On Tuesday, 18th October 2016, the Protecting Childhood (PC) team had a meeting with the Deputy Director General of Education Queensland (EQ), Leanne Nixon and the Executive Manager of Curriculum Development, Robyn Rosengrave. Representing Protecting Childhood were founders: Amy and Chris Cox; Kathy Margolis and PC Ambassadors: Associate Professor Michael Nagel, child development expert from the University of the Sunshine Coast; and Tom Hardy, retired Principal with his 40 year medal from EQ, prior consultant at Cambridge University and past President of the Australian and Queensland Primary Principals’ Associations.
Our meeting began with Tom articulating our proposed agenda, highlighting the fact that none of us have vested interests in the Education System, other than our genuine commitment and concern for children and the future of teaching. Our agenda items included:
EQ’s response to our Queensland petition,
- the transition year (prep in Queensland),
- teacher choice in pedagogy,
- the curriculum review,
- the importance of play
- the growing incidence of anxiety and suspensions in young children
Chris expressed our concern about EQ’s response to our Queensland petition, stating that it is contradictory to what we are hearing on a regular basis from teachers and parents. The EQ response implies that schools and teachers have the flexibility to implement the curriculum how they like. The crux of the matter is that the assessment is the assessment and it is mandatory to do the assessment. We stressed that many teachers DO NOT feel they have autonomy or respect for their experience as educators. Qld Education Minister, MP Kate Jones seems to have a good understanding of the over-crowding of the curriculum and genuine desire to help and teachers are very grateful for this. The review of the curriculum, however, does not address the developmentally inappropriate “benchmarks or standards” at all grade levels. These “expectations” place undue stress on children and teachers, to achieve a 1-2 year leap in expectations since as recently as 5 years ago.
“Children have not changed, only the demands placed on them. We are rushing children through harder and faster.”
Our understanding is that the amount of autonomy is often dependent on the leadership of the school and that some proactive principals do say “we’re throwing away the C2C” (Queensland’s prescriptive curriculum), though others insist on following the C2C meticulously. Kathy told of how she retired early, not because she doesn’t love teaching, but because what she had been required to do, did not sit well with her personal philosophy of education.
“We have hundreds of parents and teachers contacting us, that’s why I’ve continued. Many teachers have reached out saying ‘please don’t stop talking’ and parents are telling us their heartbreaking stories. In Prep in term 4, I’ve been told that in geography, 5 year-olds have to compare and contrast two holiday destinations and write four lines of rhyming prose. That’s unrealistic.”
Children of that age are deeply in the concrete stage of development. That means they are not yet ready to think abstractly. Children that age should not be expected to compare and contrast two places they have not experienced directly. Devastatingly, the play-based curriculum that previous Premier, Anna Bligh promised, is mostly gone.
Leanne Nixon responded to clarify that “schools make decisions about implementation and there is nothing in our policies stating that teachers are not to use play-based pedagogies, so the perceptions you have been hearing around implementation – that’s something we need to take on board”.
Leanne shared her background including working in schools for 30 years with a recent move to central office. Ensuring that we do the right thing for every child is her primary work. She acknowledged that developmentally, children are all on a continuum and that HOW the curriculum is implemented IS the work of central office and she, too, is challenged by some implementation choices.
Amy highlighted a document an EQ teacher received though professional development course. This document,the P-10 Literacy Continuum, was also displayed on the walls around the office we were in. The document spans tasks or outcomes from Prep to Year 10, with many items in the Prep columns with the letters “OE” or “EP” next to them. The legend defines these as “On Entry” or “End of Prep”. An example “On Entry” expectation is “child writes a sentence with spaces between words.” Leanne insisted that the document does not say “SHOULD” and explained it is a demonstration of what SOME kids will bring to Prep. We would venture to say that there is very little room to interpret it as anything other than an “EXPECTATION”. Leanne reiterated that every child comes on a continuum and that central office provides a basic view to support teachers to implement in a way that considers the individual circumstances, children and their communities. The reality is we are hearing about Prep kids saying “I’m dumb” or “I hate school” or “If this is school, I don’t want to be alive anymore”. We are damaging these kids because we are pushing them so hard and so fast.
To comply with the current curriculum benchmarks, you cannot do justice to children or their learning. It is not practical to run a play-based curriculum AND meet the standards. If a child finds a caterpillar outside, it if far more engaging and meaningful to talk about butterflies and write and explore that, than to read a prescribed book and ask children about how a character can change or what we could do differently.
Tom Hardy enquired about what would happen to a Principal who encouraged Prep classrooms to “use pencils by choice?” rather offering crayons and big implements for writing; play-based water play every day; modelling – “the way it WAS when we HAD a world class pre-school curriculum, just prior to the introduction of NAPLAN. Reading by choice as well”.
What if a principal insisted that the primary goal of Prep was to have children with good oral language skills and confidence? Would they be penalised for poor “data”?
Leanne maintained that it is about the individual needs of the child and that is the principal’s job. Tom pushed further that it is near impossible because of the push-down of the formal. Leanne asked “who is doing that to them? I’m fascinated, I’d like to know”. Tom suggested that it is systemic: the Directors who visit schools, putting pressure on performance. Leanne agreed that there is a problem with some principals’ understanding of the developmental needs of young children. Tom reflected back to a program he was involved in, back in 2001, because the kids coming into grade 1 (6 year-olds) were coming to school without the verbal skills to build literacy on – couldn’t speak properly, they didn’t know their nursery rhymes, they didn’t have that linguistic data pool to build on. It wasn’t part of the training of principals to understand early childhood development. WE STILL HAVE THIS PROBLEM. Leanne asked if we think that teachers are coming in with the capability around early childhood? Kathy suggested that older experienced Teachers do selectively make choices based on the needs of the children, but some newer teachers are too scared to not comply.
“Teachers are constantly asked to collect “data”, everything is about the data.”
Kathy discussed how teachers are asked to collect copious amounts of data and then they have to have data conversations. She had followed the expectations of the C2C, she had constantly had to apologise to her kids (year 6), as she knew they weren’t getting it, she knows she is a good teacher, but she knew the concepts were too difficult for them. She walked into that data conversation and the mentor and the Deputy said to her “Can you think of a way you can improve these results?” “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!? My hands (in that school) were tied. Of course I knew how to improve their results! but if I’m asked to follow the C2C – I can’t do that.”
Robyn was squirming in her chair, because when you say “forced to” she knows there is nothing in policy saying you HAVE to implement any of that and Leanne reiterated that none of that is prescribed from the centre.
Michael, who works with pre-service teachers, has noticed an over emphasis on assessment, especially NAPLAN, through conversations with students returning from Professional Experience Placements. “I teach pre-service teachers in human development and learning and they go on prac and they come back saying ‘you know all those things that we talked about on early learning? I did not see any of that, because we had to focus on assessment. We had to focus on moving kids from A to B, in this amount of time’ and that flies in the face of any measure of developmental psychology, any measure of child development. I feel that increasing, more and more, every semester. It may not be a product of the curriculum per se, but perhaps, maybe the way it is worded, along with the assessment parameters with NAPLAN…. I’m talking about how it is interpreted in the outside world and that in itself is one of the biggest problems.”
Leanne responded that she understands what has been driving the behaviour of schools and the unintended consequences of this state’s obsession, via The Courier Mail, with NAPLAN results. She stated that “we have deliberately, over the last 12 months, stepped away from that.”
Michael pointed out that we have schools ‘preparing’ kids for NAPLAN and Leanne acknowledged there is now an industry around NAPLAN.
Leanne has been travelling all around the state saying “DATA IS NOT THE RIGHT DRIVER IN SCHOOLS”
Leanne reflected that EQ has 80000 staff around the state and it will take time for the message to filter down, but tried to assure us that the conversation has started. Just like the C2C has always been “adapt or adopt” but some people still think they have to do the whole thing. EQ wants to move forward with teaching quality, knowing the learner and knowing what the next learning piece is, for every individual learner. Unfortunately, people are not going to be convinced overnight.
Kathy offered another “unintended consequence” of the C2C, describing how she was talking to two newish teachers about how amazing the 1980’s were and how creative we were and how much we achieved and they said “but without the C2C, we wouldn’t know how to teach!” and that’s tragic.
Tom raised that while some parents are starting to question, there are still many parents who support NAPLAN to the hilt because they’ve bought into the propaganda. Tom talked about an award winning author, who he taught in year 6. This writer’s own children don’t want to write and she blames the C2C for taking that joy away.
“There is no joy in explicitly structured writing that has no creativity or the freedom of continuous writing.”
Leanne agreed and while not blaming the C2C, said that they were engaging in studies to look at the need for extended writing for children in schools without the restrictions.
Amy and Chris told their story. We always intended to send our kids to state schools. However, in the lead up to NAPLAN in year 3, our eldest son began having angry, emotional meltdowns regularly after school. Over the next two years, he became more and more anxious and stressed to the point we dreaded picking him up in the afternoon. Amy spent 15 months researching: looking at diet, parenting strategies and sought the help of a child psychologist. The tummy pains would begin the night before, the tears, the begging to stay home, the declarations of “hating school”, the talking about wanting to fight kids that annoyed him at lunch time, the angry explosions had become a daily occurrence. We received dismissive comments about after school tantrums and “hating school” as being “normal” for a ten year old boy, especially as he was quiet and obedient in the classroom. Amy would not accept that these attitudes and relentless resulting behaviours were “normal”. This is not normal, this was a chronically stressed young boy, crying out for help. Our family life was becoming increasingly stressful and negative. After much research and soul searching, we finally made an informed decision to home educate. This was the best decision we could have made. Within weeks, the playful, happy boy that we remembered, was back.
After experiencing a play-based Prep with our eldest in 2010, we felt the stark contrast with the ‘formal’ Prep our middle child experienced only four years later. We were deeply saddened by the push down of the formal and the lack of creativity and play in the transition year. I guess we were lucky that our middle child is very social and coped quite well academically, but he was burning out by term 4. In grade one he would question why there wasn’t time for hands-on science experiments and “why can’t I do art that is MY art”, instead of the cookie-cutter art, almost identical for each child, needed for assessment? It broke our hearts. We had good relationships with their teachers. We could see how stressed they were too. When the most important thing to us as parents, was for our children to enjoy learning for learning’s sake and the increasing lack of opportunities for creativity, we started to feel a huge clash of values.
“All their teachers were wonderful, committed and caring people. We don’t feel this was a problem with teachers. We know they are stuck with systemic demands for performance outcomes. Our school followed the C2C closely.”
We adored our home schooling community and social activities were abundant. When we stumbled across a small community school that approaches everything in their pedagogy based on integral developmental and readiness, we knew we had found the right place for our family. Every decision is evaluated based on how it the benefits the child. Relationships and emotional development come first. Each term they spend a whole week on self-directed projects and all the other learning areas are individualised and integrated. Our kids are thriving. I honestly cannot imagine what we would be dealing with if we had left him in the state system for another year and a half. They were both well behaved and compliant at their previous school, but they put on a mask to cope and HATED going to school. They now have the confidence and emotional skill sets to truly know and be themselves. Then in February, when Kathy’s post went viral, Amy turned to Chris and said:
“It’s not just us, teachers see it too”.
Kathy explained that she never meant for her post to go viral. When friends asked to share it, they had to explain how to make it public so that they could. It was shared 40000 times. “That was just MY TRUTH of how I felt. I was just crying out saying, I can’t do this. I still get really emotional – because I was a really good teacher. but I realised it wasn’t just my truth.”
We are constantly hearing stories from parents and teachers of the plight of childhood. This is not just Queensland. Michael added “It should be very alarming that we are hearing of children with severe anxiety and stress disorders and increasingly so, the younger they get. It should be very alarming to see kids in prep being expelled. What is it that’s driving that? We are all on the same page. We want the best outcomes for kids, but to-date it just seems like it is getting worse before it is getting better. While most of our evidence is anecdotal, I could go back to my emails and present story after story – from parents who say – my kids are not doing well and we don’t know why. And the worst thing is that “they don’t like school” at 4 or 5! Why are Prep classrooms set up like pseudo year 1 or 2 classrooms? Why are kids being asked to sit and be quiet for extended periods of time?”
Leanne asked “What is the one thing you would change?” Amy’s response was having a one-size-fits-all “standardised curriculum”. Leanne responded with “well that’s what this is”. We contended that you cannot set benchmarks for all children in a grade level. There is such a broad spectrum of readiness that ranges years. A child who isn’t reading in Prep is not “behind”. A child in year 4 who isn’t grasping abstract concepts, is not behind. They are just not ready! Readiness cannot be forced because a bureaucrat in an ivory tower says so. Leanne agreed with us that all children are on a developmental continuum. There is no one standard that all children will be able to reach at the same time or age. Kathy added an example of an 11 year old whose self-esteem she built up and differentiated for, only to be told he had to do the standardised assessment, which he was not ready to do and watch him say “no I can’t do it, I really am stupid”. This is made worse by the C2C. When you stand in front of a class and try to teach and engage them and you watch their eyes glaze over. They’re bored. I’m bored – because I hate this topic too. I felt like I had very little autonomy to meet the needs of the children in my class. Leanne maintained that teachers are allowed to implement using their professional knowledge and judgment. It is concerning that teachers don’t feel that they are allowed.
Michael asked why Ed Qld can’t use the media to promote that “NAPLAN is not the be all and end all”. Leanne said she did say these things to the media this year, but the media did not use those things, because it wasn’t the story they wanted to tell. We asked why we need NAPLAN at all? It’s all about Federal funding, otherwise it is of no value.
Tom Hardy contributed that we need to do something about excessive amounts of assessment. Year 2/3 children have upwards of 25 assessments a month. Children constantly say – is this for assessment? Children shouldn’t even know they are being assessed. We’ve lost all those other kinds of assessment that we used to have, checklists, observations, projects, having the child involved in assessment development. Leanne agreed with us that the C2C has been interpreted as a dictate, rather than a resource and they would support resources around alternative styles of assessment. She seemed genuinely concerned at this far-reaching misinterpretation. Tom Hardy asked who in the Education Department communicates with regions and principals? Who is ensuring principals’ understanding that dispositions for learning are developed by age 8, because currently we are actively destroying those dispositions. We seem to have lost some of that understanding of what good teaching and learning is. As mothers of boys, Kathy and Amy expressed that they know that boys around age 4 and 5 are develop in a different sequence and rate than girls, but when the expectation is that all children at this age have to learn sight words and will be reading and writing at a set standard by the middle of Prep – it’s heartbreaking. There are tutors specialising in Preps! We hear parents saying that their child won’t need to repeat Prep, because these September holidays we are going to get in the Speech Pathologist and a tutor. This child is a baby. He doesn’t need this! He just isn’t ready. Sure a teacher can run a play-based program, but if a child isn’t reaching the achievement benchmarks, it won’t be because of the teacher, it will be because of readiness. I wish that principals were allowed to say to parents “your child does not have to do standardised tests”. A lot of parents are unaware that it is their choice, not the school’s choice. All Tom Hardy’s grandchildren think that NAPLAN is a joke that contributes nothing to their learning.
Chris summarised that there are bad practices happening and Leanne interjected that she would say these “bad practices” exist across the country, not just Queensland. We unanimously agreed. These bad practices are a global issue. Leanne shared that they look at school opinion survey data and overwhelmingly parents like their schools. We don’t disagree, but we wonder who actually gets to do these opinion surveys and it seems they are only from year 5 – none in the early years. A selection of parents (apparently random) and every child in years 5, 7, 9 and 11 do it and every staff member. Kathy made the point that more anonymous teacher feedback is needed. Teachers are really scared. I didn’t want to speak up. I’ve witnessed first-hand, experienced teachers are being told, “this is the way it is in 2016, if you don’t like it, there’s the door”. It’s not that we are bucking against change, for goodness sake, the number of changes I’ve seen in the last 30 years!!! Change in rolls, we are constantly reinventing, but to not be able to question the philosophy behind what’s going on and have transfer papers put on teachers’ desks. Teachers are too scared to speak out. I tried to speak up but nobody listened or was interested in what I had to say. I know some of the answers, and other teachers do too, but they are just really scared. They are on contracts with families to support, they are jumping through hoops, they are kept so snowed under, it’s piled up on teachers and nothing is taken away, they are so tired and ground down, they just don’t have any fight left in them.
Tom Hardy raised Lucy Clark’s book, Beautiful Failures. It speaks for teachers, parents, children and principals. He had it with him at a doctor’s visit, and the doctor asked about it, and stated that they see children and teens like the book depicts all the time, anxiety, depression, suicidal. Leanne agreed that schools contribute to that, it’s a growing issue, but she also worries about our society in general. She brought up the Griffith age-appropriate pedagogies study, articulating that she has a problem with the term “age appropriate pedagogies” because EVERY age group has an appropriate pedagogy and people presume it is about the Prep-3 space. We are doing work, trying to understand why the play-based approach pedagogy has been lost for many teachers. There are now coaches in every Queensland region to support teachers. Some of our principals have lost sight of their role as leaders around curriculum and teaching and learning. Some of our teachers have lost sight because of the new curriculum. All those things you know about quality pedagogy haven’t changed that, but that is what is believed. We need to swing the pendulum back.
“Data is the wrong driver”.
We’ve been invited back in February or March next year.