Sunday, 25 June 2017

Gonski 2.0 funding in Australia

Principals in the main will be pleased that Gonski 2.0 has now been federally legislated.  The needs- based funding that it provides should allow Principals to apply for funds to create flexible situations like aide support for an autistic child in a main stream classroom, or to pay for a researcher to find alternative learning programs for main stream students who are battling to master the basics to move on to new learning, especially in subjects like mathematics.  The latter is not a matter of being 'behind' and 'catching up' it is more about ensuring that gaps in the learning mastery do not develop.  Some students take longer to master processes and concepts and given best practice teaching should be able to progress at a rate suitable to their learning capacities.

Even prior to Gonski 2.0 I am sure many Principals were already spending part of their one line budgets creating these flexible learning arrangements.

I had to allow myself a small chuckle over the the current Prime Minister almost crowing about Gonski 2.0 being needs-based funding.  Maybe the federal politicians of today's Australia cannot recall or did not know that in the period 1972-1974 the famous Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam commissioned Professor Karmel to carry out an investigation into school education across Australia.  The resulting Karmel report recommended needs-based funding.  Another example of the circularity of educational change that has haunted me all my professional life with its consequential waste of money on ill-conceived change or change that doesn't last.  Enough already with this blast from the past.  May Gonski 2.0 make appropriate learning more available to every Australian school student.

May the Force be with you!


Friday, 23 June 2017

Should autistic children be educated in the main stream classes?

Senator Pauline Hanson an outspoken Australian federal senator thinks not.  Her argument is that these children take up too much of the teachers' time detracting from the education for the bulk of the class members.

I am not a Pauline Hanson fan however we need to note that she clearly wanted the best for these children but with them having special school placement.  Of course she received widespread criticism and rightly so as these children do very well in main stream classrooms provided the teacher has the support of a teacher aide to assist with their special needs.

Obtaining the aide time is not always easy.  As an ex school principal I could not allow one student to disrupt the whole class on a regular basis and create huge tensions for the teacher.  I would move heaven and earth to ensure aide time so that the autistic child could stay in the main stream.

Just this week I had a grandmother of an aspergers lad comment on Ms Hanson's comments and agree with her.  The grandmother indicated that her grandson used to call out very disruptively in class and that the only way he could be kept in the main stream was to have an aide.  Fortunately his parents had the funds to pay for an aide.  The lad in question is now a young man who has university qualifications and has lectured at university level.  He is a very well rounded and adjusted citizen who has done extremely well.

Perhaps Pauline Hanson would be better placed not to comment on matters outside her realm of expertise.  It is not the first time she has done this.  However my anecdote about a real situation allows us to see Ms Hanson's comments in a realistic context.

May the Force of reason be with us!


Monday, 19 June 2017

Phonics in Australian schools

Phonics has made a resurgence across Australian formal primary (elementary) schooling, but still receives bad press in that some consider it a learning experience from the past.  It is one of a number of strategies to enable students to learn to recognise words for reading and writing (spelling).

I am glad to see this resurgence as long as it does not become the dominant way for students to achieve word recognition.  There is a list of sight words that phonics does not assist in recognising so sight recognition is also vital.  Students also pick up on recognising words from the context in which they appear.

If I were back as a school principal of primary (elementary) students I would encourage the professional judgement of my junior school teachers to know how to best employ phonics, but I would require that it be part of the word recognition bag of strategies.

Effective writing generally relies on accurate spelling unless an author is trying something different (....being cute if you will).  Reliance on spell check is okay but I've got to confess I feel concerned at an over reliance on this technological assistance.

May the Force be with all professional educators.


Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The student wellbeing movement across Australia

For thinking principals student wellbeing has always been a prime focus.  It is fair to say however that student wellbeing is now a contemporary movement across Australian schools.

Schools are motivated to not take student wellbeing for granted as part of effective teaching but set out to survey students regularly to ascertain how they are feeling about school in particular.  I support this sharpened focus and regard student wellbeing as the number one criterion of an effective school.

Bethany Hiatt "Kids face questions about sex and bullies", The West Australian, 6 June 2017, p14) reports that The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) is considering the feasibility of a national survey of students' emotional health.  In my own state of Western Australia (WA) she reports that the WA Education Department indicated that public (state) schools "could select from publicly and commercially available surveys to suit their needs."  She also indicates that New South Wales has an online survey titled Tell Them From Me with a primary (elementary) and secondary (high) school versions.

I urge all my principal colleagues to get really serious about sampling student wellbeing regularly as students who feel safe, respected and even loved at school have a wonderful platform for effective learning of the academic outcomes as prescribed in the curriculum their school follows.  Win over the disillusioned students and those of low motivation about school by showing that you care about every one of them every day.

How many students love coming to your school each day?

May the Force be with you!


Monday, 15 May 2017

Principal as psychologist

To be an effective school Principal requires skilful behavioural management of staff.

The main focus of this is related to recognising effort and success related to the learning of the students that is the core business of the school.

This key focus sits in a context of staff members who have personal lives and personal needs.  They thankfully bring a lot of differences one from the other with some needing more overt recognition for what they do than others.

Workloads and the related physical and mental health of staff figure in the behavioural management.

The Principal needs a sensitive antenna to sense when a staff member is in need of help.  Relatively minor items come through one's door for example when managing a rural school where staff often board with one another you can find yourself dealing with complaints like he is eating all my food or she has her boyfriend in to sleep over and I don't like it.  These matters are usually easily resolved.

Then we move to the more serious events like a staff member in distress because their marriage is breaking up or they have lost a close family member or they have been diagnosed with a serious illness. The Principal needs to support, counsel and generally assist and in some cases bringing in expert help.  I have been thrust into counselling on marriage breakdowns and on one occasion even having left that posting the concerned partner chased me up in my new posting.  I had no magic bullet but one does the best one can.  I recall standing by the bed of one of my staff who had just lost a baby in child birth and holding her hand and trying to channel my strength to her to enable her to cope.  Who did I think I was : God, but you just have to do the best you can.

In terms of the core business of the school noted above one of the most difficult situations is to have a teacher who is performing poorly. You can't let it go on as the students are suffering in one form or another.  There are tried and tested processes for managing this based on natural justice and due process but one has to be ready for the worst case whereby the only option becomes dismissal.  During this often lengthy process the tension across the school is electric.

May the Force be with you!


Gaps in the continuity of education for each student

It troubles me deeply that some students proceed through the syllabuses of a curriculum designed in year levels whereby they move on to the next years prescribed syllabus work even though they may not have mastered the prerequisites for that new learning.  Where this occurs there is not true continuity in the learning and gaps begin to accumulate.  The students so affected become disillusioned and sense that they are behind their age peers.  They can in many cases suffer slurs in the playground about being slow.  I am not referring to students who may need special education because of serious conditions like cerebral palsy or Downs syndrome or hearing loss.  I am referring to this who are in the normal stream of school placement and may or may not have some hard to define learning difficulty.

In my experience in any age cohort there are three groups that emerge in the early years of schooling. The first is the group who can sail through the work prescribed for the year level in less than the academic year schedule and are looking for extension.  I call them the Panthers.  Then there is a group who generally take the whole academic year to master the prescribed learning for that year level.  I call them the Jaguars.  Finally there is the group who cannot master the prescribed learning for that year level within the academic year.  I call them the Leopards.

As the students move on to the next year of schooling and the next year level in the prescribed learning as per the curriculum the receiving teachers need information as follows:

  • For the Panthers they need to know details of the extension work done.
  • For the Jaguars all they need to know is that these students mastered the prescribed learning for the preceding year and are ready for the new year.
  • For the Leopards they need to know what was mastered and what is left to achieve.

All this is based on a principle of not watering the standards down.  In my experience teachers have trouble with this because they worry that as the years go by the chances of the Leopards becoming Jaguars decreases.  I've experienced the effects of putting high school Leopards on watered down courses and this creates difficulties for high school graduation in terms of the perceptions of the wider world outside the school, especially with regard to employment.

For primary/elementary schools this mastery principle cannot in my view be applied to all syllabuses as it would be too much of a challenge for the generalist class teachers.  I counsel restricting the principle to literacy and numeracy syllabuses.  For the remainder of the syllabuses carry the Panthers, Jaguars and Leopards along together covering the appropriate year level prescribed work but not demanding mastery.  Let the students experience the learning and by judicious elicited feedback from students build a sense of whether they are catching a foundation for the specialists secondary school teaches to work on.

Professional educators and parents reading this blog will soon come to the view that the mastery principle could mean Leopards working on year level work for a year level below their normal age year level.  So be it.  This is much better than students developing confidence-sapping gaps in their literacy and numeracy learning.

My position requires an innovative Principle who can sell this to the parents and any external authorities who demand testing and reporting in terms of the traditional A, B, C, D and E ratings.  This will be a tough gig in my own country Australia where all students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 must annually do compulsory testing in literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN TESTS) as well as another schedule of compulsory testing for science.  These results are published on the Myschool website so parents can assess their school's effectiveness.  These NAPLAN tests result in coaching in schools in preparation for the tests and the evidence grows that they cause a lot of stress for teacher and students.

I've elaborated on the mastery principle in other writing that I am currently undertaking :  a small practical book on school effectiveness.  Maybe one day I will bring it to publication.  I write all this stuff  because I loved being a career educator and especially a school Principal.  It keeps me in touch and hopefully my brain in good condition as the years build up.

May the Force be with you!


Thursday, 4 May 2017

Australian Prime Minister announces large increases in spending on schools

Malcolm Turnbull the Australian Prime Minister (PM) has just announced large increases in spending on schools to be allocated on a needs basis.  He is reported to have also admitted "that spending billions like this had failed already" the reference being to the falling performance of Australian students in reading, science and maths (Andrew Bolt, "School cart before the horse", The West Australian, 4 May 2017, P10).  Bolt also indicated that the PM "revealed he hadn't yet figured out how this money would make students smarter."

Bolt's point was that the PM should "find the best way to lift standards and only then tell us the cost". My friends would be amazed that I have quoted the ultra conservative Andrew Bolt as I am not often comfortable with his views.

For international readers of this blog I should indicate that our Federal Government politicians are in a constant state of panic that Australian students are being outperformed by students of many other countries in maths, science, reading and writing.  This has occurred in a context of Australia wide regular compulsory testing of students in these areas.  Each year the years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are tested in literacy and numeracy and the results posted on the my school website for all to see.  Science testing is done on another schedule. Schools coach students for these tests and as I walk around shops that sell educational books I see coaching manuals that schools can use.  For  me it is the tail wagging the dog.  The results of this compulsory testing are used to enable schools to devise strategies to improve student learning however they are also used to judge the effectiveness of schools.

I strongly suspect that this testing regime creates pressures on teachers to move students to new learning when they have not mastered the prerequisites for that new learning.  Even with the best teachers on the planet this is a recipe for disaster.  In my own state of Western Australia we now test year 10 students in literacy skills and they must pass this test to obtain high school graduation.  This test is in addition to the compulsory testing regime mentioned above.  For me it is an admission that we have  failed badly in the earlier schools years and I have given what I suspect to be the reason.

We now have an Australian National Curriculum (ANC) which from all of my experience over some 40 years I find to be an exciting document. I'd relish the chance to be a Principal again with the responsibility for implementing this curriculum in my school.  Part of what I would do is to create time where teachers can together work through the prescribed learning outcomes of the syllabuses to ensure that they on the same page about what they mean and what mastery would look like for these outcomes. The ANC contains work samples that would assist with this process.  I've done this sort of inservice work in schools and the teachers move very quickly through the syllabuses and in so doing learn a lot from one another as well as defining the standards that mean mastery. Many believe this is amongst the best forms of inservice for teachers.

At the primary (elementary) school level I only recommend this for maths, science and literacy skills as the generalist class teacher model could not handle a larger inservice load of this type. At the secondary school level subject departments would just need the specialist teachers to focus on their specialist learning area (subject).  I might expand on how I would treat the other learning areas at primary (elementary) school levels in a future post as there is too much detail to do so in this post.

Then within the school there would be a dogged insistence on mastery of prerequisites before a student is moved to the new learning that requires these prerequisites. This would require considerable courage by the school Principal in the face of the pressures of the compulsory testing regime described above.  Convincing parents to support such an approach would be a challenge.  The results of the compulsory testing program could still be valuable as another source of diagnostic data to guide the next moves for each student but it should not stop the application of the mastery principle.

If my approach is applied in schools we would see less of the students with cumulative gaps in their learning.  These gaps mean the students begin to struggle badly as they proceed through the school years.  My mastery principle rests on my faith that in general we have great teachers out there in the schools.  The inservice I have described will make them even greater.  Principals could spend some of this extra school funding described by the PM creating these inservice opportunities which cost money and time.

I need to comment on two further points made by Bolt.  The first is his criticism for the push for smaller class sizes which he views as a "pro-union con which led us to hire more teachers - inevitably including many of lower ability - simply to bulk up the numbers".  He goes on to write" Consider:  would you rather have your child in a class of 25 led by a gifted teacher, or in a class of 17 taught be someone who barely passed their own exams?" He calls for more thought being given to setting higher admission cut-off levels for teacher training courses.  He also shows a liking for principals being given more power to hire and fire.

On the point of class sizes, 25 in my experience would be very acceptable and there was a long struggle to reach that number which is not uncommon in contemporary schools.  17 would be heaven but unnecessary. We have come a long way from the classes of 50 and 40 that I and others faced as teachers.

On the matter of principals having more power to hire and fire, in my own state of Western Australia there is a comprehensive movement to make centrally controlled government schools independent.  My understanding of this independence is that principals can hire and fire.  What Bolt does not understand is that this is a very time consuming process requiring considerable expertise.  For small to medium size schools it creates a big drain on a principal's time and could well blur the focus they need to have on the learning of the students. The great joy of being a school principal is taking ultimate responsibility for the learning of the students no matter how large the school.

May the Force be with you!