These columns are a compote of those published weekly in the Darwin/Palmerston/Litchfield “Suns”. Readers are welcome to copy or quote. I ask for acknowledgment of the writer and the publishing newspapers.
SUN 19 – 24
ONLINE MEETINGS HELP BALANCE BUDGETS
These days, budget stringency and cost-cutting measures occupy organisational thinking. Budget overruns and the need to cost cut in education is front and centre in the NT. The issue of budget context is a primary conversational point with budgetary constraints is becoming more and more urgent. Cost cutting and reprioritising of expenditure is the order of the day.
In that context that I am somewhat bemused by an area in which logical and legitimate curtailment could be made, without reducing the effectiveness or efficiency of operations. In fact, the reverse may apply.
It is paradoxical that in an era of cost cutting and pruning, one domain which seems to be never curtailed and forever expanded is that of travel and accommodation costs associated with meetings, conferences and gatherings. Without being too cynical, it seems that every opportunity possible is taken to travel for the purpose of meetings and conference opportunities. Some meetings attended last for very short periods of time but that doesn’t reduce travel costs. Anecdotal evidence about constant attendance at intra-territory, interstate and overseas meetings is abundant. Whenever you ring wanting to talk to people at middle and upper level management, it seems that they are somewhere around the Territory or away from the Territory attending meetings or going to conferences. As well significant proportions of school controlled budgets are allocated to funding for professional development travel purposes.
There is absolutely no need for these constant gatherings. They are disruptive, detract from work function and add huge budgetary burdens. One of the first changes I would make as a government minister or departmental head would be to institute a program of meeting online through whichever of the technologies was most appropriate. It could be by teleconference, video-conferencing, Skype or some other cyberspace methodology. Meetings would be instantaneous. Within the framework of reasonableness, people could connect worldwide and engage in conversation of the subject under discussion. While socialisation and getting together are important, the issue of time utilisation and cost saving makes this method one needing further exploration.
I became involved with online conferencing in the late 1990’s and during the following years attended many significant conferences that had world-wide connection. They were extremely well organised, followed carefully constructed timetables and operated on a 24/7 basis. Online discussion and later video linking helped make these connections relevant, focussed and timely. Importantly, as a school principal, I remained on duty at my workplace. At the same time I had the opportunity to extend my professional horizons by contributing online to conferences and professional gatherings.
Several years ago the Association of Northern Territory School Educational Leaders (ANTSEL) organised its Biennial Conference through online method. Conference contributors involved through video linkage in the sharing of papers and discussion threads on topics. This conference was one of the cheapest ever planned. It was also one of the most successful in terms of its organisational structure.
Gatherings of people are important. However they incur significant expenditure and involve regular absence from work. In the interests of better effectiveness and efficiency and more considered utilisation of budgets I strongly suggest that online alternatives of meeting and gathering through cyberspace links be explored.
Airline companies, convention organisers and accommodation providers may not be particularly impressed by this alternative method of gathering. However, in the interests of budget setting and establishing careful expenditure priorities, I would encourage an examination of this alternative conferencing and meeting method.
SCHOOL SUPPORT SERVICES LOST
With the passing of time there have been significant changes in levels of support offered children and students in our schools. While some policy alterations have been beneficial, other changes have impacted negatively on student health and well-being. Alteration, minimisation or removal has done more harm than good.
Community and School Nurses
There has been a change to student health support offered by school and community nurses. It used to be that health screening programs were available to all children and students regardless of location. If for instance, there was an outbreak of head lice, health sisters could be called to come in and undertake a checking and treatment program. In the mid 1980’s it was decided that head lice posed a social problem rather than being a health issue. Community nurses were no longer allowed, parental permission notwithstanding, to carry out those checks. The result has been that head lice infestations have increased exponentially with treatment never resulting in eradication.
Other services have been gradually curtailed so that screening, although still offered for some things, has been greatly reduced .
Although there are nurses attached to most middle and senior schools, their availability to feeder area primary schools is limited.
School Based Constable Program
A strong element of support offered to urban and some rural schools over the years was available through School Based Constables. 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.
Sadly, this program has been redefined and significantly dismantled. School Based Police these days are known as Youth Engagement Officers. 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 development of their attitudes.
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 this 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 discontinued in urban areas. I have been told the program is also being rationalised for schools within our remote communities. The Blue Light Disco 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 it has given them an enjoyable, supervised outing. It is doubtful that anything will be put into place to fill the vacuum left by Blue Light cancellation.
School Dental Services
Another significant loss is that of school dental services. Dental checking was a part of school and health department interaction. The service was offered to both primary and secondary students. Firstly it was removed from High Schools and over time from many Primary Schools. Interestingly, the facilities for dental checks were upgraded in some Primary Schools at around the same time as service reduction commenced. These days, those few clinics which remain offer no more than 20 or 30 days of service to the school communities they serve each year. It is also expected that nearby schools will arrange for children to attend the clinics that remain operational. I understand the issue to be one of staff scarcity.
Schools and students were well supported by school/community nurses, school based police and school dental services. It is a shame that policy changes and funding priorities have impacted in a way that has forced a reduction in or loss of the vital assistance once offered. These programs, valued by schools and supportive of students have largely been consigned to history.
STUDENT SERVICES – SUPPORT SHOULD BE MAINTAINED
Many students in our schools are confronted by an array of learning and developmental challenges. There are a significant number of syndromes that cover physical, intellectual and cognitive differences. There may be sight, hearing and movement difficulties. At times there are respiratory and allergy issues. The list goes on.
To support teachers and schools, a Student Services Section is attached to the Education Department. Over time the support offered by Student Services has been progressively rationalised and substantially reduced. Increasingly, staff are ‘advisers’ to classroom teachers, sharing less and less in actual program management for students. These changes have to do with budget issues.
Support needs have grown
In recent years, the number of students identified as needing support has grown hugely. At the same time, money available to support students with special needs has increased at a far less rate. This means that in a pro-rata context there are more and more students who need to be supported, with fewer and fewer dollars to facilitate the supporting. This has placed limitations on funding.
Funding applications require staff to spend lengthy periods of time completing paperwork. A significant number of reports prepared by specialists are prerequisite to students gaining support funding. Once children are included in programs, teachers must develop detailed Educational Adjustment Plans (EAP’s), together with regular and lengthy statements indicating progress. Meetings generally once each term with parents/caregivers and support staff must be held to discuss and justify ongoing funding for students with special needs in mainstream classrooms. Plans, paperwork and meetings are necessary, but ought not to become almost more important than the support offered students.
When equal opportunity legislation was introduced in the 1990s, mainstreaming, the inclusion of children with special needs into standard classrooms, became the preferred practice. Prior to that, Special Schools played a more significant role in furthering student needs than is now the case.
This means additional pressures placed on classroom teachers from the viewpoint of providing for a widening spectrum of children and students with an increasing array of needs.
When mainstreaming was introduced, a great deal of support was offered both directly (additional staff support) and indirectly (support from guidance and other special staff attached to student services). In more recent years, classroom teachers have needed to accommodate special needs students, with less and less support from assisting staff. This adds a great deal to their work and care load.
While recognising the importance of inclusion one also has to appreciate the onus mainstreaming has placed upon classrooms and teachers.
Coupled with policy change has been the movement at times of support staff from education to health or other departments. This has made access an across department issue, less straightforward than when dealing directly within the educational domain.
A significant element that comes into play is the greater accountability and compliance placed on teachers to ensure that students perform to measured levels of academic attainment through external testing. While children and students with special needs are best supported by tailored programs, Australian Government standardised testing requirements (Naplan) allow only minimal recognition for students with special needs, who are required to sit these tests. While extra time and some interpretive support is available, many students with special needs and those facing learning challenges, discover these tests to be steep and unfair tasks. That leads to student discouragement and frustration.
What is needed
Schools need to cater for all children. While special schools and units assist some students with identified needs, inclusion practices provide for the majority. It is critically important that sufficient funding is available to provide educational and support needs for mainstreamed students. There is clear and distinct danger in under-resourcing support programs and going over the top with pre-entry justification requirements. The frustration of teaching efforts and student under fulfilment will be among the major deficits.
A TIME FOR CELEBRATION
As we come toward the end of another school year, it does us well to pause and reflect on the efforts and outcomes of our 2013 Territory students. There are a myriad of issues that can distract children and students from concentration and focus on their studies. This applies to both younger and older pupils enrolled within our schools.
Often, educational challenges and achievement shortfalls are highlighted. Things that need to be improved are constantly commented upon by experts or those with stake and interest in educational outcomes. Their concerns are well and truly amplified by media – print, radio, television and through online sharing. One of the favourite pastimes for people, ranging from politicans and educators through to employers and interest groups, is to compare our outcomes with those achieved by overseas students. Most of those comparisons are confined to comparing literacy, numeracy and academics within a narrow subject range.
It could be argued that the need for comparison to cover a wider cognitive spectrum would be useful in demonstrating balance, but this is generally not the case. It would be wonderful if education was considered for education’s sake rather than being coloured by politics.
Regardless of political focus and system exhortation pointed toward those at the coalface (teachers and students in classroom contexts), we need to pause and reflect on educational success and student accomplishment. That is especially the case as we come toward the end of term four and another school year.
There are some students who have done less well than they might and of course we need to encourage them toward higher levels of achievement. However, the vast majority of our Territory’s children and students, at primary, secondary and tertiary level, have done well. They have made significant advances, gaining in knowledge and growing in understanding throughout 2013. We should recognise them and rejoice in their achievements. Too often we reflect only on things that need to be done better, failing to take account of success. If we fail to rejoice for and with our students, appreciating their efforts and gains, we do them a disservice.
We have children at the very beginning of their life at school who will be leaving Preschool in order to commence their educational journey up the grades and through the primary years. Children will be moving from Early Childhood to Middle and Upper Primary school. Our Year Six students are about to celebrate graduation from Primary School into the Middle Years. Year Nine students will graduate from Middle School and look toward to their entry into our Senior Secondary schools and colleges. Some will contemplate continuing in academically streamed classes while others consider trades training and a mix of academic and practical skills development. Year Twelve Students have for the most part completed their exams and are waiting on results which will confirm their tertiary education futures and opportunities. This is the final year of their track through what is regarded as compulsory schooling and many will join in ‘schoolies weeks’ letting their hair down here and overseas. I hope they do it in a way that allows common sense to temper their celebrations.
For all students there is a chance to consider the year, their achievements and their futures. Young children think on these things simplistically (and with the help of their parents). For older students, thinking is a more sophisticated process ideally shared by them with their parents, siblings and carers. While key markers on the educational pathway might be considered as endpoints, they are in reality places at which students pause temporarily before moving to the next stage of their educational lives.
At this time, and particularly because of the strong feelings and angst existing at the moment between teachers and government, it would be easy to overlook the achievements and celebrations for school children and students of the 2013 educational year. The great majority have done well. Part of that comes from the love and care offered by parents. Part is due to the commitment, empathy and sincerity of teacher effort. And part is the outcome of self-recognition – children and students recognising that effort begets success and reward.
SCHOOLS AND FORTRESS MENTALITY
It is a sad thing that open environments once a feature of child care and school precincts are being consigned to history. Fenceless, physically borderless boundaries have all but gone.
Schools had outer perimeters marked by knee or waist high fencing that was no more than railing stretched between vertical uprights. However, more and more have fences being upgraded to two metre plus high, impenetrable barriers. Casualness has gone. Child care centres and school properties are increasingly being demarcated as ‘no go’ areas.
Around child care centres are high, closely picketed fences with a minimal number of entrance points. Entry is through gates that require an adult to lift a latch bolt. Then a secured entrance door has to be negotiated. Some child care centres have key codes built into front doors. Doors can only be opened from the inside unless one has a security pass code. Sadly schools and child care centres, places which used to be open and friendly with community trustworthiness understood, are increasingly becoming the Fort Knoxes of our suburbs.
A new, sad beginning
I can remember when we first came to Darwin, that few schools were fenced. My first experience convincing of the need to become security conscious occurred in 1987. In March that year, our front office (Karama School) was broken into, trashed and torched. But for the quick thinking of our caretaker, damage would have been horrendous. Our School Council decided that investment in a security system, alarmed and security firm connected, would be a wise investment. The Principal’s Association ( these days the Association for Northern Territory School Education Leaders or ANTSEL) recommended that happen for all schools. From then and over time the Department of Education endorsed firstly security alarms then mesh on windows, fences around premises and in more recent times CCTV cameras.
A sad thing for schools is their need to take on a fortress like mentality. Students and staff members ought not be confronted with teaching and learning environments surrounded by two metre high fences. They should not have to go through gates that open in the morning, are locked at night and require pass keys at other times. They should not have to walk around school precincts under the survelliance of CCTV cameras or sit in classrooms where security systems, unarmed during the working day, are turned on after hours in order to afford protection. They should not need to enter and exit classrooms through doors with double locking and deadbolt systems in place to secure against unlawful entry. Neither should they be made to feel like prisoners, looking out from classrooms through windows reinforced with security mesh.
Teachers and students leaving their places of work and learning, wonder whether violation occasioned by unlawful entry will occur overnight, at weekends or during holiday times. Will walls be graffitied, windows smashed, doors broken through, rooms trashed and property stolen? Worry about the susceptibility of workplaces to violation is always on the back-burner of thinking.
Accompanying that worry is the irony of what happens to offenders if caught following damage to school premises and property. Generally those apprehended are protected by anonymity during any subsequent court hearing, certainly if they are under age. This of course does not stop them bragging to their friends, or even entering details of their exploits on Facebook or Youtube. From memory, the ‘Katherine Times’ broke with the anonymity tradition when significant damage was done to Clyde Fenton School, naming the offenders. I also remember the editor being castigated for taking this step. I for one welcomed his paper identifying the offenders and believe this should be done far more often. The guarantee of anonymity encourages offenders. (There is no Territory law disallowing the naming of names, suppression being the prerogative of magistrates.)
Another irony is the apparent reluctance at times of schools to follow through on issues of wanton damage to premises and property. That may have to do with school leadership groups somehow feeling misplaced ‘shame or blame’ for these happenings.
What should happen
This issue, needs to be aired in the public domain. Offenders need to be dealt with in other than a trivial fashion. They are fully aware of what they are doing and deserve to face realistic consequences. Students and staff who are the victims of property crime deserve to know that offenders will be dealt with, not treated trivially and let off lightly. Above all, schools should be happy and open places of learning, not enclosed fortresses separated by security devices from their communities.
DON’T SELL OUR YOUNG PEOPLE SHORT
The bringing up and development of children is confronting and challenging. The complexity of the world in which we live is adding exponentially to the maze young people have to negotiate in choosing the right way forward. For children, students and our youth generally, the path to the future is exciting but fraught. There are many distractions that can lead young people toward making poor choices. It is part of the adult brief, that they be supported by people who can help them toward living positive lives.
Learning for Life
At school level and in terms of educational agendas, there is controversy over what constitutes the most important learning for students. Governments impress on systems and education departments on schools, the need for narrow but focussed academic competence in literacy and numeracy. Comparisons of Territory students with their Australian and overseas counterparts in terms of accomplishment and outcome has reached saturation point. There is contestation between schools of thought about what should prioritise and underpin education. Holistic education and the notion of purist (and exclusive) academic need are regarded by many as being incompatible. For the sake of student development we have to get education right.
Children are also challenged on a wider ‘world view’ front. Qualities upheld as being important and necessary, are not translated in terms of what they see happening in everyday life. The example set for them by adults is often poor. Many young people would realise they are often told by adults to live in a way they (adults) are not prepared to practice in their own lives. This smacks of hypocrisy.
Children are told they need to be caring, sharing people. However they see adults putting their wants and needs ahead of others in an aggressive ‘me first’ way. They are told of the need to be polite, well mannered and courteous, yet see in the adult world, people who jostle each other, push in, communicate discourteously and at times abusively. This is reinforced by physical and verbal fighting and sledging among their sporting heroes, confirmed almost daily by media.
Through education, children are ultimately being prepared for occupational participation. Most days the media is loaded with stories that cover everything from poor workmanship and substandard contract delivery to manipulation and fraud. This ‘example setting’ happens in political, professional, manufacturing, construction and trade domains. Stories of adults behaving fraudulently regularly visit our television screens. I dare say youth understanding of jurisdictional response when deceptions are dealt with in our courts, may cause them to think those sinning have done little wrong.
Games Children Play
A major challenge offered young people growing up in today’s world is the game distortion offered by iPod, iPad, iPhone, computer and other electronic devices. There are many games or attachments with an educational or fun focus. However, there are thousands of games, easily accessed by children, which are everything from macabre and distorted to chillingly horrible. Experts say children and young people differentiate, knowing these are fun games which do not skew their thinking about what is real. Their behaviours in real life would never be shaped by these games.
That is wrong. Time and again, we read and hear of sad societal outcomes, including mass murder, perpetrated by those who have been influenced by games to take sad trips in real life down Hell Road. Games manufacturing companies achieve record sales and turn huge profits in the marketplace. Too often their products lead to bizarre societal outcomes because of young people acting out their illusions.
Youtube and Facebook bullying and teasing add to the trauma faced by growing numbers of youth. While the electronic world had added huge benefits to our existence, deleterious and harmful consequences signal that society has not done a good job managing these advances.
Publicising Young People
Many young people set great examples worthy of emulation. Unfortunately, their positivism is hidden behind the continuing glare of publicity accompanying the activities of those who choose negative pathways. That in turn colours the judgements society makes about its young people. There are tens of thousands of quite outstanding youth whose positive qualities go unrecognised because of societal focus on the negatives of their peers.
It is behoven upon teachers, support staff and those connected with the education of students to show the way in example setting terms. That responsibility is one needing to be accepted and shared by every member of our adult community and most essentially by parents. Young people are our future. We ought not sell them short.