The Battle for a Good Education

by

posted | in Essay

There is arguably no policy area more important to Labor than the provision of a high quality education system that enables people to become productive, informed and well-rounded citizens in their local community.

The desire to enhance our education system was the issue that as a young man proved to be my catalyst for joining our great Party.

My parents instilled a love of learning in the lives of their three children from the day they were born. They valued education because their own formal education was limited. They had seen firsthand the challenges that faced those who didn’t have access to educational opportunities, and they knew those who weren’t encouraged to develop a passion for learning would never reach their potential.

My earliest memory of reading is sitting at the dining table going through the local newspaper, while my Dad would be giving me his opinion on the stories of the day.

My mother still recounts the stories of taking me to bookshops where I would be in heaven exploring the world through the pages of books.

As I progressed through two great local primary and secondary schools I began to realise something that I am still a passionate believer in today: that great teachers, inspiring teachers, can bring out the absolute best in children – regardless of their social backgrounds.

Let us not forget, at a time when it seems every other day you read about the problems of previous Labor Governments, it was our Party that:

  • Reduced class sizes
  • Established Trade’s Training Schools
  • Expanded vocational education opportunities for young people
  • Set up the NSW Teachers Institute and rolled out standards for teachers
  • Doubled the education Budget over its time in Government

But Labor knows that our community does and should expect more when it comes to investment in this vital portfolio. Over the coming months, I intend on working closely with rank and file members and education stakeholders and interest groups to develop a strong policy platform going forward.

Firstly, let me start with initiatives that support and engage students, because we know schools and TAFE should always be student centred.

In recent years we have focused heavily on initiatives that support the improvement of literacy and numeracy in the early stages. And make no mistake, that is very important.

But too many students are still falling through the cracks, and we have a responsibility to do everything we can to support every student.

Greater emphasis and resources needs to be allocated to the fundamental skills in literacy and numeracy in the early stages of secondary school.

Reading Recovery has been one of the most successful programs to help students develop these basic skills. Yet, unfortunately, the program only exists for year one students.

That means, while little Ryan may have come leaps and bounds during his one year of Reading Recovery, if he hasn’t reached required standards by the end of year one he will be thrown back in the classroom with no reading recovery support in year 2.

This isn’t right – and it will be a commitment of mine to ensure we look seriously at expanding targeted literacy programs as part of the next Labor Government.

As a proportion, education is one of the greatest expenditures in the NSW Budget, but how often do students get a say on where and how it should be spent?

One of the areas I will be examining and advancing over the course of the next 12 months is how we can provide students with a greater say over the allocation of resources in schools.

Initially, I am keen to examine how we can adopt a proposal championed by the NSW Youth Action Organisation whereby an amount of funding allocated to schools each year is controlled by students.

We need to be encouraging greater engagement with our students and not always taking the view that adults are the only ones responsible enough to spend money dedicated to the learning of young people.

Engaging effectively with students also means we need to improve pathways beyond the classroom, to ensure young people engage with our community more effectively.

If schools are truly serious about developing a love of learning, along with imparting the skills and knowledge needed to become positive contributors to our society – how many actively seek out individuals and organisations in their local community that can mentor young people and provide them with a springboard to strong community engagement?

We are too focused on the 8:30am-3:00pm of the school day, and not enough on what others can contribute to the development of young people.

I believe Labor needs to look at ways of encouraging schools to identify specific individuals and groups in local school communities who are willing to work with young people to assist in an area they are passionate about.

This is about seeking sportspeople, business owners, lawyers, tradespeople, community leaders and academics to mentor students who seek to enter their field. It’s about making education practical – and starting a dialogue between students and community members.

I look at my own community and know there are so many talented individuals who would be happy to take a young person under their wing in a formal mentoring role – but simply haven’t been asked by anyone.

In fact, most of them would not have been inside a school since their own time in the classroom. That is not good enough. Learning in 2014 is all about nuances, complexities, difficulties – teachers cannot be expected to cater for every opportunity that every child may wish to explore.

Instead, school leaders need to formally identify what I would term “Community Educators”, so the education of our young people becomes a community process; passionate adults engaging with passionate students and providing them the opportunities and partnerships that are needed in our 21st century economy.

I strongly believe our teachers and educational leaders are what can make or break a school. That’s why the next Labor Government must put professional development and quality teaching at the heart of what we do in education.

As the current NSW Government moves to a devolution of responsibility so that principals can take greater ownership over what happens in their schools, it is time to reflect on how we can better support these leaders.

The success of a principal should never simply be on their management of the day to day interactions with students, staff, parents and community members. True educational leaders must be transformative in their leadership style.

I ask you to think about the best school leader you have come across.  I am sure the leader you are thinking about right now inspired and transformed the school environment, allowing the attention and resources of the school to not be solely focused on surviving the day to day operational issues, but on developing staff and students so they could all reach their potential.

As we move to an era where many current educational leaders will be retiring, now is the time we have to get this right.

Now is the time to ensure that those moving into the most important roles in educational leadership are ready. We achieve this by ensuring that our education-leaders of the future have.

  • Been mentored by quality individuals
  • Undertaken study and professional development
  • Met mandated standards which stipulate what we expect of educational leaders

Developing a Centre for Excellence in Educational Leadership in NSW will be a priority of the next Labor Government. We understand that teachers don’t evolve into good educational leaders overnight – they need support, guidance and mentoring. We will provide it because our system demands it.

Schools need to be led by inspiring individuals, who have the capacity to not only impact on the lives of their students, but just as importantly can help shape their teachers to deliver more for those very students.

We will never defend poor teachers. While support will always be available to teachers who want to improve, we won’t make excuses to protect and simply move on to another school those teachers who don’t make the grade. Our students have a right to expect better.

We understand standards need to be earned at every level before progressing in the teaching profession, and ensuring this happens at a rigorous level will be fundamental to our aims in Government.

But we can never expect students and teachers to reach their full potential if we don’t give them the bricks and mortar that the 21st century demands.

With the impact technology is having on the way we teach, and the engagement of our young people so dependent on technological stimulation, we cannot simply accept demountable classrooms which have serviced the same schools for over 30 years.

Demountables need to be part of the asset base for schools and TAFEs. They provide flexibility as enrolments fluctuate and can be used on a temporary basis when classrooms are damaged.

But they should not be permanent – and Labor understands this. Principals and teachers of the schools I have visited have shown me demountables that are simply beyond repair and cannot effectively cope with the demands of a modern day learning environment.

Over the coming months I will be talking to my colleagues, to principals, teachers and students about this situation – a situation, that, as we sit here tonight – sees over 4300 demountable classrooms in schools and TAFE colleges across NSW. That number just keeps rising, with this government doing nothing to reverse the trend.

I intend on carefully looking at the lessons that can be learnt from our previous Federal Labor government’s “Building the Education Revolution” program and the fact that at times bureaucracy and middle management get in the way of providing the best value for money facilities.  Value for money must be at the heart of our capital improvement programs – because we need to get bang for our buck. We don’t have unlimited funds, and I want to ensure every dollar counts when it comes to new school infrastructure.

That’s why any future large-scale capital improvement program needs to be driven by school communities to ensure that out of date facilities are replaced in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

If we expect teachers and students to reach their full potential, we need to provide an environment that is conducive to productive and modern learning.

Next time you drive past your local high school, have a look at the condition of some of the buildings. The conditions our teachers and students face every day: dilapidated buildings, out-dated buildings, buildings in bad need of some new paint, buildings which, quite frankly, do not look like learning centres of the 21st century.

While we work in a fiscally constrained environment, it is important we evaluate the aesthetics of our schools and pledge that even with limited funds, we can, and must, do better than we are now.

We also must remember schools and TAFE colleges are community assets. Last year schools in NSW raised $17 million from the hiring of facilities to various community groups and private operators in their local communities.

Some schools did this very well, and ensured schools were at the heart of their community. Unfortunately, others did not – and the idea of our local school as a community hub was left waning in some of the state’s neediest areas.

Time and time again I meet with community groups desperate to get funds to develop new infrastructure and before I give them advice I ask them a simple question: “Have you spoken to your local school?”

Nine out of ten times I get the same reaction: “No? I didn’t think to. They shut and lock their gates at 3.30 every day and we could never get access on weekend.”

I find it absurd that we talk about schools as community hubs, but if you ask the average person when they last stood in the grounds of their local school – most will say it has been a significant amount of time.

I am keen to talk to principals and community leaders about how we can reduce red tape and provide incentives that would encourage schools and community groups to cooperate and ensure we make better use of the millions of dollars of school facilities that sit idle after 3.30 each day and during the nearly 3 months of school holidays.

Vocational opportunities for young people and those needing to re-train and re-skill is critical to a strong and robust economy. Every dollar invested into TAFE has massive benefits by way of productivity and workforce participation.

Unfortunately this government has done everything they can to see the end of TAFE – their Smart and Skilled reforms were aimed at taking a knife to the public provider, they’ve sacked over 800 TAFE teachers and they’ve allowed TAFE fees to increase by nearly 10%.

This isn’t good enough. I’m committed to taking a strong TAFE policy to the 2015 election: a policy which understands that private providers have a place, but that TAFE must always remain the fundamental bedrock of our vocational system.

A policy which understands university education isn’t the best fit for everyone, and appreciates that TAFE colleges – and the skills they impart into students – have the ability to fundamentally change someone’s life and ensure the resilience of our skills-based economy.

A policy that focuses on the principle of earn and learn – and a policy that does not see promises of training through a prism of entitlement, but rather as a basic right of all regardless of their background.

Ryan Park MP is the Shadow Minister for Education and Training in New South Wales.