June 3, 2023

Supporting Courageous Educators

Within the last decade, the Australian federal government surrendered a great many matters of governance, personnel, finances, facilities, etc… to each local school community. To folks like me, fewer mandates and schools  based on the needs, values and philosophy of parents, teachers and students is a great step in the right direction.

However, the Australian government was schizophrenic as is often the case in matters of education policy. Each school can hire teachers, set budget priorities, expand, contract or engage in new construction, but we can’t let this freedom thing get out of hand. So, first came mandated uniform report cards and then NAPLAN, a national standardized test (I call it NAPALM). There is even a web site where you can check how any school in the nation performed on the tests. [Note: I am NOT an expert in the intricacies of Australian school governance and may have gotten some details slightly wrong.]

Spensley Street Primary, a terrific inner suburban Melbourne school with a multi-age learner-centered open plan philosophy and highly engaged school community viewed these heavy-handed mandates as a threat to the quality of education their children deserve and expect. So, they DO SOMETHING about it. They run information sessions for parents where they share the reasons behind their professional opposition to standardized testing, a narrowing curriculum and ranking students or schools. As a result, almost all Spensley Street Primary School parents exercise their right to opt their children out of the NAPLAN tests.

You can imagine the stress that places upon a school principal who agrees with the parents, but is also forced to supervise the NAPLAN testing. The publication of the statistically insignifant scores generated by a handful of Spensley Street students who take the test makes it even more difficult to resist the testing freight train heading towards the educators.

When a disgruntled anonymous parent contacted the newspaper to complain about the NAPLAN opposition at Spensley Street Primary and the principal, an old friend and colleague, Anne Nelson was interviewed for a response, [Victorians top of class, claims Pike] I thought I should offer a small gesture of support for the courageous educators who do the right thing.

One parent from Spensley Street primary in Clifton Hill told The Age he was bemused to receive a letter and phone call from the school asking whether his child would sit the test.

”These tests should be compulsory … no opt-out clause from the school should apply,” the parent said.

Spensley Street principal Anne Nelson said the school provided parents with information about the NAPLAN tests and some chose to opt out for ideological reasons.

”We do not encourage them to do it, but it’s something they are entitled to do, it happens every year,” Ms Nelson said. (The Age, September 11, 2010)

The following is the text of my letter-to-the-editor that ran in the September 15, 2010 edition of The Age. The terrific headline was the work of the newspaper.

Literacy test data already misused

September 15, 2010

PRINCIPAL Anne Nelson and the Spensley Street Primary School community should be congratulated for putting a sound learner-centred education ahead of NAPLAN’s needless day-trading of children (The Age, 11/9).

If the endless standardised testing, narrowing of curriculums and teacher name-calling found in the US teaches us anything, it is that the political class’s appetite for data and scapegoats is insatiable. The further you are from the children in classrooms, the increased likelihood you will be addicted to ”data”.

You can already see how the national numeracy and literacy testing data is being misused to declare winners and losers among Australian states. Your article’s mention of a state ”crackdown” suggests that NAPLAN cannot possibly be in the best interest of children.

Recognising the fundamental right of every parent to make decisions about their child’s welfare and well-being should be celebrated. Opting out of deleterious schemes such as NAPLAN is a sign of good parenting and even better schooling.

Gary Stager, visiting scholar, Trinity College, University of Melbourne

If you require additional inspiration from Spensley Street Primary School, check out their school policy page (created by teachers and parents), particularly their Assessment and Reporting Policy.(PDF) I am sure they would be happy to share their work with other schools willing to put kids ahead of political fads.