“Do not underestimate the difference that you can make. You may be the only connection that a student makes during their schooling.”
– Jason Baldwin. Acting Director, Public Schools, Central Coast
Welcome back everyone, and my thanks for your understanding as to my break of last week. This article, and the next few articles, will focus on the staff development day that was hosted by Gosford Public School as a joint day between the members of the Gosford City Learning Community. Having had two nights of solid sleep over the weekend to catch up from my week in Canberra, I felt reasonably caught up on sleep and ready to go for a new term. Fortunately, my school, as with many schools, scheduled a staff development day for Monday of Week One this term. Staff from my school attended a joint event with the other schools that are part of the Gosford City Learning Community for a day of learning that was primarily focused on teaching boys. The welcome remarks were made by Mr John Anderson, Principal of Gosford PS, who offered an acknowledgement of country.
Following Mr Anderson was the acting Director Public Schools, Jason Baldwin. He delivered some interesting remarks about how schools are changing, offering some statistics that were both eye opening and disturbing. In 2009 there were 16,524 students living in out of home care, which had jumped to 18,300 by 2013. Similarly, the number of students with a disability has risen sixfold since 1987 and suicide is now the leading cause of deaths amongst teenagers, statistics which are more than a little disturbing. He closed by reminding us that we cannot underestimate the impact that we can have on a student, and that the connection we form with our students may be the only connection that that student forms throughout their schooling. This statement echoes, very strongly, the sentiments I spoke about in my Graduate Address and which are further articulated in my Teaching Philosophy.
We were then introduced to advertising guru and outspoken proponent for public education, Jane Caro who was delivering the keynote address under the title The strength of public education today. While I am familiar with Jane from her time on The Gruen Transfer and from following her on Twitter (@JaneCaro), I have not had the pleasure of hearing her speak previously and so was looking forward to hearing what Jane had to say.
Jane opened with a congratulation to Adrian Piccoli. As the current Education Minister in the NSW Government, he made the (apparently) shocking move to actually visit the country which is consistently ranked highest in international benchmarking regimes such as PISA and TIMMS to see what we could learn from their education system. What came from that was the discovery that back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the majority of the Western world was deciding that academic excellence should be the central concern of public education, Finland decided to put student well-being as the central concern.
Fast forward to the current global education climate, and there is a trend by the Western countries who adopted academic success as their keystone to plateau in international benchmarking tests, whilst Finland, which placed student welfare at the centre of their education system continues to grow. Jane commented that “it is the easiest thing in the world to create a highly educated elite…but the most difficult thing to do is to create a highly educated general public, and public education is the only institution that shoulders the burden of educating the general public.” This is an interesting point to me as most countries have a highly educated elite, whether it is the highly developed countries, or the tin-pot dictatorships, or the countries in between, they all have a highly educated elite. Where the difficulty ensues is in creating a general public that is highly educated.
You may question why society needs a highly educated general public when there are so many occupations that are highly important to a functioning society that do not appear to require more than a minimal education. Jane answered this unasked question by her statement that “public education is about democracy. If you are going to trust your citizenry with the body politic, then you must educate them. It is for this reason that public education is indivisible with democracy.”
Jane continued to speak about the importance of public education, decrying the current Government’s attempt’s to roll back the public education system, and turn it into a welfare system of last resort, and pointing out that this is a radical thing to do, but that the Government calls itself conservative. Jane also pointed out, on the back of a point regarding the recently leaked Education Funding Green Paper, that if wealthy parents are required to pay more for access to public education, than they would have every right and expectation to demand for greater focus for their children, and that this would come at the cost of other children.
Jane touched on the low morale amongst many in the public education sector, both staff and students, indicating that she didn’t think it was too much of a surprise that morale is considered by some to be lower than ever, and that cynicism is ever-rising, framing it as being the result of swinging-door politics. A Government will introduce an education program that is designed to lift, for arguments sake, literacy levels amongst young students, and it produces results, raising the hopes of both staff and student. Unfortunately, when the government changes, they de-fund that program in favour of something else, dashing those same hopes that have just recently been raised. Once broken, hopes take longer to revive and students (and teachers) take substantially longer to re-engage. Hope can only be raised and subsequently dashed, before cynicism, and for some, bitterness, sets in, hearkening back to the old adage, once bitten, twice shy.
Jane next spoke about the public v private debate, indicating research (un-cited during the keynote, but given Jane’s background, I trust that she can produce the report) that students from comprehensive public schools, once they attend university outperform their private or selective schools colleagues by an average of five marks, and on top of that, are more likely to complete their degree and to graduate. Jane added that her theory for this, with some tongue-in-cheek, is that those students coming from a comprehensive public education background find it easier to transition from one under-funded and under-resourced institution to another under-funded and under-resourced institution. On contrast, those students who attend university from private or selective schools are transitioning from well-funded and well-resourced institutions to an under-funded and under-resourced institution and subsequently find it more difficult to adjust to this new scenario, not having previously encountered anything like it.
Jane posited, continuing along this train of thought, that we have a generation of parents who fear three things:
Jane related stories from deciding which schools to send her own children, two daughters, to. She was told, outright, by a private school that if she sent her two daughters to a public high school that they would end up on drugs and other assorted and equally outrageous results of public education. Jane indicated that she sees private education as being fear-based, and leveraging on the three things that parents fear. If you send Little Johnny to the Local High School he will end up on drugs and in Juvenile Detention, but if you send him here, to this safe well-funded and well-resourced private educational institution, then he will succeed in life.
Is that not what all parents want for their child’s life? Success and happiness? Private schools are about parents fear of not doing the best, or of not doing enough for their children. Public schools, Jane counters, are about hope, because in a public education system every child has potential, irrespective of their background of socioeconomic status. Jane commented that if you, as an educator, regardless of your position on the hierarchical ladder, can soothe a parents fear and anxiety about their child, then this will flow-on to reduce the child’s fear and anxiety, which will then affect the classroom and the learning outcomes of our students.
Jane closed with two final points. The first was that social media and online news sources now have more influence than mainstream news sources such as radio, television and newspaper, particularly in anything that we are emotionally invested in, which includes education. Finally, Jane elucidated that our classroom’s are often seen by students as an oasis of normalcy and lucidity in a chaotic world and that we can strengthen that sensation, which often is then reflected in our students learning outcomes by making a promise to our students:
“there is nothing I can do about what happens outside of the school. But I make a commitment to you that everything that happens in the school, you will be given the reasoning. You might not like it, but you will understand it.”
Students, and indeed many adults (I include myself in this), often find it easier to engage with or buy into something when the why of that thing is understood. You may have heard students ask “why do we need to learn this?” If you can outline the why, and not merely state that it is part of the curriculum, but why it will be useful for them in life, than you will likely find that they engage more willingly and more deeply in the learning process.
Jane ended her speech there, and answered a few questions from the floor. I found Jane to be highly engaging to listen to, and to speak with a lot of common sense. Her rhetoric was engaging without being superfluous, and I would encourage you to take the opportunity to hear her speak, should it present itself to you.
Thank you for reading as always, and I would like to hear from anyone who has thoughts on the public v private education debate, particularly around the points that Jane mentioned as indicates in this article.