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‘Nonsense’ not to have a national school starting age

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The issue of whether to introduce a uniform school starting age across Australia has been put under the spotlight again as the country’s peak primary principals’ association revealed a plan to introduce a standard national starting age of five-and-a-half.

The Australian Primary Principals’ Association (APPA) wants the age to be standardised across all states and territories now a national curriculum has been developed.

Currently the various states and territory education departments control how old a child must be upon starting school and that age varies widely across the country.

Under the proposed plan, children would be at least five years old when they start school.

Many education professionals, such as Kathy Walker, are disappointed that a deal on a national school starting age is not being worked towards by the Federal Government.

Walker, one of Australia’s leading parenting and education experts, public speakers and authors, says she spends most of the year talking about school readiness, school preparation and transition to parents.

“One of the things I can categorically say is that with a national curriculum now in place and with the transient of parents moving between states and territories it is a nonsense not to have a national starting age,” Walker said.

“It’s really imperative for support and consistency for families, for children and for teachers.”

Walker says a higher school starting age, such as five-and-a-half, would ease the mind of parents instead of having them wonder whether their child is ready or mature enough.

“We need to become more aligned with most countries across the world, we have and continue to have one of the youngest age entries of school in the world at the moment and we have had for many decades,” Walker said. “It helps parents have a more definitive starting point, it gives children a few more months of maturity overall, and whilst there will always be some children on the continuum that may be requiring a little more time, it’s just an easier thing for families, easier for preschool teachers and easier for prep teachers.”

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The cost of timetabling

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What is the cost of your timetable? A simple question perhaps – but the answer is complex. When asked, most schools immediately think of either the cost of timetabling software, or else the cost in staff time and expense in performing the task of ‘doing’ the timetable. This is a very common but large misconception.

The true cost of timetabling is the solution. The cost of RUNNING your timetable is far more important than the cost of constructing it. The school must pay for their timetable every single day of the year, with the costs being many millions of dollars. What many schools misunderstand is that the running cost of a timetable is not a fixed quantity and can vary wildly based on the quality of the solution and how well trained the staff are that manage the ongoing timetable. Many think timetable running costs are largely fixed and known, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Timetable structures

Optimisations can be made in the structure of a timetable by setting the number of core classes, or how core and (smaller) prac classes merge together. Careful analysis of timetable structures to maximise class sizes within acceptable limits may well cut your costs by thousands. Do you need to build that extra science lab? Or instead just change your curriculum structures to improve occupancy rates on your existing lab rooms and other resources, at no extra cost?

Which elective classes should run?

Many schools are unaware of the huge impact that determining classes to run has on their bottom line, as well as educational aims. If enough students ask for a subject, it will usually run, but this is far from best practice and costs schools thousands, as well as affecting students’ educational opportunities.

What matters more is the preferential weight of students who can be granted these subjects, together with the likelihood they will actually complete the subject. If 15 students want Art, and 12 want Biology, and you had to cut one of these classes – which should go? If the group of 12 was much keener on Biology than the 15 are for Art, would this matter? What if five of the Biology group were suspected to leave next year anyway, and others in this same group were poor academic students? What if line structures were unable to grant any more than say 10 out of the 15 requests for Art? Would you still run Biology over Art?

Collapse classes

All schools know they can run two classes on a line so they can easily collapse to one class if numbers drop later in the year. But it is not ideal to run both classes in one line, as it reduces access to choice. Clever timetablers and clever software tools allow collapsing of classes ‘across lines’. This can be achieved in several ways, such as swapping students through subjects they take in other lines where there is more than one class of that subject, or by adjusting the lines themselves. So few know this is even an option yet it may just be a few clicks away given the right tools. How much could this save your school?

Save money on casual teachers

There are many ways to significantly reduce the expense of casual teachers with clever timetabling tools, and the right experience. Some clever cover systems support automatic covers of classes, as a good start point for smaller manual adjustments, and can ensure casual staff are utilised more efficiently. Active system prompting of on-call staff or available internal staff also helps schools cap their casual staff expense, as it is easier – or even automatic – to make best use of staff which don’t cost any more money. On-call rosters which are constructed efficiently will promote equity in subsequent allocations, as well as faculty diversity. This approach encourages better educational matching of covers to all subjects.

Many schools have special cover schemes in term four when Year 12 leave and these staff are free. Artificial restrictions on the class placement hinder the use and equity in these covers, but new approaches redistribute allocated ‘Meadowbank’ periods to better suit both staff and the school alike. This increases savings on casual expenses, but also provides better equity and cover placement to teachers – e.g. not on their busy days. Active prompting by a system of merge class opportunities also leads to great savings, as it reduces the number of classes which need to be covered.

‘Timetable’ cost of ownership

Big business always focuses on ‘total cost of ownership’ (TCO), but schools often don’t. TCO analysis includes total cost of acquisition and operating costs. The cost of a timetable is related far more to the solution quality, not the timetable software or labour costs to produce it. With more complex tools and well-trained and experienced timetablers, the TCO can be so much lower. The few areas of potential timetable savings listed above are just some in a long list. It is surprising how many different areas, or how significant the savings can really be, if you know how.

Timetabling: The black art

Oddly, there is no formal, independent certified training for timetablers. It is a black art, only handed down to a trusted apprentice every decade or so. Understood by very few, yet – like an air-traffic controller – they direct millions of dollars of school resources, and shape the educational lives of thousands.

You’d imagine educational entities would mandate standards for their school ‘air-traffic controllers’, in training, in software, in timetabling best practice – as published policy – and with organised conventions to bring school knowledge and industry together. Sadly there is no such focus. It remains a black art, which allows inefficiencies to foster. Who would know what opportunities are being lost in our schools, both financial and educational. This is the hidden cost of timetabling.

Where do I start?

There are simple, relatively inexpensive solutions to leveraging your existing resources for significant financial savings. Review your timetabling software, review your legacy scheduling practices. Get rid of the age old ‘we’ve always done it that way’ mentality – or even worse – a mindset that the timetable is a ‘job to be done’ rather than a creative opportunity to really make a difference. Focus far more on the quality of the solution, instead of just completion of a task. The timetable directs the sum total of all schools resources – scheduling makes all the difference.

Truly value your timetabler. Give them respect. Listen to their advice. Give them allowance time to do their job properly, or embrace assistance from external consultants in support, or curriculum reviews. Encourage staff to engage in ongoing industry training courses. Treat any costs for this as a sound investment paying real financial rewards, as well as delivering improved educational outcomes. Why not schedule in some discussion time now, and start changing your bottom line!

Chris Cooper is a director of Edval Timetables, and active in educational scheduling research. He is also the author of a government accredited textbook. Visit www.edval.com.au for more information.

Alcohol and drug resources for schools

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The Australian Drug Foundation’s Shop stocks the latest information to assist primary and secondary school teachers deliver new or complement their existing alcohol and drug education programs.

The Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) is one of Australia’s leading bodies committed to preventing alcohol and other drug problems in communities around the nation.

The Foundation reaches millions of Australians in local communities through sporting clubs, workplaces, health care settings and schools, offering educational information, drug and alcohol prevention programs and advocating for strong and healthy communities.

Educating students on alcohol and other drugs is as important as ever with research showing that one in five 16 and 17 year olds drink risky amounts of alcohol at least once a month. Another 36 per cent of 12 to 17 year olds drink to get drunk every time they consume alcohol.

Teachers are one of the greatest influences on children, second to their parents. They can talk about the risks and harms of alcohol and other drugs, and stress the importance of looking out for friends, avoiding risky situations and planning ahead.

ADF Shop resources aim to complement the delivery of state based education curriculum across Australia. Pamphlets and information on alcohol, caffeine, ecstasy, GHB, ice, tobacco, cocaine, cannabis among others provide an outline of the substance in an easy to read and visually attractive format. Resources include information about:

  • What alcohol or another drug is;
  • What it looks like;
  • The effects of the drug;
  • The law surrounding the drug; and,
  • Treatment options.

The ADF also has a SMS-based drug information service (0439 835 563) that provides information about the effects of drugs in a confidential and accessible way via mobile phone. The Shop stocks bundles of these wallet cards which outline the phone number students can text, any time of day, to get the effects texted back to them.

Teachers may find other services from the Australian Drug Foundation useful when hosting parent information sessions. TheOtherTalk.org.au encourages parents to openly discuss alcohol and drugs with their children by providing information on how to start the conversation, the law surrounding alcohol and drugs and safe partying tips.

You can view these resources and order online at shop.adf.org.au

References

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2011). Australian School Students Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey.

 

Queensland introduces new mandatory annual performance reviews for teachers from 2015

 

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A new mandatory teacher performance review process will be introduced in Queensland public schools from the start of the 2015 school year.

Queensland’s Minister for Education, Training and Employment John-Paul Langbroek said it would make sure every school teacher is performing at their best.

“This new performance process will make a real difference to our children by focusing on the most important person in their classroom – the teacher,” Langbroek said in a statement.

“The Government and the union recognise that great teachers play a critical role in giving young Queenslanders the educational experience they deserve and preparing them for the future.”

Queensland Teachers’ Union (QTU) President Kevin Bates said the agreed process emphasised the collegial nature of teaching and recognised the complex nature of the profession, although he added that it was important to focus on a wide range of data sources – not just student achievement.

“That’s a critical difference for us in terms of the agreed process, that it doesn’t unfairly over-emphasise a particular data source, that it embraces a wide range of data sources, and teachers and principals cooperatively have developed an approach that will see those real-time issues built-in to whatever process is undertaken,” Bates told Education Matters magazine.

“What this process is about is recognising professionalism, respecting the role that teachers play and it will be a negotiated process between teachers and principals that will outline a set of goals for professional learning and practice that teachers will embrace over the course of 12 months.”

Bates said the mandatory performance review process will build on the existing teacher performance review framework that has been in place in Queensland’s public schools since September 2012, but that has not been applied appropriately, or even at all, at every school.

“We’re hoping it will lead to engagement in professional development, supported by the school or the employer and by teachers in their own right, which is something teachers already do to a very large extent, particularly in their own time at their own cost,” Bates said. “That’s fundamental because you can’t expect growth unless there’s opportunities for learning that are going to be provided for teachers in this process.”

Langbroek said the annual review process will have three distinct phases: reflection and goal setting, professional practice and learning, and feedback and review. Alignment with the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers will provide benchmarks for the career stages to which teachers can aspire.

Aussie school achieves world-first International Certification

 

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Melbourne-based Mentone Girls’ Grammar has become the world’s first school to achieve International Certification through the Council of International Schools (CIS), headquartered in The Netherlands.

Mentone Girls’ Grammar was one of only 10 pilot schools chosen around the world to embark on the program that culminated in a CIS evaluation.

The school’s Principal, Mrs Fran Reddan, said the long journey originally started as a vision to be an Australian school with an international outlook that prepared global citizens, and it had already been doing work to bring the importance of being internationally-minded to the school community.

“What we wanted with the CIS [evaluation] was to really have a look at how we could measure whether we were developing global citizens and the degree to which the program in the school curriculum, and generally, was helping our students become international and intercultural,” Reddan told Education Matters magazine.

“The actual process took about nine or 10 months or so and the CIS provided us with a framework of reflection and analysis,” Reddan said. “We engaged our staff, our students, and the parents, along with hosting a serious of community workshops, and we finished with an intensive two-day evaluation from the CIS as part of this new accreditation process.

“One of the assets that really helped us achieve it was that we had a culture in the school of working in project teams, the staff really embraced the process and it was natural for us to set up projects to look at various aspects of our programs and curriculum as part of that assessment.”

Mentone Girls’ Grammar had already been providing opportunities for students internationally. The school strengthened its languages program by introducing Mandarin Chinese and extending its Japanese program from prep to year 12. It also established sister school partnerships formally with Japan and a relationship with a university in Japan, along with a sister school partnership with a Beijing girls’ school.

“We really challenged ourselves intellectually on committing to and developing a school-wide definition of global citizenship, and we’ve also developed some reporting against that for our school reports that look at how we measure those elements of that definition,” Reddan said. “We also have some really innovative curriculum mapping that we did to look at our existing curriculum, we have a deeper understanding of providing evidence of learning, a new system of recording processes, collaborative uses of ICT, and the staff, student and community engagement was really valuable.

“To learn that we were the first school to achieve International Certification, there was such a sense of community pride here, because people had worked very hard. It was challenging intellectually and it was challenging as a project management exercise. But in terms of school improvement and validation of what we’ve been working on strategically for quite a number of years, we feel that we’re on the right path, what we’re doing is important, that we’ve got an obligation to do it for students and we’re going to keep going. We’re very pleased, it was such an affirming process.”

The Council of International Schools (CIS) is now embarking on the second year of the pilot with a group of schools including, one in mainland China, working in partnership with an international school in Hong Kong, a bilingual (French/English) school in Toronto, some in the United States, others in Australia, one in England, and a bilingual (Spanish/English) school in Buenos Aires.