On Funding and Finessing

All schools welcome extra funding, but it is how we spend it that matters.

The National Centre for Vocational Educational Research (NCVER) has recently produced a  report that includes pertinent findings, including factors that influence student choice to attend university.

Kim Cull, from AHISA, wrote recently about this report: “The fact cited in the NCVER report that attendance at non-government schools is a positive influence on the probability of students going to university for any given TER means that good student outcomes are not, we believe, a simple matter of funding. It’s a timely message that governments should look at all those factors that have led to student success.”

Prior to becoming a principal, I ran the M.Ed. program at St. Martin’s College, University of Lancaster, U.K. One part of the role was to visit experienced teachers in situ to observe and converse with them regarding their classroom practices. The Blair government had spent a considerable amount of money on employing teaching assistants to support the development of numeracy and literacy in the classroom. Our M.Ed. program had a course called Working with Others which aimed to assist teachers to make the best use of these assistants.

It seems like a great idea: one to one help for students who struggle; and close support for and supervision of students with learning needs. In my time in U.K., however, I observed that it proved to be an expensive program that didn’t achieve the desired outcomes. I note four main reasons:

  • The assistants, whilst trained, were not equipped to really assist the students. Many of them felt a pressure to help their student by doing their work for them.
  • Many students developed skills in getting their assistant to do their work for them. The program subtly encouraged students to be passive: the assistant was constantly taking the lead, trying to encourage/persuade/coerce the student to do the work. Many times I observed the assistant leading the student through the process without the student doing much thinking at all.
  • Even though the teachers wanted the program to work, they had many other students in the class who sought their attention. Despite the M.Ed. program and the willingness of teachers, it was very difficult for the teacher to properly lead the assistants.
  • The system thus became quite cumbersome. It relied on too many factors (teachers who needed to effectively lead a group of assistants, assistants who needed to be diligent in insisting on the students doing the learning, university support that was stretched, students accepting the help of an adult who was not the teacher, and the  sheer number of personalities in some classrooms).
Ironically, just down the road from some of the schools with the most assistants, I visited classrooms with one teacher, and some targeted support, that were working very effectively. The difference was the expectation on the student to think for herself.

I can’t comment with any authority on public or Catholic schools in Australia, but one of the cultural frameworks that is common to the best schools I visited in U.K. and to the great majority of the independent schools I know in Australia is the constant drive to enable the students to take charge of their learning. Teenagers need to be challenged. We should expect them to be able to do things. In general they like to test themselves.

Students with learning needs require support, but it is so very important that the teacher gets the students to do the thinking. I watch our teachers working with students with intellectual disabilities at PLC Sydney. They are effective because they inspire the students and because they make them take charge of their learning. Good teachers build student confidence by allowing them to learn to struggle, and by building a warm and inclusive classroom.

Jenny Gore’s four qualities of the effective classroom remain significant: effective teachers, a warm classroom climate, differentiation within the classroom, and connection  in learning to the real world.

Like many principals I welcome the recent emphasis on properly funding all schools. The question is: Can we spend the money effectively? The money itself is no guarantee of success. School tone is critical. School characteristics matter.