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 (www.myschool.edu.au).
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.