Attitude matters for students’ success

MANY people hold firm views on education, and Education Minister Allan Carpenter is no exception.

This became evident during Mr. Carpenter’s extraordinary on-camera pre-election debate with former Education Minister, the impetuous Colin Barnett.

Having attended several fine educational institutions myself – a creche in a United Nations refugee camp in occupied Germany; a state school and a convent school in Wyalkatchem; St Ildephonsus’ College, New Norcia; Leederville Technical College; and the Uni-versity of WA – I’ve also formed views on learning as well as education.

I also have tutored at three Australian campuses – including two years in the University of WA department Mr Carpenter graduated from – and taught at several Perth primary schools as a trainee.

My more than two decades’ involvement with formal learning, as student and teacher, means when-ever well-meaning proponents’ contentions surface I find them difficult to ignore.

Mr Carpenter, on taking over the education portfolio, said he intended to make WA’s public educational sector the best – meaning better than WA’s sizeable and long-established private schooling sector.

An admirable sentiment. But are good intentions good enough, particularly when those holding them have power to spend lots of public money?

The last time WA had a Labor Government, education also was treated as an early high priority.

The (then) Education Minister Bob Pearce launched what’s best described as a broad-ranging education inquiry, headed by one-time Labor Federal Education Minister, Kim Beazley, father of the present Federal Labor leader.

The Beazley committee of 1983-84 came forward with no fewer than 272 recommendations, all of which, presumably, were implemented.

That committee had 26 members, including (then) State School Teachers’ Union chief Ed Harken, who it’s tipped Mr Carpenter will soon name as Director General of Education to succeed outgoing Liberal appointee Peter Browne.

It received submissions from nearly 2000 people and organi-sations with hearings across WA.

Many billions of dollars have been spent on education in State budgets since the Beazley report was tabled.

But, if one believes Mr Carpenter, state education still lags and needs further reform. In April he ann-ounced what he dubbed “the most significant review of public edu-cation in WA for two decades”.

A taskforce, headed by a campus administrator, Professor Alan Rob-son, was convened and is expected to complete its task by August.

It was told to consider “strat-egies”, “priorities”, “resources”, and “outcomes” – all words that sit comfortably in the BBC’s hilarious Yes Minister program.

Unlike Mr Carpenter, I’m not so sure our public education sector is as bad as some contend. And even if it were I doubt if more resources – meaning money – are what’s needed to improve so-called outcomes.

Something my teaching years taught me was that two factors are crucial in any student’s progress – their aptitudes and attitudes.

Aptitudes refer to innate ability, with not everyone capable of being an Albert Einstein or Bertrand Russell.

Aptitudes vary markedly between students, and cultures for that matter, with some showing abilities in purely academic disciplines while others have strengths in more practical, artistic or organisational endeavours.

But over and above such disparities is the too-often-forgotten matter of attitudes, meaning stu-dents’ motivation, resolution and commitment – what footy coaches at three-quarter time often call “guts and determination to win”.

That’s what largely determines success and achievement, in learning as much as in footy and other sports.

But unlike aptitudes, attitudes are something we can steadily do something about, and for very little cash.

Yet politicians and educational bureaucrats usually overlook this, preferring to focus on bureaucratic phraseology like resources, priori-ties, strategies and outcomes.

Linked intricately with students’ attitudes is their home environment, parental interest in, and dedication to, learning.

Homes in which learning isn’t highly valued are altogether unlikely to produce students with a desire to succeed scholastically.

A noted general difference between parents who place their children in private and public schooling – many of my teacher friends contend – is that those opting for the former, by and large, take a greater interest in their children’s scholastic progress, for work life income reasons, if for no other.

But a conducive home environ-ment tends to reflect itself in scholastic performance irrespective of the type of school one attends.

Yet, of the Beazley Report’s 272 recommendations only three even carried the word “parents” – numbers 24, 194 and 272.

Mr Carpenter would be wise to consider mellowing his early reliance on Orwellian newspeak taskforces and devise ways of encouraging and enhancing the roles parents play in successful learning outcomes for students.

He could, for example, consider creating a small, low-cost parental instruction unit within his depart-ment that employed competent retired state and private teachers to demonstrate to and lecture parents and parent groups on how they can improve home environments to help ensure their children study more successfully.

If he did that he may amaze himself and find he could even begin trimming the huge departmental budget and, at the same time, witness the scholastic performance of WA children markedly improving.

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