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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
Teaching and learning - maximising our investment in Australian schools
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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
Wright, Sen Penny
Gallacher, Sen Alex
McKenzie, Sen Bridget
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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
(Senate-Tuesday, 5 March 2013)
CHAIR (Senator Back)
- Senator WRIGHT
Content WindowEducation, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee - 05/03/2013 - Teaching and learning - maximising our investment in Australian schools
TAYLOR, Mr Duncan, President, Isolated Children's Parents' Association of NSW
CHAIR: Welcome to the hearing. Do you have any changes to your submission?
Mr Taylor : No, I do not.
CHAIR: Would you like to make an opening statement.
Mr Taylor : The Isolated Children's Parents' Association of NSW is a parent body. We are not educators, nor experts in teaching practice and nor are we education administrators familiar with regulation and departmental structures. We are members of school communities who are very concerned with teaching and learning, educational opportunity and outcomes out in rural and remote areas of our country. We have good reason to be.
The program of international student assessment testing indicates that 15-year-old students in rural schools are 1½ years behind their peers in metropolitan schools in all PISA assessment areas. That is to say, students in metropolitan schools at the end of year 8 are performing as well on average as kids in country schools halfway through year 10 yet even those metropolitan kids are far from the top of the class in international standards.
New South Wales NAPLAN testing indicates that in 2011 11 per cent of year 9 metropolitan students failed to reach minimum standards in writing. But in remote schools over 47 per cent failed to reach these standards. In very remote schools over 50 per cent failed. While 5 per cent of year 9 metropolitan students failed to reach minimum standards in numeracy, 24 per cent of remote students failed as did 37 per cent of very remote students. Not surprisingly, these poor outcomes in middle secondary school translate into poor tertiary participation. The federal government has set a target of 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds holding a bachelor degree or above. In fact, in the more affluent areas of Sydney, the figures are already much higher with between 60 and 70 per cent of 19- to 21-year-olds at university. Even further out to the west in Sydney, the figures are often between 40 and 55 per cent. However, in rural and remote New South Wales they are a great deal lower. In Brewarrina Shire it is about 8 per cent; in Central Darling Shire, 13 per cent; and in Hay Shire, 14 per cent. Other states will have similar experiences.
For these reasons, I believe we have to prioritise teaching and learning programs and innovation in rural and remote areas of Australia. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect the gap to narrow or for the situation to improve. We have to concede that we have a crisis in educational opportunity and outcome in rural and remote areas, set ourselves targets for improvement and become accountable for making that improvement happen. That will require innovation. That will require translating successful programs for isolated students from other schools within Australia and internationally and multiplying those programs across our own schools. That will require collaboration rather than competition in our rural schooling sector.
Competition in schooling is good and appropriate where education markets are working well to provide good outcomes. But where the market place for schooling is failing and where there is no choice for many of the consumer families in any event, a competitive model for schooling may not be appropriate. Rather, we need collaboration between teachers to develop teaching models; collaborations with other schools to expand curriculums; collaboration with communities, industry and business; and, importantly, collaboration with government to give opportunity where sparse populations do not provide sufficient critical mass for these opportunities to otherwise develop.
Senator WRIGHT: This is a very interesting issue and one that is quite close to my heart. You discussed the need for preservice teacher training to prepare teachers were working in a rural and remote sensing. In terms of preparation that would possibly be an opportunity to encourage and attract teachers to those settings as well. Have you approached any higher education institutions about this idea and are there any examples of that occurring in Australia at this point?
Mr Taylor : I think the evidence suggests that in all professions not just teaching where we can get students into professional courses they are the ones that will return to our rural areas. It is terribly important in teaching to have a stream of students preferably going to regional universities into teaching faculties and they will be the students that are most likely to return to rural areas. Even the rural students that end up in metropolitan universities tend to have a much higher rate of retention in metropolitan areas. The regional universities play a terribly important part in training teachers that will end up back in rural communities. As far as us approaching higher education institutions, we have not done that.
Senator WRIGHT: You mentioned briefly in your submission the Country Areas Program. Can you tell us a bit more about that program and why it was phased out?
Mr Taylor : The Country Areas Program is actually federal funding money that is given to the states to provide opportunities for country schools that would put them on an equivalent footing in some senses with metropolitan schools. Part of the permitted usage for that money is to go into professional development of teachers so that they can access professional development opportunities which are more easily accessible for metropolitan teachers. In New South Wales we are moving to a policy of principals having greater autonomy in the way they spend the funding which that school is given. There are about 200 funding streams at the moment for schools in New South Wales that will be collapsed into two. One of those funding streams is the Country Areas Program. That money now will be collapsed into general funding for teaching that is given to principals to use as they see fit. So money that could perhaps in the past have been used for professional development of teachers in a rural school could now be used, for instance, to maintain funding to have a school librarian kept on. It will go into a much more general purpose and it will not be tagged with professional development of rural teachers.
CHAIR: Wouldn't a principal in a rural, remote or regional area also see the very high need for high-level professional development of their teachers and therefore perhaps have greater flexibility to spend even more of their funds on that, if they identify it as being essential for their teachers?
Mr Taylor : That is right. And I think to have a range of approaches taken by principals and, in our view, the very good principals will prioritise professional development. I would hope that departmental staff would encourage principals to keep funding for professional development for teachers in rural schools. Our concern is that there may be principals who, for budgetary reasons or for questions of their own priorities within the school, on an individual basis decide not to use the money for that funding. And in that particular school that will be a problem.
Senator WRIGHT: In relation to the obvious proposal that innovation is needed and particularly collaboration in this area, I am interested in whether you are aware of any examples of where there are some innovative approaches being taken between schools, for instance, in perhaps regions or areas that can be a bit of an inspiration I suppose or an idea about where that direction could go. You have also said there obviously needs to be collaboration through government and so on. I am interested particularly in initiatives that schools might be taking at this point.
Mr Taylor : There are a couple of examples which I would very much like to offer. Out in rural and remote areas, the problem with education is a problem of critical mass. There is just not the mass to create the opportunities that there is in large and metropolitan schools. One way of overcoming this is by technology; that is, the teacher who is presenting the lesson to the classroom does not have to be present in that classroom but could actually be in another place. It is very important in that model of teaching to have good support at the recipient end. It is not just about a good delivery of the lesson; it is about having good teaching allocation, staffing allocations also at the recipient end to support the children that are remotely getting their lessons. That is one example of how to expand curriculums in rural schools—by using technology. That is out there and happening.
I hope it came through strongly in our submission that we believe that good teachers should be left to teaching and not be overcome with administrative burden. Once again in small rural schools, the problem is, when there is a low student population, actually having the administrative support in their funding. One way to overcome this is by cluster management of schools. We are starting to see this a lot in early childhood, perhaps more than in schooling as far as I am aware, where a number of early childhood services will have one management—perhaps even one parent body—to support the school. The school addresses its administration on a cluster basis. There might be one financial service provider for a number of schools.
The third and last example I would like to give, which I think is a terribly interesting one, is that schools look before and after their age spectrum as to how they can support education in the town so they actually become an educational hub.
At the early end, they are supporting early childhood instruction in the school by having the facilities. They have the facilities in the town to be able to run early childhood programs. The early primary school teachers may well be qualified to run early childhood programs in a way that satisfies the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care. So the schools provide a possibility where for a small number of days each week or otherwise early childhood teachers could move from school to school, be fully employed and provide early childhood education in a number of schools.
At the other end, at the tertiary end, there are very interesting possibilities for schools to be supporting distance education. Distance tertiary education is going to be terribly important, as technology improves, in increasing participation rates in rural and remote areas. Schools have good technology. They have video conferencing. And they have teachers that are trained in education pedagogy. So the schools can actually provide support for students in the town that are doing distance education. There is a school not far from us that I understand is now inviting students who are doing university study to come into the school, to use the technology, to use the video conferencing to access their university tutors, and to avail themselves of teachers who might be able to help them with creating Excel spreadsheets or word-processing assessment tasks and provide that support. What that will do is not only support those students so we have less dropout in tertiary education but also raise the whole expectation in country towns of being able to go on and participate in tertiary education. A lot of the low participation rates in tertiary education are because there is a low expectation that that is actually a realistic pathway for students to take. But if there are tertiary education students at the schools with the high school students, actually using these facilities to participate in tertiary education, that might start to turn around.
Senator WRIGHT: So there is actually modelling?
Mr Taylor : Yes.
Senator WRIGHT: Are you aware of any cross-sector collaboration in regional areas, as in government schools and non-government schools working together for any teaching or classes, at all?
Mr Taylor : I do not think enough of that goes on. That is my opinion on that. The further out in remote areas you go, there might be Catholic schools in the towns but there is not a high independent school presence. No, I am not aware of it going on to any great degree.
Senator GALLACHER: In relation to the technology argument or the betterment of technology, have you got an NBN school around your area?
Mr Taylor : Not at present, no.
Senator GALLACHER: I understand there is a school called Willunga High that is fully wired up to the NBN. They are reporting a revolution in the way things are working. They are moving away from the traditional classroom, from the teacher preparing for a lesson, giving what they think children want to learn at the lesson and then sending them away for some homework or some further investigation. They are putting it online and they are seeing participation rates and answering questions move from five or six to the whole class. Do you see that as being a real opportunity in rural communities where you might be, distance wise, very time poor, because you may travel a significant amount of time to and from school? Will getting internet up and running allow people to move at their pace and to contribute more?
Mr Taylor : Yes. There are terrific opportunities in technology. The lesson delivered through technology will only, still, be as good as the instructor. But the NBN will create terrific possibilities. We are starting to see that in New South Wales. Very shortly we are having a rollout of better technology through the interim satellite which, although it is not the NBN, approaches NBN-like speeds and allows things like interactive distance education between the students and the teachers. So there are terrific opportunities there. Once again, we should not get lost in the fact that good teaching still needs to underlie these technological possibilities.
Senator GALLACHER: Is your association seeing a loss of stable workforce and more of a churning sort of workforce with contract positions and casual positions? Earlier evidence basically said that, by right of their industrial agreement, a teacher can take leave for a couple of years, and that predicates that there will be a limited contract or a casual fill-in for those positions. Do you see that as a problem?
Mr Taylor : I do see it as a problem. For instance, young people are entering the teaching profession this year who were given scholarships to become proficient in Indigenous education out in remote areas. Although you would imagine that there is a crying need for that sort of teacher in the workforce, at least some of the young teachers I know have only been given casual positions in western New South Wales. To me, that seems extraordinary: we know there is such a need, but we are unable to give these students the security of a permanent position when they are going into a sector of the teaching profession where they are just so sorely needed.
Senator GALLACHER: On the question of behaviour, a submission to the inquiry suggests that one of the elephants in the room in education is the behaviour of students and the shortcomings of the system in dealing with that. Does your association have a view on all of that?
Mr Taylor : The government has made schooling go now to later years. It is more difficult to leave school early. We are finding out in rural and remote schools that that is possibly a retrograde step, because students that would previously have left school and gone into a vocation or a trade, or just left school anyway, are now staying at school, and often the behavioural problems that result from that are making it difficult for the students who want to stay at school and continue to study. So I think lengthening the years that people stay at school has increased behavioural problems, and I think it is incumbent on the community or on the schooling sector to provide those kids with something useful to do while they are at school if they are students who would otherwise have left. It is no good regulating to make these students stay at school but not changing curriculums and the capacity to cater for them. The growth in vocational education in schools has been one thing that has assisted to keep these students engaged, but I still think it is a terrible problem.
Senator GALLACHER: Is that connection with, say, a trade training centre in a school or a cluster of schools beneficial?
Mr Taylor : I think it is very beneficial. It is often a question of funding, but, if these schools can provide more vocational opportunities, they will have a much higher engagement with their students and, so I am told, a much lower truancy rate.
Senator McKENZIE: That is interesting. Is there any nationally agreed definition of 'rural and remote'?
Mr Taylor : There are a number of geographic classification systems. Rural does not tend to come up in them, but there are at least a few which have a grading. For instance, NAPLAN uses a grading of metropolitan, provincial, remote and very remote. There is also a grading that applies in youth allowance which I think has its roots in the health system.
CHAIR: Doctors, yes.
Mr Taylor : Yes. It is graded through the remoteness scale. There are different definitions depending on which system you are using.
Senator McKENZIE: I am particularly struck by this comment in your submission:
… the profession must be charged with the task of proving wrong those who accept structural disadvantage based on distance …
I think that is really important. Do you think we need to start from tin tacks and get a consistent definition so that we can resource appropriately?
Mr Taylor : A definition is overdue. The Gonski review and the response from the government is going to show that up. The Gonski review talks about loadings for remote and very remote schools, grading from 10 per cent for a medium school in a remote area to 100 per cent for a small school in a very remote area. They have considered the funding of small schools in provincial areas. Our association is very aware of the fact that the role that a small school plays in a provincial area can be very different. In provincial areas a small school is absolutely essential for access. In other areas, a small school might be a remnant of history, a remnant of pre-car days—pre the days of school buses, definitely—and is no longer essential and the efficiency of funding that could be questioned. The Gonski panel did question that. However, they understood that the small schools in provincial areas need to be looked at harder because the provincial definition does not lend itself to determining what schools get funding and what schools do not. Yes, a harder look at the classification system is overdue now that the Gonski review is out there.
Senator McKENZIE: I am also interested in your comments around preferential treatment being given to rural and regional schools in terms of promotion. I wonder if you could expand on that—the positive—
Mr Taylor : Certainly. It might have been about preferential access to technology and professional development.
Senator McKENZIE: Yes, it was.
Mr Taylor : I hope that I outlined in my opening statement sufficiently clearly that there is a real problem in rural and remote education as far as the outcomes go. As a result of that, it is a very high priority issue to address through the education agenda. Part of addressing that will be prioritising support and professional development and providing solutions at the fingertips for rural and remote teachers. There are some great rural and remote teachers out in our schools—there is no doubt about that. But to be able to support these teachers to best do their job where there is a limitation on the amount of funding that is available—and the size of the pie is not necessarily going to be large enough for it to go around everyone—we have to address these problems where they at their worst. That is the reason for giving priority to rural and remote teachers.
Senator McKENZIE: Would you be supportive of a compulsory practicum in rural and regional areas?
Mr Taylor : I certainly would be supportive of a much more accessible practicum for students who are interested in teaching in rural and remote schools. I would be very interested in whether, when once again there is a limitation on the resources that are available, you are better off spending more money on the students who are more likely to go back out to these places than spending it on students who will have a high dropout rate from the program. I imagine that if every student had to do a rural or remote practicum the dropout rate would be enormous. A huge multiple of resources could be spent on the students who demonstrate an interest in rural and remote education. That could make it much more attractive for the students who are interested, because they would know that a lot of funding is available to help them. I suspect that some targeting will make it more attractive.
Senator McKENZIE: Finally, obviously students in rural and regional Australia are not 1.5 less intelligent than their urban cousins. What is going on? You mentioned the professional development of the teachers. Do you support all teachers having a certain set of skills, particularly around literacy and numeracy?
Mr Taylor : I would certainly support all teachers having a certain level of skill in literacy and numeracy. Rural schools can play a different role to metropolitan schools.
In a rural town, the school is in many ways the centre of the community. I touched before on how the schools can go beyond just primary and secondary school and be playing a role also in early childhood education and tertiary education. With the videoconferencing and so on that is available at schools, they could also be playing a role in the professional development of people in their careers. Farmers, for instance, could be coming in and accessing videoconferencing at the school. So the school is actually a hub of learning in the town. A lot of the issues with the lagging in educational outcomes are not because of the standard of the teachers—we have great teachers out in rural and remote schools—but are about the expectation and the way that the community engages with education in the town. That can lag behind what happens in metropolitan areas. To use the school to become a focus of teaching and learning in all areas of life in the town will help achieve that—
Senator McKENZIE: Aspiration.
Mr Taylor : That is right. So it is not just a question confined to professional development and the use of the school around schooling; the possibilities can go way beyond that.
CHAIR: I support what you are saying significantly. When I first met my wife, she was teaching in a small country town and, of an evening, she used to take young banking staff who were doing their courses in economics and such areas. In fact, there was a cohort of teachers who were assisting people who were going through tertiary studies, with writing assignments et cetera. So a lot of what you said resonates, which causes me to ask you: is there a capacity for local governments in rural and remote areas to have a far more active involvement with the education system, with welcoming new teachers to their communities et cetera?
Mr Taylor : I think there is an absolute need for local government to do that. Just south of here, in Cooma, local government, together with Cooma business, have put together an e-learning centre, which opens tomorrow. That e-learning centre will have videoconferencing and computer terminals for everyone in the community to use to access tertiary education. That is an example, although it is not schooling, of where local government has actually got behind it and decided to assist in solving that community's problems with tertiary participation. As it is with tertiary participation, so it is with secondary and primary schooling. I think the local governments can take ownership of the problems in their towns and be part of the solutions—most definitely.
CHAIR: On the positive side, there are a lot of opportunities for teachers in rural and remote areas and regional towns that are not there in the cities. There is the sense of the teacher having a far greater community engagement beyond the classroom. In the urban areas, you are anonymous once everyone walks out the school gate, but in a rural community there is tremendous opportunity for involvement in sport, the arts, music et cetera. So, in many ways, it is a very positive experience, which does not seem to be talked up, does it?
Mr Taylor : No. That is right. I agree with you. I think the principal of a school in a small country town is a leader in the community. I would like to see school principals engage, as you suggested, with local government a lot more, so that, where there are issues that touch on youth in the town and so on, the school principal is a leading light in working with local government to develop solutions for them. There are opportunities there for a teacher in a rural or remote town or a small school, even in provincial areas. It has an attraction about it that might appeal to some students that are not so attracted to working in a very large metropolitan school, where, as you say, they are far more anonymous. I think there is an opportunity there perhaps to develop a different stream of students, who are interested in that community participation, interested in that whole community approach to education and interested in becoming a community leader, to follow that stream into these types of schools.
CHAIR: In the cohort of teachers, obviously a very significant number are into their mid-50s and even into their early 60s. After the global financial crisis, many people have returned to teaching. Are we missing out on a cohort of people who actually might be very, very attracted, in the later years of their teaching career, to going back into rural and even remote schools as teachers or administrators? They might have had the experience because they went through cadetships in the days when you were obliged to go to the bush. They have had their careers elsewhere and they might be attracted to return to a rural community for the last three or four years.
They would be tremendous mentors, wouldn't they? All we are hearing about in these hearings is the fact that no-one has the time to mentor the young teachers. We have an opportunity there, don't we? You do not actually need vast numbers of these people—husbands and wives very often are both teachers. Is that a cohort that we could be looking to to fill this need in rural, regional and remote areas?
Mr Taylor : Absolutely. I agree with you. We have to recognise and talk about the problem we have in education out in rural and remote areas. I imagine the teaching profession is aware of it, but it is only by the community becoming aware of the problem, defining the problem and defining the solution that we will be able to have the conversation about what we need to solve the problem. Part of what we need to solve the problem is to get the experience back into these country schools. A lot of the issue for country schools has been the way of staffing them, which has been to have teachers go off to these schools on their way to somewhere else. It is a different idea to have teachers at the other end of the teaching profession come back to these rural and remote schools, bringing with them their expertise. I think it is a fabulous idea.
CHAIR: Why it is so critical is not just for the school and the education as it is. It is the decision that so many people make—and my wife and I are a prime example. We always said we would leave the bush and be in the city when our oldest child got near secondary school. It becomes a tremendous motivator for people to leave country towns. Have you ever seen any figures on the difference between students together in a country town or rural community up to, say, the end of primary school where their grades and comparators between them are well known and one group goes on to boarding school in the cities and the other group stays in the local high school? Have you ever seen any figures to indicate the performance of those two groups at the end of their secondary schooling vis-a-vis the end of their primary schooling?
Mr Taylor : I have not seen the actual figures. We in the last 12 months have been looking to make a case example of exactly that sort of issue arising when there is a certain amount of residualation in the high schools where students that have greater choice for financial reasons or otherwise tend to go off to boarding schools looking at what that has done to the town. And that is looking at the people who do not have that choice, the numbers of those who are leaving the town so that they can access what they consider to be a more appropriate education for their children somewhere else. Certainly anecdotally there is very strong evidence of that happening. But as far as actual hard evidence I have not seen it.
CHAIR: I have asked this question at different times of the department and others. I still maintain that it is data we need to collect because I think it will speak glaringly of the lost opportunity. We know that in the main it is younger teachers who go to the country towns and they do not have the older mentors. They drift back. With another hat on, there is this urban-rural divide we all know about. The opportunity is there, getting back to local government and local communities. There is a tremendous opportunity for young teachers to actually become familiar with what goes on in rural communities and all the activities of agriculture. Even if they do not return, they themselves can be great advocates of rural Australia when they return to city schools. At the moment that does not seem to be happening.
Mr Taylor : No, that is right. The experience of other professions is that the greatest stream of people that will go out into rural and remote areas will be from those areas themselves. But I do agree with you that there also needs to be a pathway kept open for metropolitan trained teachers to go out to these schools for exactly that reason.
CHAIR: Can you explain something to us. You have mentioned the greater use of the online learning platform. You discussed that with Senator Gallacher. Can you explain the xsel western region virtual selective class for talented and gifted children in more detail?
Mr Taylor : Yes. Out in the western division of New South Wales they have selected a class of gifted and talented students who do maths, English and science lessons as a class through videoconferencing.
So, over all, of the schools in Western New South Wales, there may be two or three students who are picked at each school to go into the program where they do accelerated lessons and actually become part of a class community with other students and do an accelerated curriculum which would not be available at their own school, because there is not the critical mass of students, once again, to be able to provide a gifted-and-talented program.
So technology has allowed a classroom to be put together from all the schools across Western New South Wales. I understand that these students get together for perhaps a week every now and again, and can encourage each other and so on, so their passion for learning, and their gifts in learning, are not isolated—they do not feel isolated because they have a particular driving passion in a certain area and perhaps have a more academic outlook; they can be put together with a students from a number of other schools so they can feel part of that community of learning.
CHAIR: Yes, the opportunities seem to be vast. When Bill Gates makes the statement that he believe that, over time, with access to his own technologies he could replace most of the universities of the world with online education, it is an opportunity we have to grasp, isn't it.
Mr Taylor : Yes, absolutely.
CHAIR: There being no other questions, thank you very much, Mr Taylor, for your submission and for your appearance. It has been very interesting.
Mr Taylor : Thank you.