Monday, 30 March 2015

Birthday visits to the Principal's Office, and thankfulness (2015 Term 1 Week 10)

Each year I have a standard question to prompt discussions with students when they come to see me for their birthday card and present. It isn't always easy to formulate a question that will work equally well for students in Kindergarten, Year 7 and Year 12. In addition, getting conversation out of some students is like drawing water from a stone, whereas others just need the slightest nudge to open a hydrant of words. In past years I have asked students to tell me the best thing about the school, something we need to change, what they are doing with computers for learning, and other such gambits.

Image result for kinder surprise

This year, following on from some reading about the value of thankfulness and gratitude in developing resilience (see here and here), I have been asking the students to identify something for which they are thankful. It has been fascinating to note the themes that are emerging. Despite the fact that I am asking around the time of their birthdays, when one suspects that presents and parties are priorities, very few students nominate those things. The most common response is to look towards relationships, whether family or friends. Many reflect on the privileges that they enjoy, whether material blessings or the opportunity for education or health. Many also express thankfulness for those who care for them, with particular reference (at least in my office!) to the teachers who work so hard on their behalf. I must say, it has been greatly encouraging to listen to our young ones; the absence of entitlement and self-centredness is heartwarming.

I am not surprised that the field of positive psychology and its child, positive education, is affirming the importance of thankfulness. My conviction is not just that the Christian faith is (objectively) true, but that it (subjectively) works in the human experience; the Scriptures continually call us to be characterised by thankfulness. The fundamental human response to God ought to be to acknowledge him and be thankful to him; tragically, we are prone to ignore him and be thankless. As Dostoyevsky put it, "I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped." Bart Simpson shows us the biped in action!

However, thankfulness or gratitude are inherently healthy and helpful attitudes for us to cultivate. They lead us away from focussing on ourselves, they help us to focus on good things, and they help us to engage well with those on whom we are interdependent. Building a culture of thankfulness in our school and cultivating gratitude as a habitual mindset in our young people is one way to equip them for life. Even something as inconsequential as a birthday visit with the Principal is an opportunity for learning!

Speaking of thankfulness, I know that most of the students and teachers are thankful to have made it to the final week of term, with a promise of rest coming up in the Easter break. As always, it has been a busy time. Around 130 students have started school at Inaburra this year. Kindergarten have nearly finished their first term at school - most will have another 50 terms to go! Year 12 are slogging through their half-yearly exams as I write; their journey of school education is drawing to a close. The term has been full of learning, sport, performance, excursions, assessments and the many other elements that combine to constitute a term in the life of the school. My hope and prayer is that your children, and you, are able to be thankful for Term 1 2015, as well as for the approaching rest.

Finally, while Easter promises a break, chocolate, time with family and friends and many other good things, remember that it promises hope. The impetus that supercharged the small group of dispirited Jews following the death of their teacher Jesus was their conviction that God had raised him from the dead. In Jesus, God demonstrated that he would bring light from darkness and life from the grave. Whatever you do this Easter, don't miss the great hope that death does not have the final word.

God bless

Monday, 23 March 2015

Education and your vote (2015 Term 1 Week 9)

It is with some trepidation that I am touching on the NSW State election in this article. Our school does not endorse any political party or candidate, nor do we think that it is our prerogative to tell our community how they ought to vote. Nonetheless, recognising that there are a wide range of factors that each of us consider in exercising our democratic rights, it may be helpful for me to briefly summarise the positions of the major parties regarding education generally and Inaburra specifically. I note in doing so that school education is not a major campaign issue in this election.

Of the major parties, the Greens are noteworthy for their open opposition to non-government schools. In their education policy the NSW Greens are committed to working to the abolition of all state funding for non-government schools. In the event that state funding continues, the Greens believe that:
  • all public funding of the wealthiest private schools should be abolished and the public funds that are given to these schools under current arrangements should be committed instead to equity programs within the public school system.
  • private schools and non-government school systems that receive public funding should be subject to the same level of public accountability and scrutiny as applies to public schools, with this being a condition of ongoing public funding. 
  • non-government schools funding mechanisms that unfairly act to the detriment of public education should be abolished. 
  • No public funding should be provided to schools that discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religious background, sexual preference, marital status, disability, or ability to pay fees. The Greens NSW also believe that public funding should not be allocated to private schools that engage in discrimination in employment practices. We are committed to removing all exemptions for private schools from the Anti-discrimination Act. 
  • capital works should be funded only in government schools.

All of which is to say that a significant electoral result for the Greens is not a desirable result from the point of view of independent schools such as Inaburra. As we have seen at various levels of government in recent years, once a minor party or independent member has a seat at the table, opportunities can arise to dictate substantial agendas as a condition of their support for government legislation.

The commitments made by the Coalition with reference to school education can be found on the Association of Independent Schools website.

At the time of writing, the Labor Party has not released policy statements that have a significant bearing on school education or independent schools.

From time to time I am reminded of Churchill's quote "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." For all its flaws and frustrations, it is worth pausing to be thankful that governments change or are maintained in our country by the stroke of a pen in the ballot box and not by firearms. There is a case to be made that that structures underlying our government, such as the separation of powers, mandatory elections and the rule of law, recognise the fallen nature of humanity and our universal need to have our power restrained.

The Scriptures urge us to pray for those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2); as the election approaches, can I urge you to do so, remembering both those who will represent us in the parliament and their staff, as well as those who will be disappointed when their campaign is unsuccessful.

As a side note, the Performing Arts Centre at Inaburra School will be a polling place for this election. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The formative power of social media (2015 Term 1 Week 8)

I read recently that the features of life that are around prior to one turning 18 are considered to be normal. Features that emerge or are invented between 18 and 35 are considered to be wonderful and exciting innovations. However, after we turn 35, new things are considered to be strange and suspicious abominations that threaten the natural order of things.

Whilst this is obviously an overstatement, there is more than a grain of truth to it. To our children, the online world is normal and natural; it is a given in their life experience. It is less so to us as their parents. Nonetheless, as we contemplate our role in preparing them for the world in which they live, it is obvious that we must engage with the challenges, opportunities and risks that emerge from living in the connected age.

The task of wisdom is to discern how to live well in God's world, particularly in these times of unrelenting change. The revolution in our lives brought about by Information and Communication Technology has not been precisely considered, measured and adopted in a process of thoughtful change management. Rather, it has exploded around us.

In recent days I have been reflecting on social media, particularly with reference to the potential impact that use of social media might have upon young people who are so thoroughly immersed in it during their formative years. I do not want to suggest for a second that social media is inherently and universally a malign influence, but I do think that we need to be thoughtful in our analysis of its benefits. I offer three inter-related musings for your consideration.

First, part of the powerful allure of social media is the promise of reinvention. We all want to show ourselves in the best possible light and we are all conscious that there are aspects of ourselves that we are more willing to display. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instragram, and even industry-focussed sites such as Linked-In, allow us to control our public persona. We choose what images we put out there. We get to write our own profiles and bio. We choose those people with whom we will associate by friending, following, liking and commenting. In short, we get to construct our identity.

Second, social media brings with it the weight of comparison. Social media creates a world where what everyone else is doing is very out in the open, most people present an inflated version of their own existence, and the people who chime in the most about their careers are usually those who are doing the best. In the context of both adolescence and adulthood, there is still a premium on looking good, doing fun stuff, being included and being where it is all happening. For the young person who scans through page after page of other people (apparently) having it all, the contrast to their own real life can be very disspiriting.

The weight of comparison

Third, we are now able to measure the affirmation of our peers. Social media provides a simple and easily understood metric that shows how much we are appreciated - the 'like' button. We all want to be affirmed, but the tally of likes on a page now provide a means to measure what it is about us that people really value. 

What sort of photos get the most likes? Those are the ones to post. 

What sort of experiences (documented and posted) get the most likes? Those are the ones to aspire to and to have, to create and to boast about. 

However, there is a very small step between being affirmed and being vulnerable to manipulation by the crowd. Social media has the power to shape who we are and who we want to be - which brings us back to the promise of reinvention!

It is hard to know where this is all going. As noted above, we are being swept along in a giant social experiment that is re-shaping our society. While there is no shortage of resources to help parents with practical guidance, and while schools such as ours are pursuing strategies to help young people to be smart, safe and responsible,  the more profound questions around the formation of identity will be unanswered for a while yet.

It seems to me that Christian faith is potentially a powerful grounding influence for young people. The Christian hope is one of personal and social transformation (rather than reinvention), such that God remakes us to be humanity as we were intended to be. The Christian conviction that each individual is uniquely created in the image of God potentially bolsters against the weight of comparison to others. The Christian belief that God has acted for us in Christ is the greatest affirmation of all, potentially releasing us from the need to seek the affirmation of others. Personal Christian faith doesn't deliver an individual from these pressures, but it should equip us to deal with them better.
As a school we will continue to commend the faith to our students, being confident both that it is true and that it works - both in the world of the New Testament and in the world of the 21st century.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

NAPLAN and the MySchool website (2015 Term 1 Week 7)

On Thursday last week the latest iteration of the MySchool website was launched. This website, now in its fifth year of operation, provides data about Australian schools primarily for the purpose of allowing comparisons. Comparisons can be made on the basis of NAPLAN results, school demographics, resourcing levels available and other metrics. The data aims to inform parents, communities, schools and policy makers in such a way that good decisions and discussions about education can take place. 

Much of the interest around the website has to do with the publication of National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data. The website now contains seven years of NAPLAN results; the most recent results from 2014 have been in the hands of schools and parents for nearly 6 months. For those with a particular interest in NAPLAN, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) maintains a comprehensive website on the topic that includes a lot of information for parents. 

Inaburra School is very happy to have the NAPLAN data made public. There is nothing to hide. As previously indicated, the school has been in possession of our own data for some time and has already gone through our process of analysis and reflection on the data. There are a number of areas wherein we can see sustained improvement over time, such as persuasive writing, and there are no areas that stand out as matters for particular concern.

However, I would like to make some observations about the utility and the limitations of the NAPLAN data as published on MySchool.

First, the NAPLAN data is primarily data about individual students, testing their mastery of essential skills such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy. As such, it is more useful in helping teachers and parents to understand the progress of a particular student than in measuring the quality of a school. There are things that can be learned about a school's progress from NAPLAN, but this is a secondary use of the data.

Second, the test data is a snapshot at a particular point in time and consequently limited.  Any number of factors can affect the performance of a student at any point; health, fatigue, anxiety, diet, environment, perceived pressure, social interactions and various other factors can all come into the mix. In addition, learning is not a simple linear process. There are ebbs and flows in the journey that do not align to the testing schedule. For all these reasons, the NAPLAN result may not be an accurate reflection of a child's level of mastery.

Third, this assessment of skills happens through a particular standardised format that will suit some students more than others. While the skills of literacy and numeracy are vital for all people, there are many other ways in which these skills can be demonstrated and utilised. Your child's teacher(s) has a broader context in which to observe growth and progress and a deeper knowledge of his/her capability. NAPLAN is only one strand of the data that is available to parents and teachers.

Fourth, there are very clear and straightforward ways to obtain higher NAPLAN scores. A school could record significant short-term NAPLAN gains by reducing other elements of the curriculum and engaging in intensive drilling around the NAPLAN tests. In countries such as the UK and the USA, where tests analagous to NAPLAN have high stakes attached to them, such as the ongoing employment of teachers or the viability of schools, exactly these approaches to 'gaming the system' have been observed. Gains are made, but at what cost to the educational experience of the child? Art, music, sport, cultural activites, languages other than English, excursions, community engagement and other elements of a rich and engaging education have been seen to give way before the imperative of improving test scores. Another approach could be to discourage 'weaker' students from participating in the tests.

All of which is to say, the test of the quality of a school is not primarily, or even substantially, in its NAPLAN results. Used well, the data is interesting, illuminating and helpful, but it has narrow and limited utility. 

My advice to all parents who are choosing a school for their child is twofold: visit the school on a normal school day to see it 'living and breathing', and; prioritise word of mouth. What do the people presently at the school have to say? What do the students say? What do the graduates say?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Royal Commision and Child Protection (2015 Term 1 Week 6)

The news seems to be filled with profoundly disturbing stories from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which is in the middle of a two week public hearing focused on an independent school in Sydney. As a parent, an educator, a school principal and as a former boarding student at another school, the accounts reported in the news have troubled, saddened, frightened and angered me.

As the Royal Commission has conducted its hearings across the country, it has become clear that many many institutions and organisations have failed to take the protection of children seriously in years gone by. It is heartbreaking to contemplate the lives that have been so deeply fractured by the betrayal of trust at a young age.

Thankfully, matters have changed on many levels. Legislation has been enacted that provides greater safeguards for children. Organisations, including schools, are much more conscious of their responsibilities. Society as a whole is more aware of predatory behaviours and we are less likely to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing in these matters. 

In NSW there are three major pieces of legislation that speak specifically to the issue of child protection. These are the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998, the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act 2012, and the Ombudsman Act 1974.

The Care and Protection Act provides for mandatory reporting. It is this Act that requires teachers, among others, to report to Community Services if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is at risk of significant harm. In the context of our school, this report is usually made to Community Services through the Principal.

The Working with Children Act has to do with screening individuals for child-related employment. By ensuring that previous offenders are barred from child-related roles, this Act attempts to prevent predators from simply relocating and continuing to prey upon children. It is a condition of employment at Inaburra that every person have a valid Working with Children Check.

The Ombudsman Act requires the heads of agencies, such as the principals of independent schools, to notify the Ombudsman of all allegations of reportable conduct by employees and the outcomes of the School’s investigation into those allegations. Reportable conduct is defined as: a) any sexual offence or sexual misconduct committed against, with or in the presence of a child (including a child pornography offence or an offence involving child abuse material); b) any assault, ill-treatment or neglect of a child; and c) any behaviour that causes psychological harm to a child whether or not, in any case, with the consent of the child. 

As the head of agency, it is my responsibility to ensure that there are systems and policies in the school to ensure that allegations of reportable conduct are reported to me, that they are investigated, that the police are notified if the matter may be criminal and that a full report, including any internal disciplinary action taken, is made to the Ombudsman. All allegations of potentially reportable conduct by employees of the school are to be brought to me; they will be taken seriously. Of all my responsibilities, this one weighs very heavily upon me.

The Child Protection Policy at Inaburra was written by a prominent legal firm and provided to us (and the other NSW independent schools) by the Association of Independent Schools (AIS). It was updated in 2013 to reflect legislative change and it is reviewed biennially by the Board of Directors of Inaburra Communications Limited (ICL). All employees are provided with and required to read the policy upon commencing employment. In addition, the staff receive child protection training with reference to the Policy each year.

I have outlined all these details because I want to reassure the parent community that Inaburra is not just aware of its child protection obligations, but that we are active and vigilant in ensuring that those obligations are fulfilled.

The fact that these Acts and policies are required is yet another reminder that we live in a broken world. The Christian doctrine of sin teaches us not to place too much faith in human nature; people are capable of distressing evil and of wilful denial. The Scriptures also remind us of the priority that Jesus placed upon children; it is horrific to contemplate that so much of the damage that is now being brought to light has been perpetrated by people who have claimed to be his followers.

The school that is presently in the news has come a very long way since the days that are under scrutiny. It is led by a Christian man who has been exemplary in his willingness to take responsibility for the actions and inactions of his school over time, his courage in bringing about cultural change, and his compassion in responding to those who have been hurt. If you are a praying person, please pray for him and his school community, as well as for those who have been grievously wronged.

It saddens me that these matters are ones that warrant extended commentary in this form, but it is unarguable that light is the best disinfectant and that more harm has been done through silence than might have been the case. If you find yourself in the situation of trying to explain the snippets heard on the news to your children, please try to make the conversation a learning moment for them in an age-appropriate way. As always, there are resources online that can be of assistance to you.