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The waste in our schools

By Robina Cosser - posted Wednesday, 27 November 2013


New federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has given assurances that there will be no cuts in the education portfolio, but … where there is waste, Mr Pyne intends to cut the waste.

And, despite the slight trickiness involved here, we have to see the sense in Mr Pyne cutting the waste in Australian schools, particularly the waste of opportunity, potential and time.

While, on the one hand, the results of Australian students have been steadily getting worse on most international scales, on the other hand, we regularly hear of students who arrive in Australia after years spent in refugee camps and who do amazingly well in the Australian school system. In one recent example, Majok Tulba, a South Sudanese refugee, was able to rip successfully through our whole Australian education system from non-English speaking illiteracy to Sydney University Master's Degree during the eight years 2001-2009. Which seems to suggest that the main problem is not the Australian education system itself, it is the motivation of our Australian-born students. Many Australian-born students seem to be wasting their educational opportunities.

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In Bali I have noticed children walking from café to café, selling newspapers to tourists. The children are able to conduct simple conversations in several languages, building a friendly relationship with the tourists and bargaining over the price of their newspapers. Balinese children see a need to learn languages and they and their parents value educational opportunities very highly.

In contrast, many of our Australian students live with adults who do no work, but who still receive welfare payments. Our students see that these adults are free to use their welfare payments to buy alcohol, to gamble and to buy junk food.

Welfare payments break down the relationship between education and financial control.

To reduce the waste of opportunity in our schools, the new Coalition government needs to re-establish the link between education and financial control. Welfare payments should be locked into controlled debit cards that can only be used to buy approved purchases such as GST-free fruit and vegetables. A proportion of child welfare benefits should be paid directly to schools to provide every student with a school uniform and all of the books, etc. needed for school.

We need to take a close look at the wonderful lunch programs provided in French schools. Parents could be employed in Australian schools to prepare nutritionally sound meals. Children who enjoy nutritionally-sound meals at school will be healthier and will have more reason to come to school. The parents employed to prepare these meals would not only be earning, they would be learning about nutrition and food preparation.

Retiree grandparents could be encouraged to volunteer to set up gardens in our schools, to look after students while they are eating, and to sit and chat to students during playtimes.

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The more parents and grandparents we have working in our schools, the safer our children will be at school and the more our children will be exposed to well-functioning adult models.

Some children, especially boys, may be wasting their educational opportunities because our school classrooms have become peculiar, bland environments where competition is discouraged. Partly this is the result of the nutty 'beliefs' and 'philosophies' that have ruled our schools since the mid-eighties. But it is also a cultural problem - Australians really only like winners if they are ever-so-umble. Australian winners need to have an alcoholic father, a single, cleaning-lady mother, a homeless or a refugee camp childhood.

We need to re-think our 'ever-so-umble' culture. Australians need to celebrate academic excellence with the same enthusiasm that we celebrate sporting excellence. We need competitions, cheering crowds, excitement, ceremonies, medals, hours of TV news coverage, live broadcasts, long conversations about injuries and huge sections of our daily papers devoted to the celebration of academic excellence.

The potential of many of our best students is being wasted. The OECD Program for International Student Assessment results demonstrate the declining scores of Australia's brightest students. This seems odd. If an illiterate refugee child can successfully storm through the Australian education system in eight years, why are our Australian-born brightest students steadily getting worse results?

I would suspect it is because the Labor education revolutionaries prioritised "closing the gap". And the easiest way to 'close the gap' between our lowest performing students and our best-performing students was by pushing our bright students down towards the middle. So our brightest students have been trapped in the same classrooms with our slowest and most disruptive students.

But we do not force our best athletes to play in a team with our worst athletes.

We need to allow our brightest students to work with their academic peers. But this brings us to the biggest problem in Australian schools, the problem that is going to handicap our schools for generations - the quality of our teachers.

The Labor government wasted time and money training thousands of people who could not read, write and think clearly to become 'teachers'. So now we have a huge, unemployed mass of these 'teachers' waiting to be employed in our schools.

Our best Australian students seem to be doomed to spend years of their lives trapped in classrooms with 'teachers' who struggle to read, write and think clearly.

The Coalition government urgently needs to set a minimum national standard for entry to teaching.

The huge mass of 'teachers' that the coalition have inherited from Labor will have to be absorbed somewhere. I would suggest that they will do least harm teaching the middle-ability and low-ability students. We must not trap our brightest students in classrooms with semi-literate teachers.

We give our best sports students special training and access to excellent instructors. We need to give our brightest academic students equal access to excellent teachers.

The Coalition needs to identify and train a group of academically-excellent teachers. They should be identified as 'executive teachers' and their good academic qualifications should be celebrated. These "executive teachers' will need to be paid higher salaries, provided with better working conditions and, most importantly, protected from the aggression that is often shown toward academic excellence in Australian schools.

We need to employ these 'executive teachers' to teach our brightest students.

To keep these 'executive teachers' in our schools, we will need school principals who will not feel the need to attack the 'executive teachers' in order to 'prove' that they are no better than the less academic teachers. We need principals who are able to recognise and value academic excellence in their staff and their students.

We need a better promotion system. An interview-based promotion system puts classroom teachers at risk of harm. It is too subjective. It is psychopath-friendly. Teachers can find themselves trapped for years in a school with a charming, lying, bullying, not-quite-literate school principal. Teachers have told me how betrayed they feel by education department officers who transfer them into a school with a known workplace bully, or who transfer a principal with a known bullying problem into their school.

Australian teachers need better protection from false allegations. Male teachers, especially, work in constant fear of false allegations that can consume years of their life, their health and their career.

Teachers need vastly improved investigation processes. Departmental investigations that are 'set up' to fail are a waste of time and money. Time spent writing 'Briefings for the Minister', reports and 'new' policies based on the outcomes of faux investigations is time that is being wasted.

A lot of time is being wasted in our schools.

We urgently need CCTV in every Australian classroom to protect teachers from false allegations. We need to be able to prove to parents how their children are behaving.

We need CCTV in school offices to protect school principals from out-of-control parents.

We need Parents and Citizens organisation to take more responsibility for behaviour management. P and C committees need to meet with disruptive children and their parents, to view the CCTV evidence and to discuss the level of disruption in the classrooms.

We need to tell children how we expect them to behave. Many of our children's story-books and early-evening TV soap-operas celebrate naughtiness, arguments, rudeness and the hysterical "beating up' of trivia. And so this is the sort of behaviour that we see reflected in our classrooms.

French school children are different, shockingly different. They are quiet and calm. Even the babies in France are calmer than our Australian babies. Children in many third-world cultures are calmer than Australian children. We need to research what we are doing to our children to cause this difference in behaviour.

We need to research the value of beginning every school day with an organised sport and exercise program.

We need much more research. So much time and so much money has been wasted in our schools since the mid-eighties on nutty educational 'fads' that have stunted the academic development of our children. Decisions concerning education need to be based on facts rather than "beliefs" or "philosophies".

Groups of 'executive teachers' working in areas of shortage - maths, science, languages - could be employed to design and produce video lessons and workbooks in their subject area. Then, even if these exceptionally well qualified teachers eventually decided to abandon teaching as a career, we would still have their video lessons. These videos and workbooks would enable all Australian students, however remote, however disadvantaged, however disrupted their classroom or their schooling, to gain access to excellence.

One sad reflection on what is going on in Australian schools is that children who study by distance education often achieve better academic results than children who physically attend school.

Opportunity, potential and time are all being wasted in Australian schools.

So, yes, cut the waste, Mr Pyne. For the sake of our children, please cut the waste in our schools.

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About the Author

Robina Cosser edits the Teachers Are Blowing Their Whistles and Whistleblowing Women. She is Schools Contact Person and a Vice-President of Whistleblowers Australia.

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