Talk-ED: Getting the balance right

Stuart Middleton
EDTalkNZ
25 June 2012

 

It’s a disconcerting thing, reading the newspapers these days. Often during the week it is a quick scan of the morning paper, a quick go at the crossword and then off to work. The morning paper is given its serious attention in the evening.

At the weekend I look for instantaneous relaxation a more leisurely stroll though the papers.

Well, on Saturday I open the paper to be confronted by a large advertisement from the Auckland Primary Principals Association advising the public at large and readers in particular that they were against league tables in education! Some reasons were given and readers were exhorted to email the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education and their local MP all of whom would obviously be astounded by this spontaneous outburst of opinion from the community.

Most people in the community simply add this to the list that they have of the things that teachers and Principals do not believe in: national standards, performance pay, league tables and this is just the recent list. Oh yes, the teaching profession makes it very clear to the community of what it is they do not believe in.

But I wonder if members of the wider community have any idea of what educators in this country actually do believe in? And do they understand the arguments behind those things.

All they have to go on are the results that stare them in the face and they don’t need the media to tell them about these in specifically schooling terms, they know that as a result of the failure of education to win the hearts and minds of young people, they see unprecedented juvenile crime, they see escalating youth suicide rates, they see escalating issues of mental health among younger and younger people.

They know with some precision how well we are doing in education and while half of the community celebrates success, the other half despairs at what seems to be gloomy futures for their young ones.

I was put off my stride to relaxation when I came across an article that cast doubt (perhaps even aspersions) on the B4 Schooling screening test in the Sunday paper.

The Ministry of Health describes the B4 School Check as a valuable check on development and the picture of the child’s development is gained through some simple health checks and a conversation between the health professional, the ECE teacher and the parents/caregivers. All this sounds all very well, sensible and useful. But the article goes much further and gets into the speculation that the check was more sinister in its potential to get into areas of mental health and start diagnosing mental health issues in the young. This is much more problematic than simply identifying issues of hearing and sight, and nutrition and general physical development as the old Plunket checks once tried to do.

More interesting was the introduction of what seem to me to be unexceptional child behaviours as symptoms of mental health issues – shyness, sleeping with the light on, clinging on to parents’ legs, being nervous in new situations. If these are symptoms then we have all been in that space!

And this raises the issue of over-diagnosis. There is a view that this is happening. It was staggering to be told in the article that “Pharmac figures show a 140% increase in anti-depressant prescriptions for 0 – 4 year olds” within the space of one year and an increase in “mood-stabilising drug prescriptions for children aged five and over”. Can this be true? And if it is, is it the 4 year olds who need examining or should the older generations be taking a good long look at themselves.

To some extent there is as much danger in glamorising or normalising issues such as depression as there is in ignoring it. But the free and easy manner with which we see diagnoses of serious issues such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD and so on bandied about helps no-one. Young people grow up in many different ways and the strength they have to develop into “normal” youth is one of the miracles of life.

And it might be a good thing if young people grew up a little more along the lines that we grew up. We did not expect to be happy all the time and were loved when we were not. We had no idea whether or not we were normal or not and perhaps at my age still do not know!

I grew up being afraid of violence and fighting to the extent that I would hide behind the seats in the movie theatre while the cowboys were fighting (to be hauled up when it stopped by my brother who knew no such fear). I was nervous about being left alone. No-one offered me a pill! Is it normal to get tense in an airport? Or to worry about an unfamiliar sound outside at night? I do, but no-one thinks I need a pill?

Major issues such as youth suicide reflect the serious decline in the security of youth, their exposure to drugs and alcohol, the instability of so many homes (often no fault of the parents), the pressures placed on young people to compete and now things like cyber-bullying

These are real issues. It would be a good thing if people knew what teachers do believe in and had faith that this would make the world a better place, especially for their young ones.

 

One comment

  1. Dave Guerin says:

    Stuart, I took my four year old to a B4 School Check last week. While I immediately recognised that the questions were screening for special ed support and wider health issues, maybe not all parents would (but I imagine most would). The survey has a 3-point scale that you could characterize as good, borderline concern and bad, but the idea from what I could see was that multiple borderline and bad scores could accumulate to become an overall at risk result. As a screening device (and that’s all it is), the survey seemed like a reasonable approach. The journalist didn’t establish any link between the survey and the Pharmac figures.

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