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Pathways-ED: Hey mate, it's NAPLAN time


Just enjoyed the luxury of a weekend in Sydney – a chance to take a break and enjoy for a few days the Aussie ambience.

Of course if you work in education you never entirely switch off for the issues are universal and the concerns of a community for the education of its young especially but also the wider community generally is something all countries share.

But I was quite surprised by the extent of the coverage of education in the newspapers. Some of the discussion was timeless – are our children safe? There are it was reported two incidents each week where intruders enter schools and lock-down procedures apply. The more popular press showed concerned parents (and who wouldn’t be in such circumstances) calling for all schools to be fenced so as to deter these intrusions. Fencing has been something of a trend here in New Zealand over past years and it is surprising that Australian schools are still hanging on to a physical openness that once used to be typical here.

But a lot of the discussion hinged around the release of the NAPLAN results.

The NAPLAN is becoming a very big item in the Australian school calendar. It is a set of national tests in in language and numeracy (hence NAPLAN – National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) which students sit in Years 3,5,7,9) but the data is released by the body responsible for administering and reporting on the tests (the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority) only through the MySchool website (

Of course the newspapers can’t resist the temptation to try to turn all this into league tables and The Australian newspaper goes as far as to produce “Top 100” lists in a special lift-out supplement. But interestingly the stories that make the front page of that newspaper have headlines such as “Cane-country schools teach a lesson in how to defy disadvantage”. This all seems very jolly and “good-on-you” stuff. The article then reveals a stark truth – among the 1000-odd most disadvantaged primary schools in Australia, only 46 score above the national average in reading, writing and numeracy.

The stand-outs among disadvantaged schools where the results are markedly high do not claim miracles but rather an unrelenting focus on what is required to get students to learn – attendance, respect for teaching staff,  and community engagement which seems to be central to their success. Underpinning this is a clear and undented belief among those principals in the ability of all students to learn, a level of positivity that seems to me to be typical in the Australian educational discourse.

I have on other occasions been impressed by the ability of Australian media generally to handle education matters in a level-headed kind of way with contributions from professional bodies being ones that add to that quality. There is not the default opposition of pretty well all education topics that characterises the Kiwi way. This is not to say the education discussions are devoid of heat.  Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Queensland Premier Cameron Newman were at loggerheads. Newman proposes to pay teacher bonuses for performance and surrounds all this with all the words that go with “quality of education”, “concern for young people” and “rewarding our best teachers”. Gillard sees this as a betrayal of the federal reforms led by her, popularly known as the Gorski reforms, which would have seen money directed to schoo­ls rather than to teachers deemed to be high performing. The teacher associations are comfortable with one of these and not so much with the other.

But the coverage of this difference of opinion stood out on the rather flat and measured plain of education discussion.

“Flat” wasn’t the word for it when I had a look at the Australian House of Representatives (as one does when in relaxed more). They were giving the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 a second reading. This bill is all about reform funding for “participating schools” and suchlike. An earnest speech was being delivered by an earnest member of the Government. He was the only MP from the government in the House at that time. It was being listened to by an equally earnest and respectful member of the Labor Opposition who was at that time the only opposition member in the house. 

And this on the same day that the NAPLAN results coverage revealed that only 5 of the 10% of most disadvantaged schools in Australia were in the upper 1,000 schools. This is what reforms must address – and on both sides of the Tasman.



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Talk-ED: Getting the balance right

Stuart Middleton
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.


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