Improving our schools – an educated approach

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One of the curious aspects of the debate on schools funding is that there is little recognition of the changing nature of the educational landscape and how this has affected, and will continue to affect the way parents and students regard schools and teachers. My generation, the baby boomers, was the recipient of a massive investment of education funding, a commitment by government to the future of the country that makes the Howard government look like the wimps they are. Australia is to a large extent still feasting on the results of the education investments made from the 1950s to the 1970s.

As Bruce Wilson has outlined, the notion of Australian children completing a full high school education only became popular in the years after World War II. Indeed as recently as 1968 only 22.7% of all children completed high school. 76.3% of completing students were from private non-catholic schools, 27.5% were from Catholic Schools and 20.4% were from state schools. (Gerald Burke and Andrew Spaull ‘Australian schools: participation and funding 1901 to 2000). By 2004 ABS figures show that 62% of male students and 73% of female students completed Year 12 in 2004 (4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, 2006). The numbers describing the changes in Australia’s education profile have been crunched to predict employment and training trends, tertiary education possibilities and other statistical somersaults, and even to comment on how much harder it is for schools to teach a diverse cohort, but no one seems to have understood the long term implications of these changes on the relationship between teachers, schools and the families of students. Yet this changing relationship lies at the very heart of why so many parents are dissatisfied with state schools. Many teachers and administrators in state schools have long continued to act as though the parents who try to speak with them on their concerns about their children’s education are as poorly educated as my parents were in the 1960s. They assume that they should be regarded as all-knowing founts of wisdom, and are hurt or even angry when parents regard themselves as their intellectual equals. At the same time parents who are professionals in their fields are less than impressed with teachers who do not respond to emails concerning their children’s welfare or who fob them off with clichés.

The one constant complaint I hear from state schoolteachers is how ‘awful’ modern parents are in demanding that their children’s needs are met. Most of the parents they object to are educated and are able to meet their children’s teachers head on. But sometimes, as in Elizabeth Vale in South Australia, it is parents from the economic underclass who get organised and campaign with a great noise when schools don’t meet their needs. They are then accused of harassment. The outrage by families as Elizabeth Vale has led to a South Australian Parliamentary Inquiry, partly because the children at that school had no where else to go. But when middle class parents are met with teacher hostility of school bullying they often just take their children and walk. More often than not they walk across the road to a private school with a more responsive administration. The teachers who failed to establish dialogue with the parents then sneer at them for their ‘snobbery’. This is hardly an appropriate response.

Rather than getting bogged down in an unproductive brawl about private schools poaching students, it is probably time school administrations started to reassess how to relate to their students and the families of students. Despite the huge shift in parents’ educational levels, the system still finds it easy to brush aside their legitimate concerns. There is still a tendency to assume that education is something that happens to children, rather than with them.

Then there is the whole issue of accountability of schools to their communities. This is hardly radical stuff.

Most states now have different forms of parent and community representation. But many of these are confined to form rather than substance. The bureaucracy is usually able to ensure its survival. How then do parents and students cope when they have serious problems with their local school? Each state has different official procedures that pay some degree of lip service to complaints about schools. However as the recent case of Ben Cox’s mother’s long and heroic fight on her son’s behalf against the NSW Education Department shows, the bureaucracy will fight to the bitter end to avoid accepting responsibility for children who are bullied.

The classroom photograph for the five year old Cox shows how badly the school dealt with the problem of bullying. Behind the group of five year olds is a message board with a poster saying “If I hit a bully it makes ME a bully”. That is a classic cop-out, but typical of a system more adept at sweeping problems under the carpet than dealing with them. In Newcastle Cox’s mother was told bullying was good for him. Some years earlier in Sydney I was told that my bullied child had to “learn to roll with the punches”. Other parents (and children) have similar memories. In both cases the authorities, who had a duty of care for the child, put responsibility back onto the victim. Ben Cox’s mother ultimately sued on her son’s behalf and the amount awarded stands as an indictment of the system that allowed this. The use of the legal system or even the Ombudsman is no substitute for an open and transparent system of conflict resolution.

The university sector where I work has undergone a social revolution as great as any other in the last 50 years. In the middle of constantly being asked to do more with less, including achieving higher standards with fewer resources, we have also revolutionised our approach to students. When I was a student in the late 1960s no one ever even saw a course outline. Our classes were small (my first tutorial only had nine students), but no one saw a lecturer outside of class. Now students are in constant contact by email, course outlines are not only compulsory but every single course outline at my university contains details of the grievance procedure, including the name and contact details of the school’s grievance officer. Oddly enough once this information became public, complaints were reduced.

There is no reason why schools cannot take a similar approach in informing students and parents of their rights. Some schools, notably those in the once troubled Catholic system, have a very open policy on dealing with complaints. Other independent schools work hard to create a community with their parents. They are only too aware that if complaints are not dealt with in an open and equitable manner, parents will resort to legal action.

In addition to an open and transparent complaints process, university courses are assessed for student feedback, and teaching staff are expected to reconsider their approach to teaching in line with student needs.

In Sydney one private school, SCEGGS Darlinghurst, regularly surveys its senior students on the quality of their teaching. The school doesn’t assume that the students are necessarily right, but their opinions are taken into account. Listening to students builds mutual respect and helps to ensure quality control.

For years there have been complaints on quality control in schools, especially state schools, and now governments are beginning to act – but they seem to have lost the notion of ‘mutual respect’ along the way. Last year NSW Parliament passed the Education Legislation Amendment (Staff) Bill that enables the state to ‘let go’ those teachers who chronically under perform. In recent months Federal minister for Education, Julie Bishop, has come out with tough talk on performance pay where ‘under performing’ teachers will be financially penalised in an education free for all. This dog eat dog approach to teachers’ rewards was reinforced in the last Federal budget where a lucky few will be able to complete for further professional development, and be paid for it. And now the Prime Minister has put his two cents worth into the mix.

It is often under performing teachers who benefit most from professional development, not the high flyers. If governments were serious about supporting teacher quality, all teachers would be fully supported in paid professional development, and those who prove not capable of benefiting could then be let go. As Judith Wheeldon says: “Simply giving superior teachers more money does not remove or improve inadequate teachers”.

There would be less need for intensive remedial professional development if young teachers were properly supported first in their studies, and later in the early years of their careers. Some state systems have instituted half-hearted scholarships where students are paid a pittance while they study. Western Australia pays a generous allowance for final year teaching students prepared to travel to rural and remote areas. The level of support offered to students in teaching is contrasted with the funds lavished on those who join the ADF. The Department of Defence is currently offering university students a stipend of $30,000 plus HECS and a generous allowance in return for their immortal souls (or five years service). If it is good enough to properly support those being trained to fight, then it should be good enough to properly support those dedicated to ensuring that the country is worth fighting for.

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