The long awaited Review of Funding for Schooling has been completed and the Report by the panel of eminent Australians chaired by David Gonski AC has been released.
In this Submission I have only focused on Chapter 3 in relation to equity and disadvantage but also have comments in relation to disabled children.
I have also concentrated on western suburbs schools in Sydney as I live in that area and my children attended a western suburbs catholic school before moving to an independent school.
The panel must be congratulated as the Report is both comprehensive and well researched and makes a number of recommendations that, if implemented may, to some degree, improve the educational outcomes of some Australian children.
The 'Pink Elephant' In the Gonski Report
I believe, however, that the Report, (for whatever reason) fails to acknowledge 'the pink elephant' in the classroom and that is that parents are the first educators of their children. This is the foundation premise of many independent schools in Australia, including the PARED (Parents For Education) schools, which excel academically year in and year out, although they are not selective and offer no scholarships to secure bright children who will boost the overall marks of the school.
Schools that acknowledge parents as the first educators of the child work in partnership with the parents so that the child receives the same message and expectations at home and at school. This applies not only to academic expectations but also to behaviour. When the parents bring the child up with the end in sight (ie. adulthood) not just the present moment, they focus on developing a strong character in the child by modelling this themselves and expecting the child to display human virtues such as sincerity, cheerfulness, generosity, perserverence, gratitude, respect, honesty and service to others. This means that it is normal for the child to do his or her best at school and in other endeavours, to respect school property, to care about the feelings of others and to help those less fortunate. This is simply the taught character of the child and it is unrelated to socio-economic status. These types of schools run in countries where the majority live well below the poverty line as we know it, such as the Philippines and these children still emerge as strong, independent young adults, full of gratitude and determination to make the most of life, despite the fact that they are among the poorest of the poor. One such school, Southridge (in Manila - Phillipines), runs a program whereby the fees of the day students are used to fund an afternoon school for students who would otherwise have to attend a poorly resourced public school and the university entrance marks of the afternoon students are actually outstripping those of the more financially privileged day students.
Socio-Economic Status and Academic Performance
The Southridge experience shows us that socio-economic status does not have to adversely affect academic performance. In fact central to the Gonski panel's definition of equity 'is the belief that the underlying talents and abilities of students that enable them to succeed in schooling are not distributed differently among children from different socioeconomic status, ethnic or language backgrounds, or according to where they live or go to school'. The Report cites the findings of Caldwell and Spinks (2008) that all children are capable of learning and achieving at school in the right circumstances and with the right support.
I believe that the key to success is whether the children have the right circumstances and support and this is not necessarily linked to socio-economic status, although, because of a lack of social welfare programs in Australia, it often is. For decades the children of migrants to Australia have been well represented in the lists of high achievers and their parents have generally had little or no formal schooling (which contradicts the findings of the Gonski Report p 114) and both worked long hours in manual or menial jobs for low pay. These families have always been in the low socio-economic segment but the children were, however, raised with the belief that education is the key to success and with the parental expectation that they would study hard and go to university. This was a non-negotiable given. They were also raised to respect their parents and other elders and to have an attitude of gratitude and service to others, with many migrants supporting family members back in their home countries although they had little themselves.
These migrant parents had a mindset that saw the value of education. It is the same in third world countries such as the Phillipines. Parents support education as the key to a better life. Hence the success of initiatives such as the Southridge afternoon school. How many parents of children from a western suburbs high school would accept a scholarship for their children to undertake high school at say the Kings School (for boys) or Tara School for Girls (Parramatta) if it was a condition of the scholarship that they meet the requirements of these schools including:
1. Having the children up by 6.30am every day to eat breakfast and travel to school to arrive by
2. Encouraging the children to do the minimum 90 minutes homework each evening (Year 7) after
arriving home around 5.00pm (This time increases each year);
3. Allowing the child to devote at least half a day per weekend to homework and assignments;
4. Ensuring that the child represents the school in a sporting activity which will involve driving the child
to and from the venue on a Saturday; and
5. Attending the school as required for meetings on the child's progress.
I believe that very few parents would accept the scholarship, as the commitment would disrupt their lives and the disruption would not be seen as worthwhile as education is not high on their list of values. As Dr John DeMartini teaches these families do not perceive education as a void, even though they did not get it themselves and therefore do not value it. As a result even if the child took the scholarship he or she would not understand why they were required to put in so much additional effort to their friends at local high schools and would resent the obligation.
The Real Problem Of Disadvantage Is The Inconsistency Between Home and School
The Gonski Report cites the findings of researchers Perry and McConney (2010) who found there are multiple ways in which schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students differ from schools with high concentrations of students from more advantaged backgrounds. These include less material and social resources, more behavioural problems, less experienced teachers, lower student and family aspirations, less positive relationships between teachers and students, less homework and a less rigorous curriculum
The Report warns that new arrangements are needed to:
• Make sure that Australian kids do not fall behind the rest of the world, and keep Australia
competitive, after a decline in education standards in the past decade.
• Stop the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students growing wider.
To deal with these challenges, the Report recommends introducing a Schooling Resource Standard, which would have two elements: a set investment per student, plus additional top-up funding to target disadvantage.
I support the set investment per student and believe that this should be the same no-matter where the child goes to school as each child deserves equal government investment in their education. This is the key to ensuring that the educational standard of our top students does not decline.
I do not agree that there should be additional top-up funding in schools to target disadvantage. Such funding perpetuates the idea that there are advantaged and disadvantaged schools and locks in the idea that children from certain schools are different and less likely to succeed than children from other schools. It also confuses education with social services. The real issue is the academic standard and mindset that each child beings to the school year they are entering, not what is on offer from the school, as most Australian schools offer enough.
All Australian children should have access to the same curriculum (and they do), to passionate and experienced educators (this is sometimes achieved) and to schools that are adequately resourced (generally achieved).
It is irrelevant how much money a school throws at literacy and numeracy programs as although they may improve standards from what they initially were, they will not being the participants up to the same level as children in schools where the children, themselves value education, as the child must be willing to put in the effort necessary to succeed. You get nothing if you give nothing. The child must have the virtues of perseverance and hard work and these must be taught. An education must do more than give a minimum academic standard, it must also build character. As parents are the first educators of a child and have the most influence on them, a school by itself will never over-rule the mindset taught at home and is opening itself up to student resentment and belligerence when it sends a different message to what is taught at home, as it threatens the very foundations of the child's world.
In relation to the resourcing of the schools I believe that far too much weight is placed on this. The evidence is the fact that students of correspondence and on-line courses achieve high results with no physical resources. In addition many western suburbs high schools are far better resourced than independent high schools where the parents have to contribute funds to buy equipment and build buildings and are already stretched to the limit paying fees. However the results of these well resourced high schools do not reflect the amount spent on resources. Take Glenwood high school for example. The Mindquest program is run there one weekend a term for gifted and talented children (but really any child can go and does) and I was stunned when I saw what was on offer to local children such as technology labs, sports fields, cooking kitchens, art rooms etc.
It is the same with the high schools at Quakers Hill, Rooty Hill high and Mt Druitt. Despite the outstanding resources these schools are not producing results that equal independent schools or indeed public schools in more affluent areas. Why is this? It is partly because:
1. the standard and experience of the teachers is not exceptional in these areas for a variety of
reasons, including the fact that these children are difficult to teach and teacher's lose motivation;
2. the family does not put a high value on education.
What is also missing is the partnership between the parent and the school. The parents are the first educators of the child but they are not educating them in the importance of education and in the human virtues necessary to build strong character and determination in the long term. You will find that in disadvantaged areas many parents do not set high standards for themselves, they have not been taught how to persevere, how to see the opportunity in every obstacle and how to sacrifice momentary satisfactions for long term gain. Take the Kings School and Tara scholarship example above. It would be very difficult for many of these parents to see the value of their children exerting effort and the whole family making sacrifices for a first rate education.
Very often children in western Sydney areas arrive at school without breakfast, without their text books and not having done their homework. There are conflicting messages being taught at home and at school and no amount of education funding is going to alleviate this problem. In fact throwing more funding at children who do not have the capacity to appreciate the innovative learning programs and amazing resources being provided in schools is a waste of precious funding and the government should stop. This funding could be better spent in the independent arena and on public schools where the children have a different attitude towards education and success, to raise the standard of our highest performing students. Yes, this will increase the gap further between our best and worst students but is this a bad thing? The Gonski Report shows that the standard of our brightest students is falling. We need to raise the standard of education in our country and raise the bar even higher, to which our disadvantaged children can aspire.
Change The Mindset
The key to improving the educational standards of our disadvantaged students is to change their mindset. To bombard them with positive messages about what they can achieve if they exert effort and give them role models very different to their own families and community members.
The universal laws say that 'what you see, is what you'll be' as your thoughts and what you focus on, shape your reality. I have concentrated on Sydney's western suburbs as that is where I live and I have a good understanding of western Sydney schools as my own children attended one. These local schools draw students from the local area and most families have the same values and beliefs as each other and lead the same kind of lives. I make no judgment on whether the lifestyle is wrong or right I am simply stating facts as I have experienced them.
These families often live in housing commission homes, or in low cost rental accommodation, they receive social security or earn basic wages, they often place little value on what is given to them because it is free and they spend most of what they earn on lifestyle and instant gratification, they do not save. The parents generally drink and smoke, buy takeaway meals and ensure that their children have the latest version of any new technology. These families are consumer driven and very focused on satisfying immediate wants and needs. Little time is spent teaching the children the value of persevering to achieve a result, or postponing something now, to get something better later on.
As a life coach who deals with children on a regular basis I have spent much time searching for the answer as to what breeds success at school and I know without doubt that after the parents, the teachers have the biggest influence. The value of an experienced, passionate teacher cannot be over-emphasised and they are hard to find, as in addition to their skills they must be able to relate to the children and earn their respect. They must also have the tolerance to deal with all manner of parents and this is as difficult in independent schools as disadvantaged public schools.
In western suburbs high schools whilst the majority of teachers meet the above criteria too many do not and one bad teacher can destroy a child's whole perception of school. I have heard countless stories of young, passionate teachers who enter the public school system only to become quickly disillusioned when it takes 20 minutes to settle the class so they can begin to teach the lesson. There is much absenteeism by teachers and the replacement teachers struggle. Also many of the experienced teaches needed in these schools are jaded and opt for an easier life in an area where the children place a greater value on education and respect authority. There is no easy answer here but what is clear is that teachers must be held accountable for the performance of their students when measured against a state or national measure. If a teacher in a western suburbs high school cannot get the desired results they should be asked why? If they do not have a clear answer they should be transferred out of the school as it may well be that they do not have the ability to connect with children of that particular mindset. This does not mean they are a bad teacher, it may just mean that they are not the right teacher for that type of school.
We cannot, however, afford to pander to the sensitivities of our teachers at the expense of our children. In the independent schools if the children do not succeed academically and are not taught the values that the school has promoted the parents quickly demand answers and the teacher is held accountable. The same rules must apply in the public system if we are to achieve the 'equity' that the Gonski Report promotes. We must have teachers of such a high calibre in our disadvantaged schools that they have so much influence on their students that they can equal the parents as the first educators.
The Gonksi report focused on additional funding for disadvantaged students and more resources. As I have explained above I do not believe that this is the answer. We must be careful not to confuse required spending on education with required spending on social services.
Our schools must offer the same curriculum to all children and be adequately resourced. I think we have achieved this. Our schools must offer teachers of the highest possible calibre who are held accountable and in this area I believe we have a way to go.
Where we are failing completely is in ensuring that children from low socio-economic areas have a mindset that values education and see the unlimited opportunities available to them if they are grateful for what is provided for them and exert personal effort. We are failing to develop a positive mindset and strong character in children from disadvantaged areas.
What we should be doing is trying to show our disadvantaged children a different life to the life that surrounds them daily. We need to change the mentality that these children are poor and will grow up poor and will be taken care of by the government. By showing the children a different way of life they have something to aspire to and have a new focus for their thoughts. Remember the law of attraction says that you get what you think about.
The solution is not giving more money to schools (except for better teachers) but spending money on programs outside the school day that fill the child's time and reduce the amount of time spent in the home environment that devalues education and reinforces low self worth and the 'poor me' mentality of limited opportunities. These programs need to involve:
1. teachers from the local schools so that the children can see them as human beings they can
admire and respect and build a relationship with (pay the teachers to be involved);
2. adults from similar backgrounds who have gone on to excel;
3. life coaches who can work on changing mindset and seeing the opportunity in every obstacle;
4. youth leaders who understand the concept of unlimited opportunity if you, yourself, take action
and promote this; and
5. promoting the value of service to others as it helps develop an attitude of gratitude.
It is going to be a real challenge for these children to break away from the norms of the family as any change they try to make will be interpreted by their parents as criticism of their lives and this may even lead to violence. The children need to be taught how to respond to this.
The children need to be taught self worth. They must be taught that when they wake up they must make and eat breakfast as this nourishes their mind and body. They must be taught that they are valuable and worth taking care of and developing. They must be given the strength to bring new routines and processes into their homes. They must be the change that brings the change to their family and their whole community.
The government has an obligation to ensure a first rate education for each Australian child. To do this it must provide funding so that each child has access to the same high standard curriculum, the highest calibre teachers who are held accountable for their student's results and adequately resourced schools.
I believe that it is faring quite well in its delivery of the above, although more work needs to be done in relation to making teachers accountable and attracting teachers who understand that their role is to educate the whole child in terms of both character and academics.
Where the government is failing miserably is in the area of social services. It is failing to recognise that parents are the first educators of the child and failing to take steps to fill the gap when a child is not taught at home that education is valuable and that human virtues such as sincerity, cheerfulness, generosity, perseverance, gratitude, respect, honesty and service to others are integral to strong character and ultimate success as an adult.
It does not matter how much government funding is provided to schools for literacy and numeracy programs and what resources are provided, if the child does not see the value of education he or she will not exert the effort necessary to succeed and will not have a mental picture of himself or herself as a successful adult.
The government must fund social services programs outside the school system that ensure that children are given other positive role models when their parents, as first educators, do not perform their roles well. These programs must give the children an insight into lives very different to their parents so that they can focus on achieving such a life themselves, develop a positive mindset towards success, develop an attitude of gratitude, a belief in unlimited opportunity and a desire to serve others.
When a child sees the value of education and lives a life based on human virtues they become receptive to education and are far more likely to enter each academic year having achieved the outcomes for the previous year. Additional literacy and numeracy programs then have an exponential impact on increasing educational standards.
Our social service programs must teach our disadvantaged children self worth and self esteem. They must be given the tools to be the change that brings the change to their family and their whole community.
The government needs to stop confusing the funding of education with the funding of social services programs.