Sunday, October 25, 2009

Australian country life and a great little red-headed kid

AN eight-year-old boy has been hailed a hero after he hot-wired a two-way radio to call for help as his dad lay trapped in the wreckage of a horror truck rollover. Michael Bowron stripped the radio wires and connected them to a spare battery he found among the wreckage.

Yesterday, the Bonnie Rock youngster told The Sunday Times his fingers burned from sparks flying off the battery while he desperately called for help. "I was scared, but I was trying to be brave," Michael said. "My dad had heaps of blood on his face and heaps on his leg. "I had heaps on my leg too, but not as much as my dad."

Michael and his father, Justin, were driving home to the family farm in a prime mover truck on Saturday, October 10, when a tyre blew. "It blew on the left-hand side of the truck and the right-hand side swung around," Mr Bowron said. "The truck was heading straight into a bush and I tried to correct the steering wheel. "When I did that, it tipped over. The last thing I remember was the driver's side hitting the ground."

He regained consciousness minutes later to find himself wedged between the steering wheel and the dashboard. His leg was caught in the mangled truck, trapping him in the vehicle. Glass covered him and blood was pouring from his head.

"Diesel was leaking from the truck and the engine was still running," Mr Bowron said. "I was worried it was going to burst into flames. "I couldn't find my mobile phone and the two-way radio had been thrown out of the truck."

Michael, who had been sitting in the sleeper cabin, crawled out of the wreck through the windscreen and tried to free his dad with a tyre lever. When that didn't work, he rummaged for the radio. "It was pretty bunged up," Mr Bowron said. "It couldn't work because it wasn't connected to the truck anymore. "I told Michael he could get it going with the spare battery."

The spare battery had been thrown out of the truck. "I found the battery on the side of the road and dragged it over to my dad," Michael said. "He told me to strip the wires from the radio and put them on the red and blue parts of the battery." Under his father's guidance, Michael was able to get the radio working and call for help.

One of the first to respond was Michael's mother, Christine. She immediately organised family members and neighbours to go to the crash. "I was the first to arrive on the scene," Mrs Bowron said. "I didn't think it was going to be as bad as it was. "At the time I was just thinking, `How can I help?'. It wasn't until later that I thought about how I could have lost them both forever."

Mr Bowron was trapped for just over an hour before he was able to escape from the truck. It was another 45 minutes before the local ambulance service arrived at the scene. Local volunteer ambulance co-ordinator Peter Geraghty said Mr Bowron could have been trapped until night time if Michael had not been able to work the radio. "There's basically no traffic on that road," he said. "The trouble with farmers, too, is that they often don't come home until late at night so they don't get missed until 10 or 11 o'clock."

Mr Geraghty said Michael had shown courage beyond his age. "What he did was very impressive," he said. "We say he's too old for his age. "But a lot of country kids are like that. They know how to fend for themselves because often they is no one around to fend for them."

St John Ambulance spokes-woman Bianca McGougan said the volunteer ambulance crew played a big part in keeping Mr Bowron safe. The nearest hospital, about 50km away, was without a doctor because the sole medico recently retired. The on-call doctor at the Merredin Health Service could not be located. Mr Bowron was taken to Mukinbudin and treated by the town nurse. "Our closest available doctor was more than 200km away so we treated Justin for what we could and liaised with the Royal Flying Doctor Service," Mr Geraghty said. "The plane was in the air by about 4.55pm."

Michael had concussion, bruising and a black eye. Mr Bowron needed stitches in his arms and legs and doctors removed a lot of glass from him. His hip has not yet recovered and he is only walking with the help of a crutch.

Ms McGougan said Michael would be nominated for a bravery award. "He is an outstanding young West Australian whose quick-thinking actions and ability to stay calm in a highly stressful situation helped save his father's life," she said.


Childhood policy straight out of fantasyland

Get up and Grow, the guidelines for healthy eating and exercise in early childhood, part of the Federal Government's anti-obesity drive, are nearing release. They recommend children should be banned from watching television until they turn two and from two to age five viewing should be limited to one hour a day. Such policy recommendations emanate from a fantasyland where officials never seem to learn from the past or understand the real world where most of us live.

Television is omnipresent and a powerful means of educating young children. It has always been true that one-third of children do two-thirds of the viewing and many of these heavy viewers are children who live in disadvantaged families. This fact of life provides educators with an opportunity.

There have been only two comprehensive educational experiments that have attempted to fundamentally change the focus of early childhood education through television. The first was Sesame Street developed 50 years ago to address disadvantage among American preschoolers; the second was Lift Off, developed in the '90s by the Australian Children's Television Foundation. In both cases the television program was the centre-piece for a nationwide community outreach program with support materials designed for families, carers and teachers.

Lift Off exemplified the way in which the media and the education system could work together with parents to create a valuable resource for the education of children. The process of collaboration worked, but the ABC, for its own political purposes, took the program off air and the project collapsed. As a concept, Lift Off was ahead of its time but that time has come again with the Government acknowledging the vital importance of early childhood education.

Education does not begin when children go to preschool or school for the first time. Eighty five per cent of brain development takes place in the first few years of life. Research has taught us that infants and toddlers' brains are voraciously active from birth and that disadvantage in society is born when young children's education is neglected.

The major influence on children's learning comes from the home, from parents, without a formal teacher, with no clear curriculum and with few conscious goals. Community, culture and place are important influences. So the starting point of all formal early childhood education has to be each child's unequal and diverse family and community background and an attempt to expand each child's horizons beyond what has already happened to them. That means working with parents as much as with children and ensuring the broader social environment – the neighbourhood playgrounds, shopping centres and mass media - supports and enriches the experiences of every child as they grow.

Former British education minister Alan Milburn, in his recent report Unleashing Aspiration, emphasised the central importance of "pushy parents". So did US President Barack Obama in his "no excuses" call to the underprivileged to improve their lot. But parents need government to help them make a difference. Some children are born into a world rich in resources and experiences while others are deprived from the start. And this is where the Government should focus its attention.

The kindergarten movement began as a philanthropic attempt to redress working-class disadvantage; the maternal and child health system was set up to ensure every parent had access to professional health care and sound advice on child development; child care was to ensure a safe environment for the children of employed parents; primary schools were made free and compulsory to help remove the disadvantages of the working poor. None of these reforms were meant simply to develop services for the already privileged.

So what of the new policy initiative from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)? The first Early Years Learning Framework for Australia is intended to make sure all children from birth to five years and through the transition to school get off to a good start in life. It has recently been released for trial and comment. In the introduction, the document states that the Framework "has been designed for use by early childhood educators working in partnership with families, children's first and most influential educators". Following that acknowledgement the document has nothing further to say to parents but goes on to address, in professional jargon, only those educators working in formal child care and preschool settings.

The Learning Framework for birth-five skirts round the inequalities and disadvantages that exist for many children by addressing the general themes of "Belonging, Being and Becoming" — goals that remind teachers that every child needs to be included, to feel they belong, that they should not be pushed too quickly towards formally defined educational outcomes. The framework's five outcomes for children are listed as having a strong sense of identity; feeling connected with and able to contribute to their world; having a strong sense of wellbeing; being confident and involved learners; and being effective communicators.

These are worthy objectives but missing is the content and the means by which each of those objectives can be achieved for the diverse child population entering preschool. There is no notion of how child care or kindergarten teachers can overcome gaps in wellbeing or confidence or communication skills that derive from the home. The framework is not informed by a theory of intelligence or developing competence.

Apart from a list of desired outcomes there is no discourse on what sort of experiences the child-care centre or playgroup or kindergarten might provide to expand the horizons of children from disadvantaged homes, or on the effectiveness of praise for effort and process rather than results. The dominant philosophy is "play-based learning" with a nod in the direction of teacher-directed play and with few mentions of the need for teachers to use the ever-more potent media technologies at the disposal of most children.

This blinkered approach, which makes only passing mention of learning outside formal child care and kindergartens, will do nothing for the development of most toddlers in their vital formative years and leaves parents out in the cold without help and guidance at the same time as too many children are falling through the kindergarten gap.

Soon parents are to be informed they should ban their children from watching television as part of the Government's anti-obesity drive. The onus is to be thrown back on parents to cope, with government abdicating a role in ensuring the television programs available to children during these years provide educational and entertainment value appropriate for their rapidly expanding brain power.

The important early years at home are being ignored within our first national framework and the education revolution, which began with such a bang, is wandering along through assorted bureaucratic tunnels with no one looking at children's environment as a whole. A critically important opportunity for integrated child policy is being missed again.

The new Early Years Learning Framework for Australia is still in development. It presents an opportunity to reach parents, to use constructively the ubiquitous media and influence those who shape the wider social environment of Australian children, as well as teachers, with a comprehensive statement on early childhood education.


Our Obama beats theirs

Australia's Obama does more than just sound good

By Janet Albrechtsen

WHY the surprise over Barack Obama - the first black US President and the Democrat who ousted George W. Bush - winning the Nobel Peace Prize? On one level, it’s a joke without a punchline. Yet, it also demonstrates the power of oratory. Whatever one thinks of Obama, he knows how to harness language to further his success....

Now let me put this proposition forward. Australia has its own Obama, only a much better one. One who has that final ingredient of being able to carry people with him, even those he skewers with his criticisms. Noel Pearson may not appreciate me saying this. But the Cape York indigenous leader has more than a touch of Obama about him, but with genuine substance.

It struck me one evening recently. When it’s on, the sound of the radio in my kitchen is usually lost to the evening clamour of dinner cooking. Not this time. Not when Pearson’s opening address to the Brisbane Writers Festival played on the ABC’s Radio National. His voice stops you in your tracks. When you listen to Pearson’s conviction and passion, the brain buzzes. He challenges you to think again, to think differently. This is oratory not wasted.

Oh, and Pearson’s 40-minute address, which deserved greater press coverage than it received, was delivered extempore. I know that because I asked Pearson for a copy of his address. It was off the cuff, he told me. No Obama-style teleprompters.

It is hard to convey the power of Pearson without listening to him. So listen. The link is below. Listen to how he describes himself as “completely promiscuous” when it comes to drawing on the three great schools of political philosophy: conservatism, socialism and liberalism.

But he is indignant about that “strange state of affairs” where the “progressive position is regressive”. Listen to how he attacks those who have told people that welfare is their right. “We in Cape York say no. We’ve got a better right than welfare. We have a right to take a real place in the economy, just like everybody else. “And so on numerous policy settings, we set the sails in a completely different position from the progressive prescription. And ... when I think why those sails are set in ways that could not be more calculated against our interests, against what is really in our interests, I shake my head as to how it is that a culture can produce currents that get oppressed peoples to accept their oppression ... to accept that they have a right to welfare.”

Compare Pearson with feminist Germaine Greer, who is no slouch with language either. Still charismatic, she knows how to use words to be noticed. But hers is oratory wasted. Her exhausted ideology - she justifies indigenous rage on the basis of invasion, genocide and stolen land - does nothing to further the cause of indigenous Australians.

Now listen to Pearson. There is plenty of anger there. It simmers underneath every sentence, drawing you in, daring you not to listen, distinguishing him from the milquetoast mob in Canberra. He directs his anger in productive ways: to stop people thinking of themselves as victims.

Most important, Pearson’s oratory delivers results. As The Australian reported this month, he is the driving force behind a four-year Cape York Welfare Reform Trial. At the halfway mark of this grassroots initiative, which links school attendance to welfare, school attendance rates in Aurukun, on the western coast of Cape York, have risen from 37 per cent to 62 per cent. Western Australia is considering using the same reforms to tackle rising truancy rates. This is the power of ideas.

Pearson’s latest battle is with the Queensland government’s Wild Rivers Act, which limits the ability of indigenous people to pursue economic development on their own land. Listen to how Pearson describes how: “The dignity of being responsible for looking after their country is now taken away from them” in favour of “16-year-olds who run around in koala suits”.

Listen to what he calls the final indignity of spending “10 years fighting the conservatives for the Wik decision, 10 years calling John Howard a racist scumbag, all for Anna Bligh to take it off me in five minutes. And all because she has a sacred (environmental) cause behind her. And not a word of support has been uttered by those who believe themselves to be in the cause of social justice. Not a word ...”

Comparisons never quite work, of course. Unlike Obama, Pearson is probably not made for politics because politics is not made for people like Pearson. More is the shame. Pearson’s address is here.


In Victorian government schools, some "temporary" classrooms are over 40 years old!

Some would undoubtedly be closed down if they were part of a private school

THOUSANDS of Victorian state school students are being taught in old and shabby portable classrooms, including some believed to contain dangerous asbestos. Almost three-quarters of the 8070 portables spread throughout our schools are more than 20 years old, according to an Education Department audit seen by the Herald Sun.

Berwick Lodge primary school principal Henry Grossek said he was concerned about asbestos-lined ceilings among his 18 portable classrooms. "If you leave it there it's largely safe, but it can be dangerous if there's damage to the walls and ceilings," he said. "It costs a fortune to remove asbestos and if you need to do an upgrade it could blow a hole in the school budget." "Portables are not a good option for most schools."

Melton West primary and Wangaratta's Carraragarmungee primary have 48-year-old portables - the state's oldest, according to the audit released under Freedom of Information. They are among nearly 500 temporary classrooms that are more than 40 years old. A further 3000 portables are between 20 and 30 years old, and 2357 are aged between 30 and 40 years.

Liberal education spokesman Martin Dixon said that there was something very wrong when more than 70 per cent of portable classrooms were more than 20 years old. "It is conceivable that in some schools, three generations of one family could have been educated in the same portable, temporary classroom," he said.

Education Minister Bronwyn Pike said the Government had acted on a 2002 auditor-general's report that identified 1000 portables needing immediate replacement. Since 2005, the Government had spent $95 million rolling out 1000 modern portables, she said. "These newly-designed relocatable buildings contain two classrooms, providing schools with flexibility in a modern setting and replace older style relocatable classrooms," she said.

Parents Victoria spokeswoman Elaine Crowle said there were some pretty ordinary portables around, but a lot of good things were happening in education. "The Government deserves some credit for its building program and it is pretty much on track to phase out many of its old portables," she said.


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