It has been some time since I have been able to browse the mountain of Listener magazines that have accumulated in our home. In attempting to de-clutter the house so that our Easter visitors had a place to sleep I spent a few hours this morning rifling through the old copies of the Listener before throwing them out and came across an editorial “You do the maths” from July 2010 discussing the response to implementation of the National Standards in New Zealand.
The Listener editorial struck are chord with me in its emphasis on the strong political agenda behind its implementation driven by the Education minister and the New Zealand Principals’ Federation. The editorial reminds us that the focus of the National Standards should not rest with either of these stakeholders, but rather on the needs of the children. Surely that is for whom it is intended.
This led me to reflect on the state of education in Australia at present. Schools here are currently in the midst of implementing the National Curriculum (NC) and by all accounts some teachers are struggling with its implementation, as are parents and the children themselves. The problem seems not so much to be the NC itself but rather its implementation. Teachers, like their students, are at different stages in their learning journeys, ranging from novice through to expert, and this affects their approach to the NC and how it is implemented. Those I have spoken to recently have shared a growing disquiet about the NC.
Classrooms I have visited over the last few months have reflected this.Teachers who are new to the profession are finding this particularly problematic. Many of them are grappling with establishing routines and behaviour management and some are floundering under the added pressure to keep up with the pace of the NC. Very few, if any, are receiving mentoring from experienced staff.
In some of these environments the teachers are showing marked signs of distress. Irritability and negativity being two observable signs. Teacher-pupil relationships are poorly established. There is no time to tap into student interests and there is very little flexibility as teachers power through the curriculum. There is little time to revisit concepts with children who have not understood them the first time and gifted learners are not given opportunities for further development. Children’s learning needs are not being met.
A parent shared that she felt that the curriculum was “too advanced” stating that her child who had learning difficulties was expected to write narratives in Year One and that they were being taught grammar which proved confounding for him. I was pleasantly surprised by her comments as my greatest fear was that the NC would dumb-down the curriculum to a greater degree than is already evident. The Australian school system appears to be focused on the achievement of mediocrity. I can, however, also see how very concerning this one-size-fits-all approach is for parents with children who do not fit the average mold.
So where does this leave us? How can support be given to teachers, parents and the students themselves? Research shows that teachers and quality teaching are essential for quality learning to take place. Teacher skill as well as their health and well-being are crucial for the successful implementation of this curriculum.
Students too will need support. Meaningful learning should begin at their level of need. Does the new NC do this? While I applaud the ideal that all states in Australia will now have some consistency, I do have concerns for the children. It seems to me that it may serve to widen the achievement gap even further. Students with learning difficulties may be left further behind if they don’t grasp concepts when they are covered and our gifted students will spend large chunks of the school day when they learn nothing new in essence meaning that they will learn nothing at school.
Parents, I believe, will need to find alternative ways to educate their children. Tutoring is likely to become big business. Home schooling may be another alternative. Unfortunately for those parents who do not have the financial wherewithal there will be little or no choice. It would seem that for all the good intentions and grand design, the National Curriculum may yet prove to be another politically enforced measure that has given very little priority to the very population for whom it was intended.