The Mercury editorial of 25 January deplored the fact that education standards in Tasmania are still among the lowest in the country and urged the Government to address the problem in order for the next generation to feel sufficiently skilled and informed, and thus benefit and advance the economy and reputation of our State.

On first reading it seems such a straightforward request, with some straightforward solutions - close down underpopulated schools, stop experimenting with curriculum, stop restructuring administration, reintroduce some academic rigour along with national testing, and bob’s your uncle.

We have heard all these suggestions and more, both from those inside the professional Education community and from the public whose only reference is their own personal school experience.  I anticipate a great deal of disagreement with my opinions but I welcome the debate.

It’s a subject that is never going to get consensus because everyone has a different experience of school, different levels of ability, different values and different ways of looking at the world.  Exactly the same discussion is still happening all over the Western world and has been going on for decades.

As a teacher for over 45 years, a constant follower of international educational trends, and a past teachers’ union president, I offer the following observations knowing that many will agree with me, while many will not. And that is the crux of the problem – very different, often polarised, views about what education should or should not be. Add to that, constant changes of government that give ambitious individuals supreme power for relatively short periods and you already have a recipe for educational disaster.

Firstly I want to summarise what has happened to Tasmanian education in the last fifty years.  Was there ever a better era, educationally speaking? Probably not if you look at it in a very general way, but perhaps there was for some students. As the debate has to start somewhere, let’s make it the 60s when “comprehensive” education was introduced.  This was probably the most radical change in public education, with the greatest impact for the future, to occur since its inception.

Prior to this, schools, both primary and secondary, were organised on the basis of age and intellectual ability – primary classrooms were divided into rows by ascending academic achievement based on the “weekly test”.  At the end of Grade 6, the “ability test” determined whether you would attend a “selective” high or technical school or a “secondary modern”. The thinking of the time was diametrically opposite from that of today – clever children would do better being educated alongside each other, while less clever children needed to be trained for some useful future employment.  In post-war Australia employment was high, the economy was good, the class system was less questioned and no one saw much wrong with a system which gave the brightest and the best an excellent academic education while giving the rest an adequate skills based training.

Then along came the counterculture and social revolution of the mid-60s with its huge changes in attitude to racism, feminism and social equality. Segregation was out and egalitarianism was in and schools became part of the revolution. Judging children on the grounds of intellectual ability and social background was to be eliminated by the introduction of “comprehensive” schooling. Primary schools would no longer seat children according to how they scored on the 3Rs, all children would go to a high school where classes were of mixed ability, and “streaming” for ability became a blasphemy, which could stymie a teacher’s career path.

Was this a good or a bad thing? Nothing as momentous is ever so clear-cut. It was certainly much better for children not to feel publicly humiliated for failing the 11plus. It was good for those students who had been inadvertently undereducated in the secondary moderns who now had a second chance to do better.  It was probably good for all social backgrounds to mix together. But was it better for the education of the intellectually able? My own opinion is that it was not.

Teachers are not miracle workers and never have been. What educational gurus claim can be achieved by one teacher with a mixed ability class is often pie in the sky and/or under resourced. But it was career death to say so publicly and there were enough ambitious people around to make it difficult not to be labelled and punished if teachers did speak out.  Despite what the gurus claimed, and with a few exceptions, the real outcome was that to retain their sanity and health, teachers were often forced to teach to the lowest common denominator. They tried their best. So did I.  But I challenge anyone to prove to me that the average teacher can teach Shakespeare or Geometry to a class of 25 or more students which contains the full continuum from those who can barely read and write to those who are already at college level, and have every student reach their maximum potential.

We seem to have reached some common ground at present that suggests this was not the best way but there were more than two decades of it which has had its effects on those who graduated into the workforce from those years, including teachers who were not adequately taught themselves.  Why else would I have been constantly asked by younger teachers how I knew so much about the mechanics of the English language while they did not, when we had comparable teaching qualifications?

So, what happened next? I remember very well because it happened to my own children – another revolution – this time in the way reading and spelling, and consequently writing, were taught. It was generally known as “Look and Say” – in other words the structured teaching of phonics, spelling and punctuation rules was largely abandoned and the “learning to read and write by osmosis” was imposed. Writing and spelling were to be “creative” and that was more important than accuracy which, it was preached, would just come eventually of its own accord. And, again, it was imposed from the top regardless of how many wise, experienced teachers protested about it. One of my sons even suffered from something called PITA – Pitmans’ Initial Teaching Alphabet – long since abandoned. Maths also underwent a similar revolution with the advent of calculators and the vacuum cleaner constantly being cleared of Cuisenaire blocks.

It was fine for bright children, and particularly girls, who would probably have learned to read all by themselves as many did, but it was a tragedy for those children, especially lower ability boys, who need structure and repetition in order to learn. It was almost a religion for some educational bureaucrats and no opposition was allowed. I saw teachers transferred to isolated areas for digging their heels in against it. As a result we now have many younger adults who were never given the opportunity to maximise their potential and who will spend a lifetime being mediocre reader, spellers and calculators.

Surely, you might think, educationalists had learnt their lesson by now, but you would be wrong. The next big thing was “criteria based assessment” Personally, I think it had some good things going for it but as always, babies disappeared down the bathplug along with the water. To explain it briefly:  student work was once marked in a very simple fashion – 8 out of 10, 52% or even a more radical A, B or C. The mark was decided by the teacher, based apparently on nothing scientific except the teacher’s training and practice. This was suddenly bad because students didn’t know exactly why they got that mark. It was fuzzy logic – was the 38% because the essay was brilliantly thought out but riddled with spelling errors? Or was the 65% because the mechanics were perfect but the ideas not very original. You can probably see the point, despite the fact that most teachers wrote lengthy notes of explanation on students’ work and felt that some sort of overall decision had to be arrived at.

Criterion based assessment came from vocational education where an apprentice, for instance, had a list of concrete tasks to achieve and the tutor would check off that each one was done satisfactorily, which is fine for building a brick wall or chopping up a cow, but isn’t quite as relevant to the Humanities.

It did allow students to home in on their strengths and weaknesses – never a bad thing – but it also largely did away with formal tests and exams for a long period because the fashion was for “continual assessment”. There are some who would argue that this was a good thing and of course tests and exams can be stressful, and not 100% reliable, but neither is life, and children who are never tested or challenged can be lacking in resilience. The sudden introduction of national testing is certainly at odds with that view and must have come as a bit of a shock for students unused to such hard treatment.

At much the same time there also came a huge chunk of inter-related pedagogies generally thrown together as “child-centred learning”. No one disputes the need for children to take some responsibility for their own learning and in the “bad old days” when the teacher directed all learning, it is true that boredom did set in. The problem is that purely child-centred learning, while focused on the student’s needs, abilities, interests and learning styles, with the teacher as a facilitator of learning, deprives the student of the necessary discipline and self-control skills he will need later in life.

Teacher-centred learning has the teacher at its centre in an active role and requires students to learn and engage in the material. Student-centred learning requires students to be active, responsible participants in their own learning, but without giving them the skills necessary to learn, setting them up to fail.
The catchy mantra of the day was that a teacher should be “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage” – an almost laughable concept now when anyone with any common sense knows they should be both.

And do I have to say it again? The real problem was completely replacing the old ways with the new rather than melding the two in a sensible manner.  Of course there is room for both independent and small-group learning and allowing students to select their own topics for study, but NOT all the time. Yes, we did it again. And I think I don’t need to articulate the consequences to students who experienced only this style of teaching.

That brings us to about the Millennium and I dare say it seemed just the right time to have another revolution. This time it was the turn of the curriculum. With the advent of computers into the classroom and the accompanying “knowledge revolution” it was time to ask if the “what” of what was being taught was in step with the “how”.

Although the complete package of Essential Learnings was unique to Tasmania, its disparate elements were not entirely new. “Values” in education were hotly debated as early as the 1940s.  Howard Gardner ‘s “Multiple Intelligences” first made news in the early 80s. Teaching critical thinking skills had already been introduced in other countries for some time.  Thematic projects were part of the child-centred pedagogies. “Outcomes” were really an updated form of criterion-based assessment. 

None of these elements was inherently “bad” but creating a monstrous package out of them which largely removed content and therefore allowed traditional curriculum areas such as History and Science to be radically watered down, and placing an unmanageable teaching and assessment burden with an unachievable time-line, on to teachers already exhausted by constant change, was the straw that broke the back of well-intentioned reform.

And so along came the National Curriculum. It had been in the wings for some time because other States had also gone down the ELs path and it was becoming obvious to anyone whose brain was not befuddled with bureaucratic hypocrisy or a career driven blind spot, that students were slipping out of high school without having been exposed to, let alone taught, little things such as Australian history and essay writing. 

Some may disagree with this analysis but the truth was that although theoretically the ELs framework did not intend this to happen, in practice it was perfectly compatible with the ELs Outcomes to pick and choose content inconsistently.  The mantra of that day was that skills were more important than content. With a computer and a search engine in front of you, why did you need to learn history? Why did you need to master mathematics when a calculator will do it for you? Why do you need to learn the capitals of Europe off by heart when all you need to do is google?

Sensible teachers and those not on the career trail knew the answer – because children need to learn how to learn, how to memorise, they need to have references to hang new material on, they need to understand chronological development, they need to have stuff in their heads which can make connections for them. The bathwater had disappeared again and a group of students entered the workforce with terrific IT skills but not knowing or caring much where Finland was or whether the Gold Rush was important to Australia.

So we are now almost up to date with the recent introduction of the National Curriculum which specifies which subjects will be taught and tested in every school in the country and also what the basic content of those subjects will be. Back to the future perhaps? Hopefully the NC has achieved a balance of critical thinking skills, problem solving techniques and content. Whether current teachers have the capacity to teach them remains to be seen and that brings me back to where I began.

The original question was why have standards dropped or not improved. Perhaps what I’ve described about the course of Tasmanian education has already given you a clue. It must also be noted that there are many other factors which must be added to the pot – greater social deprivation and a higher proportion of disabled students than other states, huge changes in parenting styles and the up-bringing of children and their consequent behaviour, under-resourcing by successive Governments, the “Island brain-drain” syndrome, the pressures of media and technology, etc etc. And I’m not even going to begin on Tasmania’s thirty-year old radical but underfunded disability mainstreaming policy. Or the constant, unnecessary restructuring of school administration systems.

My personal belief is this: given that Tasmania is a small, rural, island state with a relatively poor economy, long-term under-resourcing, and a disproportionate number of students with disabilities, we may never lead the country in educational standards. However, I do question whether we have done the best we could for all students. I am not a believer in standardised national testing. It’s taken the UK thirty years to realise that they have achieved nothing except anxiety, pain and suffering, and they have abandoned all but the Yr 6 testing and that probably remains because some counties still retain grammar schools.

I am also not a supporter of the MySchool website mentality which believes standards will be improved by publishing results. As someone Russian once said, you can measure a pig every day but that won’t increase its weight.  No one denies that it is necessary to require teachers to reach and maintain certain professional standards. No one disagrees that teachers need to be well trained, well equipped, well-paid and hard-working. Or that the system should take more responsibility for ensuring that these things happen. But standardised testing and MySchool websites are not the solutions.

Unfortunately, I am pessimistic about the immediate future. What has happened in Tasmanian schools over the last fifty years has, in my opinion, resulted in mass under-education of our children. It’s happened slowly, it’s sometimes been well-intentioned, sometimes blatantly stupid, sometimes foolishly misguided, and often politically driven but the outcome is the same – two generations of adults now in the workforce who may be highly technically savvy but who will always be mediocre readers and writers, technology dependent calculators, significantly lacking in historical or scientific concepts and with a dearth of general knowledge inside their heads.

Is that just crabby old age speaking? I believe not. I have listened in amazement to young CEOs whose general knowledge is almost non-existent and who proudly don’t read.  One earning hundreds of thousands who had no idea what the EU was. Another in her 40s who had never even vaguely heard of either Luciano Pavarotti or Richard Flanagan.  And one who was honest enough to admit that she often couldn’t join in the conversations at dinner parties with older people through lack of general knowledge. We have also provided them with very healthy egos and a lack of understanding that these things matter.

But perhaps the National Curriculum will have a long-term effect. At the moment, I wonder how teachers, who were never themselves taught the finer points of the English language, will manage to teach the requirements of the new English curriculum. Many I worked with in my last years of teaching certainly couldn’t. How will the compulsory maths and science curriculums be covered when there is already a huge shortage of teachers qualified in those areas?

Perhaps teacher training and professional development will have to change and improve as a result. If it does, then there may be hope in the future that we can do a better job of educating all our students. But it certainly won’t come from continuing down this nightmare path of constant change and reform being imposed from the top by self-obsessed Ministers and self-serving bureaucrats.

I have regularly been accused of being a dinosaur, an opponent of change, a die-hard conservative etc etc. Successive Ministers have thrown the ‘change mantra’ at me – you know, the one about there is only one thing we can be sure of and that is that things must change. They are wrong about me. I have never opposed changes that improved the education of students and the lives of teachers. It’s just that there haven’t been very many of those. What I have opposed is the changes that were driven by political imperative and bureaucratic careers which were badly conceived, poorly implemented and under-resourced and there have been a lot of those.

I also understand the theory of change management and change resistance and the fact that it isn’t easy to convince people that change is needed and difficult to implement unless it’s forcefully driven. I know things can’t ultimately stand still but I also know that a lot of what has been done to our students in Tasmania has not been in their best interests and consequently those of this island. My own mantra is this:  change is easy – it’s improvement that’s difficult.

*Jean Walker was born in West Yorkshire, migrated with parents to the snowy depths of Tarraleah at 8, completed teacher training at University of Tasmania, taught English, Social Science and Special Education in high schools in Launceston, Hobart and Huonville. Spent two years teaching in Kent (UK) at a unit for “adolescent emotional and behavioural difficulties”. Worked as AEU Southern Field Officer for three years, and elected AEU State President from 2004 to 2008. Now happily retired and enjoying being President of the Glenorchy University of the 3rd Age (U3A). Jean was also a Civil Marriage Celebrant for 12 years

• ABC Online: Premier confirms school closures

The Tasmanian Premier has confirmed school closures will go ahead, but which schools will shut are yet to be decided.

Last July the Government was forced to abandon school closure plans because of a huge public backlash.

Education Minister Nick McKim then formed a reference group to investigate the viability of schools and it is due to deliver its report tomorrow.

The Premier, Lara Giddings, says further school closures are needed to improve Tasmania’s education system.

She has told ABC Local Radio the Government was forced to cut funding for extra literacy and numeracy programs to meet its budget cuts, with some schools only 30 per cent full.

“Is it okay to have half empty schools that cannot provide the best education for our children?”

Ms Giddings says the 20 schools listed for closure last year were identified by an Education Department formula, but it was not the right approach.

“Now we’ve stepped away from that process into a new process.”

“I don’t know how many schools might be considered for amalgamation for instance through this new process, so I can’t put a figure on it.”

The Opposition says the State Government has already budgeted the savings from its shelved plan to close up to 20 public schools.

Spokesman Michael Ferguson says with the savings already factored into the budget forward estimates, it is only a matter of time before the plan is revisited.

“The Premier and the Education Minister have both confirmed repeatedly that their agenda to shut down schools continues.”

“I’m afraid that tomorrow won’t be a good day for small regional schools across Tasmania.”

ABC Online

First published: 2012-01-30 04:45 AM

• Wednesday, Mercury: Report tips 40 schools to fail

ABOUT 40 small Tasmanian schools could be fighting for their existence under closure guidelines handed to the State Government yesterday.

The Fairbrother school viability reference group report said school size, enrolment trends and access to alternative schools should determine which schools close or merge.

It could spell the death knell for the small public school in Tasmania.

But parents will be able to put their case for their school’s survival if they can show it is vital to their community.

Education Minister Nick McKim yesterday would not comment in detail on the report and would not give a timetable for possible school closures.

The report produced by a committee headed by businessman Royce Fairbrother was commissioned after the Government was last year forced by a massive community outcry to reverse its Budget plan to save $24 million by closing 20 schools.

It recommends that rural primary schools with fewer than 100 students and urban primary schools with fewer than 150 students be considered for closure.

High schools and combined schools in urban areas face a threshold of 300 students, their rural counterparts, 200.

The report said primary students whose schools closed could travel up to 45 minutes each way, while high school students could face a one-hour trip.

It suggested changes to school bus arrangements and recommended the Government pay parents of closed schools $150 to offset the cost of new uniforms.

The report also recommended ongoing year-by-year assessments of every school’s viability.

Mr Fairbrother urged the Government to act quickly ...

Read the rest, Mercury HERE

• The report will be available on the education website under latest media releases.