Last week at work a young man pushed me around and threatened to bash me, another walked into my classroom and flung chairs and tables around. The last school counsellor left because she requested a second counsellor to help with the workload (she was seeing on average three girls a week who’d been raped) and was refused.
My students rarely hand their work in on time and come to school sporadically. I asked one Year Ten student, who took half an hour to get his book out of his bag and another half an hour to write one line, why he was so unfocused. He told me his mum was profoundly disabled, his dad chronically depressed and he had to work to support the family as well as go to school.
Another student, whose attendance had dropped right off, told me one afternoon he’d just got to school because his mum was in hospital so he had to take care of the house and his younger siblings.
A Year Eight student of mine was eating chips and lollies for breakfast and bouncing off the walls. I rang her mum, who explained she didn’t know what to feed children and she thought that was an okay breakfast. Many of the students in that class only had one meal a day: dinner.
With one or two exceptions, most of my Year Ten class is reading and writing at a Year Eight level, with a few performing at Year Six or below.
The students call the school a ghetto school. It’s a large school in an economically disadvantaged area of Darwin. It’s a tough school to work in and some teachers from other schools who end up there don’t last more than a week, some tough it out for a term.
I don’t think it’s an unusual school. There are plenty of schools in Australia that are similar –and some that are tougher – places to work. They’re the schools with a high teacher turnover, poor attendance at parent/teacher night and more students who graduate to prison rather than university.
The solution to this educational tragedy is supposed to be Labour’s Education Revolution, the new National Curriculum. There’s some merit in a national curriculum. The return to teaching phonics, grammar and punctuation in English may improve literacy in the long-term. As a secondary school teacher I may see some benefits in 10–15 years when today’s primary school students hit my classroom, but in the interim it’ll be more of the same.
Annabel Astbury’s says ‘…there’s a lot to like in the document, it also raises some serious concerns about how achievable a curriculum like this will be in a real-world setting, where what can be taught is limited by class time and by teachers’ professional learning.’ She goes on, ‘A…problem, and one which is more likely to alarm teachers, is the vast amount of content that is supposed to be covered in secondary school (Years 7—10).’
The same criticism was made of the much-maligned Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE). It combined History, Economics, Geography, Legal Studies and Civics and Society into an umbrella subject in which everything was taught in the most superficial of fashions.
A teaching year is broken into four ten-week terms, meaning you have ten weeks to teach whatever component(s) of the curriculum you are focusing on. In reality there’s seven to eight weeks teaching time. The first week or two of any term is taken up with the movement of students into and out of classes as the school sorts out class allocations and teaching timetables. The last week or two of any term is taken up with report writing, meaning assessment items need to be in before reports are written. (Once reports are written, and the students know they are, they cease work and often don’t even bother coming to school.) Therefore, a ten-week term will have between six to eight weeks teaching time, and half that time may be taken up with behaviour management.
Is it any wonder that I had a number of Year Ten students tell me recently that Germany was an Australian ally in World War Two?
Of course this won’t be true of all schools, but I’m sure you’ll find a similar story at any school that has a comparative demographic to the school I work at.
In an ideal school with an ideal teaching and learning environment, the new National Curriculum may improve teaching outcomes dramatically. The problem is that there are very few, if any, such schools in Australia and if there are, chances are they’re not government schools. In many respects, the National Curriculum is putting the cart before the horse. A National Curriculum is going to be just another piece of educational bureauspeak for teachers to tackle as they attempt to maintain equilibrium in the classroom.
For the National Curriculum to really be effective for all schools, the school and community they’re a part of need to have economic and resource parity with every other school and community in the country.
It’s not as if parents and students, upon hearing there’s a new National Curriculum, are going to say hoorah, off you go to school children, there’s a new curriculum and finally you’ll learn something. Nor will punitive punishments, such as suspending parent(s) welfare payments if their children don’t go to school, get children to school.
I’ve rung up countless parents in my time regarding absences and bad behaviour. Most of the time the parents are at their wits end as to how to deal with their children. Their children don’t listen to them and/or bully them. Or the parents leave for work before the children go to school, are often working two jobs to survive and don’t get home until their children are hopefully in bed.
If low-skilled and casual workers, for example, didn’t have to work extraordinarily long hours to keep their heads above water, maybe, they’d be at home more often. They could ensure their children get to school, or at least get home from school and do homework and even talk about school as if it’s part of their thinking life rather than an extension of their social life.
In a few years time, I’ll be pacing in my classroom teaching the National Curriculum. If the students are hungry, working to support their families, have special needs but no extra support or have parent(s) working long hours, then I’ll still be teaching to a disinterested and unfocused clientele. If the students have managed to fail every year of school but still be put into the next year level (as occurs now) so as to avoid traumatising them, then I’ll be spending most of my time dealing with behaviour management.
And in fifteen years time, some bright spark will decide we need a new curriculum. After all, it’s easier to write a new curriculum than rewrite society – and there are more votes in it too.