Sunday 3 October 2010

Where have all the school hours gone?

I enjoy having a good rant over at Maralyn Parker's blog at the Tele. I never get to meet anyone in real life that shares her views on education, so if I want to debate those ideas, it has to be done virtually.

Most of my friends and co-workers now have kids, so education is a hot topic for many of them. Funnily enough, when I've directed them to Maralyn's blog, the bulk have recoiled in horror after reading a few entries. I always encourage them to read more and to join the debate, because if one side keeps its mouth shut, the other wins by default.

All the parents that I mix with are aged from their late 30's to early 50's, and all were educated under a tough, no nonsense regime. They despair at what they see today in our schools - and often it's the little things that set them off.

Talking in class and talking back to teachers are the sorts of things that send my fellow parents wild. We were taught to have the utmost respect for teachers, and giving them lip was an excellent way to end up being bent over a desk and caned a few times on the bum. The idea of attacking a teacher - even laying a finger on one - was so abhorrent that if an angry kid threatened to hit a teacher, his fellow students would lay into him to prevent him from making such a terminal blunder.

How far things have fallen, and how quickly.

I started primary school in a fairly rough country town. My fellow students were almost all from blue collar backgrounds. Quite a few would get through a packet of smokes a week when aged 9 or 10 (and I'll admit to smoking quite a few at an earlier age than that) because all our parents smoked and drank and blue singlets were a common sight amongst the parents. By the time I was 7, I was an expert waiter at any family function. I knew how to light cigarettes for the adults (and I could roll them too), I could crack the top off a king brown and pour beers with just the right amount of head, and I knew how to get into a wine cask in order to get the tap out. One uncle actually had some faded visible tattoos - he had been in the merchant navy at one point, and had picked them up in some exotic Asian port. Those who can remember what it was like in the early 1970s will appreciate how rough and risqué that was.

The fathers of my fellow students, and my relatives, drove trucks and worked in coal mines and saw mills and on the wharves and served at sea and so on. They were you typical 1960s-1970s Ocker stereotypes. My parents were the first in our family to move into the professional middle class, but there weren't many professionals in a country town in those days, so there wasn't the class segregation that you get today, where professionals and blue collar types never mix.

[For instance, Balmain used to be solidly working class. Now it is all professionals and luvvies - the working class has been pushed 30 or so km to the west, meaning that luvvies who portray working class types in movies never actually get to meet any in real life.]

It was a small school, so all the forms were mixed to make up classes of 30 or so.

And whilst the background of most kids was pretty rough, the school was run with what today would be described as an iron fist. I was petrified of the Headmaster, as were all the kids. Given our backgrounds, we were all larrikins, and prone to talking back in class and mucking up. At least for the first week. After a suitable number of us had been caned, things settled down pretty quickly. I doubt a parent ever complained, since most kids had also been belted by the father - as in whipped with their dad's trouser belt for some indiscretion.

I have one abiding memory of that school - how quiet it was when lessons were in progress. When we were told to read, everyone put their head down and read. It was ok to sound out words, but you certainly didn't start chit-chatting with the kid next door. You read until you were told to stop, or until you finished your book and went and go another one. Doing anything that would interrupt the attention span of another child was punishable - so you kept your head down and your mouth shut and you got on with it.

I wish it were so today.

I left the following comment over at Maralyn's today, and it's going to be interesting to see what sort of reaction it gets.

Irene, that "bygone era" served me quite well. We've been using an alternative method of discipline for 25 years or so, and you could say that at this stage, it has been tested to destruction.

Since I left school, average class sizes have halved. The school day has stayed much the same - 5 hours of instruction per day. However, from what I can see and what I have read, it is harder and harder to educate kids these days.

Why is that?

When discipline was tough and uncompromising, we got about 4.5 to 4.75 hours or actual teaching per day. A few minutes were wasted at the start of each class with roll call and setting up, and then it was straight into work with no interruptions until the end of the period. It was work, work, work with no skylarking and no stuffing around.

These days, teachers seem to spend a huge amount of time trying to bring order to their classes. Disruptive kids are the norm rather than the exception. Are kids getting 4.5 hours of instruction these days? I doubt it. A massive amount of money has been poured into employing more teachers and teacher's aids - billions of dollars per year - and a lot of that is being wasted because teachers are unable to sit a class of 15 to 20 kids down for 45 minutes straight and use that entire time to stuff some knowledge into their heads.

Try crunching two sets of numbers.

We have two schools. Each teaches for 40 weeks a year, 23 hours per week (minus two hours for sport). Each therefore has 920 hours to spend per year on teaching.

School A (let's call it the "1980 model") is from a bygone era and is tightly run. Due to the lack of disruption, teachers get to use 95% of that 920 hours for teaching - 874 hours.

School B (the 2010 model) is run on soft and squishy modern principles. Teachers lose 30% of each class trying to maintain order. Add in 5% for admin etc, and that means they only spend 65% of their time teaching - 598 hours.

276 hours of teaching time per year has gone down the drain, never to be recovered.

The bygone era was tough, but by gum, it was effective.


kae said...

I left a comment there over the weekend about homogenising the students, and forcing them to stay in school until year 12 when they should be out learning a trade, but that system's stuffed now.

kae said...

Oh my, it's up.

kae replied to Boy on a bike
Sun 03 Oct 10 (10:43am)
Don’t disparage, everyone is the same. Everyone is equal. Everyone can be taught. Everyone should be treated the same.

Just drag down that average, dumb everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

Why does everyone have to matriculate? Too many kids these days are forced to stay at school when they’d be better off looking to train in a trade… however, these days that’s changed, too, with students needing to do a pre-apprenticeship course. Small employers are no longer able to afford to train and pay apprentices any more, no matter what Government incentives are available.

1735099 said...

My first class upon graduating as a teacher had 45 kids - I don't remember having any problems maintaining order. That was 1968. Having said that, the level and standard of education has improved a great deal in that time in terms of qualifications earned -
What is relevant is the loss of an enormous range of occupations that non-academically inclined kids could aspire to, forcing them (as is noted above) to remain unwillingly at school. The problem for this cohort and their teachers (and parents) is that what constitutes "school" is an anachronism.
The rise of rampant materialism resulting in an aspiration to acquire which forces both parents to earn is IMHO an unheralded factor.
Ultimately it's about values. Schools respond to the social value system of the time. These values are interpreted by politicians and turned into educational policy.
Teaching is a tougher game now that it has ever been in the 40 years I've been involved, but as far as I'm concerned, every child can learn. Blaming policies promoting equity of access is a red herring.
We need to revisit the notion of "school" - pining for TheGoodOldDays is about as useful as entering a one-legged man in an arse kicking contest.