It’s a common question: “How can he have got to Year 10 when he can’t read?”
And there in a sentence is one of the major structural problems with the education system in Australia. It’s not unusual for students extremely deficient in English and Mathematics to be found in high schools. As for the other subjects, they’re usually complete failures there too, even in the electives they’ve chosen, as literary and numeracy underpin so many other areas.
How can this happen in a modern First World country? It’s actually easy to understand.
First, many students, particularly in remote areas of the country, are chronic truants. I once taught a Year 9 English class where a student – let’s call him Jimmy – arrived for the first time in June. For several months I’d marked him absent for every lesson. He arrived at my classroom in the mid-morning, being guided there by another student. The Office had registered them both in as late, and then issued Jimmy with his timetable and asked the other student to accompany him to the relevant classroom – necessarily so as Jimmy was completely unfamiliar with the school.
Wanting to ease him into the work, and have a good time so he’d return, I got him seated alongside a friendly boy who could help him with what we were doing. I lent a hand in what was hopefully a non-overbearing way, but it was obvious Jimmy could barely follow one in five of the words in the handout we were using. He had no hope, it seemed, of deciphering the metaphors of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
It was only another 20 minutes before the bell rang for the lesson changeover. I never saw Jimmy again.
Chronic truancy can exist for a number of reasons. The state system I worked for had a teaching assistant attached to each school, called a Home Liaison Officer, whose job it was to follow up on such absences. I asked ours about a week later about Jimmy. “His mum told me to go away”, she said. He had previously attended school for eight days in Year 8.
If Jimmy had returned – maybe he did – at the beginning of the next year, he would automatically be placed in the next grade. How he could possibly handle Year 10 English? But this would not have been asked. He would have been placed without question in a class, there to flounder and grow further discouraged, which would likely encourage him to skip school again.
There were, and are, mechanisms to help such students. Maybe Jimmy could have received help from an English as Second Language teacher. That particular school also operated a small unit for “Aboriginal students from traditional backgrounds”,and maybe he could have been enrolled there. The unit was particularly good – it operated on a primary school model with the same teachers and assistants all day, rather than the multi-lesson and rooms timetable secondary schools usually follow. Then again, students often saw such a placement as a “shame job” and they were the subject of derisive comment from others.
So, what to do?
Jimmy and anyone in such a situation really should not have been allowed to “progress” through the world of learning in such a way. At the end of each year, he should have been tested and if he did not meet yearly criteria, he should have been held back.
Learning progresses sequentially. In primary school English, for example, students learn words, then sentences, and how a single-strand story progresses: “Jane runs. Jane runs up the hill,” and so on. “Chapter books” follow, and by the end of primary school capable students are beginning to head into the world of multiple-strand narratives, flashbacks, and other literary devices. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, follows Lucy through the wardrobe, and into Narnia, where she meets Mr Tumnus. But after her return, the narrative switches to her brother Edmund, who after mocking her, goes through the wardrobe himself, and meets the White Witch. Only a sophisticated reader can follow such a dual narrative system, but it is part of the joy of reading to do so. Uneducated students will never, sadly, enjoy such reading unless they can catch up.
Promoting students by age without ensuring that they have the necessary skills is condemning them to a life of low education, and all that comes with it. They will likely have lower incomes through not being able to attain the necessary qualifications – not being able to properly read technical manuals – as well as a lesser lives through not being able to understand books, comics, films and so much more.
It would be kindness, not cruelty, to hold back such children if they can’t pass a national benchmark test. Schools used to have such a concept, especially for the leaving of the primary system, but over the years it has been dropped. The main reason seems to be so as not to harm a child’s “self-esteem”. But the present system merely delays an absolutely massive battering to self-esteem: the huge blow to one’s ego through discovering an apprenticeship is not possible, nor is anything else that matches qualifications to a better job and higher pay.
Successful countries usually have some sort of criteria at which to aim. Singapore, for example, has the Primary School Leaving Examination, and then sorts its secondary students into three streams through teacher, parent, and student negotiation. Australia has really nothing now, beyond the concept of a year 12 score, but by then the disadvantaged students have usually fallen through the cracks to disappear into a disappointing life. Rather than continue with this, the Federal Government needs to introduce a national benchmark for each year. It also needs to start tying Centrelink benefits to school attendance for those who are being failed by the system.
We really are badly off by international comparison. The Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills, placed Australia 21st in the 2018 worldwide ranking average score of math, science and reading. New Zealand and the UK beat us, and needless to say Singapore and China did too – the last two countries being places where education is taken extremely seriously. Not so here.
Dr Tom Lewis OAM taught in the high school and adult areas for over 20 years. A former naval officer, he is also a military historian, with 20 books published. His latest is Attack on Sydney, a study of the failures in command combating the midget submarine attack of 1942