Friday, September 04, 2009

An overview of why I think schools are failing

We began homeschooling in 1986, so I feel I have a reasonable overview of what has happened over the last couple of decades.

The 70s were a heady time when almost anything seemed possible and innovation was welcome, especially in education. The one thing that was missing, particularly in SA but I suspect across the country (and in the UK, whose trends our politicians and bureaucrats slavishly follow), was adequate and systematic evaluation of the results of the experiments and changes. This is a fact. Even today there are very few ways bureaucrats in the education system can assess what is actually going on in schools. The Naplan tests are a crude - but very importantly cheap - measure. In the late 90s the education department in SA had no way of telling how much money was spent on art supplies in primary schools across the state without contacting each school and asking them. The unit they set up to evaluate school performance was scrapped within a couple of years. Everyone knows how important evaluation is to successful education... except perhaps those that govern the system.

In the 80s many of us were hopeful and inspired, but already the lack of evaluation, which hid the problem of inadequate resourcing, had begun to demonstrate that schools weren't delivering what they or the politicians promised. Conservatives wanted a return to the old ways. Meanwhile many of the teachers of those heady 70s and optimistic early 80s had been promoted to positions in bureaucracy within the state education departments, away from the classrooms where the unsupported new methods were failing children. The theory became idealism and hence an institution that influenced curriculum development for the next two decades.

The other thing that happened during the eighties which I believe has left education in such a mess, was the optimism that information technology was the only thing on the horizon. States closed technical high schools because all the students would get jobs in IT. It was the promise of the future. IT would pay huge salaries. It was easy for students, especially boys that would have picked a trade had they gone to tech school, to be convinced that a high paid career in computers, which delivered such fun at home playing games, awaited them once they finished year 12... Sadly, few teachers were given training in how to use IT in their classrooms. For a decade computers were heralded as THE thing in education but they were thin on the ground. If a class had one, it was used for playing 'educational' games by a handful of students, on a rostered basis.

All this time the federal government gave less money to the states and both sets of governments allowed the infrastructure to run down. Teacher morale dropped. Without any way of judging the effectiveness of teaching, the system decided to blame children and parents for the woes schools experienced. More than this, the state turned to parents to boost funds to pay for what the government was neglecting and when the parents ran out of money, they targeted local community and businesses. If a 14 year old boy is disruptive in our local school, they find a local business that will take him under the wing, teach him work and life skills for a day or two a week. It's a good idea but is used for all the wrong reasons.

It's only natural that our government would try to hide the mess while trying to deal with it at the same time. The result is yet more throwing the responsibility back onto parents and children. To do this they resort to cheap to implement measures, such as not paying benefits to impoverished families whose children don't go to school, or in the case of Youth Allowance, don't progress adequately (who cares why the students are failing - it is easier to blame them than offer a meaningful education). Or introducing a prescriptive curriculum and forcing communities to accept it. When it fails to deliver, as it will, it will be the fault of parents and children. Already the fear is that low socio-economic areas will do badly, not because schools fail those communities, but because the parents don't have the educational skills to help their children. Yet we all know that inspirational teachers and well-resourced schools can turn the lives of impoverished students around (or so the many movies based on true accounts since the 1960s tell us...)

The nanny-state is all too keen to blame the family for its shortcomings. A huge amount of money is spent on convincing the population that families are to blame for their children failing at school. If only that money was spent on the children!

I am unashamedly cynical about the state of education in Australia. But also hopeful - home educators are turning out a bunch of people who are more self-reliant, switched on, with critical thinking skills and creativity in abundance, who think for themselves, know how to set goals and go about achieving them. It is a quiet education revolution but it is beginning to attract attention because it is achieving the results schools promise but don't deliver. This will only want them to have a piece of the action, take it over, control it and take credit for it (and in the process, do their best at destroying what makes home ed work!)

We need to be diligent and protect whatever freedoms we have won since home education revived as a modern alternative education movement in the early 1970s. How we each do that is an individual choice. We can do it by becoming informed and assertive and not letting bureaucracy pressure us into doing things we don't want or need to. Or we can share our experiences and work together, on a small local scale, on a regional or state scale, or on a national level. It doesn't really matter, so long as we are each individually aware that we don't have to roll over and put up with what the bureaurcrats and politicians dish out.

© Beverley Paine

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