My early schooling was done in the UK. At the end of primary school we sat what was called the “11 plus” exams, which allowed all school children in a region to select secondary schools based on their academic skills and interests. I attended one of the top grammar schools in the area and would have taken my GCE “O” level exams a year earlier than most children. When I moved to Australia I was put into what is now known as Year 9, and, after less than two weeks of helping the teachers, was moved up to Year 10, where I completed three years’ work in two subjects I hadn’t touched in the UK, and passed everything despite not being challenged. I should have been in Year 11, but I would have been more than a year younger than all the other students. The Department couldn’t cope with that because it was, and still is, focussed on the age of students, not their ability. By the end of Year 12, having endured three years of semi-boredom, I had lost the inspiration for study. I completed a science degree at the University of Western Australia, then a post-graduate Diploma in Meteorology, then a post-graduate Diploma in Education, where I learned the difference between the “eastern” and “western” philosophies of education. Put simply, the eastern philosophy considers children to have all the knowledge they need, or access to it, and only need the tools to access that knowledge (and skill), whereas the western philosophy treats children as empty vessels which need to be filled with an enormous amount of information. Ask yourself how much of what you learned in high school, particularly in years 11 and 12 (or the equivalent) you have needed since then. The answer is likely to be very little. Curricula in our schools (in every state of Australia) have been filled with more and more information which most of us will have little need for in the future, and vital skills, such as critical thinking, an understanding of why grammar rules are as they are, and essential maths skills such as mental arithmetic and estimation – which are useful when our computers fail or where they give invalid answers because we’ve given them invalid inputs – have been neglected. One lecturer at a Teachers’ College in Western Australia was quoted complaining that “he had to teach the teachers English before he could teach them how to teach it.” No, that wasn’t a recent incident: it happened in 1966, and shows that those who graduated from Western Australian schools prior to then did not have sufficient understanding of our own language for them to teach following students. I don’t deny that there are teachers in current service who have excellent English grammar skills, but they are few and far between, and the situation has only got worse since 1966. A recent move to teach grammar in schools begged the question: “Are there enough teachers who know enough grammar to teach the teachers?” Read any responses to news items and you will see the lack of understanding of English grammar that has pervaded our culture for far too long. An attitude of “who cares” is often the response when people are challenged to clean up their grammar mistakes. I might understand what you intend by a particular statement, but will the next person get the intended meaning? That’s why good grammar is essential.
“Education” comes from the Latin word “educare”, which means “to draw out”. It doesn’t mean “to fill up.” Precious little “education” takes place in our schools because the teachers are busy filling up the minds of their students, as required by the Curriculum Council. As put by Winston Churchill: “my education was interrupted only by my schooling.”
The importance of good grammar was shown clearly in a note sent to all residents of the City of Melbourne in the early 1990s. The council had just decided that garbage workers would no longer collect plastic bags put out with bins, and advised residents with a notice headed “Melbourne City garbage by law.” Self confession is good for the soul! More recently, The West Australian published an online article headed “Bride to be killed in crash”. When I pointed out the unfortunate meaning of the heading it was quickly changed, but we shouldn’t have to be asking media outlets to correct their grammar because the media provide one of the best means of educating people, and should be setting the best example possible.
When I completed my one academic year Diploma in Education, with just one practical lesson in a biological science, I was posted to a country high school where I was THE science teacher – albeit with another teacher taking my Year 8 form group so that I had time for other teaching or duty roles – and where I had to complete an inventory of equipment I had never seen, and an order of materials needed for the year, as if I already knew everything in the courses for the year. I was literally learning biology days before I was teaching it to a farming community likely to be considerably more educated in the subject than I was. That was far more than highly embarrassing because the policy is detrimental to country students, who get inexperienced teachers, and detrimental to the new teachers, who are given too much to learn and not enough support to achieve that.
Having two children at opposite ends of the academic spectrum – one who, like me, was turned off through classroom boredom, and one who, for medical reasons, started well behind his age group and needed extra support at that stage, I am well aware of the failure of the current system to cope with children significantly different from “the norm” on which our schools are built. Education Support Centres work well for some students, but not for others; and advanced groups work well if the testing is effective. The system, as it stands, will never be able to cope with some students, so an alternative needs to be supported for them. Home schooling, which has always been legal, but is often frowned on or criticised, is the best option, and should be supported, with resources available, even if that involves working with a local school to have them available at certain times. For example, science experiments are best done in a laboratory with all the required equipment, and parents can hardly be expected to have such a laboratory at home. Schools should also be able to provide “distance education” services tied to the student’s ability, not to their age, to make the task of home schooling more consistent with requirements for life and future study.
In the lead-up to this election there have already been promises of improvements to the physical structure of several schools. Whereas genuine improvements to schools which have poor facilities, not just changing signs at the street front, are essential, and building schools where they are needed is just as important, I am concerned that some “promises” by both major parties appear to be vote-buying endeavours which may never be honoured – think Ellenbrook railway. I encourage all voters to ask candidates who make promises involving spending large sums of our money, when those promises will be honoured, and if that is beyond the life of the next parliament, or is never provided, to reject the offer because it is unrealistic.
I will push strongly and widely for:
● a return to education in schools, rather than teaching, requiring the Curriculum Council to change the emphasis from copious amounts of content to in-depth consideration of essential elements;
● students to be streamed according to their need and ability, not according to their age;
● high schools, where there are several within reasonable travelling distance of each other, to be separated, as soon as possible, according to streaming needs for Year 7, progressing to the same system for Year 12 as the first cohort progresses through the school;
● new teachers to be given postings at large schools, initially with no more than 50% teaching load, as part of their continued training;
● teaching positions in small country schools to be an essential stepping stone towards promotion, not the responsibility of new teachers, with exemptions to be clarified;
● parents wanting to home-school their children to get greater support from the Department, and be able to claim financial assistance from the Education budget – after all, they save the Department thousands of dollars a year;
● schools to be allowed to offer “distance education” programmes based on the student’s ability and understanding, not age;
● English language, with a concentration on grammar and critical thinking, to become far more important, with extra training for teachers and more frequent testing of all students designed to fix problems before they become too difficult.
Authorised by Steven Secker, 4 Dower Court, Armadale.