Monday, March 18, 2013

The unmentionable:  Social class and education

Social background is an overwhelming determinant of educational achievement. Rich people are smarter and so are their children.  So for pupils living in wealthy suburbs, the social contacts you make are the main benefit of a private education

Public and private schools on Sydney's north shore have continued to achieve almost uniform high results in NAPLAN testing, a trend believed to be one factor driving the enrolments surge in local public schools.

The income that Wenona School, an independent school on the north shore, receives per student is almost three times what is received by Lindfield Public School. Yet the NAPLAN results achieved by their students are roughly the same.

Steph Croft, from the Northern Sydney Regional Council of Parents and Citizens Associations, said the My School data, first published in 2010, was helping to drive the surge in enrolments in the area's public schools, which has seen the highest growth of any region in Sydney over the last five years.

"There's a group of people who are choosing schools off the My School website and moving houses to get into the area for certain schools," she said.

A snapshot by Fairfax Media of government and non-government schools in the north shore region shows high results were achieved regardless of school sector in the 2012 NAPLAN tests.

From the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, known as Shore, where fees tipped $25,000 in 2013, to the public Mosman High School and the Catholic systemic school Blessed Sacrament, children in most grades achieved test scores significantly above the national average in reading in both year 3 and year 5.

The principal of Lindfield Public School, Craig Oliver, said he was not at all surprised his students were performing on par with their private school peers.

"If I was a parent of a child I was considering enrolling in a high-fee private school and I was making my decision on the basis of NAPLAN results alone, I would be considering the public school option was a very attractive one," he said.

"In terms of funding, we don't attract anything like the levels of funding the private schools do but we certainly do make the best of what we do have."

He said many of the families at his school could afford a private school education but chose to stay in the public system.

The headmaster of Shore, Timothy Wright, said it was not surprising the whole area was performing well.

"It's a well-known fact in educational research that literacy and numeracy performance does broadly correlate with socio-economic status … because it correlates with such things as parent education and parent commitment to education," he said.

"Without having done a scientific poll, I'd be confident to say that most of the students in my school have parents both of whom went to university."

He said schools in the area also tended to retain good teachers.

"Our staff turnover would be 3 [per cent] to 5 per cent in a typical year and I think stable staffing helps build strong academic cultures."

All of the schools had a similarly high score on the My School's website's Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage, which uses a range of data to rate the education and affluence of a child's family, as well as whether the school is in a regional or remote area and proportion of indigenous students.

Dr Wright said he was happy to see public schools doing well but believed Shore offered points of difference outside NAPLAN measures. "We would say our point of difference is in the breadth of our co-curricular and other activities that aren't necessarily available in all public schools."

Helen Proctor, from the faculty of education and social work at the University of Sydney, said parents were looking for more than just strong academic results and were often influenced by behaviour, networking, facilities and discipline.

"Why does someone buy a top-level BMW when a Holden can do the job?" she said.


Visa campaign exposes hypocrisy in PM's office

Julia Gillard's promised crackdown on 457 visas is symbolic and symptomatic of every problem that is dogging the Labor Party today. It is bound to the unions, divisive, deceptive and desperate.

The 457 visa allows business to bring to Australia workers they need and cannot get here. It allows Australian business to grow bigger and stronger and in that way protects Australian jobs. The visa doesn't Australians to be put at the back of the queue and the Prime Minister knows that. Her promise therefore is hollow.

A food processing firm might want to tender for supplying a product to a new or developing market overseas. That might require being able to install, quickly, some whiz-bang new imported high-tech machinery in order to meet the increased demand. Workers familiar with that machinery may be in short supply here. A 457 visa is the answer. By winning the tender, the jobs of all the Australians at the firm are more secure - but you might need the 457 visa holders to achieve that.

People on these visas have been brought in to help build the enormous infrastructure projects that our mining boom has generated. Others might come in to train some of our surgeons in new and highly advanced surgical techniques using new and highly advanced equipment.

In all sorts of industries there will some times be the need to overcome a general skill shortage or to meet a highly specialised and short-term skill requirement. A failure to fill that gap will weaken the company and consequently weaken the job security of everyone working there.

The benefits of the 457 visa are not limited to the private sector. State governments have benefited from being able to bring in the skills they need. The point is simply this: if we need it, we should be able to get it.

The unions have never liked this visa. Especially the unions that are backing Julia Gillard. She is not doing well in the polls and, either in return for the continuing support of some key unions or to shore it up, the Prime Minister announces a crackdown on the visa they dislike. Whoopee. Former and current union officials who feel the need to look powerful can tell all their mates that they "told the PM what she needed to do". But the jobs of Australian workers in companies that cannot get the skills they need to thrive are at risk.

Where are the examples of rorting of this visa? Labor tightened it up a few years ago . . . did they mess this up? Surely with the mining boom drawing skilled workers out of capital cities, we can understand that there will be skill shortages.

So in the first instance, Gillard's 457 announcement reminds us that the unions have too much influence over this government.

Not surprisingly, Pauline Hanson liked what she heard and may feel motivated to climb out of her political grave. Gillard has single-handedly reinvigorated the woman whose views were so offensive that John Howard disendorsed her from the Liberal Party.

We know that many members of the Labor caucus are not just uncomfortable but angry at the language the Prime Minister is using. Who can blame them? This was no simple dog whistle. She grabbed a megaphone and ran her words through the biggest amplifier she could find. The result was predictable. This announcement is yet another indication that this Prime Minister simply divides the Labor caucus.

Some say Gillard went down this path to try to distract voters from her failure to "fix" the continuing influx of boat people. Of course, after Kevin Rudd was knifed because the government had, in Gillard's words, "lost its way", this was one of the three policy areas that the new Prime Minister said she would fix. So in another way the 457 debate highlights one of Labor's major policy failures.

To allow the union tail to wag the government dog, to announce policy without any good reason, to divide the caucus, to breathe any life into Pauline Hanson and to highlight your own policy failure takes a fairly special gift. But wait, there's more.

When you employ someone from another country in your own office, as the Prime Minister does, it is hypocritical in the extreme to say that you will make sure Australians are at the front of the jobs queue and not left at the back. How did her communications chief, Scotsman John McTernan, get to the front of the queue in her office? Does she really want to say there is no one in Australia who has the qualifications to be in charge of her communications?

Australians are fairly laid back about many things, but not hypocrisy. If you say one thing and do another you arrogantly and mistakenly assume that electors are mugs. They are not.

Perhaps this also reveals a more serious question. Ministers' offices are privy to all sorts of information that needs to be kept secret in the national interest, and none more so than the Prime Minister's office.

It is for that reason that staff members need to qualify for a security clearance. It used to be, for good reason, that you could not get such a clearance unless you were an Australian citizen and held no other allegiance. Has that rule changed and if it has, why, and at whose instigation? Surely on such a sensitive matter as security clearances the rules have not been bent to accommodate a Prime Minister wanting to employ a foreigner ahead of an Australian?

Julia Gillard made her 457 announcement because she thought it would help her. She mistakenly thinks most of us dislike foreigners. As a migrant herself, I would have thought she would understand that this nation was built by migrants. We cannot grow and prosper without them.

We are an immigration nation. It defines us, it is who we are. And yet our Prime Minister by her words encourages us to be sceptical and fearful of those who come in lawfully and bring their skills to help build a better Australia.


Attack on the Media  just a distraction

Paul Sheehan

What follows is a quote from a column I wrote about Stephen Conroy, which enraged him, as intended. It was written long before he was leader of the government in the Senate, and a cabinet minister, and directing tens of billions of dollars in federal spending.

The column was published in the Herald on December 6, 2004, more than eight years ago, but its core is as relevant today as it was then. It began:
"You can learn a lot about people in toilets. I first encountered Senator Stephen Conroy in a toilet in the NSW Parliament. It was the morning of Tuesday, May 20, 1997. We were at Macquarie Street for a hearing of the joint standing committee on electoral matters . . . I was there to present a submission on corruption in union elections. We would clash soon enough.

"Conroy is intensely irritating, with a cockiness untempered by charisma and exacerbated by a grating accent he brought from England when his family emigrated. In the past 10 days, Mark Latham has received enormous, perhaps fatal, criticism of his leadership for a public brawl with Conroy, but Conroy is a special case. Latham has taken a disproportionate blame for the party's problems, becoming a scapegoat for a much deeper problem in the party - it has devolved into an insular patronage machine dominated by vindictive mediocrities.

"Conroy personifies this problem. He embodies it. His constant warring and plotting in the past year prompted the former ALP federal president Greg Sword to call him 'mad', and the federal Labor MP Bob Sercombe to call him a 'dill', among other insults from other Labor opponents.

"When I encountered Conroy he still had his P-plates as a senator. He was only 34. He had been in Parliament less than a year. And he had not even been elected. He'd been appointed . . . in 1996 to fill the vacancy left by the departure of senator Gareth Evans. Such is the manner in which Labor factional warriors can make their way . . .

"His reward was Senate preselection at the age of 33. Once in the Senate, Conroy could start knifing people under the protection of parliamentary privilege. He did not waste any time.

"On September 12, 1996, barely four months after arriving in the Senate, Conroy used privilege to target a dissident faction in the NSW postal workers' union . . . accusing the two men who had exposed election corruption . . . of being responsible for the fraud . . .

"Ugly. The judge had found precisely the opposite. Conroy had made his speech on the eve of a new union election. Within 24 hours, thousands of copies of his speech - in the authoritative format of Hansard - were distributed around mail centres under the heading, 'The Cheat Team'.

"[One of the men he named as a cheat] challenged Conroy to repeat his remarks outside Parliament.


"I faxed a dozen questions to Conroy about his speech.

"Silence . . .

"Last Monday, Labor frontbencher Laurie Ferguson had had enough: 'The whole party's tiring of Mr Conroy's concern that he's not the leader in the Senate.' By then, the damage had been done. Latham now looks like Simon Crean, even though Labor's problems are far deeper than the leader's shortcomings.

"Conroy does not have clean hands in these matters. This is not new. When I first encountered him on May 20, 1997, he was occupied at a urinal in a men's toilet. As I walked in, he finished his business and walked out. He did not pause. He did not wash his hands. He went straight back to the committee room. You do not forget such images."

No you don't.

Now to the present, to the man who has set himself up as a moral arbiter, and wants to impose a super-regulator over the Australian media, with little or no debate in cabinet or the Parliament, and without ever presenting a shred of evidence the regulation is needed. The handling of this matter by Conroy, with the endorsement of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has devolved into yet another pointless debacle on Gillard's watch. There is no longer even a pretence that the government is trying to balance the interests of union and employers, or the interests of unions and the 87 per cent of private sector workers who are not union members. There is not even a pretense of answering questions in Parliament.

Her government has concocted a false controversy over temporary work visas as a distraction from the election-turning reality that the immigration program has become an unspeakable policy sink-hole, a multi-billion-dollar budget blowout, with more and more illegal boats arriving while more and more legal foreign workers are encountering growing delays in their visa applications. Good people are being turned away in their thousands while people who have lied their way into the country, by cynically destroying their documents, are being fed and housed by the taxpayers.

There are multiple other issues that have contributed to an aura of instability around the Prime Minister. Conroy, as one of Gillard's most staunch supporters, has done her no good and the great fear among the federal Labor caucus, that it burned its bridges when it rejected Kevin Rudd twice, is now perceptively giving way to a greater fear: that most of the electorate has already decided to remove Gillard.

The three most strident supporters of Gillard, and critics of the former leader Kevin Rudd, a stridency that seemed to preclude a return by Rudd, are Treasurer Wayne Swan, former attorney-general Nicola Roxon, and Senate leader Conroy.

All are now damaged goods. Roxon is already on her way. Which means the prospect of a packaged change, removing Gillard, Swan and Conroy, has clarified as more possible by the majority of the federal Labor MPs who are calculating their own survival options this year.


Not enough midwives in NSW government hospitals

Two heavily pregnant women were turned away from a western Sydney maternity ward within 48 hours - giving birth in a home and the hospital car park - amid claims by midwives of a sick health system exposing mothers to risk.

The Sun-Herald has found Nepean Hospital's actions in turning away Michelle Trotter and Paula Bailey early last month were symptoms of a maternity ward in crisis. And there are allegations that a new statewide staffing policy for midwives has resulted in chronic shortages of midwives in maternity wards in flagship hospitals including Westmead and Liverpool.

In an investigation into conditions at Penrith's Nepean Hospital maternity ward Fairfax Media can reveal:
Paula and Scott Bailey with baby Madison, after she was born in the carpark of Nepean hospital. Credit Channel 7

Sent home: Paula and Scott Bailey with baby Madison, who was born in the carpark of Nepean hospital. Photo: Channel 7

 An internal hospital document showing maternity department is about 20 full-time staff short, leaving midwives concerned the department is "no longer able to function safely".

 Insiders warning "a wave of discontent" among staff would result in a "mass exodus".

One Nepean Hospital maternity staff member, with 10 years' experience as a midwife, said: "We are being run ragged and the cracks are starting to show. We are juggling jobs, which means we are juggling with people's lives. If you're an expectant mother, you expect more. You deserve more."

In 2011, NSW Health moved to adopt Birthrate Plus, a British tool for calculating the required number of midwives in NSW maternity

services, based on a minimum standard of one-to-one midwifery care throughout labour and birth.

While state health hierachy have refused to publish the results, the leaked Nepean data demonstrates chronic shortages have arisen despite the guidelines.

Hannah Dahlen, from the Australian College of Midwives, said other Western Sydney hospitals - namely Westmead and Liverpool - were hiding similar statistics about shortages.

Dr Dahlen, who is also Associate Professor of Midwifery at the University of Western Sydney, said: "The hospitals out in Sydney's west deliver more babies than anywhere else in the nation and the birth rates are increasing faster than staffing. So it's a case of finding midwives. But secondly, it about finding the money."

She added: "It's this constant game that gets played. Managers have to control budgets. If they don't, then they're out of a job. Eventually you see frazzled midwives burning out and leaving. And, of course, patient care is going to suffer."

On February 7, an overdue Michelle Trotter presented at Nepean, only to be sent home with Panadeine Forte and sleeping pills. Two hours later, she was back, having given birth on her own kitchen floor.

Just two days later, a heavily pregnant Paula Bailey arrived at Nepean Hospital with her husband Scott, only to be sent home three hours later without any medical assessment.

When Mrs Bailey aired concern, a nurse allegedly replied: "That's pregnancy, love. Suck it up, princess. You don't know what pain is but you will when the baby comes." Mrs Bailey's waters then broke when she arrived home, triggering a frantic dash back to Nepean.

She once again failed to gain assistance - resulting in her baby, Madison, being born in the hospital car park at 3am.

Dr Dahlen said babies being born in hospital car parks or en route to maternity wards was more common than people might think."

But she stressed: "It's very hard for midwives to show that when they are absolutely running on the smell of a very oily rag." Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District chief executive Kay Hyman confirmed there was a shortfall in the number of nurses and midwives at the hospital.

"Individual reviews of the recent complaints at Nepean Hospital are ongoing due to the in-depth detail required. However, a lack of staffing was not a contributing factor in these cases," she said.

NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner said the Nepean Hospital's budget had been increased since last financial year and the number of nurses and midwives at the hospital had increased since 2010.

She said there was an external review of Nepean maternity care processes under way.

"Recruiting midwives is a challenge, across Australia and internationally," she said.

But a senior area health service source has also confirmed that in order to meet its "financial obligations" Nepean has been further hampered by an order that it reduce its use of agency midwives, nurses and overtime. "These nurses are crying out for help so outside agency help is something of a lifeline … even that's now being taken away."


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