Education in the News - October 2023

1. Special Religious Education

The Sydney high schools where scripture enrolments fall below 15 per cent SMH August 13, 2023 presented the argument from schools, especially secondary schools, that SRE was not being attended by the majority of students and represented an educational and administrative problem for schools. A better question would have been: Why does SRE work so well in some schools but not in others?

Within these statements, there are two conflicting and linked problems. The first is that the churches originally, and now the total multifaith SRE providers, have never been able to provide the teachers needed to run SRE in schools. This is particularly the case in secondary schools where, for some, there is no SRE or it is tokenistic and minimal. The related statement is that either for convenience and/or because of prejudice, SRE is not wanted in schools by administrators. Ignoring secular arguments, the main issue for schools is that fitting SRE into the school timetable when providers are available is administratively complex and a burden for schools, especially in secondary schools if it is being reintroduced after years of absence.

While the Education Act 1990 is clear about the provision of SRE and now SEE (Special Ethics Education), schools cater for all students and the numbers not attending SRE, even where it is offered, creates staffing and supervision issues, especially in secondary schools. However, the SMH writer could have reported schools where SRE is working well and asked why this is not the case more widely. One remains unsure if the SMH is reporting news or campaigning. Too many SRE providers do not appreciate the privilege that they have in access to schools. To continue to under resource this opportunity will only encourage those who oppose SRE in schools. Eventually, secular interests and administrative convenience will prevail.

In total, children and young people are not in Sunday school or church youth groups, but they are in school. Access to these students is one way to get the message of the Gospel into our community. That access needs to be valued and resourced and not taken for granted or it may well disappear. (Further reading: Gore J L Issues in education: A Christian perspective Chapter 33 Religion in NSW public schools: A Future less certain)

2. Suspension

In Principals empowered to suspend students for longer under school discipline shake-up SMH August 23, 2023 there is acknowledgement of a failed policy. In 2020, the then NSW government introduced a new suspension policy that promised increased services for students caught in suspension processes and a much more difficult set of rules to stop schools suspending students. The government was responding to pressure from some parents and from some medical experts concerned about the effects of suspension on students.

At the time I commented in *Suspension: A failure of discipline (Issues in education: A Christian perspective *Ch 24) that the strategy was to appease stakeholders but would make the work of teachers more difficult. This SMH article would indicate that schools need more power to deal with students, especially disruptive ones while recognising that further resources in the form of psychologists have been provided for schools.

Some parents and students especially in secondary schools need to know that while public education provides a right to schooling, it is not without consequences if that right is abused. Some students would benefit from a longer suspension. Being home when your friends are at school can be very boring. Having a student want to return to school makes all the difference to a successful return. There is a much greater success rate if students want to be at school. To get to this situation, not only the student but the parents and school all need to work out a plan for a successful return. Without such a cooperative plan, including some resolution and remedial support, the student is likely to repeat the behaviours that led to suspension.

As Christians we have an obligation to reach out to those most in need and suspended students, who are generally not wanted by their school, are one group that need a compassionate teacher to help them accept school rules and protocols and be able to live in the school community.

3. Early entry to university

In Early university offers to year 12 students reignite debate SMH 3/9/23 the practice of universities making early offers of enrolment to Year 12 students is again questioned. The NSW Vice Chancellors’ Committee agreed to delay offers until September after concerns the scheme lacked transparency, risked undermining the HSC and encouraged students to slack off in the last weeks of year 12. Nearly 25,000 students have applied for early offers through the state’s admissions centre (UAC), and others applied directly to individual universities, meaning more than half of the school-leaver cohort could have an early offer of some form.

These later-in-the-year offers are an improvement on the previous scheme but still raise serious questions about what these early offers are trying to achieve. For some students they provide security about their future enrolment but for those not chosen it is just another anxiety to take into the HSC exams.

Some of the brightest students are a wake up to the universities trying to capture the best students and not participating in early offers schemes but waiting until their HSC results are published along with the ATAR. By accepting an early offer to secure a place they may be denying themselves a place in a preferred course achieved through their ATAR.
Judgements about Year 11 and Year 12 results for early entry may not be accurate and over time the desire of schools to advantage their students could lead to inflated school marks to gain a better chance of early entry. The review ordered by the government has led to the holding back of offers until September. However, principals say the September moratorium failed to go far enough and called for universities to be blocked from handing out spots until after final HSC exams. NSW Secondary Principals’ Council president Craig Peterson said there has been “an aggressive creep forward” by universities bypassing students’ Australian Tertiary Admission Rank to lock in enrolments early in a competitive market.

The scheme seems to have advantages for universities but not for many students and could disadvantage some high performing students. The issue at the heart of these concerns is equity. While some students get the benefit of early entry, others are denied. Christians should be concerned about such matters. Is the somewhat even playing field of the HSC being distorted by these offers?

4. Performance of single sex schools

In Single-sex schools have the academic advantage, NAPLAN data reveals SMH 7/9/23 an analysis of Catholic sector schools NAPLAN data has concluded what is already known but not always made public – single sex schools outperform co-ed schools and the higher the grade the greater the difference. Additionally, single sex girls’ schools outperform single sex boys’ schools. (For a full analysis of this issue see Issues in education: A Christian perspective Ch. 17 Single sex or co-ed: Does it matter?

Acknowledging this reality, there are many reasons why co-ed schools have expanded with many previously single sex schools moving to co-ed and this trend continues. Schools are socialising institutions and the advantages for a society of having co-ed education are often the most important factors in promoting co-ed over single sex schools. In ** SMH 20/2/21 revelations by private school senior girls about the behaviours of their male counterparts sparked a curriculum review and some hard discussion with boys and girls about their attitudes to sex and relationships.

Private-public, co-ed single sex, the choices for parents are not easy. As private school fees ever increase, Christian parents face these questions and are to account for their use of the resources God has given them. It is a complicated field and parents, including Christian parents, will naturally move towards whatever might advantage their children in a competitive market. In particular, the culture of learning in girls’ schools, gives an academic advantage but, as in every case, that advantage needs to be captured by the individual student and not squandered.

5. Mathematics streaming

Forever it would seem, mathematics has claimed a special place in the curriculum by offering courses of varying difficulty in secondary schools (streaming). Students wishing to study the higher level courses were only encouraged to do so if they exhibited high level mathematical skills. In NSW, this has resulted in schools offering three streamed courses in mathematics in Years 9 and 10. Once streamed out of the highest level courses, students are effectively locked out of higher level studies of mathematics for the HSC. For the HSC this hierarchy has only increased with – Standard 1, Standard 2, Advanced, Extension 1 and Extension 2 courses.

Mathematics teachers have fought hard to maintain the different courses arguing that the range of ability in a composite class is too great for effective teaching of all students, especially students with higher mathematical ability. Often “dumbing down” has been a term to criticise any reduction in the number of different level courses.

Alongside this placing of mathematics into an elite arrangement different to other subjects, is a growing concern that students don’t like learning mathematics as indicated by the number of students who are not studying mathematics for the HSC, or locked into mathematics on school timetable subject lines and the growing number of students selecting the lower level courses.

To address these problems, new mathematics curriculum for Years 9 and 10 will not stream the students but provide a core of work for all students but better students can still do extension units. Sounds like having your cake and eating it too.

While this new curriculum will encourage a reduction in streaming for Years 9 and 10, what happens at the school level can be very different. I suspect streaming will continue so that schools can prepare their best students for higher level HSC courses. Greater equality of opportunity is provided by this change, but many students will continue to be squeezed out of higher level mathematics courses in Years 11 and 12 because of the way schools will continue to stream students in Years 9 and 10.

While there is no definitive Christian view on this matter, pushing students into lower levels of mathematics for administrative reasons or denying them opportunities to do higher level courses for fear of failure or lower standards would hardly seem caring. Christians may well want to comment on these matters as they play themselves out in individual schools.

John Gore