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A view of schooling in Australia

By Phil Cullen - posted Tuesday, 14 April 2009

I don’t take my motor car to a plumber for repair or service, yet I have been witness to some extraordinary appointments in Australian school authorities to senior positions, akin to placing Joe the Plumber in charge of a garage. I wonder if a Formula One driver would have a plumber in his team because he or she is a good at being a plumber.

There are hard yards to be done by teachers in Australian state schooling systems that require high measures of endurance, intellect and toughness to survive. For primary schooling, it means going out to the bush for years, living among one’s pupils and parents - in places so remote that no other government servant is expected to go - meeting the tough parent at the local pub, being expected to perform virtual miracles while teaching children with a variety of learning needs in multi-aged groupings. And there’s more. It’s a steep learning curve; but it does however, produce a cluster of outstanding leaders. Within each person who does the hard yards a cerebral metabolism develops that ensures economy of effort and a knowledge of useful processes that is denied to parvenus who take short-cuts within the system. There should be a worthy challenge at each level of promotion in most professions, and especially in teaching. For those who have been immersed in and around schools, as in other professions no doubt, the teaching-learning enterprise guides decision making naturally.

Since our country’s future is in our educational systems, we need to have the larger schooling businesses, in particular, run by people who know what they are doing, who have been-there, done-the-hard-yards, and possess that cerebral metabolism. That is the first requirement for the establishment of an effective and efficient education system.


Some Australian state schooling is in the same mess it has been since around 1990, when restructuring took place on business lines, and the language of teaching and learning was replaced by “business talk”. Groups such as school inspectors were “down-sized” to oblivion and education advice was “outsourced” to test constructors, overseas lawyers and fly-by-nighters.

Children are forced to go to school. There are millions of pupils in Australia who are compelled to attend a learning institution but there is no indication that anyone cares much for them. A Department of Compulsory Schooling for school systems over, say, 200 schools, is needed for extra care. Since schooling is divided into primary and secondary, a Director-General of wide experience [either primary or secondary teaching] and with noted entrepreneurial skills needs the assistance of Deputy Director-Generals (Primary and Secondary) who have also done the hard yards; so they can form a triad of leadership which would be familiar with the operations of schools. After all, it is the teachers in the classroom who deliver the goods on the curriculum and they need support coming from people with an understanding of the system.

A structure has solidarity if it is built from the base upwards. During the past few decades, the business structures imposed on Education Departments from the top down have been wobbly, and the learning processes in classrooms have suffered as a consequence.

Let’s try a structure operating from the schools upward. A useful design would give genuine attention to the critical elements of school operations. What sections within the Department of Compulsory Schooling would reflect school operations? The following sectors would exist in the primary division, and in the secondary with adjustments for unique features; each monitored by an Assistant Director-General.

  • curriculum: (i.e. guiding children through approved learning experiences) this sector would make sure that activities are first rate. An Assistant Director will keep in constant touch with the District Inspectors who are in schools every day, flying with pollen on their wings so to speak, and feeding back to the designated syllabus sections;
  • teaching: teaching techniques require regular consideration for possible upgrading. The sharing of good ideas, celebrating successes, examining innovative practices and talking about issues all require constant attention. The pursuit of excellence is the aim and qualified practitioners know what this means. Importantly, guarding school time from needless intrusions and well-meaning lobbies can entail delicate negotiation;
  • personnel: location of staff, linking levels, and kinds of staffing to suit the circumstances, matching departmental requirements with personal desires, staffing remote and unpopular areas as well as organising requirements for promotional assessment are extremely taxing. Been-there experience is a must;
  • finances: there is an enormous number of competing demands for the education dollar. [“Oh … for that military minute”] Compulsory education by its very nature [incarceration by law] seldom attracts as much fiscal attention as it should, so allocations have to be pupil based. During budget allocations, an experienced “schoolie” with that inbuilt metabolism would probably rely on a version of Rotary’s Four Way Test:

    1. Does it help children to learn better?
    2. Does it help teachers to teach better?
    3. Does it economise on efforts in the teaching of pupils?
    4. Does it provide the greatest good for the greatest number?
  • in-service: constant, well-articulated programs for a rapidly changing knowledge-based world are essential; and
  • special: this section would care for children with special needs of all kinds. Separate schools and buildings with specially trained teachers is a basic requirement and this section would have to make adjustments in terms of all other sectors.

So that would be the general shape of a school-oriented department. Returning compulsory schooling to its owners should help governments to be proud of scholastic and cultural outcomes.

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About the Author

Phil Cullen is a teacher. His website is here: Primary Schooling.

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All articles by Phil Cullen

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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