NAPLAN IS NO EDUCATIONAL PANACEA

This piece was published in the NT Suns on May 15 2018.

NAPLAN OFFERS NO EDUCATIONAL PANACEA

Last week, students in all Australian Schools were involved with the 11th NAPLAN testing program. Those in year three, five, seven and nine were tested for competence in literacy and numeracy.

NAPLAN is one of the most enduring testing regimes in Australian education. Very few “initiatives“ have lasted as long. However, rarely has a year gone by without a huge amount of conversation on the value of this program.

In his recent (Gonski 2.0) set of recommendations on educational futures David Gonski suggested NAPLAN should be replaced by more specialised individual learning instruction. The New South Wales Minister for Education Tom Stokes, was quick to suggest that NAPLAN had passed its use by date and was no longer relevant. His contention was that this testing program has become an instrument to compare schools with each other, rather than primarily focussing on student outcomes .

When introduced, the idea of NAPLAN was to test students in terms of competencies important to their future development. The intention was that it would enable schools to identify areas of strength and need for students. Programs could then be developed to extend students in strength areas while offering further learning in areas that needed ongoing attention.

It’s true to say that this testing program has become one of comparing schools with schools. Schools are either elated or deflated on the basis of data outcomes. NAPLAN has become an instrument used by schools in a competitive sense. As the program time approaches each year, children in the grades to be tested often undergo extensive NAPLAN testing preparation to a point where they must become totally frustrated.

When data comes out each year, school leaders and teachers devote a huge amount of time to meetings dissecting results. Without doubt, NAPLAN has become both a fixation and preoccupation. In addition, it is hugely expensive and over time has absorbed hundreds of millions of educational dollars.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is keen to hang onto NAPLAN. His viewpoint being tentatively supported by other ministers at state and territory level. A significant review would be timely. The question “has NAPLAN helped in lifting levels of student competency in Australian settings”, should be examined. Australian students were recently compared with their peers in 41 comparable countries. Our students in competency terms placed in 39th position. It is apparent that during the past decade (the time NAPLAN has been an Australian Educational priority) student competence has headed south! It’s time to discover reasons for this alarming decline.

GONSKI 2.0 GOES FAR TOO FAR!

This piece was published in the NT Sun on May 8 2018

GONSKI 2.0 A DEMAND TOO FAR

The recommendations of Gonski 2.0 will take obligations expected of schools, their principals and teachers a step too far. I hope that sense and sensibility prevail, rather than these latest recommendations being accepted carte blanc and foisted on schools.

There is some wonderment for me in the fact that Mr Gonski, a businessman of renown, is now regarded as an educational guru. He had a great deal to do with the ‘School Funding Model’ developed during the Rudd/Gillard years. That was about Australia-wide school funding focussed on opportunity and equity within education. However, he is now being revered for his thoughts on what should be the curriculum focus in classrooms.

The most recent Gonski recommendations were developed by a committee he heads, so he is not the sole author of proposed new directions. However, they are attributed to him as committee chairperson, possibly authenticated by the fact he is Chancellor of the University of NSW.

Individualised learning plans for each child in every class would be the straw breaking the camel’s back for teachers. Teachers struggle to provide for children in classes under present operational schemes and do well to meet diversified learning needs under present system requirements.

Further individualisation could reduce classrooms to places where teachers transfer material from their computers onto each student’s iPad or learning device. Progress would be monitored, assignments marked on completion and tasks revisited or extended through further exercises. Data about each child’s progress would be uploaded on a daily basis onto each child’s electronic file.

This approach might satisfy data exponents but would destroy the human contact between teachers and their students. Classrooms would become sterile and soulless, doing little to motivate students.

In advocating a changed focus, Mr Gonski suggests that NAPLAN has outlived its usefulness and should be discontinued. However, the preoccupation of education ministers and departmental CEO’s with test generated statistical analysis and data, means that it is not going to happen anytime soon.

The individualised approach to teaching being recommended by Gonski would simply add to the burdens that NAPLAN already places on students and schools.

In statistical terms, it has been confirmed that none of the changes, reforms and initiatives of the past decade or so, have enhanced educational outcomes for students in our schools. We have slipped to be 39th out of 41 high and middle income countries measured for student competence in maths, literacy and science. (Sydney Morning Herald, 15.6.17). Quite obviously, Australian educational planning is not being translated into enhanced student outcomes.

THERE ARE ISSUES AROUND NT RELIEF TEACHING

This was published in the NT Sun on May 1 2018.

RELIEF TEACHING IS A BIG ISSUE

There have been problems about the employment of relief teachers for many years. The issue goes back to a time when the Department of Education determined that schools would not be reimbursed for more than 6.5 days each year for each teacher’s absence on sick or short term leave. Teachers absent for longer periods of time would have to be funded from within school budgets. This was despite the fact that teachers are entitled to approved leave for 15 days each year.

This provision has been quite strictly enforced, with claims for reimbursement based on exceptional circumstances often declined. This puts the onus on schools to find the funds needed to cover relief teacher funding.

It had been possible for principals to negotiate a short term contract to cover absences beyond several day’s duration. However contract options were stiffened, so that absences of less than 21 continual days had to be funded from school budgets.

An outcome of this stringent policy is that some teachers who should be taking sick or personal leave, feel they have to consider the school and their colleagues and soldier on. In order to save on outlays for relief teachers, some school leaders split groups, temporarily siphoning students to other classes and teachers. On occasion, specialist teachers are re-deployed to general classroom duties. Changes of this nature mean that programs have to be altered.

In 2014, classifications for relief teachers were introduced. There are three levels:

Tier One is for teachers with one to three years of teaching experience

Tier Two is for teachers who have four to six years of teaching experience.

Tier Three is for teachers with seven or more years of teaching experience.

The daily rate is less for Tier One than for Tier Two and Tier Three teachers. Allocations to schools do not take this variable into account, meaning that Category One teachers are generally preferred to their more experienced peers because they cost schools less to employ. This has lead to experienced teachers, many who have retired after years of teaching, being overlooked for temporary employment.

Unfortunately, that can deprive schools and students from the benefits experienced teachers bring to classrooms when regular staff are absent.

Staffing changes for schools are being considered by the Department of Education. However, if changes take place, they will not be actioned until 2019. Challenges confronting schools over relief teaching are likely to continue during 2018 and into the future.

LOSING LEAVE ENTITLEMENTS SHOULD NOT HAPPEN

Published in the Suns on 24 April 2018

LEAVE ENTITLEMENTS NEED RECOGNITION

An article in the NT News in late 2017, pointed out that many public servants take leave which may be questionable. This issue is quite frequently raised in the media. Those taking leave are at times held to be irresponsible for taking time off.

This perception is not helped by the fact that a certain number of days each year can be used without a medical certificate being required. Medical certificates are easier to obtain than was once the case. Pharmacists as well as medical practitioners are able to issue these documents, so a trip to the doctor’s surgery and an expensive consultation fee are no longer required.

One area of leave called upon by teachers may be that of time away to look after their own unwell children. Family should come first for everyone and genuine leave for family purposes should never be questioned.

Public servants are often portrayed as lazy, disenchanted with their work, selfish and interested only in themselves. This may be the case for a minority, but to apply this stereotype to the hard-working and committed majority is grossly unfair.

Permanent public servants are entitled to three weeks of sick leave each year. This entitlement is pro-rated for temporary employees and those on end-dated contracts. Sick leave is accumulative and weeks not used build up year-on-year.

Many public servants approaching retirement, use large portions of accumulated leave for medically confirmed reasons. This happens in part because unused leave is not paid out as a benefit to retirees. In some cases, this amounts to the forfeiture of many weeks of accumulated entitlement.

My suggestion (which to date has fallen on non-responsive ears) is that the NT Government and its Departments consider paying out this unused leave at a 20% rate. Retiring or resigning employees would receive a day’s salary for each week of accumulated leave. Someone with a balance of 20 weeks sick leave would receive the equivalent of 20 days pay on retirement. The greater the balance, the higher the payment.

Because this entitlement is not recognised on employment cessation, to the trend of employees exhausting their benefit prior to retirement may continue. Workplace and system headaches occasioned by employee absence in these circumstances remain an issue.

This column was published in the NT Sun on April 17 2018

 

CONSIDER WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE

It often seems those who have been involved with educational developments and direction in the Northern Territory are completely discounted. What has happened in past years has either been completely overlooked or altogether forgotten. In relation to facilities, curriculum emphasis, staff and student development, community engagement, and other key areas, it seems that education is always in the “planning“ stage.

It is common for ideas to be raised as “new initiatives“ when in fact they are revisitations to what has been tried (and often discarded) in the past.

In part this has to do with the fact that the history of education in the Territory has been so poorly recorded. There are some records scattered in various libraries and archives but they are not readily available to current decision-makers. In 2009 when becoming the CEO of Education in the NT, Gary Barnes commented upon the fact that he was coming in “blind”. There was very little documented history he could access in order to familiarise himself about the system he was inheriting. At the time there was hope something might be done to rectify the situation. There was a proposition developed by some within Education’s Executive Group suggesting resources be given to documenting history. However, that thought faded very quickly.

In 2014 the Education Department planned on developing a visual display that focused on the contribution of CEOs from 1978 when the NT accepted responsibility for education from the Australian Government. Time, energy, effort and money was put into this development but it was subsequently shelved because of a change in government and Education’s CEO.

The Department of Education has a detailed website. It would be great if “history“ and “past development“ could be included, with people invited to read and contribute to an understanding about educational development in the NT. While this site would need to be periodically monitored and moderated, an invaluable history could be established in a relatively short period of time. This suggestion has been raised in the past without ever going anywhere!

The paradox is that many people with rich experience, are not able to share these for the benefit of the Territory nor for the awareness of incoming educators. With the passing of time, those with knowledge either leave the Northern Territory or pass on. Sadly the knowledge and understanding they could contribute, departs with them. I hope this might be corrected but don’t imagine that will happen any time soon.

 

SCHOOL BASED POLICE PROGRAM NEEDS REVAMP

This piece was published in the NT Sun on April 3 2018.

 

SCHOOL BASED POLICE PROGRAM NEEDS REVAMP

School educators and the Council of Government Schools Organisation (COGSO) have realised a sad truth recently spelt out in the NT News (School calling for cop program March 17). The once strong and trend setting School Based Constables (SBC) program in NT schools has been rationalised and diminished.

This program has been reduced to a shadow of what it used to be. “COGSO president Tabby Fudge said the program had changed to a point where there was little benefit (to schools).” (Op cit)

Until watered down, the program offered strong support to urban, town and some rural schools. Attached to high schools, each School Based Constable 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 that added to their awareness of community matters. Many potential problems were nipped in the bud because of advanced warning about situations that might eventuate.

No words can mask the fact that this program has been significantly dismantled. School Based Police are now known as Community and Youth Engagement Officers (CYEO’s). 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.

Chief Minister Gunner, who is also the Police Minister said, “… police are still involved with youth, it is just being done in a different way.” (Op cit) The new way is a watered down version of the original program.

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

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.

The reinstatement of School Based Policing as it was previously organised, would be a step in the right direction. On April 12, COGSO’s President is meeting with Mr Gunner to urge this reinstatement. I can only hope her persuasion bears fruit.

 

‘COMMUNITY’ COMES TO THE FORE

This column was published in the NT Sun on March 27 2018.

 

‘COMMUNITY’ COMES TO THE FORE

Cyclone Marcus which hit on Saturday March 17 2018, left a significant imprint on the Darwin, Palmerston and Litchfield communities. Few places were spared the impact of fallen trees with downed powerlines creating hazards in many areas. Water quality was compromised and power outages in some places extended to several days. Transportation services were disrupted and movement made risky because of footpath and road blockages.

The impact of the cyclone lead to all schools being closed on Monday March 19, with a significant number still shut on Tuesday March 20. Moil, Wagaman and several preschools remain closed on March 21. It is fortunate that damage to school buildings was minimal. The major problem was that of power loss, which for some schools stretched over four days.

Shade sails and playground equipment proved vulnerable to gale force winds and uprooted trees. Many school yards and student outdoor recreational areas were rendered inaccessible because of fallen trees and vegetation debris. Security was compromised for those schools, preschools and childcare centres where falling trees crushed perimeter fencing.

Against this backdrop of devastation and confusion, the Territory sense of community came to the fore. From late on Saturday afternoon, principals were getting across restoration needs. Teachers and administrative staff contributed as they could, juggling personal domestic needs with a keen desire to support school restoration. Many schools were supported with cleaning up by parents and community members who volunteered time and equipment to help with this daunting task.

The clean-up needs in school grounds and surrounds was supported by Australian Defence Force members and American Marines. Education Minister Eva Lawler was to the forefront in keeping the community appraised of school restoration and reopening schedules. There was no lack of information or awareness.

There is an immediate need for school tree management policies to be revised. Currently, pruning and trimming, is an annual requirement. But that does not go far enough.

The NT Government is considering the removal of mahogany trees in public places. This should be extended to include the removal of all mahogany trees from school yards. Black wattle and red gum trees should be included, for both pose dangers.

Funding could be provided for school councils to undertake this work, or a ‘whole of government’ contract let to remove tree hazards from all schools.

It’s time to secure school grounds and surrounds by removing all hazardous trees.