The Radford System and school-based assessment alone was not enough to guarantee that schools could deliver a curriculum that addressed all students’ needs and their preparedness for effective learning. At Redbank Plains High School, where I was principal 1989-1993, we introduced a vertical timetable to endeavour to foster self-paced learning. I argued there should never be a stigma attached to failure. Failure should always be a positive experience where the student learns from the mistakes, analyses the situation and progresses accordingly. If a Year 10 student at Redbank Plains was interested enough and capable of understanding chemistry at a senior school level, why should he or she be held back in that subject; just as a Year 9 student, talented enough to compose his or her own music, should be given the opportunity to study music at the senior examination level. Of course, the vertical time-table makes the reverse also possible, with a year 10 student from a non-English speaking home being welcome to participate in Year 8 English class for slow learners.
It is twenty years since I helped pioneer these innovations and I have since let my environmental, literary and sporting interests take me away from a concern with what is happening in our schools. So it may be judged that my perception of how schools operate now is indeed way off the mark, and this treatise may only echo the programs and ideas that drive the best modern Australian schools. Still I doubt that is the case and indeed the concerns raised in the Gonski Report suggest that I am more than likely correct. Sadly it is in the schools that serve the lower socio-economic populations where the inadequacy of educational resources and teaching facilities are most seriously demonstrated and where teachers need the most encouragement and support in addressing the problems of curriculum relevance and student engagement.
However it is not only the Gonski Report and its recommendations that have roused me to focus my thoughts on the need for reform in secondary education. I have been inspired by several recent talks presented on TED.com. Sir Ken Robinson has been the leader in the 2013 assault on the failings of the American education system. Their drop-out rates at secondary level are alarming, up to 60% in many jurisdictions. Several speakers note that, despite the increased money being poured into the system, pupils disengage because the schooling tries to tie them to fixed routines requiring them to sit passively through boring presentations of subject matter thought to be good for them. There is little or no fun and creativity is not given a chance. It is noted that Dance, so much a part of the culture of indigenous peoples and the underprivileged, is regarded as a fringe subject, the least significant of the Arts, and therefore rarely offered.
Robinson suggests there are three principles that should drive our education systems. Firstly human beings are naturally different and diverse so a broad based curriculum is essential. Secondly curiosity provides the spark to ignite meaningful learning. Schools must encourage questioning and inquiry as a way to open up the adventure of learning. And thirdly good teachers are the lifeblood of a good system. They must be valued and recompensed for engaging and mentoring students, not stifled in their efforts by bureaucratic demands such as the excessive data gathering testing regimes.