Page 780 - Week 03 - Tuesday, 1 April 2008

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I want to emphasise that the chief driving force of an education revolution is the quality of the teachers and those who support them. You can even have the best physical environments, but if you have not got excellent quality teachers who are enthusiastic, who love their jobs and who feel well supported, you will not have decent outcomes. It is that simple. As the recent and highly acclaimed McKinsey and Company report on how the world’s best performing school systems come out on top says:

The quality of an education system (or school) cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

But there are some very interesting things going on in Australia, as in other countries. Again, thanks to the ACT Legislative Assembly library—which does keep a very current and useful collection of books and where even just walking in and having a look at new books usually brings some gem—I have the report where Brian Caldwell talks here about efforts made in Victoria with exactly the sorts of kids that systems often give up on. Let us have a look at this one: John Fleming was principal of Bellfield primary school, which serves the Melbourne suburb of West Heidelberg, a community characterised by high levels of aggression, gambling, alcohol and drug abuse.

Enrolment is about 220 and remains steady. Some 80 per cent of the families receive the education maintenance allowance, 60 per cent come from single parent families and slightly more than 20 per cent from non-English speaking backgrounds, many are refugees from Somalia and there are about 20 Indigenous students. It is one of the most disadvantaged schools in Victoria, but the transformation set in place by that principal, who was supported, of course, by the system, shows that he was able to bring up, for instance, the percentage of those reading with 100 per cent accuracy at level one to 97.4 per cent, as compared to similar schools in the same year, 2004, with 58.5 per cent. How did he do it?

What Fleming believed he needed to do was to overturn the view that a student’s capacity to learn was determined by their home circumstances. Children’s backgrounds have no impact on their ability to learn at school. Now, I know this is controversial, and Caldwell says it is, but it has been an important statement that gives those children the opportunity to succeed. It tells them that they have just as great an ability to learn as any kid anywhere. That is what they have set about achieving, and people who visit Bellfield now see that the entire staff believe that to be the case.

I am absolutely sure there are fantastic things going on here in the ACT schools, and I think it would be great to see the studies that showed that work. We need to see them, and I think the parents need to see them. We do not need more glossy pamphlets talking up public education. We need the evidence which shows that public education works, not just for kids at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, but also for kids at the top end of the socioeconomic scale. Without representatives from all the socioeconomic groups, we have not got a successful system.

I am concerned that some of our most marginalised kids are being pushed out of schools. I heard last week of an eight year old who was suspended from his school.

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