Inside Story

The war that doesn’t end

There is a solution to the plight of pariah schools

Bill Hannan 11 September 2014 2127 words

Collaboration rather than competition? miflippo/iStockphoto

Class Act: Ending the Education Wars
By Maxine McKew | Melbourne University Press | $19.99

These kids call it “a shit school,” shorthand for their parents’ opinion of the local secondary school. They go to a private school, or to a “good” public school – anywhere but their local secondary, the one I call Pariah College.

Pariah Colleges can crop up anywhere. They are the schools that miss out when parents make their choices – of secondary schools especially but also of primary schools. Private schools and selective public schools are the top choices. After that, public opinion shuffles the rest into good and bad. The biggest losers are usually categorised as disadvantaged, but even in poor areas where every school is officially disadvantaged there will be Pariahs.

I know some people who have chosen Pariah College for their kids. When their friends express puzzlement or even disapproval they say they looked at other schools, because the education department says they should, but local and public best fitted their idea of school. They are very satisfied with their kids’ academic outcomes. They get annoyed by the resistance of teachers to parents’ ideas but concede that change happens, if rather slowly. They have a low opinion of the maths teaching, but from what they hear, things are not much better anywhere else. They know that by all the comparative measures of enrolments and performance Pariah College remains a “disadvantaged” school, but their experience of it has been positive. Even so, they accept that Pariah College, along with other disadvantaged schools, is under pressure to improve itself.

Maxine McKew’s Class Act focuses on disadvantage – especially on the “shameful” link in Australia between school performance and low socioeconomic status. The former broadcaster and politician (the one who unseated John Howard in Bennelong), now an academic, interviews five schools with similar profiles to Pariah College but a determination to be good schools rather than simply disadvantaged ones. None is quite in the same fix as Pariah College – their enrolments match their catchment areas more closely than Pariah’s does – but their solutions readily apply.

Essentially McKew’s class acts have followed the current widely promoted blueprint for school improvement: tighter discipline, a rigorous curriculum, consistent administration and, above all else, a team of teachers united by an unshakeable belief that their students can achieve high goals. They put a lot of time, effort and staff into improving literacy. They introduce serious studies, including creative studies, into the curriculum. They respect research. They analyse their performance collaboratively. They seek out student opinion and try to find ways to act on it. “Progressive” is a dirty word these days, but I can’t resist noting how many of these improvements derive from the progressive tradition of educational reform.

For its part, Pariah College has stressed order via school uniform and a code of conduct. It has brought some order into its homework regime. The curriculum has been enriched by several solid academic options. It has attractive excursions and out-of-school programs. The introduction of advanced streams and groups in maths and English, though questionable in my view, indicates rising expectations for school performance. My friends feel that some of the staff are cruising in the shallow waters of early retirement, but generally esteem the teachers they meet as confident in their subject and ambitious for their students. Not the complete blueprint, but it’s on the way. Teamwork, clarity of goals and student participation could still be much enhanced. Gonski money would also help.

Class Act is introduced by David Gonski himself, and one of his Review’s panel, Ken Boston, features among eight “Thought Leaders” in part two. Both advocate forcefully for education as a public good and point to the disastrous consequences for our future of the great social divide in our school systems. Advocacy to redress this historical disgrace is the great strength of Class Act but equally strong, I think, is McKew’s decision to give as much honour to the thought of teachers as to that of Leaders. Teaching has had and will continue to have a long struggle to be recognised as a true profession, so showing respect for teachers’ thought is important.

Of the Thought Leaders, those like John Hattie, who have synthesised and researched best practice, are necessary complements to the accounts of school practice. Their common theme, which these days can be used as much against as for teachers, is that teaching is what matters. They preach school improvement and, closer to home, reform of teacher training on the model of the Melbourne Graduate School’s Master of Teaching, which recruits students with good academic degrees and trains them with loads of practice. Ultimately they think practicum should extend to internship for as long as it takes to know that the intern really can teach.

Elsewhere among the Leaders, Dean Ashenden argues for greater student control of their work and Misty Adoniou, from a distinguished background in second-language teaching, argues for the value of teaching grammar through writing, using both good literature and the students’ own writing.

Class Act’s subtitle promises an end to “the education wars.” This might have been the publisher’s idea, for there is no hint anywhere in the text of what these wars are that will be ended. I cannot imagine an ending of the class war that engulfs Pariah College. The best it can hope for is a dugout the enemy won’t bother to destroy. Nor will anything imaginable change the war of Public vs Private. Once the public forces met their Waterloo in the 1970s, that conflict became a cold war, with the total collapse of the public forces the only way for it to end.

What other wars are there? Pyne and Abbott’s Culture War games? Colonel Blimp would laugh at them. The Literacy War? Misty Adoniou dismisses phonics-is-all fanaticism but it’s a case of yet again – the literacy wars are education’s one hundred years’ war.

If the federal government’s offensives of the past decade or so can be seen as a new attack on mediocrity, it doesn’t find allies among the teachers and leaders in Class Act. References to mass testing, as in NAPLAN, and its use to hold schools and teachers to account are lukewarm or dismissive. The idea of a national curriculum is at odds with many of the endorsements of school change via curriculum. It can be argued, of course, that innovation in curriculum and assessment is great for the Leaders but the mob still needs stuff to cling to, but it’s an odd view of the kind of school improvement advocated in Class Act.

Despite its many good points, Class Act has little to say on a couple of issues it sees as important, and nothing to say about what I consider a central issue in the reform of schooling. It gives routine acknowledgement of the importance of numeracy but does not tackle the deficiencies of maths teaching beyond noting that too many maths teachers are not fully qualified. Several of its Leaders talk about the place of technology in the world facing students but none of the exemplary schools seems to have made a feature of technology. A year or so ago I toured a Catholic regional college that took technology very seriously – requiring expertise of its staff and daily use by its students. A profile of such a school (marginally more “disadvantaged” than Pariah) would have been useful, given the prominence accorded the issue among commentators.

The most significant gap for me was the absence of an analysis of competition either within or among schools.

Just on fifty years ago I helped write and publish on behalf of the director of secondary education in Victoria, R. A. Reed, a set of five principles for curriculum and assessment. One of them said there was “no place for competitive assessment” (class grading by letters or percentages) in Victorian schools. The result was that other ways of recounting students’ performance – by description or by the mastery or completion of targets – spread. A descendant of those assessment methods still operates in the Victorian Certificate of Education in the final two years of secondary school, but it has been lost in the pursuit of finely graded tertiary entrance scores derived from certificate performances. Grades have become the goal of learning.

Competition among students cannot of course be avoided and it can be useful. But it has to be managed. If it creates categories of success and failure, alarm bells should ring. If it builds in these categories as virtually permanent judgements of individuals it has gone too far. Graded assessments reward the As and Bs, comfort the Cs and maybe some Ds but fail the Es. If they are interpreted essentially as a measure of effort, they offer some hope of recovery. If they are seen as measures of ability, we are indulging in the questionable moral practice of compelling young people to fail. A new offensive against built-in failure could turn out to be our most significant education war.

Pariah College is the loser in another misuse of competition, this time between schools. In the official mind, competition pushes schools to lift their game. But the playing field is anything but level. Pariah’s catchment area, its effective zone, is prosperous and gentrifying. On the My School website Pariah College’s two obvious feeder primary schools, one virtually next door, the other within a short stroll, look pretty posh: 64 and 78 per cent are in the upper half of socioeconomic status measures. Pariah has 31 per cent in the top half. My School does not draw attention to this class bias, but then its purpose is to encourage choice not to analyse it.

Clearly, Pariah College enrols much of its intake from pockets of public housing and immigrant settlements. Under a strict local zoning system, Pariah College would resemble its upmarket surrounding schools. But there is no zoning. The government maintains a fiction that there are school zones at the same time as it actively encourages parents to choose among schools, both primary and secondary, within a wide catchment area. It is true that zones are hard to control – determined parents and schools will get around them somehow. It is also true that social stratification will grow when school choice is promoted. Pariah College is disadvantaged not so much by the part of the community that patronises it as by the part that shuns it.

There is a solution to Pariah’s predicament. If the public schools in the catchment area agreed to collaborate rather than compete, if Pariah became a campus of a larger administrative unit run in the interests of the whole district, it would cease to be the pariah of the district, the only school listed in the stats as disadvantaged. It would soon become the local school for a much more upmarket enrolment, indistinguishable from, or even part of, its feeders. Whatever choice operated in the larger district it would not be between good or bad public schooling. And if choice of some other kind got out of hand, the schools would have the means to collectively redress it – something neither they nor the education department think worth doing at the moment.

In a collaborative arrangement across schools, My School would categorise Pariah as similar to the others around it, and no longer disadvantaged. Sounds good but what would change? Can it stop working at school improvement now that its enrolment has improved? Should it rest on the laurels conferred by NAPLAN and other national data? Or should it turn its attention to the international data that suggests our top-of-the-market schools aren’t adding enough value? Should it stop thinking about teamwork, student participation, enriched curricula, positive assessment, or should it work even harder at the same things?

In short, it might have to stop thinking about attracting a better class of student and join in thinking about how to stop rejecting students. It might have to become a Leader of Thought about the ill effects of poaching, selection and failure.

One of the schools profiled in Class Act differs from the rest in that it is located in a socially (hence educationally) advantaged area: Garran in Canberra. Garran’s approach makes a good guide for our imagined collaborative district school. It goes for good literature, analysis of writing, promotion of the twenty-first-century skills of critical and creative thinking, staff teamwork and ever-rising expectations for all students. “What’s avoided,” it says, “is any suggestion of performing to the NAPLAN standard.” International tests of performance put Garran up with the very best.

Pariah or Garran, the issues and solutions look very alike. Yet for many, schools like these are engaged on opposite sides in a class war, which is unending. •