Saturday, October 18, 2008


Recently, in Melbourne newspapers, we’ve been reading all sorts of stuff about how schools have been wasting too much time doing all that fancy-schmancy stuff and it’s time to get back to the basics! Or, rather, the Basics! You know, the three Rs that we’ve supposedly been neglecting all these years (perhaps in response to all those letters to the editor that begin “They oughta be teaching - fill in the blank- in the schools!” Not to mention editorials that think we “oughta” be teaching swimming, values, health, drug education, sex education, the list goes on and on, in the schools! The kind of stuff parents used to teach, but think their taxes ought to be paying for, these days). I’ve been working in the school system most of my adult life and can’t remember when nobody was teaching the basics (sorry, the Basics). The grammar books are a lot easier to follow and less forbidding than they used to be, but they’re still there and nowadays you can also go on-line and get other people’s ideas. I’ve had to. Suddenly, I have had to be responsible for 8B, in an area I haven’t covered in a long, long time. So I know. The simple fact is, most people can’t spell. I remember, in my second year out, having a student who was bright and articulate but couldn’t spell to save his life. Probably, these days, he’s using a spellchecker in his highly-paid job. Maybe there’s a spelling gene. I think I have one. Most people don’t. You can only do your best to compete with the advertising and the TV shows and the shop signs and the text messaging, all of which tell people that it's okay to use apostrophes other than to join two words or indicate possession - or not to use them at all, that it's fine to abbreviate words to "txt", even when it isn't costing you money.

But hey, the government knows best. At the Federal level, they’ve got the bright idea that they can grab kids who got high scores in uni, give them a five-week crash course and send them out to the schools to teach experienced teachers how to do it properly.

Then there are all these warm and fuzzy articles in the newspapers about this or that primary school where they’re teaching – wow! – local history. Or robotics. Well, duh. Guess what? We had local history at Flemington Secondary College back in the 1980s, when I was getting a full day’s time allowance to handle it. People from outside the school system were coming in to use our historical newspaper microfilms. And at Sunshine College, where I now work, we have local history units at Year 9. Sunshine is a very important place in the history of industrial relations. Some of our students are descended from the original Sunshine Harvester workers. We like them to know that they have plenty of which they can be proud. And yes, thanks to a very good teacher willing to give up his own time, we have robotics too, and students who wouldn’t normally hang around after school hours are going along. It’s going to expand.

So what’s new?

Victorian schools these days make a lot of fuss about literacy, but get rid of their teacher-librarians. Thing is, when Jeff Kennett came to power, apart from closing a lot of schools to save money (and make money in the case of Flemington SC, which he sold to the Victoria Racing Club next door), gave principals powers they’d always wanted. Among them was control of the purse strings. The trouble with that, which these principals probably never considered, was that controlling the budget means you have to make decisions you mightn't like. You need to fiddle with the funds to make them fit. You have to hope that the more expensive experienced teachers will leave so that you can replace them with kids fresh out of university who don’t have to be paid as much. Of course,you can always, as so many principals do, declare that you want "young and dynamic!" as if you have to be one to be the other. You have to decide that the first place to make cuts is the library which, let’s face it, is just a book room. Give everyone a key and get rid of those people who, after all, just stamp books! They don’t, of course, help design curriculum or teach research skills or fit kids to books or help instill a love of reading. Come on, now! We don’t need them. Not if it means paying out more money.

Or, if you MUST have someone in the library, get someone without library qualifications or teaching qualifications. Much cheaper! And you can make them work longer hours than teachers, even if nobody makes use of them.

We used to be able to apply for jobs at other schools, but with the global budget, once you reach a certain level, you can’t do that any more. Schools aren’t advertising for experienced teachers unless they need someone in a leadership position and then only grudgingly. So if you want to move, you have to take a pay cut and then, when you finally retire, your superannuation pension is lower because the calculations are done on your last two years, no matter how many years you’ve been paying your super contribution before that.

When the budget was centralised, people could be chosen or promoted on merit, not on how much they were going to cost. Schools were still making cuts in the library, but the minimum you had was one full-time teacher-librarian. Those were the days when you could concentrate on the basics instead of our current, overcrowded curriculum when we somehow still fit in the important stuff among all the things that parents don’t want to do any more.

So go on – teach us to suck eggs!

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