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Fair do's for every child down under

Queensland boosts low exclusion rates, compared with Scotland. Ian McEwan looks at some plausible reasons

Despite newspaper reports about thugs in the classroom and stressed teachers, school exclusion rates in Queensland, Australia, are far lower than in Scotland. This appears to be in spite of the fact that they face similar social and cultural changes.

The absence of hard facts makes it difficult to make definitive statements. The lack of national figures does not allow for inter-state or international comparison. There are, however, some aspects of professional practice that might contribute to the lower rates of exclusion.

There is substantial investment in vocational programmes in Queensland and school-based apprenticeships are available from the age of 15.

Schools have dedicated careers officers. Marymount College, where I am based, for example, has three full-time equivalent careers staff for 1,100 students. This is incredibly generous by Scottish standards and implies a level of service quite different from what we understand.

Vocational training is taken very seriously and a variety of part-time arrangements in every school can be negotiated on behalf of each student, depending on their needs and aptitudes and availability.

Allied to this is the lower school-leaving age of 15. In reality, few teenagers do leave this early because, as in the UK, there are not many positive post-school options open to them at that age.

The federal government is promoting the new Education Training Reform for the Future initiative to try to keep children in school beyond 15 and to ensure that those who do leave have achieved a school leaving certificate or have a training place, neither of which is currently required.

The guidance system in Queensland, and the rest of Australia, is different.

There are no guidance teachers as we in Scotland understand the term. There are dedicated, full-time guidance counsellorspsychologists in secondary schools and the ratios employed are generous by UK standards. The working ratio in secondary schools in the Brisbane Catholic education network, for example, is one counsellorpsychologist to 600 students. Marymount College has two guidance counsellorpsychologists per 1,100 students. The ratio in the primary sector is about 1:1,000 pupils, which is still generous by Scottish standards.

Their role probably sits somewhere between that of guidance teacher and educational psychologist and the range of tasks includes counselling students and parents, direct intervention, running special groups (anger management, social skills, and so on) and the usual range of psychometric assessments and special education consultations.

Society in Australia has a recognised reputation for egalitarianism. An impressionistic view of Australians would suggest that they are perhaps more naturally inclusive than we are in the UK. The concept of a "fair do" for all is powerful and populist in the Australian psyche and anything else would be regarded as un-Australian - an equally powerful, and politically complex, concept in Australian social debate. There is an incredibly strict adherence to school uniform policies in Australian primary and secondary education, compared to state schools in Scotland, and there appears to be little resistance to the wearing of uniform. Another view would be that it does seem to engender a sense of school spirit and identity.

I am aware that stricter adherence to uniform policies has been a contentious plank in recent SEED thinking but it seems to work for Australia.

The payment of school fees, either in full or assisted in various ways, is fairly commonplace here. At the last census, 29 per cent of the school-aged population attended independent schools where a range of fees is payable, depending on choices made.

However, even those parents who choose the local state school for their children (71 per cent of the population) are required to pay some of the costs, usually for books and equipment.

School budgets appear to exceed the funding allocated at state and federal government level. So you might anticipate, then, that paying fees would make parents more likely to be supportive of the school.

There is a teaching model in Queensland, and most other parts of Australia, which is in marked contrast to that of the traditional subject specialist in Scotland. Secondary trained teachers can be asked to teach a range of subjects beyond their university specialism. A secondary teacher, as a university graduate, is regarded as an education manager, rather than a specialist subject teacher, and would be expected to teach across the curriculum, in a way that is alien to Scotland.

This practice is a legacy from the days of teacher shortages in rural areas. As a result, students are exposed to fewer teachers in their timetable and this, in turn, might lead to better relationships.

Ian McEwan, an educational psychologist from Dumfries, is on exchange as a guidance counsellorpyschologist at Marymount College, a Catholic secondary school near Brisbane

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