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Damien Morgan – items of interest from the world of education

Archive for July 2013

Problems in today’s schools

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 Part One: introducing the Australian Curriculum, and associated problems

Over the next few months I plan to write a series of articles pointing out some of them endemic problems in Australia’s schools, and hopefully some ideas to rectify, or at least manage these. My intention is not to come across as pining for the ‘good old days’, but rather to assist in the conversation to open ideas which could perhaps lead to a change of policy on  national, state, institutional and local levels.

One of the great disappointments in the last couple of years has been the roll-out of the Australian Curriculum. This could have been a greatly unifying force for schools and communities, but squabbling at the level of state governments and some frankly bizarre interpretations of its intent at local level have left teachers scratching their heads. Add to that puzzlingly different commitment to its implementation by various jurisdictions, and one can only wonder how seriously anyone is, apart from the Federal government, about making this work. And there are problems in the curriculum, too, some of which are simply too big to be fixed.

‘State of Origin’ education has long been a issue between various state education departments in Australia. For example, neither New South Wales nor Queensland could be seen to adopt policies and practices that the other had implemented, even if they were successful. In an extraordinary admission that other states might have an answer, and breaking with this tradition, the Queensland government made two decisions during Premier Bligh’s term in office (2007-2012). First was the decision to introduce a 13th year to Queensland schooling, thus aligning with the other states and territories. The second decision was to move Yr 7 from primary to secondary school (an action WA is also taking) to better align grade levels with the Australian Curriculum. The introduction of a 13th year was a no-brainer (the Qld government had abolished Prep in 1953, apparently as a cost-saving practice). Its placement before Yr 1 was curious, however, as Qld already had 7 primary years. Some years later (2010) came the announcement that Yr 7 would move to secondary school. This caused quite some angst in the community, and many school have been left wondering how they might accommodate all these extra students. Other schools are concerned about staffing levels, support and their ability to provide certain ‘extras’ when they lose their Yr 7 cohort.  If the government had provided a ‘big picture’ plan of what was coming, many problems might have been avoided, as everybody would understand better what was happening and why it was going to happen. Unfortunately, governments rarely seem to work that way.

It is incorrect to think that State of Origin education has disappeared. The name chosen for “the year before Year One” (don’t you love that?) in the Australian Curriculum is ‘Foundation’. Why choose that when no Australian jurisdiction was using it? Somewhere around the end of 2010, the name for this year changed from ‘K’ (as in K-10) to ‘Foundation’, apparently because no state was prepared to change their name for the year before Year 1.

Support for the implementation of the curriculum components has been haphazard at best. In some jurisdictions (Catholic Education Office Toowoomba is a good example) education officers were appointed to assist teachers in exploring the first published sections of the new curriculum, conducting audits of their current content, and preparing units of work using the Australian curriculum. Other jurisdictions provided no departmental or regional support at all, leaving it up to Principals to ensure their staff was compliant with governmental expectations. Now a couple of years into implementation, it seems a hierarchy of learning areas is apparent. Less support (of course if there was no support to begin with it’s difficult to have less without being actually obstructionist) is forthcoming for Geography, and teachers expect less again for the Arts and Languages as those curricula become available. I would ask all departments, jurisdictions and institutions, “Why is there so little support?”  Assuming the government’s intention is for the Australian curriculum to work, teachers need to be supported in implementing it well. Despite what some outside of schools might think, teachers spend countless hours on preparation – they are professional people who want to do the best they can for their students. A new curriculum is a big deal. It’s not just a case of reading from a new book.

Many primary schools use composite or mixed age classes. There are a number of reasons for doing this, but the most common is that the number of students enrolled doesn’t make for a full class in a particular cohort. For instance, a small school might be allocated 5 teachers according to the enrolment. Obviously, there can’t be a single class for each grade level, so some mixing of classes will occur. (Separate to that is the argument that sorting children by age group might not be the best way to organise a school anyway, when one keeps in mind that all children are different and develop at different rates.) But teachers are now being told that even in mixed age classes, separate courses of study must be taught to the children. That means in a composite Yr 4/5 class, the teacher is required to plan, deliver and assess two entirely different courses of study for the students. Guess what is expected in a small rural school with Yrs 3 to 6 all in one class?

There’s almost a fundamentalist fervour about this. One would think the sky might fall down if the teacher prepared just the one science unit for all the children in a mixed age class. This insistence on discrete learning programs in mixed age groups is unsustainable, and will result in hastened teacher burnout. It simply doesn’t make sense unless (1) you are not the teacher, or (2) you are a stickler for rules and regulations and refuse to see or even explore a compromise.

Similarly, primary teachers have planned integrated units of work for many years. These allow classes to become truly immersed in the work they are doing. The mathematics class ties in with what is happening in science, and in English students read material and prepare reports. The whole thing works together, and students can see that their learning is broad. Unfortunately, the curriculum fundamentalists insist that each subject is taught separately, and with clearly defined hours per week which must be met.  The result is a bunch of disassociated lessons; confusing and ultimately unsatisfying for everyone.

Classroom teachers, you see, no matter how enthusiastic or brilliant they are, are at the beck and call of politicians and bureaucrats. As the late Rita Pierson said in her TED talk in May this year, “We listen to policy that doesn’t make sense, and we teach anyway, because that’s what we do.”

Written by Damien Morgan

July 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm