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We can’t pretend everything in ACT public schools is fine

Kim Fischer 31 March 2019 27
single and multiple school bags on seats and tables outside the class room. School educational facility and environment images

Why are peak education bodies afraid of an independent review into our public school system?

Why not have an independent review of the ACT public education system?

The open letter published in The Canberra Times on 8 March by the ACT Council of P&C Associations, ACT Principals’ Association and the Australian Education Union is dismaying on many levels.

Each of these peak body organisations are meant to be advocates for excellence in ACT public schools. The fact that they have chosen to deny all systemic problems, even before an investigation is carried out, says a great deal about their attitudes.

The first instinct of all three advocacy groups was to protect the reputation of the system they are meant to be supporting and scrutinising, not to find out the truth of the situation.

There was not one word of sympathy for the 17 families who were so distressed at being ignored that they signed and sent a petition to the Minister. No mention of the violence against ACT principals being the highest in the country. Neither was there a single note of concern that it took the Education Directorate three months to “attempt to make contact” with all of the families who signed the petition, despite “personal assurances” given to the Minister that the systems in place to deal with these issues was appropriate.

Remember that this petition was sent after parents had been talking with schools and the Directorate since 2017, and after four separate letters were sent to the Minister in 2018. This was an act of desperation.

There are two possibilities to explain this seeming callousness.

The first is that the Minister and the senior management of the ACT Education Directorate didn’t feel it was important to personally ensure that these families were supported and that their concerns were actively addressed. If this is true, all of them should resign immediately.

However, I genuinely don’t believe any of these people enjoy seeing others in distress. This makes it very hard to understand why everyone from the Minister, the Directorate, Principals, Union Officials and the P&C peak body should be so keen to pretend a problem doesn’t exist.

I believe the key lies in the line towards the end of the open letter where we are implored “not to undermine public confidence in our education system”. The truth is that everyone with a stake in the public education system is terrified at what a true independent investigation would uncover.

It is likely that the results would not even be that bad, objectively speaking. Their concern is that any failures would be paraded in the media, and then be used by the Canberra Liberals as an excuse to divert funding into private education.

The irony is that the cry to “protect the system” is now more important than “think of the children”. The fallacy is that since public education is an intrinsic good; therefore, we must protect public education at all costs. The actual lives of families and children in public schools become secondary to the system that is meant to be serving them.

No system, especially those funded by the public, should be immune from transparency, investigation, and improvement.

I can only imagine how abandoned the families who signed the petition must have felt when they read the dismissive attitudes in the open letter.

The Canberra Liberals should go on the public record and affirm that they will not use the results of an independent review as a justification to cut funds. This is an opportunity to avert fears and establish that they are truly concerned. Canberra people are rightly proud of their investment in public education and want a better system, not a mediocre one due to inadequate funding or weak leadership.

If those involved in this debacle were truly committed to excellence then an independent review would be an opportunity, not a threat.


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27 Responses to
We can’t pretend everything in ACT public schools is fine
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Des Leyden 1:12 pm 23 Jun 19

Drug trafficking, drug consumption has not been mentioned. When are the schools going to take responsibility for the students and keep drug trafficking out of the schools. There may be a link between Drugs and student behaviour

Roo Poeta 8:05 pm 01 Apr 19

We came from Melbourne and we were told that ACT public schools outta be better as public servants’ children go there as opposed to tradies/refugees/immigrants and other cultural mix in Melbourne (considered inferior as per general perception). However, after coming here we have tried few schools in Ngunnawal / Moncreiff area have found curriculum is at least one year behind Melbourne. Teachers don’t bother to take any interest or tailor any plans for your child. NAPLAN results of public schools of fringe suburbs Dandenong/Werribee are at par with top Canberra public schools like Ainslie. Bottomline is ACT public education is below average and no one has guts to accept the problem and overhaul the system. I would not be surprised if Canberra schools get the highest budget (per student) in the nation and provide the lowest quality education. Do something about it.

2:13 pm 31 Mar 19

Great article. I am convinced an independent review would be a positive step for parents like me in canberra who believe in the public school system and want it to be the best it can be!

bj_ACT 1:57 pm 31 Mar 19

Excellent article Kim, best I’ve read in a long time.

As an advocate for properly educating struggling kids from the outer suburbs of canberra, I really think you hit the nail on the head.

Outer suburban schools have been declining across a range of performance measures. Poorly resourced schools are losing their best teachers and losing their better students. Time for the ACT Government and the Education Directorate to re-think their flawed funding system that doesn’t fit Canberra’s higher socioeconomic average. There also needs to be programs to assist the parents of these kids know how to help their children’s education.

Gerry-Built 11:19 am 31 Mar 19

I don’t think that open letter *claims* “a problem doesn’t exist”. In fact; quite the opposite. It certainly does not even mention avoiding an inquiry. Those are the author’s words ONLY.

10:10 am 31 Mar 19

The overcrowded ACT public school also needs to start planning for a new high school. Or making their plans public if there is a plan.

Inner North high schools are currently full, and an explosion of younger kids will be enrolling in the next few years - where will they put them?

    7:18 pm 02 Apr 19

    Cass Proudfoot there'll probably be a vacant apartment building the ACT Government can buy at an over-valued price from a friendly developer and retrofit

9:26 am 31 Mar 19

This isn’t just a problem with Education Directorate and the Minister. The same systemic issues exists at Health, Community Services, Transport....the list goes on. There is a cognitive dissonance at play in the ACT Public Service that serves nobody - not the Minister, not public servants and most definitely not the community. We don’t need a review/inquiry into Education Directorate, or specific schools, or principals, or failings in communication, etc etc, we need, firstly, to remove the DGs of every single directorate and with urgency, and secondly, we need a royal commission/judicial review into the entire ACT public service, encompassing failure of duty by the ACT Government. We need, in short, a new design for our civil service.

For too long the most senior ACT public servants flagrantly break the law, behave immorally and lie to their Minister, and Ministers, in return, bury their heads in the sand, actively avoiding hearing the truth. Meanwhile, the ACT community’s frustration grows. When will it boil over?

    9:43 am 31 Mar 19

    Agreed. The joint letter got me riled up!

    10:04 am 31 Mar 19

    Josh Rosner Moore What isn’t written is the same problems exist in the publicly funded private, independent and religious schools in Canberra. Why not extend the scrutiny to cover these as well?

    10:29 am 31 Mar 19

    Me too. The joint letter was appalling. I’m lucky my child goes to a great school and the leadership team is open to feedback. But I am lucky that I was able to choose her school rather than send her to my local school. My problem is the complete discord that exists, across every directorate, between senior public servants, the ACT Government (who I otherwise support and voted for, although unless things change likely won’t vote for next year) and the community.

    Recently the Deputy DG of a Directorate I won’t (yet) name broke the law in their decision-making (I have legal advice to that effect). I questioned the legality (and morality) of the decision-making directly. I was, in return, dared to take them to court (and threatened in the process). I went to the respective Minister. The Minister told me to lodge my complaint with the Deputy-DG directly. I ran into the Minister at an event and they said to me, “I’ve subsequently had advice that the Directorate didn’t break the law.” I said, “Oh, excellent, can I see that legal advice?” They responded, “I don’t have any legal advice. I asked the Deputy DG if they broke the law and they said they didn’t.” Not only does the Minister have no intention of following up on a serious allegations of illegal behaviour made by a member of the public, they also expect whistleblowers to blow the whistle directly to the perpetrator. To me, this is like telling someone who has an accusation of sexual misconduct to make the complaint directly to the person they are accusing. It beggars belief.

    Unlike many, I have the financial means to seek legal redress. I also have the means to highlight the government’s failings via the electoral process. But many people simply struggle in silence, brow-beaten by public servants into submission/compliance, aware the Minister doesn’t have the fortitude (and in some cases, the intelligence or experience) to address it appropriately.

    10:31 am 31 Mar 19

    I have no problem with that. But the issue goes well beyond one school or one directorate or one government minister. There is a serious problem within the entire ACT Public Service. This education issue is just one pimple on a big fat arse.

    10:44 am 31 Mar 19

    Bill Thompson Sure - but it's the parents choice to send them there. Public schools are free, paid for by the taxpayer, and the only option for most people.

8:34 am 31 Mar 19

Wow. About 5 minutes ago I was only reflecting on the challenges of the ACT public education system, from my perspective as a parent.

Our elder daughter was on the early wave of NAPLAN‘s introduction and therefore we saw a change in the curriculum in her primary school years. It went from something dynamic and responsive to a series of must dos.

As for high school and college, the subject choices are too broad, ATAR is god, and if a young person chooses to go to uni, they are often ill-prepared, lacking the basics of some courses. I fully support having subject options for a broad range of interests and abilities, but it just sets up road blocks in the future if your basic knowledge is lacking.

I don’t think the ACT is alone in any of this. BTW this is not about teachers who in my experience are working their guts out to support our young people, and principals who are often hamstrung in a system they can only have a limited chance of changing.

And while I am here, could we not look at the starting times/finishing times of at least years 11 and 12. We know so much more about the teen brain and sleeping patterns now. Why on earth do we make them get up at 7am or earlier when we know that for many (not all :)) their brains are struggling to function. Phew!

    8:47 am 31 Mar 19

    Amanda Caldwell YES - everything you so eloquently said!

    8:47 am 31 Mar 19

    Amanda Caldwell hurrah!!! Xx

    9:12 am 31 Mar 19

    I agree, and I myself only last week had a huge rant. I'll also add that the high school my kids go/went to seem to focus on uni prep for the top kids at the expense of the average kid, if you struggle you just get left behind, we just have to move on, assignments not unlike my uni assignments, Harvard referencing for 12/13year olds. My youngest is struggling and we are beginning the journey of talking to the school, fingers crossed. My oldest is a bright one, but she was highly stressed in year 10, she was nearly sick, studying 12hr days 7 days a week around assessment time, sleeping the rest, no time for social, sport, casual work, (you know becoming a whole person). And what that kind of stress does to the adolescent brain is scary... Thankfully she's at Gungahlin college now, it's fantastic, she has early and late starts, night classes, great choices, great support, lots of built in study time. It's like chalk and cheese.

    9:18 am 31 Mar 19

    Lara Zangl I could have written this! I am so unhappy with my sons’ high school - particularly around assessments and currently my concerns (written clearly in an email) have been ignored by the school! Katelyn

    9:21 am 31 Mar 19

    Wrennie Moon Lara zangl Yes, is agree that the assessment load in college and yr 10 is too great. I always wondered why they couldn’t do that learning, if it was necessary, in class? ... Because the assessments were based on the student doing new learning at home and writing that up.

    9:30 am 31 Mar 19

    Amanda Caldwell absolutely! And there’s the whole lack of genuine support for bullying.

    9:43 am 31 Mar 19

    yes I hear you on so many of these issues. We moved to ACT when my son was in year 10. He never managed to cope with the change, the curriculum and teaching focus seemed to be a lot about getting the top kids into passing doing Uni courses in college and anyone struggling was left behind.

    Thing was my son hadn’t been struggling at all in NSW, it was the totally different curriculum that threw him - and no amount of begging for catch up help got us anywhere. I even hired a tutor and begged the school to provide text books for the tutor to help him catch up - nope, only maths, no other subject was willing to provide any written materials. And the assignments were exactly what I did in first year at Uni!

    My son ended up so overwhelmed and anxious he dropped out, has barely left his bedroom since - and is now 18 and can’t even afford to go to CIT to try to catch up on high school so we have no idea what to do next 😞

    10:30 am 31 Mar 19

    Amanda Caldwell I agree. Homework is the biggest injustice. Assessing children on how much help or support their families can or cannot give them. It’s inequitable. High school hasn’t changed in the 30 years since I was there. It needs a major overhaul.

8:27 am 31 Mar 19

Yes yes yes this is well overdue.

7:54 am 31 Mar 19

I sadly can’t see this changing while the institutions which should be social services, are run as efficiency seeking businesses 😌

7:48 am 31 Mar 19

Written by Nassis Sgouros

7:28 am 31 Mar 19

Yes please! My kids’ school computer lab and library have been converted into classrooms due to overcrowding. No one seems to be taking education into account when planning urban infill.

7:25 am 31 Mar 19

Yes Minister?!

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