promotes heroism through bullying, harassment and other negative behaviour. Can we wonder at this bravado and these attitudes rubbing off on the impressionable minds of youthful gamers?

Common sense suggests that the antisocial behaviour of many young people has its genesis in their indulgent online activities. When cyberspace completely absorbs the minds and the attention of users, something has to give!

One of the most recent games is “fortnite”, which focuses on extremely negative social behaviour. Game changes and modifications always seem to focus on negatives, rather than social decency.

I believe it imperative for parents to be aware of the online games their children are playing. They would be wise to monitor the classification of these activities and the length of time spent in online indulgence.

Without doubt, the games children play impacts on their thinking, attitudes and behaviour. That can have negative consequences. It may result in them making poor decisions that impact upon their lives and their futures.

DISCIPLINE IS A KEY ISSUE

Corporal punishment has been outlawed in NT schools for close to two decades. Around the turn of the century, principals in Government Schools were notified that corporal punishment was no longer to be administered. Prior to that time and as far back as the 1970’s, the use of the cane was allowed within strict regulatory parameters.

It is true to say that discipline applied to students was quite harsh in both verbal and physical terms. With the passing of years, anachronistic practices have been streamlined and modified. Behaviour management strategies based on understanding students have been developed and implemented. All schools have behaviour management policies which are included within their improvement action plans. Principles of natural justice underpin these policies. They are ahead of the present Education Act, which when modified will catch up with discipline practices in place within our schools.

Boot On Other Foot

We have moved a long way from the old, historical methods of discipline. Every effort is made to offer safe, secure learning environments to students. The idea for discipline is that it should positively uphold and reinforce 2021 school values.

A key and sinister shift however, is not how discipline impacts upon students but how the softly, softly approach can and does backfire on schools and staff members. This is particularly the case within the public school sector. Student aberrance, deliberate defiance and antisocial conduct raises difficult, sometimes intolerable situations for school staff, along with silent, suffering student majorities. As disciplinary options for principals and their teams have ‘softened’ it seems there has been an escalation in the unacceptable behavioural attitudes of some students. Teachers and other students have to suffer the indignities these behaviours unload on classes and schools.

Nicely worded, affirmative and embracing behaviour management policies, in practical terms, have little impact or influence on this hardline student core. The system appears to have little capacity to deal with manifestly unacceptable conduct, meaning that schools suffer. At the classroom level, about the only countering device and control measure available to teachers are their tongues. In many cases, verbal remonstration has little impact on correcting student behaviour. Principals and school leadership teams are similarly constrained.

Offering engaging educational alternatives within purpose built units for disruptive students has been tried and can make a difference. However, there are far more students needing this support than places available to meet school and system needs.

Stress Issues

Student discipline is an area increasingly impacting on health and well-being issues for school staff. A health and well-being survey conducted by the Monash University in 2013 identified student violence and bullying as a key stressor for school leaders (Summary Report pp 7,8). The number of teachers taking long term sickness and stress leave has escalated in the last decade and is largely attributed to student behaviour. Recently a Victorian teacher was awarded $1.3m as compensation for a career disrupted and ruined by student behaviour. According to rumour, this settlement has other educators, who have similarly suffered, considering litigation. ‘Discipline’ is a two-way street, and teachers are increasingly on the receiving end.

HEAD LICE AN ETERNAL SCOURGE

Invasion by head-lice is a perennial problem for children at school, with re-infection occurring regularly. There is a significant cost for the purchase of products used in treatment. That is particularly the case where two, three or more children in each family have to be treated every time an infestation breaks out.

Until the 1980s, the impact of headlice was felt less than is now the case. Community health sisters used to come into schools, inspect heads for infestation and treat infected children. However, that practice was discontinued because the powers that be decided the head-lice issue was a “social” rather than a “medical” problem. The onus for treatment came back onto schools and parents.

Teachers and administrative staff used to check children if head-lice were suspected, notifying parents of the need for treatment. In more recent years it has been deemed inappropriate for school staff members to touch the heads of children and inspect for lice. In part that was to avoid embarrassing children. It was also felt that physical inspection of heads could be deemed a form of assault.

If head-lice are suspected, staff telephone parents, asking that children be taken home and treated, before returning to school. This may mean time off work for parents and lost learning time for children.

Head-lice continue to be the number one scourge for schools and students. It takes the inattention of only one family represented in a class of children to cause an breakout affecting them all. Schools urge parents regularly inspect children’s heads for lice or eggs, carrying out treatment if necessary. The problem however continues to manifest itself within our schools.

Illness

In a similar manner, health problems affecting one or two children can have an impact upon whole school classes. During the cold and flu season classes are quite often decimated because of children who are sick and away. Teachers are also susceptible and many become quite ill. The non-treatment or non-exclusion of one or two children in the first instance can have serious health impacts upon whole school communities.

The Demands Of Work

Parental work commitments can mean unwell children are sent to school, even though they may spend the day in the sick bay. It is not uncommon for primary school sickbays to resemble a scene from crowded house! Support staff (when signed parental permissions forms are completed) can administer prescribed medication. They also handle reluctant parental responses when ringing and requesting sick children be picked up from school.

A good deal of the contagion that spreads through school classes happens because children in poor health are at school and spreading infection.

Notification

A growing amount of administrative time is spent in notifying parents about health issues. Letters from schools to parents about head lice are sent home with monotonous regularity. With a growing percentage of parents declining immunisation for children, notification about measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, new strains of flu and other outbreaks have to be made.

Student health and well-being matters are major school issues.

EDUCATIONAL POINTS TO PONDER

The private sector of NT education is well supported and blessed by some excellent schools which compliment public education. Both Haileybury Rendall and Essington Schools set extremely high standards that all Territory schools, both private and public are challenged to meet. This healthy competition helps teachers and students toward educational excellence.

We need the mix.

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All the very best for the 2021 academic year to all students, parents, teachers and school support staff as they head back to our schools this week. May the year be one of success abd celebration for all those connected with education throughout the NT. Nothing is more vital than the educational readiness and character preparation of our young people, who will become our leaders and decision

makers in tomorrow’s world.

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The placement of permanent, electronically controlled signage that reminds motorists to slow down in school zones is to be applauded. Drivers can be easily distracted. These signs will reduce the driving (and pedestrian) risks that can so easily occur. It is to be hoped these signs are put in place to support road safety for all urban schools.