Teachers are in the mood for seeing league tables
A funny thing happened on the way from the last week’s Principals Forum with Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard.
Listening to subsequent media reports describing the National Conversation as a ‘firestorm’ and a ‘showdown’, I began to wonder whether I’d been at a different forum.
My role was as moderator. I did consider wearing a flak jacket.
But what actually transpired was a frank, yet polite, exchange of ideas and concerns about the biggest education shake-up since the Whitlam era.
At the beginning, principals feared it would be another Canberra talkfest.
That then-Acting Prime Minister Gillard would simply make a speech then disappear. Despite her busy schedule, La Gillard charmed her adversaries by sitting patiently, for two days, while school leaders expounded on flaws in the new education policy.
Of most concern is the website which will reveal school rankings and results.
It would be a boon for parents, tired of wearing out shoe leather and drowning in a sea of documents to try to find the right school for their children.
But principals are deeply concerned that the results, based on NAPLAN literacy and numeracy testing, are too simplistic.
Further, they could be used to demonise struggling schools like Mount Druitt High School, which appeared on the front page of a Sydney newspaper under the banner headline The Class We Failed.
“How do we go about encouraging growth in creativity? How do we acknowledge the growth in personal wellbeing? Spiritual development?” asked the principal of Canberra’s Erindale Collage, Michael Hall.
The Minister was firm yet conciliatory, vowing to push ahead with the My School website next year but conceding that “a conversation will be had more fully about what else we should have on the website, and what else we should be transparent about”.
What wasn’t reported was the subject of the feistiest discussion: teachers being forced to become de facto parents to their students.
There were stories of teachers bringing in food for kids who were never given breakfast; primary school students who were allowed to stay up until midnight each night, too tired to concentrate in class; lessons in basic personal hygiene.
The remainder of the two days was spent talking about whether federal funding was being spent appropriately by state education bodies, and the need for more funding for special and indigenous schools.
You might think that my opinion was clouded, by acting as facilitator of this forum.
But I’ve never been one to hold back from criticising the government when warranted.
Frankly, I was surprised by the disparity between what actually happened, and what was reported.
Having been a proud member of the Fourth Estate for more than 20 years, I must admit to being involved in the odd beat-up.
But in this case, I think it has more to do with staff cuts at media outlets than a desire to get the stick out.
In the old days, we were afforded the privilege of attending conferences or forums for their entirety.
Nowadays, journos cover the first session then rely upon the word of the union, the government, or one participant about what transpired.
Inevitably, each person or organization has an agenda.
At the end of the forum, Australian Education Union president Angelo Gavrielatos said he would continue to pressure the Government to ban league tables.
Mr Gavrielatos is supported by New South Wales Liberal Leader Barry O’Farrell, but the laws he supported to block publication may be unconstitutional.
Several newspapers are running a campaign to publish the results, regardless.
On their way from the forum, an overwhelming majority of principals were satisfied that their voices were heard.
Many personally thanked Julia Gillard for her commitment to the biggest boost to education funding since the 1970s.
On the transparency issue, the mood was summed up by Wendy Johnson, principal of Glenunga International High School: “In several years, I think it will be a good thing and we’ll be saying, why were we so anxious about this?”
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