Year 12 not for everybody

Craig Emerson, a Federal Labor backbencher, has recently called to make year 12 compulsary for students.

In summary, it's a bad idea with a good premise.

Emerson has obviously realised that there is a direct relationship between a person's completion of year 12 and their overall standard of living as they get older. Obviously, a person who has a year 12 certificate is more likely to find work, more likely to be paid a higher wage, and more likely to find or keep employment during economic downturns (they have more alternatives to find work). The Master Builders Association (MBA) of the ACT has backed Emerson's call, arguing that year 12 makes "more mature builders". John Howard, however, has rejected such a call.

Yet while the analysis that Emerson and the MBA have given is sound, I think it would be a big mistake to make year 12 compulsary.

As a teacher, I am constantly butting heads with students who are itching to leave school and get out into the big wide world. Most of these students are in year 10, and I have to say that their desire to leave school is almost always justified.

It's hard trying to teach students about the subtleties of the Whitlam dismissal, or about the ways Shakespeare uses language to convey meaning when the students in question just can't read or write properly. It's also hard to spend about two-thirds of my time trying to shut the class up, prevent certain students from killing each other and destroying chairs and desks. Trying to teach such a class is hard work.

These sorts of students are not meant for the wonderful world of year 12. They cannot stand the thought of sitting down and reading and studying, and of contemplating different philosophies and ways of doing things. For such students to be forced to complete another two years of schooling - two years of essentially frustration and lost opportunities - would be a terrible outcome.

Of course, I would welcome any change in education policy which would eventually lead to a situation in which students eagerly desired to enter senior school and were motivated to do the work required.

And I think it would be great, for example, if two-thirds of school leavers completed a university degree as well - I just don't think that making such tertiary study compulsary will work.

There's another thing to deal with as well - emotional maturity. When you're between the ages of 15 and 18, you're still developing your emotional maturity and your ability to control yourself. While many students can do this, many can't, and those who can't have their entire educational experience affected by their own hormones and emotional development. What such students need is not another two years of school, but a job.

Money is a great motivator. One badly behaved year 10 student I have told me that he has a part-time job. I asked him if his employer ever got sick of his antics or misbehaviour. No, said the student, because he never acted up when on the job. He knew that if he acted up on the job then he would be in danger of losing his cashflow. Acting up at school - where no such consequence exists - is much easier.

Of course, when these students get older they will develop their emotional maturity (generally speaking - some never will!). I have made sure that I tell these students that when they get older and into their early-mid twenties then they should seriously consider going to TAFE and completing their year 12 studies. I have also encouraged them to seek mature-age entry into university if they think they can do it.

But what of the big picture? What should governments do?

As a person who has studied at University and who has spent many years teaching in High Schools around New South Wales. I can say without doubt that the most important educational institutions around this country (and the world) are Primary schools.

If by the time a student enters year 7 and still cannot read or write, then their potential educational achievement is very low. Illiterate 12 year olds will, bar serious intervention work, remain illiterate throughout high school and will have their future employment choices severely restricted.

So why is it that students can get through primary school and remain illiterate? I have the greatest respect for Primary school teachers and the work they do - and though it may be tempting to put blame upon teacher training, I do not think that the vast problem of illiteracy has something to do with "bad teachers" and "trendy teaching methods".

Teacher unions have for years been arguing that reduced class sizes result in greater educational outcomes amongst students. This is true in a broad sense, but I have taught classes of 35 students whose behaviour and hard work were exemplary, and classes of 9 students who were next to impossible to teach.

If there's going to be any increase in the amount of teachers, then the best place to put them is into Primary schools. The younger a student is, the more important is the direct input of the educator. As a student gets older, they become progressively more responsible for their own educational results. This is why primary teachers have expertise in childhood education and understanding of the dynamics of educational psychology, and why High School teachers need to be more specialised in their field of study.

If illiteracy (which is the major cause of lower educational outcomes in high school) is to be addressed, then there needs to be a government that diverts money and resources to decrease the student/teacher ratio in Primary schools. Since direct intervention is required in primary schooling, smaller classes will allow more one-to-one time between teacher and student - while at the same time making it easier for the teacher to control the class and allowing more time available for educating.

Money should be provided to allow one-to-one tutoring of primary students as well. As someone who has worked as a tutor I can see the benefit that one-to-one education can have upon a student's overall performance. Many parents have the money to do this themselves - but those children who need it the most have parents who cannot afford it.

I can say this now with confidence - if students enter year 7 with improved literacy and numeracy rates, then their high school experience will be much improved as well. Moreover, the increase in capable students will also lead to an increase in senior school performance - more people will choose to go to year 12.

From the Department of Edumacation

© 2006 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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