Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Belshaw’s World: why are we crushing our schools?

We presently live in a measurement obsessed world, a world of inputs, outputs and outcomes, of key performance indicators. This is a world of league tables, of standardization and uniformity, of professionalisation and accreditation.

We live in a world obsessed with risk avoidance with its associated concepts of informed consent, duty of care and risk management or mitigation strategies.

I was a strong supporter of the education reforms that began in 1988 spear-headed by Commonwealth Education Minister Dawkins because I saw them as a way of freeing up the education and training sector.

I still support many of the concepts. However, I now think that the practical effects have become quite pernicious.

Over the last few years of my daughters’ schooling, I watched what I saw as the erosion of the ethos of their school with sadness and a degree of anger.

This process stands out in my mind as a series of events.

The circulars from the school telling us of new Government requirements increased. We were required to provide new information and sign new forms.

The range of activities open to our daughters began to contract because of perceived risk. We went to our first information session on a forthcoming excursion.

A confused parent said to me “well, that was a waste of time. We know all that. Why are we here?”

“It’s got nothing to do with us”, I replied. “It’s for the school’s legal protection, so that they can say that we have given informed consent.”

Teachers began to complain privately about the new loads placed upon them. The school suddenly demanded that parents sign in at the office before going onto school grounds.

Those of us at the school all of the time for meetings or to attend sporting events simply ignored this. However, I noticed that new parents were beginning to comply.

New security cameras were introduced, followed by guards. Then came a new central security system with various alarms and self locking doors. Lock down and lock out had arrived.

This was being done, the school explained in a circular, “for the protection of your daughters.” You could be forgiven for thinking that the school had a significant security problem. It did not.

Fees continued to rise faster than inflation to pay for the new administrative staff required to meet increasing Government reporting requirements, as well as all the new security arrangements.

On legal grounds, the school decided that it could no longer coordinate the preparation of the traditional year 12 annual. The students would have to do this for themselves.

At eldest’s year 12 formal in 2005, students were banded with hospital style bands that allowed those over 18 to buy single drinks. Parents were allowed to have wine on their tables.

Two years later youngest’s year 12 formal was held at a posh Sydney hotel.

The event had to be completely dry for all. There were the usual pre-formal parties. However, upon arrival at the hotel, the kids were not just bag searched but also breathalysed. Any recording a positive reading were not allowed to enter.

Parents went ballistic. The security guards explained that they had no choice; they must comply with new NSW Government legislation.

By nine o’clock most parents had adjourned to the bar. By 11.30, half an hour before the official close, the ball room was empty as kids moved off to the after-formal parties.

Last year to the fury of my daughters and their friends, the school abolished muck-up day. This had been a pretty mild affair run under tight controls. Even this was now seen as too dangerous.

I could, perhaps, live with all this if the standard of education had improved. It declined, crushed by the growing burden of compliance and risk avoidance.

To answer my last question.

New England’s first major airline was, appropriately, called New England Airways.

Formed by George A Robinson, the Lismore headquartered company began a bi-weekly Lismore-Brisbane service in August 1931. This was later extended to a Lismore-Sydney service, creating the first Brisbane- Sydney service. The company grew to be one of the first national carriers.

Now for my next question. What is the connection between Dorrigo, cattle ranching in Wyoming and the imperial courts of Europe?

Note to readers

This column appeared in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 21 January 2009. This post brings my columns up to date with exception of the column appearing in today's Express.

In future I will publish them on a Wednesday, thus lagging them by one week after publication.

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