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High schools need academic ambience

Monday, 8th February, 2010

* Willyama High * Willyama High

By Peter Black

Whilst I remain a proud member of the NSW Teachers' Federation, I am on this occasion backing Julia Gillard on the issue of publishing data derived from Australia-wide testing of students in our schools. It is worth nothing that the Federation is not and never has been an affiliate of the Labor Party. That the Federation has taken a mother of a hiding on this issue is reflected in the 4.6 million computer hits recorded in the first 24 hours of the data being released.

The Federation was not the only one to get it wrong; Christopher Pyne, leader of the SA small "l" Liberals and their education spokesman simply did not believe the figure, and said so.

Locally, I have no hesitation in supporting parents, grandparents, and indeed the general public in their right to know the results with respect to our local schools, reflected in the fact that Irvine's newsagency had sold out of the Sydney Morning Herald, which published the results, by early afternoon last Friday week.

The community realised that Willyama had not done as well as the community might have expected, and the old High School was not much better. The issue before all of us who care about Broken Hill is how did the apparent decline in standards occur?

When Willyama was opened with Years 7, 8, 9 and 11 in 1974 it was led by Ted Smythe, a remarkable principal; former students might recall Laurie 'Pop' Shelton, an equally remarkable Science Master. In its early years its HSC results in the key subjects were excellent, a light year better than now; citizens might care to recall those HSC students who progressed in the sciences, and especially engineering, both locally at the WS and LB Robinson University College and away.

The two High Schools for many years enjoyed an undeclared but friendly competition between Ross Clark (old High School) and myself (Willyama) over the annual Year 12 results. But matters were to change in subsequent years; at Willyama firstly as a result of a reduction in period loadings in the junior school in key subjects so as to create a third elective line, and subsequently the introduction of the 'Day 6' timetable, both of which I opposed internally at the school.

A Question on Notice is to be asked in the NSW parliament as to how the 2009 HSC results compare with results achieved by the school 10, 20 and 30 years ago.

The loss of the period loadings per week in junior Science, Maths and English, so that the students might be better informed as to the lifestyles of Eskimoes, was accompanied by internal memos declaring that Science, Maths and English had over a given year the minimum number of hours required by the Department for face-to-face tuition

The Day 6 circumstance further exacerbated the situation.

The Department itself contributed statewide to the change for the worse by introducing 'Promotion on Merit' - as opposed to the old List system which required Department inspections - and by supporting the introduction of 4-year university Bachelor of Education qualifications as opposed to Bachelor courses in e.g. chemistry, maths or arts followed by one year teacher training.

These two steps together have significantly contributed to statewide discontent and suspicion of our schools which Julia Gillard is keenly aware of. Simply put, 'Promotion on Merit' involves an interview, for which In-service training (always a blue suit, never brown) is provided which takes little account of the teacher's actual classroom performance.

The process has resulted in too many grey people being promoted to positions which they should not hold, at the expense and disenchantment of many excellent teachers who would otherwise have found a position in the Stud Book for future promotion under the old system. The 'Bachelor of Education' experience has resulted in far too many teachers being, for example, asked to teach physics which they themselves have not studied since Year 10.

The NSW Teachers' Federation has also significantly contributed to the current circumstances in its support for 'incompetent' teachers; sacking a teacher now involves so much paperwork, meetings, counselling, tension and the like that most principals opt for the easier process of transferring the problem teachers to another school.

The final straw in all of this was the introduction of a requirement that each school publish an annual glossy report, which turned school principals into something akin to government Ministers in Question Time; firstly by observing the dictum that Question Time is not Answer Time, and, after observing that failure in anything has been abolished, announcing that 'students are achieving potential' (especially, apparently, those which we observe wagging school) and everything is rosy in the principal's garden.

The NSW Teachers' Federation has also significantly contributed to the current circumstances in its support for 'incompetent' teachers; sacking a teacher now involves so much paperwork, meetings, counselling, tension and the like that most principals opt for the easier process of transferring the problem teachers to another school. The final straw in all of this was the introduction of a requirement that each school publish an annual glossy report, which turned school principals into something akin to government Ministers in Question Time; firstly by observing the dictum that Question Time is not Answer Time, and, after observing that failure in anything has been abolished, announcing that 'students are achieving potential' (especially, apparently, those which we observe wagging school) and everything is rosy in the principal's garden.

The publication of the results including the ranking of Willyama at 444th High School in the State has, albeit erroneously, confirmed in the minds of many locals what they have suspected for some time; a suspicion which led to the imposition of a local zoning system so as to preserve enrolment numbers at Willyama. As Patron of the Central School, I was outraged when its traditional drawing area was reduced from Iodide Street to Oxide Street; locally at least one Primary Principal put "principal" in front of "principle" to effect Morgan Street Primary becoming a feeder school to Willyama High alone, when it had formerly been split between both High Schools.

The reaction to the "like it or lump it" imposition of the zones led to a number of South parents enrolling their children in 6th class at Railwaytown so that those children could proceed to the old High School, and a local school superintendent, with my strong support, signing off in his last week at his Broken Hill desk 36 out-of-zone enrolments which had been applied for by parents to the old High School. But don't despair - Julie Gillard is chucking a swag of Commonwealth money at Willyama for staff supplementation in an effort to improve the school's performance.

As a community, we frequently and sometimes passionately express our concerns with our water and electricity supplies and costs, our hospital receives regular mention in the BDT, but rarely the state of our schools. Somehow we need to reintroduce an academic ambience to both High Schools; the old High School for many years compared favourably with many city and especially country schools. Let's do it again.

AUSTRALIA DAY The flag raising component of our Australia Day celebrations is the serious part of the day, levity, speeches from invited guests and apologies rightly belong in the Hall. The flag raising ceremony is a civic occasion, Mayors are properly introduced by their General Managers or Deputies, the oration should by custom reflect on Australia, past, present and future, and, in our case, Broken Hill's contribution to the Nation, about which much can be said. The Mayor is our leader and spokesman, the oration should stand alone and include recognition of the first settlers to arrive in Australia in reflection of current protocol.

Opportunity is taken to reply to critical comments (BDT) made by a City Council employee some time ago concerning my attendance at local Australia Day functions when I was Member for Murray-Darling. I did attend one and was appalled to hear "Speedway" confused with "Speedboat" (Club) in one citation. I was never asked to speak at a local Australia Day function. In the Shires however I enjoyed a reputation as a reasonable public speaker, and accepted invitations to speak at Australia Day functions away. I well recall one day in the Murray Shire at a small village with a Hall boasting a brand new flagpole.

I have been queried as to why we have three flagpoles outside the Civic Centre; in former years, following the official flag raising ceremony, the Aboriginal and Broken Hill flags were also flown. It would however appear that the current location of the Broken Hill flag (actually the second, the first was stolen by an agile climber one night when the Civic Centre staff neglected to take it down) is now known. Perhaps somebody might know of their whereabouts.

I was delighted to be assured the Australia Day festivities next year will include a return to the Park. This year the assembly was simply expected to go home. In former years when the ceremony commenced at 10am many of those returning to the City from away for the occasion would cross to the Sturt Park for reunion purposes, many others would stroll to the Park. Finally, I don't know of anyone who does not want this Council to be a success, some of us desperately so. The large attendance this year was testimony to that feeling.

IMMIGRATION Broken Hill has a proud cultural and physical history based on the contributions of migrants from many lands; Jules DeBrenni recalls the 34 nationalities represented on his 1950s/1960s Good Neighbour Council. There were 33 nationalities represented on the 1981-1983 International Centenary Committee. I am one of many puzzled by the red-necks who would send the Tamils back to Tamil Land, wherever that is.

Compare that with what we did under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. Vietnamese brothel keepers, drug purveyors and worse who had collaborated with the United States were allowed to land in Darwin. Perceived by many of their countrymen as war criminals they faced an uncertain future if they had stayed in Vietnam. Many others who landed in Darwin have gone on to make a significant contribution to Australia. They were members of the Vietnamese comprador class originally founded by the French as its civil service, backed by the French mercenary Foreign Legion, who subsequently worked for the United States.

The Tamils are very different. How the Australian secret police (ASIO) can regard any as security threats to Australia is beyond me. In simple terms they are the vanquished who fought the Singalese for a homeland, one that was not provided by the British when they left Ceylon. The Tamils have had a presence in Australia for many years. They and their organisations enjoy the support of many parliamentary Labor members. Their numbers are not large, most certainly not in the same league as the Vietnamese.

Regrettably the Labor Party in the past was deeply divided on the question of Asian immigration. Post war Minister for Immigration (and subsequently Papal Knight and Leader of the Federal Opposition) Arthur 'Cocky' Caldwell infamously remarked that "Two Wongs don't make a white". We've come as a nation a long way since that era. All the Tamils want is a new start in a new land.

THE MENINDEE LAKES STORY (Continued) The vagaries of flows down the Darling has long been recognised, and was the lynch pin behind the 'Menindee Water Conservation Act' of 1949. The Act describes the Menindee Lakes Scheme as a storage facility to be constructed at an estimated cost of "2 million 300 thousand pounds and such estimated cost shall not, under any circumstances, be exceeded by more than 10 per cent". The Scheme did in fact run out of money in 1952 and was halted; the whole of the works were inundated in the 1956 flood.

A copy of the Act is available in our City Library, thanks to Brian Tonkin; its schedule details the work expected to be carried out in general items, vague at this distance in time. The time factor is however of great importance. Construction of the Scheme today would be all but impossible given the power of green groups such as the Western Rivers Alliance and their supporters who loudly proclaim "No New Weirs", and who cheerfully would see the whole of the 900-plus gigalitres now entering Lake Wetherall disappear down the Darling so as to flood the river's byways.

Clearly the Menindee Lakes Scheme has been a tremendous asset to the people of Broken Hill and Menindee, and irrigators upstream of Wentworth who are now accessing Murray River water which is being replaced by Darling River water at Wentworth for South Australian purposes.

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