xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: The lost childhood generation

Monday, 3 September 2012

The lost childhood generation

We have all heard sad stories about The Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children and The Lost Generation of the post war British child migrants. We are now, unfortunately, on the edge of what may become The Lost Childhood Generation

Associate Professor Michael Nagel, from the school of science and education at Queensland University, issued a timely warning recently that parents should resist speeding up their child’s development and instead allow their children to enjoy their childhood (Warning on smart baby toys, The West Australian, Cathy O’Leary, 28/08/2012).

Professor Nagel says that parents trying to advance their child’s development with enrichment tools or programmes may be doing them more harm than good. The process could cause children undue stress and hinder important brain development that will be detrimental to later learning.

However, it is not just eager parents who are force feeding our very youngest children with educational and intellectual competencies for which many (most) are not yet ready. Our schools are doing it to.

In 2009, the standardised testing of literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 was made mandatory in all Australian schools by the Rudd Labor government. NAPLAN was a refinement of earlier national testing programmes introduced by the then Federal Ministers for Education, Dr David Kemp and Dr Brendon Nelson, in the Howard Government. The Labor government subsequently established the Myschool website so that parents, and others, could check on a school’s NAPLAN performance and compare it with other schools.

The fact that all schools were to be compared and judged on their NAPLAN results made principals and teachers focus on improving their NAPLAN scores. As a result, many schools instructed teachers to concentrate almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy in term one in preparation for the NAPLAN tests in May. Many parents began enrolling their children in after school and weekend pre NAPLAN classes to improve their chances in the tests. At the same time “distractions” like in-term swimming, interschool sports fixtures, cultural and educational excursions were postponed until after NAPLAN.

Of course literacy and numeracy are very important, but the pressures caused by NAPLAN and Myschool are having deleterious effects. In some schools, pressure is being applied to early child hood teachers to deliver a more formal approach in developing literacy and numeracy skills in kindergarten and pre primary children. In some cases this has meant that, as far as number and language development are concerned, kindergarten is becoming the new year one and pre primary is becoming the new year two.

In discussing the problems associated with this downward curriculum pressure on the early years of schooling with some young mothers recently, one of them said, “Oh, yes. Now I understand. When David was in pre primary five years ago, he seemed to spend most of the time learning about his colours, growing things, learning about himself  and his home and his surroundings, having fun with play dough, manipulating various shaped blocks and other objects and playing in the adventure playground. This year his brother is in pre primary and his teachers are spending a lot of their time teaching him to count to one hundred and print his name and other words.”

Although various education departments may not say so, the advent of NAPLAN also caused them to start gathering data on pre primary children in order to identify any problems that would affect their NAPLAN results in year three. The Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) also collects data from pre primary children every three years. In Western Australia, pre primary early development data was collected in 2009 and again this year.

At this stage it must be pointed out that NAPLAN does provide some useful information to teachers about a child’s performance and where the child and the class stand in relation to the rest of that age group and where their class rates alongside similar schools. Of course, over a school year, teachers gather a great deal of data about child and class achievements, it’s just that NAPLAN results are the ones that parents and the wider community are fixed on. It is this public use of NAPLAN results to determine a school’s “success” which is the inherent problem. Parents are often more influenced by the NAPLAN test results than they are by the class teachers mid year  and end of year reports. They receive the NAPLAN results  in September/October which refer to one off tests  given in May. The school's reports, issued in June and December are up to the minute reflections of the child's achievement in the eight learning areas based on work over the  first semester and second semesters.

Similarly, the collection of AEDI data in pre primary will have benefits for the 25% of children identified in Western Australia this year with various factors that could inhibit their NAPLAN results in year three.

As one anonymous mother blogged recently, “When Literacy and Numeracy tests were introduced I thought it was about addressing inequalities, so when my child sat the tests I joked with the other mothers that we should give our children chocolates for breakfast so that they performed badly and the school would receive more money...some laughed, some were horrified. What I failed to realise is that NAPLAN is picking up on parents’ greatest strength and their greatest weakness, their desire for their child to do the best they can. While the test is a blunt instrument in measuring educational achievement, some parents are treating it with all the reverence of a religion.”

Amanda Holt is a qualified early childhood teacher and the director of an Early Childhood Care and Education Centre. She says, “If you think NAPLAN is bad, try the AEDI. I have early childhood parents wanting us to prepare their children so that they can “pass” their AEDI “test”. I then explain that the children prepare themselves through participating in play activities which are inviting, engaging, complex and supportive of their level of development.”

Dr Ramesh Manocha is a GP and PhD who specialises in mental health. He works in the School of Women’s Health and Children’s Health at Sydney University and is the Chairman and Founder of the online health forum, Generation Next.

In June this year, Dr Manocha wrote an online article entitled “The pressures of kindergarten.” He says that these pressures are real and that kindergarten is moving far away from “the garden for children’ envisaged by the visionary 19th century German educator, Frederich Froebel. Manocha refers to the proliferation of early learning centres that are getting children ready for “the pressures of kindergarten.”

“Where is this pressure coming from? The government? NAPLAN? Parents? The Economy? I do not know if there is one answer, but we should never be speaking of the pressures of kindergarten”, says Dr Manocha.

He says that there is mounting evidence to suggest that we are sending our children to school at too early an age. Working parents may not agree with him, but if we look at Finland, which invariably tops the OECD education lists, children do not start formal schooling until they are seven years old. Finland also does not have any standardised test, except for the one at the end of secondary schooling which is the equivalent of our old style Leaving or TEE exams.

Although Dr Manocha is not sure why pressures are being felt in kindergarten, early childhood teachers are already putting the blame squarely on the need for schools to improve their NAPLAN scores. At the end of first semester this year, I attended a huge school assembly to farewell the school’s Pre Primary teacher. She was not retiring because of age or ill health; she had in fact resigned because, for her, early childhood education was becoming far too formal. I listened, teary eyed, as her students, ex-students, fellow teachers, parents and community members sincerely thanked her for the wonderful impact that she had had on them and the lives of all of the children in her care.  Teenagers, some of whom she had taught twelve years ago, turned up to express their gratitude and to recall with great pleasure, not only what this wonderful teacher had taught them, but, more importantly, how “special” she had made them all feel. Like me, everyone present was affected by these emotional outpourings, but I was also saddened to think that such a brilliant teacher, a pre primary teacher Par Excellence, was lost to future generations because of the system’s pressure to push formal literacy and numeracy learning into the lives of our very young children.

 And it is so unnecessary. In 2009, as NAPLAN was being introduced in Australia, The Cambridge University Review of Primary Education was published. This is the most comprehensive review of primary education ever undertaken anywhere in the world. One of the Cambridge Review’s chief findings was that universal standardised testing of literacy and numeracy narrowed the curriculum and was not in a child’s best interests.

In that same year, in the USA, Dr Diane Ravitch published her bestselling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System”. The book’s subtitle was “How testing and choice are undermining education”.

Dr Ravitch should know about these things. She was the Assistant Secretary for Education in the administration of President George Bush the First. She was instrumental in setting up the U.S. federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” project, which established a nationalised literacy and numeracy testing programme and established Charter Schools to focus specifically on raising standards in literacy and numeracy.

President Clinton later appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board which supervised the national testing programme. Failing schools were closed down and the principals and teachers were sacked.

However, after examining the evidence of the national testing programme, Dr Ravitch has now had a 180 degree conversion. She now regrets sacking so many principals and teachers because their schools did not measure up. She now says, “poverty, not poor teaching, is the major cause of failure in schools.” Interestingly, in Australia the various state education departments can predict with great accuracy how well or otherwise a school will perform in NAPLAN tests. They use a socio-economic index based on the school’s demographic to accurately predict school performance. In other words, schools in the leafy green suburbs will always do better than those on the other side of the tracks.

Dr Ravich backs her argument against standardised testing with hard evidence and is severely critical of the highly touted results of the New York school system. The New York school system was administered by Joel Klein (a lawyer) in the 2000s. It had a major focus on literacy and numeracy testing. It is the education system that so impressed our then Education Minister, Julia Gillard, when she was in New York one day, that it set her mind to establishing what eventually became NAPLAN.

But Diane Ravitch produces data to refute the achievements of New York’s education programmes which shows New York college students compare poorly against students from other states who enjoy a broader curriculum.There is also some evidence that New York schools fudged (cheated) on their results.

Dr Ravitch says that school accountability, based solely on standardised testing, has been a disaster. It encourages schools and teachers to teach to the test and devote less and less time to science, social studies, history, geography, foreign languages, art, music and drama. Why wouldn’t they. Their jobs depend on it.

Dr Ravitch says that in the 1990s she was optimistic “that testing would shine a spotlight on low performing schools and that choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools.” Sound familiar. The problem was that it did not turn out that way.

She now says, “There is little empirical evidence...just promise and hope” and is convinced that schools operate better “in an atmosphere of cooperation, not competition.”

With NAPLAN being touted as the benchmark for school achievement, Australian schools are now competing against each other. In some schools even the teachers are competing against each other. Some schools principals use NAPLAN results as a blunt performance management tool on teachers whose classes are producing lack lustre NAPLAN results.

Obviously, it would be prudent to take heed of the Cambridge Primary Review, which clearly outlines the aims of primary education and the best ways of achieving them. It would also be prudent to study Dr Ravitch’s book so as to avoid the pitfalls of a heavy reliance on nationalised testing.

Unfortunately, in Australia, teachers are not politically powerful and our education system is controlled by politicians who generally make decisions based on what gets the most votes, not on what is in the best interests of our children...and ultimately, our country. The late Dr David Mossenson, a highly esteemed and very effective Director General of Education in Western Australia in the 1970s, was once heard to say, “I spent the first half of my career trying to get politicians interested in education and the second half trying to get them out of it.”

We can only hope that some Australian educators will acquaint themselves with the evidence presented by the Cambridge University Review and “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System” and try to influence our politicians before our primary children are completely deprived of the wider curriculum that they previously enjoyed and before our kindergarten and pre primary children are further burdened with the pressures of formal education.

In our primary schools and early childhood centres “enjoyment” should be the operative word. We have all heard the horror stories about children being sick on NAPLAN test day. Perhaps some teachers and school principals have even felt sick on NAPLAN Day too?.

Interestingly enough, the Cambridge Review does recommend an accountability system. It says there should be regular testing of randomly selected children in order to ascertain overall performance levels in various subjects.

Bingo! This was the very system that was so successfully employed by the Western Australian Education Department up until the late 1990s when a conservative federal Minister for Education, Dr David Kemp, using the extortionate tactics of Al Capone, threatened to withhold federal funding unless the W.A. state government introduced universal testing.

Neither Dr Kemp nor Dr Nelson had any background in teaching or education. Our previous education minister, Julia Gillard, is a lawyer. The present Minister for Education used to sing in a rock and roll band.

We should all be praying that one day we can have someone with real teaching experience making the important decisions that will impact on children in our primary schools and early childhood centres. It is to be hoped that more and more educators, like Professor Michael Nagel and Dr Ramesh Manocha, will speak out strongly against speeding up children’s formal development and stress the benefits of letting  them enjoy their childhood.

In the meantime, we can only wait and see what troubles lie ahead as the children who are being robbed of their childhood today grow into their mature tomorrows. I wonder if they will look back fondly and thank us for the way we made them feel?


  1. Welcome to the blogosphere!
    You may want to make the font a little bigger on this post. Looking good.

    1. Thanks, Jane
      I'll try tomake the font bigger.

  2. "we can only wait and see what troubles lie ahead as the children who are being robbed of their childhood today grow into their mature tomorrows"... could not agree more, Noel. When the impact of NAPLAN tests are added to the fact that children are being increasingly diagnosed with 'oppositional defiant disorder' and 'intermittent explosive disorder' (I'm not making this up: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/theyre-also-walking-ieds-as-problem-students-make-new-names-for-themselves/story-e6freoof-1226453273919?sv=d7ddb2612555dc51f1a717caaa739bb3)and parents who don't give a damn about anything except maintaining their drug supply, it's easy to see why teaching has become a very unattractive job. I spoke today to an old colleague who was on 'stress leave' because she couldn't cope with seven or eight of her Year THREE students telling her to 'f... off' all the time and throwing things at her. She said she had coped with it for a while, with zero support from the school admin, until the principal told her that it was all her fault, that she didn't keep them busy enough with formal work, and that they were just being kids.
    I went back to trying to relief teach last term, but had to stop again because I was told to 'f... off' by aggressive, defiant students too many times for blood pressure to keep up with... the last straw was the principal removing a particularly recalcitrant little petal and... taking him on a reward fishing trip for a group of kids who had behaved themselves all term!!!!
    So many of the students you taught at Graylands have left teaching - mainly because the Department and their political masters don't care and a rapidly increasing number of the kids are turning into nasty little self-obsessed, opinionated monsters who don't care - about anyone or anything, including themselves. Used to be you'd have seven or eight in a school who were 'problems' Now, teachers are expected to deal with seven or eight in a class especially in schools on the other side of that proverbial railway line!
    I am sad that I have been forced to walk away from a job I once loved, just like the teacher you speak of (though I wasn't the great teacher she sounds like she was). I left full time teaching in 2004 and said to colleagues at the time that I was extremely concerned about what was being wrought by economic rationalism in our schools and the driving need to measure everything and compare them against a set of magic numbers. Sigh... I hat to say it, but I think I was right - and I think you are, too!

    1. Hello peter
      i still do abit of practice supervision and fortunately i have nmot come up against students that you describe, although I am sure they are out there. i do see lots of overworked teacjhers dealing with students who have all sorts of problems, autism, adhd, deafness, blindness, obsessive compulsive/bi polar.
      Unfortunately it seems that Julia gillard has turned the Gonski Report into a teacher bashing exercise. What is needed is more and more support for teachers dealing with the "needy" children in their classes. Where is Gough Whitlam when you need him? He poured money into school according to their needs, which is where Gonski money should be going.
      Best wishes, Peter.

  3. excellent post! welcome to blog land!!

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I am going to need surgery to get this iPad out of my hanfds.


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