Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Secondary schools blind to a crisis?

Our secondary schools are in crisis but no one seems to notice!

Yet another National Radio debate has focused on school failures. Evidently 38% of 13 to 15 year olds leave school without gaining school qualifications, and this figure is growing, and 10% have their parent’s permission to leave schools to attend alternative providers.

For all this we still seem to focus on the students and their parents and only, at best, tentatively suggesting schools themselves might need to change.

Only Celia Lashlie (an ex prison manager and now social commentator) can see that the problem is far bigger than simply focusing on the students themselves. We are, she reminds us, facing up to students who come from third generation unemployed parents and that these parents, and their children, see schools as a negative emotional environment; a place of shame and embarrassment. Unlike students, who come with the appropriate ‘social capital’ and expectations, these students see little sense of purpose, feel no sense of hope, connection or relationship with schools. There are, it seems, no positive pathways for them at school. Too many of them , she says, by making a thirty second bad decision, instead enter a pathway that leads them to gangs, alcohol , drugs , sex and prison.

A school principal of a large low decile school, on the same programme, believes that schools do their best to assist ‘savable’ students but admitted if students make the wrong choices they are beyond their capabilities. A positive alternative are the outside providers, who he says, are more informal, flexible and relevant.

I would have thought that the qualities mentioned above would offer clues to schools to transform themselves and for the Ministry to assist them.

The obligatory Ministry of Education Policy Analyst on the programme, when questioned about who tracks the students, who seem to be lost to schools and in between the various alternative providers, said they do their best to ‘track’ them down and return them to where they are supposed to be. In most case back to where they feel alienated!

The Policy Analyst’s solutions are predictable and unimaginative; better transitions between schools and the workforce; better pastoral care; and of course better literacy and numeracy. No mention of developing new educational structures. All a bit like re arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The truth is that secondary schools were never planned to deal with the less academic or economically deprived students. Schools are not doing a poorer job than in the past. Schools have simply done a poor job all along by ignoring failure in the past ( many students leaving at 15 to get manual work ) but now this can no longer be tolerated. Schools must transform themselves from archaic nineteenth century industrial age ‘factories’, where waste products are part of the process, into twenty first century learning communities where all learn.

If we want all students to be productive then we need to consider new alternatives. We need schools that are committed to developing the whole person: the hand, the eye, the muscle as well as the brain. We need more learning by doing, more relevant real life learning activities and more holding everyone accountable to for student success, including the students themselves.

Schools need to transform themselves to utilize students own learning rhythms, personal interests and talents. We need to expect schools to find the individual real strengths and to challenge them. Each student needs their own negotiated Individual Educational Plan and schools need to work in concert with parents and the wider community to rebuild relationship with the communities that currently reject schools.

When will school people and Ministry officials realize this? They might start by exploring the real life narratives or the ‘voices’ of the students they seem incapable of currently reaching. Perhaps we need to have national conversation about the purpose of education in a new age where without access to learning there is little hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is , as you say, all a bit like 're-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic'!

The idea of the national conversation is great but why would the government stir up trouble for themselves - any way it is far too democratic!