When I was a kid in the late 80s I remember colouring in a scared koala in a tree with the words “We want forests not wood chips”, that we then sent into parliamentarians. We now live in a world where koalas are more endangered than ever, with land clearing wiping out vast amounts of koala habitat (things are actually worse now than they were then). This is typical of a range of environmental issues globally.
Child and student activism is not a new thing, but we live in a world where students are connected in unprecedented ways. They are connected because of those mobile phones that we all complain about. Yes they’re posting rubbish about their makeup and favourite pop stars, but they also use them to connect about more serious issues too like the environment, mental health, dealing with bullying, etc. Those phones and social media is actually used for positive things, not just negative.
Let’s be clear: this is not about teachers or schools. This is not organised by schools, and because most of the education sector are directly employed by the State government we are not allowed to publicly support it or to support it in the school setting. Many parents, however provide permission to students to leave school. This has been organised by children. The same children that we hear the media complain about being lazy, self-centred, illiterate, etc. This is what they can do without adults. They have access to more information and more research in a few simple clicks, then we would have had access to in a lifetime a couple of generations ago. These guys will be working and voting in the not too distant future. We had better sit up and take notice.
The Australian ran an article today by Barry Maley titled "Public education fiasco can be fixed by restoring power to parents".
Maley discusses the apparent lack of power and authority that parents have in public schools, particularly emphasising their lack of control of learning. Maley claims that, “…parents are powerless to influence what their children are being taught”. The reality is that NSW public schools teach the syllabus developed by NESA. The Australian Curriculum was developed and received sign-off from state government Education Ministers before being modified to meet the needs for NSW (inclusion of outcomes, etc). All schools (public/private) are required to teach a syllabus – not just public schools. Teachers don’t just make it up on the day, they have to follow a fairly lengthy document that specifies what they teach and when. Parents don't determine what is taught in public schools, but they can't do it in private schools either.
In terms of parental involvement, Malley does school P&Cs a disservice by failing to recognise their importance in driving key initiatives and improvements through applying for grants, making decisions about the types of resources P&C funds will be spent on and shaping the directions of the school through ongoing consultative processes. There are many processes and opportunities for parents to be involved in public schools, and many parents give much of their time to having a say and shaping their child's education.
A great deal of this article made false claims about public education. Maley makes several statements regarding public schools underperforming or “lagging behind”. However, eight of the top ten ranked schools for HSC performance in 2018 were public schools – James Ruse High School, North Sydney Boys High School, Sydney Girls High School, Baulkham Hills High School, North Sydney Girls, Sydney Boys High School, Hornsby Girls High School and Northern Beaches Secondary, Manly Campus.
Read: 2018 High School Rankings
He also claims that, “Despite more and more money for schools….student achievement shows “little improvement”…”. This fails to take into account that as the Australian Education Union reports 85% of private schools get more public funding than public schools. Public schools also manage many more complex cases in terms of students with behavioural needs (private schools ”ask them to leave”), learning and support needs and disability (many private schools choose not to enrol these students or claim not to have the right facilities). Public schools are at the "coal face" of dealing with students in need (issues of domestic violence, homelessness, family breakdown, mental health issues). Public schools receive less money and are expected to do more with it.
Malley uses a range of emotive phrases to make implications about the morality of public education and its teachers and students. He clearly has little understanding of what really happens in a public school. Examples of his phrases include public education’s “moral failure”, its apparent absence of “respectful and responsible conduct”, and discussion about whether public education should be “value free” (with the implication that it already is). The public education system is driven by a set of values which guide student welfare and discipline. The public schools that I have taught at have been underpinned by three core values. Focusing on three values makes it easy for students to remember and becomes like a motto or mantra when discussing behaviour. The values have varied from school to school, but they have generally been concepts like respect, responsibility, engagement, care, etc. The "discipline" structure (more commonly known as a behaviour management system these days) is based on PBL - Positive Behaviour for Learning. PBL provides consistent language to explicitly teach students about values and expectations. Public education is anything but value free. We do "social justice" and "service" every day of the week. That's our job.
A bit of advice for the next social commentator who wants to tell us all what we are doing wrong - try stepping inside a school. Try finding out what actually happens on a day-to-day basis. Find out about the complexities, the achievements and the struggles. In other words, do your homework.
Deputy Principal at a Sydney high school. Coordinating author of the new Geoactive book series.