Education has been under the spotlight in recent times, largely because of Australia’s declining performance on the world stage. There have been various reports (chief amongst them the Gonski report) about how we need to spend more money to ensure our children move their way up the international league table of educational outcomes.
The dominant criticism from various experts and “think-tanks” seems to be that while in the last decade or so we have effectively doubled our per capita expenditure on education, our international standing in most aspects of education has been diminishing. And yet governments seem to believe that the only way to improvement is to throw yet more money at the problem. And the prevailing theme, fervently advocated by the teachers unions because it delivers more members, is to concentrate on reducing class sizes despite the fact that research suggests there is little correlation between reducing class sizes and educational outcomes.
I have dealt with this in other blog essays on education.
In this essay I am going to be controversial and suggest that our falling educational outcomes might be closely related to a social failing in our society.
In a previous essay I ventured:
“I know I am simple-minded with respect to such issues but the key determinants of good educational outcomes would seem to me to be:
- Competent teachers,
- An environment conducive to learning,
- Pupils who have an interest in learning,
- A curriculum that has relevance to the learners, and
- Well-managed autonomous schools.”
I have not had cause to shy away from this assessment. (No, not that I am simple minded but that these are important determinants of the success of our education institutions!)
What I want to discuss with you this week is the respective roles of the schools and the parents in attaining good educational outcomes.
As a parent we rightfully expect our schools to provide our children with good teachers, adequate facilities, a safe learning environment and a useful but stimulating curriculum.
But what should the rightful expectations of schools be with regards to the parent’s obligations?
Some might take issue with my thoughts here, but let me try to articulate what I believe our parental obligations are.
Well the first obligation is to ensure our children attend school. Now this is not an issue within the population generally but there is a minority of parents who don’t honour their legal obligation to have their children attend school on a regular basis. Now we know this has been an issue in some indigenous communities but the problem is broader than this. When parents have not been able to perceive the advantages that education can bring, perhaps because of prevalent high unemployment or their own bad experiences with education, it is unlikely that they will have the motivation to ensure the attendance of their children.
Secondly, if we get our children to school it is incumbent on us to ensure that they arrive ready for learning. Whilst it is good to see that they have the required books, school uniforms and so on, it is even more important that they have been fed and have been rested properly.
It is an indictment on our society that some families are so dysfunctional that these two basic needs are not met. It seems reasonably commonplace these days for schools to provide food for children who turn up not having had breakfast. It is wonderful that others care so much that they should want to provide for these deprived children. But it is still an example of parents avoiding their responsibilities.
Now I stated above that one of the requirements of a school was to provide “an environment conducive to learning”. Now some of you on first reading this might believe that this is primarily the school’s responsibility. Let me assure you that this is largely the parent’s responsibility!
What is the bane of a teacher’s life? Undoubtedly, behaviour management! In some classes the demands of behaviour management are such that the teacher has vastly reduced time and emotional resources to devote to what should be the prime focus of their role – teaching!
It seems that many parents now abrogate their duties in respect to the behaviour of their children and largely expect teachers to fill the role for them. So let us be clear that a responsibility of parents is to ensure that when our children are in the classroom they pay due respect to the authority of the teacher and they recognise the rights of the children around them not to be distracted from learning by their poor behaviour.
It is appalling that so many children enter school without the ability (and perhaps the expectation) to sit still and pay attention for reasonable intervals of time. Mind you the problem is exacerbated by teachers who don’t have the skills to engage the children. Symptomatic of the problem is the number of children, particularly boys, being diagnosed with ADHD. One can’t help believe that these behavioural problems are more a function of poor parenting then psychological or neurological malfunction. Of course such a diagnosis often then provides a convenient excuse for the parents not to try to teach the child more appropriate behaviours.
My son is a teacher and we have discussed these matters many times.
When I talk to my son about what works in the classroom he is emphatic that behavioural control and parent support are paramount.
When he starts a new class each year, he spends some time with his students to establish a behavioural compact. He encourages them to identify the behaviours that are helpful in the classroom. He moderates a discussion amongst the children to agree on what behaviours will be acceptable and what behaviours won’t be tolerated. This “behavioural contract” is displayed prominently and the children themselves take on a responsibility of adhering to its dictates.
Many parents have not come to realise that education is a compact between the child, the teacher and the parents. And again my son stresses the value of parental support. It is not surprising that many of the countries performing well in the education stakes are countries where the family is very important and parental expectations of children are high. I am not suggesting that we emulate all the cultural characteristics of such countries, but I am sure the education of our children would benefit from more parental support in the teaching process.
My son points out that when the school holds parent/teacher nights, inevitably the parents that turn up are not the ones that have problem children. Those that front are generally good parents wanting to work on strategies to have their children do even better!
I have also been long of the opinion that some of the government targets in education are not helpful For example I believe that the attempt to have as many young people as possible finish high school creates underlying problems.
In my youth, those who were not academically inclined left school early to become a junior in the local store, start an apprenticeship, repair tyres in the local garage or whatever. In short they became part of the local economy, contributing their skills and learning to play a part in the community. Now we have many young people who are locked into school and simultaneously locked out of society. They attend school with little chance of success with dire consequences to their self-esteem. The consequent behavioural issues make school a much more difficult place for teachers and students alike. It seems ridiculous to rate schools by their retention rates, rewarding them to keep students locked in irrespective of the educational outcomes.
Twenty year ago I initiated a program with one of the local high schools. The teachers at the school were complaining that a small coterie of boys was proving unduly disruptive diminishing the educational outcomes of their peers. They were largely disengaged with schooling and acted out their frustrations in a disruptive way.
With the cooperation of the local Chamber of Commerce we placed these boys with local employers for three days a week for a term. (The Education Department would not allow further.) Now the interesting thing was that none of the employers reported problems with the boys. Once they were engaged in doing something meaningful their behaviour changed. In fact over that period a number of them were offered jobs which they accepted. Back at the school their behaviour also improved largely because their self-esteems had been enhanced. As well some were able to make a better connection between education and work opportunities.
But we should be aware that children relate to various learning strategies. There is no doubt that there is a sizable minority of children who don’t learn well in the classroom and who benefit from the opportunity to be involved in more “hands on” experiential learning strategies. I remember John Edwards, an educationalist from James Cook University, colourfully talking about children “drowning in a sea of blah”!
The American psychologist, Carl Rogers had this to say:
“Human beings have a natural potentiality for learning. Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is perceived by the student as having relevance for his own purposes.” It is surely incumbent on parents to cultivate in their children a desire for learning.
My own father, who never attended high school, inculcated a love of learning in me. Despite his lack of formal education he was interested in history, politics, and geography among other things. He taught himself to mend clocks and people often brought their clocks to him for repair. I remember once when he was on the local council buying a book on fluid dynamics because he wanted to understand some of the technical issues put to council by the engineering staff. Despite our humble background there were always books to be read in our household.
It is incumbent on all parents to try and instil such a love of learning in their children.
The converse, of course, is that when the learner doesn’t perceive relevance regarding the subject matter then learning is unlikely to occur. When a child comes from a family that has had two or three generations of unemployment it is difficult to see the relevance of education as a pathway to a meaningful job. (It is interesting that such families don’t encourage their children to learn mathematics or English but they generally have encyclopaedic knowledge about welfare provisions!)
Angela Shanahan, writing in the Weekend Australian some time ago also pointed out that the failings of our education system are being born disproportionately by boys. On most indicators girls are outperforming our boys in schools. This trend became apparent a decade or more ago when the then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, commissioned an enquiry into the issue. Unfortunately the report was never acted on and, shortly after, Nelson left the Education portfolio to become Defence Minister.
Shanahan writes, “According to experts such as Kevin Donnelly, CIS’s Jennifer Buckingham and Peter West, an expert in boys’ education and development, this is because for too long both curriculum and pedagogy have been feminized. Education has been skewed to the psychological and physical development of the girls.”
Buckingham maintains that the usual contemporary teaching methods such as continuous assessment and more collaborative techniques work well for girls but not so well for boys. This is exacerbated by the fact the emotional development of girls can be up to two years ahead of boys. The problem is also heightened by the fact that in our primary schools at least, women teachers dominate so that there are so few role models for our boys. And now of course that there is a growing proportion of households where there is no permanent male partner present means that our boys are doing it tough. (In saying this I imply no criticism of the women who do their best to raise their progeny under these circumstances.)
But overall, despite these other impediments to learning, I would like to finish by summarising the parental obligations in sending a child to school:
- Parents need to ensure the child’s regular attendance at school.
- The child needs to be taught appropriate behaviour so that they are capable of sitting and paying attention and not incur on the right of other children to learn.
- Parents need to support the initiatives of the school to implement appropriate behavioural management strategies.
- The child needs to come to the classroom appropriately attired and with required equipment. But perhaps more importantly, they should be fed and rested.
- Parents need to ensure that the child appreciates the benefit of learning and its lifelong impact.
It is easy to blame all our educational ills on inappropriate teacher training, inadequate curricula and poor school management, but as parents we must acknowledge we have a role to play as well. The biggest concern here is behaviour management. It is unfair of us to throw the burden of remediating our children’s behaviour on teaching staff.
As one of my correspondents recently remarked, “I can see a time coming soon where parents say, ‘My child sulks and lacks manners. The school hasn’t done a good job, so I will sue them.’” It is a frightening thought and I can only hope that he is wrong!