Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Literacy taught by illiterates

By Christopher Bantick

It is not just this newspaper that is questioned by Ilana Snyder over its position on literacy. In her book The Literacy Wars: Why Teaching Children to Read and Write is a Battleground in Australia, I am cited several times, and not because I have written on this page. I do hold the view that literacy can be taught with rigour and tested for performance. Snyder suggests: "It was the Murdoch paper's crusade against contemporary approaches to literacy education that motivated me to write the book. In recent years, The Australian's in-house opinion shapers have been accorded astonishing privilege and power. Their goal has been to dictate a reactionary model for the secondary-school curriculum. It is time to hold them to account." But while Snyder can attempt to marginalise The Australian's role in the literacy debate, this is misleading.

It is not my intention to examine and dismiss Snyder's often fatuous, niggardly arguments in her intemperate book. The point here about Snyder and fellow travellers who endorse the view that literacy is an experience rather than a learned discipline is that opposition of any kind - call it conservatism - is ridiculed. It is a neat ploy to say that the so-called Right, for which this newspaper is supposedly a mouthpiece, is narrow and prescriptive in its appreciation of literacy. The enemy has been identified. Meanwhile, those on the Left are expansive, welcome new ideas, are progressive and embrace theory. But this is a deceptive argument.

Literacy transcends the Right or Left positions. It is critics such as Snyder who wish to reduce it to the old Left-Right debate. Moreover, if opinion is even marginally conservative, it is immediately treated as suspect. The problem with Snyder's reductive argument is that she denies the reality that literacy education in Australia is in serious trouble. There are many children who cannot read, write, spell, understand grammar, construct a clear sentence and punctuate with meaning. The reason is palpably obvious.

The students accepted into university teaching courses are often simply the leavings, the lees if you like, after the better students have opted to undertake more prestigious and ambitious degrees. One has only to look at the entrance scores for teaching, some as low as 56, to see that high-flyers are not entering the classroom. The result is teachers who are not proficient in literacy are teaching children. Is it any wonder that Australia is producing illiterate children when they are taught by illiterates? It is for this reason that the NSW Government has introduced tests for five-year-olds in literacy and numeracy from this year in an attempt to head off early learning difficulties. It makes sense.

The reality is that literacy instruction in Australia has been of questionable quality for decades. It is also easy to trace the decline in proficiency to the introduction of progressive, child-centred, jargon-based theory that took over many Australian classrooms during the 1970s. What Snyder and the strident voices of the Left do not grasp, or seem to care about, is that if children are not taught literacy, then they are effectively disenfranchised for life.

Recent research by Australian National University economists Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan, entitled How Has School Productivity Changed in Australia, points out that today's teenagers are less literate than those of the '60s. The reason is simple: poor teaching.

While Kevin Rudd makes much of his so-called education revolution, which is supposedly going to leap off a laptop keyboard, he has been noticeably silent on the much harder question: will the federal Government be insistent that schools lift their literacy standards? Before the election, Rudd promised to publish primary and secondary school results in reading and writing and numeracy in years three, five and nine. Earlier this month Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Julia Gillard, when referring to the national action plan for literacy and numeracy, said: "The Rudd Government understands that literacy and numeracy are the building blocks of a good education." Well, prove it.

The Rudd Government needs the will and preparedness to take on the entrenched interests in university education departments that work against structured, phonetically based language instruction. It should expose where literacy instruction is deficient and take necessary remedial action. This can be measured by a published state-by-state, school-by-school comparison. But these results should not ossify hidden in some departmental journal but be published in newspapers, much as the Year 12 results and school rankings are done in Victoria. It will soon become evident why it is that some schools in the same socioeconomic band, with the same cohort of children, are doing better than others. This does two things: expose the schools and expose deficient teachers.

While Snyder's book will be welcomed by the literacy luvvies as a justification for their failure to instruct children properly, the truth is that the Left resists accountability. Do parents really care about the literacy wars? Hardly. They just want their children to learn to read and write.


The English are fleeing Britain for Australia

More British people are moving to Australia than ever. For the first time, Australia is the preferred destination for British emigrants, more popular than America and the Med. In 2006-7, 23,223 British people emigrated to Australia, according to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship; of the total, 3,837 were members of families who had uprooted, and 18,115 were "skilled migrants" granted resident visas under the more relaxed residential points system. The figure is double that of a decade ago, and compares with 18,000 in 2004. British people make up almost a quarter of foreigners applying for Australian citizenship: in 2005-6, Australian citizenship was conferred on 103,350 people from over 175 different countries. Of those, people of British origin numbered 22,143, or 21.4% of the total.

Hundreds of thousands of British people go to Australia every year - for a holiday, a long-term stay, or to test the waters prior to emigrating. In the 12 months to July 2007, nearly 200,000 native British citizens packed their bags for Australia, the highest number to leave since the heavily subsidised mass emigration Down Under in the 1960s (1 in 12 Britons now lives abroad, a total of about 5.5m, according to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research).

And the British easily top the census lists of foreigners resident in Australia and eligible to apply for citizenship. In 2001 they numbered 346,000, or 36.9% of the total ahead of the New Zealanders with 204,900 and Italians with 44,200. In fact, a quarter of a million British people (245,311) living in Australia claimed a British pension in 2006.....

Local trades, too, such as plumbing, electrical services, building and bricklaying, are in need of skilled labour, and often advertise in Britain. While the salaries are about the same as in the UK, their purchasing power is greater because the cost of living in Australia is lower. Others go in search of love, or the promise of it. Australia's outback regions are severely short of women, especially "young wife fodder", said one farmer.

Many recent newcomers are middle-class professionals with young families, drawn by an immigration policy that appeals to the highly skilled. Australian cities fiercely compete for the most talented. Among last year's British emigres were a Sikh family - the father an investment banker, the mother a dentist - who settled here, their third country of residence, to enjoy better prospects and a more child-friendly environment.....

In the 1950s, over 90% of Australians saw themselves as proudly British or Irish, regardless of whether they traced their lineage to a Georgian pickpocket, an East End prostitute, a declasse aristocrat, a potato-famine refugee or a family of graziers (cattle herders) and squatters.

Today's influx has subtly different motives for emigrating: they tend to be pursuing a realisable dream, rather than escaping a nightmare. Asked why they emigrated, most cite: sun and coastal living, lots of space, affordable housing (outside city centres), a generally reliable public health system, good, cheap schools, many jobs and relative security. They are also drawn by some of the world's last unspoilt natural wildernesses, ie, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Tasmania, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. Holidays to exotic South Pacific islands - Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia - are relatively cheap and a few hours away.

But the latest wave of emigrants are motivated by deeper social and economic impulses. Christopher Wade, the director of British Council Australia, said: "Australia has a great work ethic, but a very good after-work ethic too." He especially admires the "fair go" and egalitarian spirit. This is best expressed, he said, in the culture of "volunteerism": for example, many parents commonly coach their children's sports teams. There is such a thing as a community here, Wade insists.

Of course, it is Wade's job to talk up the Australian-British relationship. But the nation's rude economic success and political stability are strong magnets. During the past 15 years, Australia's standard of living has risen constantly and in 2006 it surpassed that of all Group of Eight countries except the US, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since 1990, Australia's real economy grew by an average of around 3.3% a year, coupled with low inflation averaging around 2.5% (however, it recently exceeded the Reserve Bank's threshold, driving up variable interest rates to a mortgage-busting 8.97%, and rendering the cost of inner-city homes, as a multiple of income, less affordable than that of any other developed nation). There are jobs aplenty, however: the rate of unemployment fell from a peak of nearly 11% in 1992 to below 5% last year - its lowest level since the early 1970s.

The unprecedented Asian, chiefly Chinese, demand for Australia's mineral resources is behind this boom. Australia has some of the world's largest coal, iron ore and uranium reserves, and is one of the biggest gold and diamond producers. Western Australia, lavishly endowed with natural gas and minerals, is enjoying the biggest mining-led surge in its history, and Perth is one of the most expensive cities.

Buttressing that success is the world's oldest continuous democracy. At first glance, Australian standards of public debate suggest an Anglo-Celtic version of Italy's saloon-bar atmosphere. Yet the nation's raucous politicians - witness the Welsh-born deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, herself the daughter of 10-pound poms, who last year called an opponent "a snivelling little grub", and the former prime minister Paul Keating, who regularly emerges from retirement to toss in a little more rebarbative Aussie wit (the former treasurer Paul Costello, he said last year, was "all tip and no iceberg") - are constrained by a parliamentary system that draws on the best of the Westminster tradition and the English and Scots enlightenment. The November 2007 general election was a sublime example of Australian democracy. When the incumbent prime minister, John Howard, lost the election - and his seat - after 11 years in power, the leadership shifted seamlessly to Labor's Kevin Rudd. Thanks to the compulsory system of preferential voting, the transition was gracious, popular, representative and bloodless....

Gratitude is never far away, either. More Australians seem to realise how good they've got it, and how hard won. Every year more than 10,000 young Australians gather on the shores of Gallipoli on Anzac Day to commemorate the fallen Australian troops. The Kokoda Track and Milne Bay in Papua - the battleground on which Australian forces, many of them untrained militia, first defeated the imperial Japanese army on land - is now considered to be hallowed turf.

And as I watched younger Australians and British backpackers dance in the New Year and partying on the beaches of Sydney, it occurred to me that perhaps Britain had made a terrible mistake - surely they should have left the convicts at home and emigrated?

More here

Bureaucracy hopeless at dealing with black problems

West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope has painted an appalling picture of life as a Kimberley Aborigine, revealing billions of dollars wasted as a result of confused government policy, attacking a lack of leadership in indigenous affairs and criticising the "seriously flawed" delivery of health and education services to remote communities.

In handing down his long-awaited 212-page report into the deaths of 22 Kimberley men and women - including the suicide of an 11-year-old boy - Mr Hope said the plight of the indigenous children of the region was "especially pathetic" and described their future as bleak. He was particularly scathing of the performances of government agencies in health and housing and the "inexplicable" suicides of 21 young Kimberley Aborigines in 2006, a jump of more than 100 per cent from the previous year. "In addition to commonwealth funding, the state is providing $1.2 billion each year for services and programs targeted to indigenous people in Western Australia ... in spite of this allocation of funding, conditions are getting even worse for Aboriginal people in the Kimberley and the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is now a vast gulf," he said.

Claiming the state Department of Indigenous Affairs "is not, and never has been capable" of providing leadership in addressing the problem, he also attacked the Department of Child Protection which acted in a "reactive rather than proactive" manner.

The first of his 27 recommendations calls on the commonwealth and state governments to jointly appoint an organisation or individual to lead efforts and take responsibility for improving conditions. "In simple terms, it appears that Aboriginal welfare, particularly in the Kimberley, constitutes a disaster, but no one is in charge of the disaster response," Mr Hope said.

The report sparked immediate action from the state Government, with Premier Alan Carpenter reshuffling his cabinet to clear the decks of Indigenous Affairs Minister Michelle Roberts to allow her to concentrate on the report and implement the findings.

Mr Hope wants some remote communities assessed to find out if they are sustainable before more taxpayer dollars are invested in them. If they are found to be sustainable, a "real commitment" should be made to support them. He also recommended allowing the Department for Child Protection to decide whether parents of at-risk children should receive food vouchers and value cards for approved purchases such as groceries and clothing, stopping them from spending cash on alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography. Mr Hope, who was visibly appalled by the lack of food and poor hygiene he saw during his visit to the squalid homes of Aboriginal people in Fitzroy Crossing last October, also recommended teaching home-maker skills and providing basic furniture. Mr Hope also wants to retain the Community Development Employment Project under which Aborigines effectively work for the dole for four hours a day. He recommended extending Fitzroy Crossing's ban on full-strength takeaway alcohol to other Kimberley towns.

Child health expert Fiona Stanley - the 2003 Australian of the Year - called on the Government to act swiftly, saying the report could not afford to gather dust on a shelf. "We need to make sure that people are accountable and I think possibly the Coroner didn't go far enough with that," she said. "We should be saying that the directors-general of all of those services have two major commitments, one is to deliver the services, and if they don't, there should be some retribution for that. The other thing they have to do is deliver those services collectively."

Labor MLA Tom Stephens, who was instrumental in having the deaths investigated, said the Kimberley Aborigines were "heading into hell" and their situation could worsen before it improved.

The Carpenter Government defended its work, claiming its efforts and achievements had been under-estimated. "There is no superficial answer to the dysfunction and the alienation and the disadvantage in a lot of Aboriginal communities," Mr Carpenter said. "If there were a simple answer then that answer would have been put in place a long time ago."

Ms Roberts admitted hundreds of millions of dollars would need to be spent to address the problems identified by the Coroner. She said the extra $47 million spent at Halls Creek in the past two years was the sort of spending now needed to be replicated across a range of other towns in the Kimberley and also the Pilbara and Goldfields...

Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre co-ordinator Wes Morris - who lobbied the Coroner for the inquest - said the report was a milestone contribution to the well-being of Aboriginal people in the region. Mr Morris said he was pleased that Mr Hope had recognised the incompetence of state and commonwealth government agencies...


Your regulators will protect you (NOT)

Children abused, lost in day care

CHILDREN have been abused, battered and abandoned in childcare centres across Victoria. A Herald Sun investigation found more than 53 children and babies have been mistreated or lost in three years. Some were subjected to shocking and illegal punishments. One carer picked babies up by one arm and dropped them on the ground to discipline them. Toddlers at two centres had their mouths taped shut. A five-year-old at one centre was put in a nappy and placed in a cot as a disciplinary measure. The lives of five youngsters were put at risk by medication mix-ups. And 25 children, as young as 17 months, roamed free from centres.

The revelations come as the State Government delays a critical review of staff levels. Victoria has the worst ratio of qualified staff to children in the nation. Even so, the Brumby Government granted 134 exemptions to staff requirements last year.

Documents obtained by the Herald Sun reveal investigations into 45 incidents led to cautions against 24 centres from 2004-06 - but their names cannot be revealed. The Government refuses to identify the centres, claiming it would be a breach of confidence and inhibit its capacity to collect such information in future. The Herald Sun was given access to executive briefings on cautions after a four-month Freedom of Information battle and a demand for $1000 in charges. Only four centres were prosecuted in the same period - all for allowing children to wander off.

One carer said many incidents went unreported, despite mandatory reporting laws. "Some parents are never even told of incidents involving their children," the carer said. The documents show unreported incidents, including force feeding babies, were uncovered during other investigations. A worker accused of smacking three children, pushing one off a swing, pinching another and pulling a child's hair, was allowed to continue to work under supervision because the claims could not be proved. The worker who dropped babies on the ground and force fed them was sacked. Claims the same worker hit a baby with a laminated sheet could not be substantiated. The documents also show:

A CRYING boy was found locked in a small cupboard when his father came to collect him.

A CHILD spent a night in hospital after being given 15 times the required amount of medication.

CHILDREN at one centre were left unattended in fenced-off areas.

STAFF at another centre were instructed not to comfort crying children.

Childcare worker Bronwen Jefferson - whose daughter Miranda, 3, is in care - said parents had a right to expect their children to be properly cared for. "You want to think when you drop your child off that they will be safe. "But the ratio of childcare workers to children in Victoria is not adequate . . . you'd have to be superhuman to carry out that all day diligently." Centres should have one qualified carer for every five infants up to two years old, and one carer for every 15 youngsters aged three to five.

"I hear from our members repeatedly that it's just too hard to look after that many children and they're completely burnt out," union boss Jess Walsh said. "It's not just a matter of ratios, it's the other tasks, such as cleaning, that staff are required to do." Staff are also in short supply, with the award wage for a qualified carer of three or more years' experience being $39,401.

The Government promised to review staff levels before current childcare regulations expired in May. But just four days before Christmas, centres were told the rules would remain in place another year to allow for "further consultation". Opposition children and early development spokeswoman Wendy Lovell said the Government has had eight years to review the rules.

Children and Early Development Minister Maxine Morand said Victoria had Australia's most robust on-the-spot inspections regime. "There were more than 4000 on-the-spot inspections last year," Ms Morand said. She said the Government planned to strengthen laws to let parents check safety records on line and to boost the power of inspectors and stiffen penalties. Ms Morand said staffing exemptions were vital to keep some centres open. "We will work hard to make sure Victoria gets its fair share of the fully funded 8000 new early childhood TAFE places promised by the new Rudd Government," she said.

A Department source said there was a reluctance to prosecute centres because the bad publicity would place further strain on already over-stretched services. "If the public heard what happened at some centres there would be a stampede to get kids out," the source said.

One of the four centres prosecuted was the ABC centre at Hoppers Crossing, where an autistic toddler with a fascination for cars was almost run over in busy Werribee Park Plaza car park after wandering unnoticed from care. The boy was rescued by a motorist 25 minutes after he disappeared. Police found a two-year-old playing in the middle of a busy street when he crossed rail tracks after walking from a centre at Trackside Sporting Centre in Hampton. The centre, which was operating without a licence despite being told three years earlier that it needed to get one, has since closed. A four-year-old who dodged cars to cross busy Bourke Rd after leaving Samantha's Child Care in Camberwell was found by police metres from his home.


Government sorry over 'mutilation doctor'

"Your government will look after you", once again

The NSW Government says it is sorry, but it can't yet explain why a doctor banned from obstetrics was able to continue performing operations which allegedy left many women mutilated. Dr Graeme Steven Reeves is alleged to have mutilated or sexually abused as many as 800 patients. The NSW Medical Board ruled in 1997 that Graeme Stephen Reeves "suffers from personality and relations problems and depression that detrimentally affects his mental capacity to practise medicine". The board ordered him to stop practising obstetrics, but he defied the ban and took up a position in 2001 as a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist for the Southern Area Health Service, working at Bega and Pambula hospitals. He was struck off the medical register in 2004.

NSW Health Minister Reba Meagher was today asked by reporters how Dr Reeves had continued to practise when hospital and nursing staff must have known about the type of surgery he was performing. "I don't know what was known then by others around Dr Reeves, but I do know this Government radically overhauled the Health Care Complaints Commission to ensure a greater level of protection for patients that have complaints," Ms Meagher said. Since 2005, hospitals had taken greater care in confirming a doctor's references with the NSW medical board, which has increased its transparency in relation to deregistered doctors.

The NSW Government and police have begun investigations following new allegations about Dr Reeves but it will be some time before authorities determine how he was able to continue to practice as an obstetrician and gynaecologist. "I can't explain that," Ms Meagher said. "But what I can assure the women who are coming forward now is that we will support them in every way we possibly can. "I am sorry that they have had such an awful, awful experience at the hands of somebody who was not fit to deliver a medical service."


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