In 2008 Australia began a national assessment program that tests school children in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in reading, writing, spelling and numeracy (NAPLAN). These assessments only really entered the national consciousness in 2010 when the Rudd Government launched the My School website, after assuring concerned stakeholders that it would not be possible to directly compare schools and that we would not go down the path of English league tables.
Tell that to The Australian, which has since launched its own website called Your School. The site promises us that we can use it to compare our “own list of schools” online and provides every other media outlet in Australia with the resources to produce its own set of league tables.
Since 2008 and particularly since 2010 we’ve seen a major change in school practice and the national conversation. We’re all familiar with the story of Queensland where Premier Anna Bligh, shocked by her state’s performance in the first NAPLAN, wrote to parents stating that their children would sit practice tests in the lead up to the 2009 assessment.
I was Sydney at the time and blithely unaware of what was happening in QLD but I remembered it as a bold and progressive state: the home of Productive Pedagogies, New Basics, the Inclusive Education Task Force, and a play-based preparatory year firmly grounded in early childhood philosophy.
Upon returning to Brisbane in 2013, I was stunned by how much had changed. My first indication was when my daughter, who was in Year 9, began coming home every week saying “I @#!& hate Thursdays!”
Thursdayitis was a new one for me, but it didn’t take long for me to discover that Thursday, in Term 1 of Year 9 at her school, is “NAPLAN Turbo Day”, where everyone practised NAPLAN type exercises. Not long after that, you might be interested to know I received a form requesting that I sign off on disability support provisions. This was something I refused to do (not sure how much help another 5 minutes would be when the problem is not knowing the answer). Once NAPLAN was over, normal teaching returned and my daughter celebrated never having to do NAPLAN ever again.
But, nothing has surprised me as much as how NAPLAN and our obsession with student/school performance has changed school for school beginners. Being involved in research that looks at the relationships between school practice and disruptive behaviour, I see daily how an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy actually exacerbates the problems of children who start school with early learning and behavioural difficulties.
Researching the behavioural “Tipping Point”
Before returning to QLD, I had developed a longitudinal project based on what boys in special “behaviour” schools had told me about their formative school experiences. I wanted to understand the process of “hard-baking” that they and their principals described: how early learning and behavioural difficulties develop into severe acting out and full-blown hatred of school.
I wanted to learn how that happened and what contributions were made by school practices. By their own accounts, these 33 boys didn’t come to school already hating it. It was a process of attrition and one to which they say schools contribute.
The fact that the majority of these teenage boys nominated the early years (K-2) as the time when they began disliking school, that they received very little support, and that many had received their first suspension during this period told me that the very beginning of school was where the research needed to start.
The project, which has been seed-funded by the Financial Markets Foundation for Children, commenced in 2014 with 250 QLD prep children. As I was a research fellow and we didn’t have a huge amount of funding, I began spending a lot of time in prep classrooms.
Our research aimed to establish a baseline of what children bring to school so that we could track school liking, learning, language, relationships, attitudes and behaviour over time. This battery of assessments immediately highlighted that there is a very wide range between children, even within the same class.
Whilst we chose similar schools (all in disadvantaged areas of south eastern QLD and all with ICSEA scores one standard deviation below the mean) we had some children scoring well above age equivalence and others well below.
It was also very clear that the children who came to school well behind others were in real danger of remaining that way because their teachers either did not have the time to address the needs across their classroom or because the teacher did not have the skills to correctly identify those needs.
And, from my vantage point, NAPLAN definitely exacerbates this. The pressure to have children up to speed by Year 3 reaches down through the early years of school (even to Kindergarten or Prep) where the focus is heavily skewed towards literacy and numeracy. Of course reading, writing and numeracy are vitally important but our research is finding that some other very important things are being crowded out in the process.
What could be more important than the “3 R’s”?
The most important component of quality learning that is now under threat is time to establish warm and positive teacher-student relationships. The more frantic the classroom, the more focused teachers are on the business of “learning”, the more superficial and fraught the relationships. And this is a problem, particularly for children with early learning and behavioural difficulties for whom those relationships might actually make the difference between engagement and disengagement.
My behaviour school research has taught me that the process of “hard-baking” is fuelled by resentment. There comes a point where pissed off young people decide that they’re going to get a bit of their own back, regardless of what it might cost them in the long run. Once they reach that stage, it is very hard to turn them around.
Building warm and positive relationships costs nothing in the scheme of things and little actions – regular conversation, a pat on the back, a smile, some extra help and a bit of recognition – could very well save connection to schooling for our most vulnerable students.
As my research teams prepare for the National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour being hosted at QUT this week, I have had much cause to think about the central message that I want the Summit to impart.
It’s this: if we have to measure things in order for them to matter, measure student-teacher relationships, school liking and school avoidance.
Find out how students feel about the place where they spend such a large part of their day and the strength of the relationships they have with the second most important adults in their lives.
This is something worth working on but it will never happen if all we measure and if all that counts are ABCs and 123s.
Linda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee. The 2 day National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour begins Wednesday 8th of July.