Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Education - What is the Price of Quality?

I have sent this into a newspaper but it will not be published as it is too long. So I have self published it here.

I teach in a school where the principal has been told that the education grants for terms three and four are being withheld. It is a small school in a relatively inner suburb of Melbourne.  This school had a poor reputation many years ago. This perception has changed in the last few years.  Some good teaching staff and a principal, who are passionate about quality education, have turned this school around. Its good reputation has evolved and the school is on the road to achieving very positive goals both academically and in terms of extracurricular activities.
   So I was amazed when the Principal announced to us in a staff briefing that grant money which should have come to the school in terms three and four is being withheld for no real reason.

   Imagine if you were a mother and suddenly one night your partner tells you, ‘sorry dear, can’t give you the money for January, February and March’s housekeeping.’  ‘But dear’, you protest, ‘the children need to eat and they need clothes and we have education costs. Their football and their basketball,  their Maths and English tutors need to be paid.’ Your co-parent scratches his armpits momentarily then says, ’Ok I hear you. Kids have to eat. You will have to go to the market though, because I am cutting your food budget and clothes. There are op shops. As for the tutors, they will have stop now.’  ‘But, but’ you protest, ’Jamie’s English is so poor, he just cannot get the attention he needs from the teacher to do well in a class of 20 other students. He’ll fail Maths. He also gets much a much needed confidence boost from his football because it is one of the few things that he is good at. Julie has to have English tuition as she has VCE in two years and she also needs extra instruction that she cannot get in the classroom. What are we going to do?’

   Your co-parent shrugs and says, Well it can’t be helped there isn’t any money at the moment for education. I have to buy myself some new guns for my gun club, also fees for the international clubs, I belong to have gone up. The company has decided to produce some glossy brochures and booklets to raise the company profile again in several areas, plus security has to be upgraded.  Oh, yes and we are having few managerial conferences. They all cost money. We may have to take the kids out of school and send them to work.’ ‘But dear,’ you protest, ’the kids are too young to leave school. They need an education to do well in life. A good education stays with you forever.’  By this time, co-parent is extremely frustrated at the mother’s failure to understand that he just has to balance the books. Education has to come second to the ‘more important aspects of life’.  He tells her ‘Dear, some very successful people left school at grade 8. Some of them can’t even read and write. They pay someone to do it for them.’ By this time mother has her arms, eyes and legs crossed and is looking down gun barrel sights at her spouse.

   ‘In what Century are we living? The nineteenth century had literacy rates at better levels in some areas then today.  Kids left school earlier, but then life was simpler. Education is needed today because life is far more complex and young people do need to be better educated to deal with the issues that they will come across in their life. We need to give them values and they need to be able to learn effectively in schools. How will they do that, if they are not taught and supported in their learning ?

  ‘Oh, dear, you are taking this to heart, aren’t you?’  At this retort, the mother is visibly upset. She replies ’the education of children is our insurance for the future. We need to put money into children’s education, because it is money well spent. The children we educate today are going to be the decision makers in governments’ of the future. They are the builders of tomorrow’s nations and communities. If we sell them short today, then we will pay a price in the future.’

And there you have it. The mother is the education department and her principals that constantly get squeezed for budget cuts and get less of a share of the taxpayer’s money when they should be getting a far larger percentage. The irresponsible parent is the government that expects education departments to run on shoestring budgets and schools to be under-resourced, understaffed and over loaded with administration work requirements that have little to do with the actual teaching of students.

   In 1993 I was at Flemington Secondary College, which was closed during the Kennett government reign of terror on schools. Interestingly enough, Flemington Secondary School backed onto Flemington Racecourse. It seemed odd that they picked that school to close. Springvale Secondary College was another school that was ideally placed near a railway station and it too, was closed.  Both schools were on prime real estate land. Budgetary concerns seem to take priority over the education needs of young Australians.  That is reflected at the moment in the general education perspectives of the society at large. I once had a principal waffle on about the corporatisation of education and he told some astounded teachers and non teaching staff that we should see the students and their parents as clients or customers to whom we are providing units of education at maximum effectiveness and minimum cost. In other words, we had to be cost effective teachers.

   Unfortunately, you cannot produce and buy quality education like some product in the super market. It has to be built up over time and it is a combination of sweat, inspiration, dedication and passion by unique individuals who are supported, praised and valued as professionals in their workplaces. Most good teachers I know have had to have hearts like Phar Lap and the constitution of Carbine and Makybe Diva combined to survive in Australian schools lately.

   Even if a school has a small student population; it can grow with the right principal leading staff to produce amazing results. Dedicated teachers inspire students to want to learn and that is what it is about. If teachers feel devalued and under-supported, how are they able to convey a sense of confidence and value in the students they teach? They cannot. Again in some schools, the Education support staff are vital to the progress of many students and they provide much needed support for helping students achieve learning outcomes at a much higher level than they would have been able to without such support.

Education is not just for the gifted or the academically average. It is for all students and schools are a community where all students should thrive in a productive, nurturing environment. If we devalue our schools and what they do, we run the risk of producing mediocrity in our future citizens and our country. Australia used to be a clever country. That is no longer true.  The way we are ripping money out of schools and education departments and putting it into bureaucracy, mismanagement conferences and glossy brochures to alert us to the threat of terrorism or drug education instead of teachers in classrooms is perilous in the lack of commonsense displayed.

Money has been spent on buildings for schools that are dodgy to say the least and definitely not designed for teachers and students, but by those who think they know how teachers should teach and think. In a new school building with an open plan space that has terrible acoustics, another teacher and I counted twenty two lights with huge energy saving light bulbs in a space that has good natural lighting and could have been lit by maybe eight or ten at the most. Did the builder get these lights in bulk at a discount price and did he want to use them all up at once?

  At the same school they have to fund raise for a new roof and floor for the ‘new sports building’. The workmanship on some of these ‘new buildings’ that were part of the Rudd /Gillard government initiative is shoddy to say the least.

When is sense going to be a common element in the planning and running of schools and education departments? Give education a decent budget and let principals be allowed to administer it autonomously. They are usually the people at ground zero and with the odd few exceptions, I have to say, they know what to use if for and where to use it. Holding Principals to ransom over funding and not allowing them to do the job that they are hired to do is ludicrous. What has happened to the days in Australia when kids and their education were valued as they were perceived as the future? A smart government educates all sectors of society and teaches the value of compassion and caring for others. If financial considerations have priority in education, you might as well close every public high school tomorrow and send all the kids out into the workforce, except those who can pay full fees for their education at a high school level, of course. Is that the ultimate aim of the governments, both federal and state? It will put us back a century or two. Raising the retirement age, is fine, but lowering the education standard will just drive more students into the workplace. There you have the answer that the more short sighted in government budget management are perhaps looking for - a larger number of younger, unskilled, lowly paid people in the workforce. Most countries want to raise their standard of education and we are working at lowering ours.  Ironic indeed, for a clever country that is, with clever pollies running it, of course.  Just stupid voters who elect these clever people to misuse taxes entrusted to them to run the country correctly and for future generations. 

No comments: