Scared of What Exactly?

The ignorance and disregard for young people demonstrated by members of the Australian Government in recent days has been disturbing and disgusting. The attacks on the Safe Schools program that is being implemented in over 500 Australian schools is typical of an administration that has thrived on creating and maintaining divisiveness within the Australian community. Cory Bernardi and his crackpot cronies need to stop it with their attacks on a program that, as far as I can tell from both those who delivering it and those who undertaken it, is doing a considerable amount of good. Given that few schools have any kind of genuine anti-bullying strategy in place, any program targeting such behaviours is a godsend and a program that specifically addresses one of the primary triggers of bullying in our schools – sexual orientation and  identity – is long overdue.

Tolerance is critical in establishing safe environments for all students and, for so long, LGBT students have been subjected to behaviours and attitudes that are borne from ignorance and intolerance, attitudes that are subsequently endorsed by attacks on the Safe Schools program and other initiatives seeking better treatment for members of the LGBTI community, such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

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Surely any program that helps schools develop strategies that helps both LGBTI students feel confident in their sexual identity whilst also educating others about the impact  of ignorance and intolerance – which typically manifests as bullying –  must be a good thing? Right? It is important that school communities enact strategies to eliminate any kind of bullying or harassment for all students, so the attitude of Bernardi and the like is mindboggling. Is he suggesting that LGBTI people should be subjected to bullying and mistreatment? Does he not think that everybody should have the same right to safety and security at school and in the broader community?

Bernardi’s suggestion that Safe Schools is ‘indoctrinating’ students is ludicrous in the extreme. You can’t make somebody gay, so what is he afraid of exactly? Providing information and trying to develop a greater understanding about other members of our community is not indoctrination, it is education. Furthermore, developing strategies that embrace diversity and encourage students to be confident in their own identity (such as eliminating gender-specific uniforms) is fantastic.

We have a long way to go before all LGBTI people, young or old, can live without fear of judgement or discrimination. If the Safe Schools program can provide LGBTI people with a sense of confidence about their place in the world and educate others about the impact of bullying, then it’s hard to see any reason why the program shouldn’t continue long into the future. Of course, the ideal scenario is that we become such a tolerant, enlightened and accepting nation that such programs are never needed.

To find out more about the Safe Schools program, click here.

 

 

Uniform Changes a Great Move

In another great story about progressive educators who are putting their students first, the new uniform policy at Sydney’s Newtown High School of the Performing Arts  allows “students to wear boys or girls uniforms regardless of their gender.”

Furthermore, whilst transitioning students previously had to seek special approval to access alternative toilets, students no longer need to seek formal permission. This means that anyone identifying as a girl, for example, can use the female toilets.

Newtown

This is a great advance for students and whist it has seemingly secured the support of parents, The Australian  Christian Lobby have – surprise, surprise –  spoken out in opposition to the changes.

It is so good to see a school taking a genuine interest in the welfare of students and making policy changes to better reflect the fluidity of gender and sexuality without kowtowing to Christian crazies and other narrow-minded groups who would like to deny young people the freedom to express their gender and/or sexuality with confidence.

To read more, click here or here.

 

All Hail an Education Hero

Queensland has a new hero! Paul Thomson, the principal at Kimberley College has taken a stand against the all-pervasive NAPLAN testing regime that has infected Queensland schools. According to a story published in the Courier-Mail today, only a dozen of the more than 300 eligible students at the school sat the NAPLAN tests last year and Thomson is adamant that such testing regimes only serve to place unnecessary pressure on students and deliver little, if any, educational benefit.

It is so good to hear somebody taking a stand and putting the interests of students ahead of the unquenchable thirst for data that, in reality, offers little by the way of meaningful information for students, teachers or parents. If any teacher or parent learns anything from a student’s NAPLAN results that they didn’t already know, then clearly they are not doing their job properly.

NAPLAN

In response, ACARA chief executive officer Rob Randall used all the approved vocabulary in declaring that NAPLAN was a “vital tool for parents, educators and the public”, declaring that “taking NAPLAN requires less than four hours over three days, four times during a student’s time at school, and from that small investment comes a wealth of student, school and national information.” Such a statement is disingenuous in that Randall would know (or should know) that schools spend considerable amounts of time ‘preparing’ students for the tests, such is the pressure on schools and students to perform at a level that satisfies the politicians and bureaucrats sufficiently for them to feel confident of remaining in their high-paid position; a position that they were seemingly able to attain without the need to sit a NAPLAN test. Yet, Randall claims that without NAPLAN testing, students will experience negative impacts through their life. Have you ever heard such rot?

It’s about time that more principals and teachers put their student’s interests first and took a stand against these pointless tests, the pressure they place on students and the disruption they cause to curriculum delivery. If student welfare and educational outcomes are the number one priority, then all school principals should follow Paul Thomson’s lead and remove the pressure and expectation that NAPLAN invariably brings.

To read the Courier-Mail article in full, click here.

No Place for the Individual in Education

The media coverage of the so-called ‘controversial’ farewell speech by Ravenswood Girls School captain Sarah Haynes at the end of last year was interesting to say the least. I mean headlines such as ‘Private School Captain’s Shocking Speech Goes Viral’ are far more extreme or provocative that anything Sarah said in her speech. Whilst the level of media interest in Sarah’s speech is more a result of it being easy, inexpensive news than any genuine interest in the state of education, the speech itself does address a really important issue that is worthy of much more comprehensive analysis. Of course, the ‘shock’ of Sarah’s speech stems from two factors: 1. She is just 18 years of age and the idea of any young person daring to speak their mind is beyond the comprehension of the mainstream media (and most adults generally), and 2. She is female. As such, her speech has generated considerable attention in both the print and digital media. I mean, holy crap, a young woman who is intelligent and articulate. Who would have thought it possible? Certainly not the media it would seem given their reaction to what was, in reality, a speech that offered nothing particularly revelatory about the way schools are administered these days. The fact that her comments came as a shock to anybody only serves to demonstrate just how out of touch the media and the broader community are with regard to the ways in which image and income generation are the key priorities of state and private schools, often at the expense of student welfare and educational outcomes.

Ravenswood

It is a sad reality that school administrators are becoming so obsessed with image and reputation that the real business of schools – providing high quality education in a safe, inclusive environment – is almost an afterthought. You would think that providing a good education would, in itself, be the greatest selling point a school could have in building a positive reputation, but schools are finding it easier to make themselves sound great – utilising marketing/public relations experts, image consultants and the like – than they are in delivering greatness to their students. Although Sarah’s speech dealt specifically with Ravenswood Girls School, it could just have easily been about any school. Image is everything and if projecting a positive image comes at the expense of educational outcomes and student welfare then, apparently, that is a price worth paying. At the end of the day, many of the attributes that schools emphasise in their marketing and promotional endeavours have very little to do with educational outcomes. It is purely about convincing parents that the school is somehow better than another, drawing on superficial and largely irrelevant information to do so.

The commercialisation of education has always been the modus operandi of the private school sector, but the state education system is now adopting a similar approach to the way in which schools are managed. The only difference being that the state sector is perhaps a little less overt, although this is certainly changing as schools come under increasing scrutiny to ‘demonstrate’ their effectiveness as an education provider. The problem is, of course, that the criteria used to assess the quality of a school rarely provide any real insight into the effectiveness, or otherwise, of a particular institution. There are protocols in place designed to limit the capacity of state schools to sell themselves to prospective clients (sorry, parents), such as the catchment regime that operates in Queensland. These catchments are, according to Education Queensland “a geographical location where a state school’s core intake of students must live” and are designed to “ensure every Queensland student from Prep to Year 12 is able to enrol at their local state school”, that is “the school which is closest to home…measured by the shortest, most direct route by road”. Sounds good in theory as a measure to prevent schools from competing against each other to lure students and the income that is derived from increased enrolments, both from Government funding and parental contributions, but the reality is that schools have little difficulty in circumventing these. Schools want students who they see as an asset, and by asset I mean somebody who can be used to ‘sell’ the school. Likewise, they don’t want students whose presence is likely to have a detrimental impact on the bottom line. Therefore, schools reach well beyond their allocated catchment zone in an effort to lure students and their families into the fold. Of course, the existence of the catchment zones means that it is very easy to refuse enrolment from somebody outside the catchment areas. However, that doesn’t mean that those students deemed to be of value to the school cannot secure enrolment regardless of how far beyond the catchment they may reside.

Expecting schools to accept any student who resides within the catchment simply encourages school administrators to find more creative ways to discourage the less desirable students from enrolling. By less desirable I mean students who may struggle academically, may be from a lower socio-economic background, may have a disability or may be deemed problematic for some other reason. Now, schools won’t necessarily reject these students outright, but they will go out of their way to keep them away. This might include, for example, the implementation of a fee structure that is beyond the means of low income families, something that is happening more and more. Not only does it keep away the riff-raff, but increasing school fees and charges well beyond the cost of the provision of resources and equipment ensures that, like the private school model where higher fees denote greater prestige, the school perpetuates an image of superiority. Refusing to spend money on improvements needed to improve access/mobility for disabled students is another tactic used by school administrators to avoid the ‘burden’ of such students on their fiscal fortunes.

System Failure

The intensity of the competition between schools has only increased since the emergence of NAPLAN and the public broadcasting of results. These results are used by parents to determine which school is ‘better’ and the schools themselves draw on this information as part of their marketing strategy. Of course, the fact that NAPLAN and other results and data used by schools to sell the quality of their education programs, such as the number of students who might receive a high OP score and/or secure a University place, actually offers no insight whatsoever into the quality of a particular school, its programs or its staff is conveniently overlooked. Schools just love to be able to spruik their ‘success’ to sell themselves as somehow superior, even though there is no evidence to suggest that the exact same cohort of students attending a different school would produce different (lesser) results. Testing regimes such as NAPLAN are so flawed that schools using this information to promote the quality of their teaching programs are being knowingly disingenuous.

In her speech, Haynes alluded to the interference from school staff with regard to previous speeches she had prepared for various school events. Again, this hardly comes as a surprise as both private and government schools have long operated on rigid regimes of censorship and control. What are schools afraid of? Why are school administrators so fearful of what students might have to say? What message does it send to these young people when their school doesn’t have enough faith in them to let them speak freely? Surely we want our young people to find their own voice, their own convictions and the confidence to say what they believe. It’s bad enough that schools deny students any sense of individuality through archaic policies around dress and appearance. I mean, apparently having blue hair somehow makes you a problem of some sort that is going to have catastrophic ramifications for the entire school. One can only imagine the chaos that will ensue should a boy choose to have his ears pierced or opt to wear anything other than the expensive brand of shoes demanded by the school’s uniform ‘policy’. I mean, this will be the end of the world as we know it. How dare any student expect the right to express any sense of individuality in the way they look or the opinions they express. Heaven forbid the student who dares to identify as gay or transgender because any such deviation from the rigid norms that invariably determine what is ‘acceptable’ is simply untenable. I mean, we cannot possibly expect that our schools would encourage individuality and independent thought amongst the student body. No, no, no, that is just too scary to contemplate. It is much better if everybody looks the same, thinks the same and acts the same because, you know, that will prepare them for the realities of the world beyond school. Good on Sarah Haynes for bringing the issue to light, it’s just a shame that more young people (and their parents) aren’t willing to take a stand.

Compliance

Of course, this culture of compliance extends beyond students to teaching and other staff as well. Any teacher who does not meet the rigid expectations of the school administration cannot expect to ever feel safe and secure in their positions, no matter how skilled they may be as an educator. Schools don’t really care whether teachers are good or bad at their job, what they want is be people who will happily rid themselves of any sense of individuality and blindly comply with the whims of the administrative regime. A great many highly effective teachers have been lost as a result of their frustration with a system that simply does not allow for any sense of individuality – either in their personality or their approach to teaching. Education authorities are counting the days until we reach a point where teaching can be delivered by robots programmed to deliver a curriculum that meets the political agenda of school principals and education bureaucrats. No more of those pesky teachers who might dare to challenge a particular policy initiative or treat the students with respect.

Sarah Haynes’ speech was just the tip of the iceberg. The issues she addressed in her presentation are widespread throughout the state, private and independent school sectors. It is a great shame that the media who were so quick to pounce on Sarah’s speech for cheap copy weren’t so keen on delving into the issues raised to discover just how fucked up our approach to education is in this country. We are forever lamenting our lack of competiveness in world education rankings, yet we make no effort to really evaluate where the problem lies. Our young people are as smart as any and we have some fantastically talented and passionate teachers, but none of that means anything if we continue to deliver education via a regime of compliance and control instead of one that encourages and nourishes individuality and independent thought. Stop operating our schools as business ventures and focus more on the delivery of a relevant, flexible curriculum with a pedagogical framework that demonstrates a respect for our young people and privileges the most passionate and dedicated teachers over those for whom teaching is merely a means to an end. We need an education system in which diversity, creativity and individuality are privileged over uniformity and compliance. We need an education system that is personalised, wide-ranging in content and perspectives and in which culture and identity can flourish. We need teachers who love what they do and we need to allow them to deliver education in a way that best suits their individual style AND best meets the needs of their students. It’s actually pretty easy to make education great, but nothing will change while those best placed to lead the way in revolutionising education delivery remain focussed on protecting their own positions of privilege and power.

The Most Important Day of the Year?

There is less than a week until THE day of the year! Given Australia’s penchant for public holidays for any reason imaginable (including the “birthday” of some multi-millionairess from England), it baffles me that we are yet to be granted the same privilege for a celebration that truly matters. Yes, of course I am talking about Star Wars Day – May 4th. Now, this is something worth celebrating. An opportunity to recognise and reflect upon the greatest movie franchise ever created. Of course, we should never, ever lose sight of the significance of Star Wars as a cultural beacon, but May 4th allows us to come together as a nation to celebrate together and share our Star Wars experiences.

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Not only should it be a public holiday, the Government should be providing free access to screenings of all six Star Wars films in cinemas across the country. Anything less shows utter contempt for the people of Australia.

May the Fourth be with you.

Star Wars Day

The Importance of The Arts in Education

Teachers and students have long known the benefits of arts education, whether it be formal teaching and learning in specific subjects such as Art, Music, Drama, Dance or Media, or whether incorporating arts into more traditional ‘academic’ subject areas such as Maths and Science. The problem is, of course, that school administrators and the education bureaucracies to whom they are beholden do not always understand or appreciate the enormous value of arts education for young people. Far too often, arts subjects are seen as the ‘fun’ options suitable for those students who “can’t handle the hard subjects”. I remember a recent experience of a student transferred into my Film, Television and New Media class. Upon enquiring to the Deputy Principal who facilitated the subject change, I was advised that the student had been doing Chemistry but was struggling and wanted to do something ‘easier’. Needless to say, this student struggled with the workload and academic rigour of FTV&NM and subsequently transferred again, no doubt still seeking that elusive ‘easy’ subject. I was far from happy with such an assumption about the subject, but I wasn’t surprised. I had experienced such attitudes in other schools with regard to this subject and other arts subjects. This was the same Deputy Principal who had also decided, without any consultation with teachers, that Film, Television and New Media should be part of the English faculty, rather than the Arts faculty, which provides some indication of their complete lack of understanding about this subject specifically and The Arts more broadly.

Arts Really Teach

It’s not that I wanted this student to fail. It’s just that school administrators don’t fully understand the fact that The Arts are not an easy option. I would have preferred that he stay in the class and reap the benefits that only arts education can offer. Art cannot simply be dismissed as “painting pictures” or “making movies”. The Arts enable young people to develop new ways of thinking and communicating, encourage creativity and imagination and the opportunity for personal expression in ways that other areas of study do not. The Arts encourage young people to be creative and provide access to the tools to do so. The Arts can be hard work, but ultimately they provide young people with the skills that will enable them to participate effectively and successfully in a rapidly changing world.

Research undertaken by the University of Sydney examined the academic and personal wellbeing outcomes of students from 15 Australian schools over two years. The research found that “students who engaged with the arts in schools as active participants – as makers and doers of the arts – were more likely to do better in academic and social spheres than those who passively consumed the arts.” Furthermore, research undertaken by The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) concluded that “involvement in arts programmes has a positive impact on students’ engagement” and that “there are strong demonstrated relationships between arts in education and students’ broad academic (including literacy and numeracy) and social achievements.” Nobody who teaches The Arts would be surprised by such findings, however we still too often find that it is Arts subjects the first to be jettisoned when the “demands of a crowded curriculum bear down on time and resources.” Clearly, reducing access to arts education in our schools is compromising student outcomes and reducing their opportunities to achieve in other areas of their lives.

Think Again

The special report Why Arts Education Must Be Saved provides a range of perspectives and insights through a series of accompanying articles about the importance of arts education. Whilst arts teachers already know of the enormous benefits that arts education offers our students, it is vital that this understanding is shared by those who ultimately determine what subjects are offered, how they are offered and to whom they are offered. School Principals and Deputy-Principals must understand the value of arts education if we are going to see these subjects afforded the respect and privilege assigned to other fields of study. Not only do schools need to be offering a wide range of arts subjects, they also need to make sure that students are to able to develop a program of study that incorporates multiple arts disciplines, should they so desire. I have experiences in one school that offered Art, Drama, Music and Film Television and New Media but had timetabling structured in such a way that all four subjects were on the same ‘line’ which therefore meant that no student could study more than one of these. What about the student/s who might want to study more than one of these subjects (or even all four)? I have seen similar timetabling clashes in other schools and it is infuriating because, whilst it is a common scenario with the scheduling/timetabling of arts subjects, I have never ever seen students forced to make such compromises in other subject areas. Heck, Kate Miller-Heidke was forced to change schools just so that she could study both Music and Drama and it doesn’t seem as though much has changed since then. Of course, choosing multiple Maths or Science subjects is perfectly okay, but heaven forbid that any student might want to select a course of study focussed primarily on Arts subjects.

“If there are less than 12 students who enrol in the subject it won’t be offered.” This was the message I was given one year when student numbers for one of my FTV&NM classes was below this figure in the early days of the period allocated for students to make their subject selections for the following year. This was the justification as to why Drama was not currently being offered and it could be argued that such a policy is reasonable given the demands on school funding. In the end though, the final student numbers were more than sufficient and my classes went ahead as planned. However, I was extremely annoyed to discover that both Chemistry, Maths C and Ancient History were also proceeding even though each class had less than 10 students (one class had as few as 6). I was not amused and when I raised my dissatisfaction with the power-that-be, I was advised that “these subjects are important and it wouldn’t be fair on the students if we didn’t offer them.” Such a statement makes it clear that subjects such as Drama and FTV&NM and the students who want to study them are not important and can therefore be sacrificed. Nobody will ever convince me that the likes of Chemistry or History or any other subject for that matter are any more, or less, important than any Arts subject.

To suggest that The Arts are in anyway inferior or somehow less important to other subjects is nonsense. To suggest that The Arts are easier than other subjects is nonsense. To suggest that The Arts are only for fun is also nonsense. Sure, The Arts can be fun (as can every other subject), but the demands and challenges of any arts subject are no less than any other area of study. A 2009 study of New York High Schools by the Center for Arts Education compared arts resources in schools grouped by graduation rate and found that “schools in the bottom third in graduation rates (less than 50% graduation rate) offered the least access to arts education, fewer arts teachers per student, fewer dedicated arts spaces, fewer arts and culture partnerships and so forth.” In their study Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools – a report that draws upon information provided by submissions from a variety of sources, reviews of existing studies and data in the field and insights gathered from site visits – The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities declared that “education in the arts is more important than ever. In the global economy, creativity is essential. Today’s workers need more than just skills and knowledge to be productive and innovative participants in the workforce…To succeed today and in the future, children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative. The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education.” This report concluded that “All of the research points to the success of schools that are arts-rich – in which students who may have fallen by the wayside find themselves re-engaged in learning when their enthusiasm for film, design, theater or even hip-hop is tapped into by their teachers. More advanced students also reap rewards in this environment, demonstrating accelerated learning and sustained levels of motivation.” In an article titled What is Brain-Based Learning? Brain-Based Education is the purposeful engagement of strategies that apply to how our brain works in the context of education, Eric Jensen cites studies from five universities examining the impact of arts on the brain, the results of which show that “certain arts boost attention, working memory, and visual spatial skills. Other arts such as dance, theater and drama boost social skills, empathy, timing, patience, verbal memory and other transferable life skills.” Subsequently, Jensen declares that not only should arts be mandatory, students should be given a choice of several with support from expert teachers and the necessary time to excel. “Arts support the development of the brain’s academic operating systems in ways that provide many transferable life skills.”

Motivating Arts

We need all schools to take The Arts seriously and hopefully the development and implementation of the National Curriculum will go some way to achieving this, although this won’t necessarily be the case in senior secondary studies which is where The Arts is often seen as being somehow less important or worthwhile, as ludicrous as that sounds to those of who know better. Only when all schools are demonstrating a commitment to arts education that is genuine and equal to their level of commitment to all other areas of study can we be assured that students are being afforded an opportunity to secure an education that provides them with the opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to find success and fulfilment in their life beyond school. In fact, any school that is not affording all their students the opportunity to study a comprehensive program of arts study is fundamentally failing in their responsibilities to prepare young people for a world in which creativity, imagination, resourcefulness and innovation are considered THE critical skills for success in the world beyond school.

When Principals Attack

I have posted the following blog entry 365mindfulmoments.blogspot.com.au because I think most teachers can relate to this experience in some way. I know that I have most certainly experienced situations where prinicipals or other members of the administration like to think they have a better idea of what goes on in your classroom than you do. Furthermore, they like to think they have a better understanding of the students that you teach; those students on whom you spend countless hours preparing suitable materials, lesson plans and assessment; those students that you care about and whose social and emotional wellbeing is just as important to you as their educational outcomes because you know they are intrinsically linked. Yes, they think they know more about the students that you see every day who inspire and motivate you. They think they know better than you what your students need to find success at school and life, even though they haven’t spent any time with any of them. Teachers need to be supported by their principal and others within the school administration, not belittled and undermined by the very people who should be celebrating the talent, commitment and passion of their teaching staff.

If those running our schools can’t even demonstrate faith and confidence in teachers and the enormous amount of work they do to help their students find success, what hope is there that we, as a profession, will ever garner such respect form the community at large?

Whilst this blog post is a few years old, it certainly serves as a reminder of what teachers have to endure at the hands of their ‘masters’. This is a very specific example of a scenario that I think is all too familiar for many teachers in Australia. I know from my experiences, and those of my colleagues, that such attacks on the credibility and competence of teachers are far too common.

Hurt Heart
By – Joan Young

Have you ever given your all, heart, soul, mind? I mean your “ALL” and had someone make a disparaging comment about your competence? It happened to me today and though I am trying to get past it, I feel stuck. For an entire school year I have worked diligently to help a very special little girl gain success in my class. I cried at her IEP when the “professionals” who didn’t know her minimized her significant issues, spent countless hours talking with her parents brainstorming ideas to help her succeed, and read everything I could get my hands on to increase my knowledge.

In an attempt to make himself feel more competent, or look better when her mum rightfully questioned a school practice where she was left alone in a small nurses office after an incident where she threw mud all over a yard duty, my principal offhandedly commented “Maybe Mrs. Young wasn’t the best placement for this little girl this year.” He went on to say that perhaps my “background” got in the way. (Of course he did not have the courage to say this to me, but was actually stupid enough to say it to her mum.) My background? My background as a social worker and clinical therapist helped me care for this little girl, teach and learn with her, understand her, and look at her from a strengths perspective. My background helped me create a caring classroom environment where no child belittled, accused, or made fun of her differences. My background helped me tolerate getting hit, spit on, poked in the eye and screamed at more often than I care to recall.

So, when someone who has no clue about what occurred in my classroom because he spent maybe 5-10 total minutes in an entire school year thinks he can speak to “the best place” for my student, am I just to conclude that he knows not what he says? Intellectually, I know the answer, but tell it to my heart. It still aches.

Author Joan Young is teacher with a degree in clinical psychology. She currently runs the blog Finding Ways for All Kids to Flourish