We're not alone in our problems

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Ian McEwan sends another report in an occasional series about school life and behaviour management in Australia

Read the following headlines and see if they seem familiar.

"Classroom fury costs millions"; "Sin bin may be cure for school thug menace"; "Class of their own for problem students".

While these could be found in The Scotsman or The Herald, in fact they are from The Courier-Mail, the main quality daily newspaper in Queensland, and they reflect a growing picture of behavioural problems within the public school system across Australia.

Hundreds of teachers in Queensland state schools have received payments for "psychological illnesses" and mental health problems over the past three years, most of which are blamed on the teachers' encounters with violent or bullying students.

The Courier-Mail reports that Aus $5.75 million has been paid out as part of a worker compensation scheme to 440 stressed teachers who were found to be victims of physical, emotional or verbal abuse. In 2002-03, there were 232 such payments and 208 in 2003-04.

The proportion of payments for absences put down to psychological difficulties is perceived to have increased dramatically.

The picture is not improved by looking at police statistics. The 2002-03 Queensland police service review lists 663 assaults, 11,080 property offences and 520 drug offences in Queensland schools. In 2003-04, there were 706 assaults, 11,946 property offences and 455 drug offences. Police also recorded over 1,300 physical assaults on teachers in Queensland schools in the five years up to 2003.

Taken as raw data, these figures are alarming, but they must be viewed in the context of the wider school population.

For example, Education Queensland, which runs state schooling, provides for almost half a million students (476,000 at the latest census), accounting for about 71 per cent of all school-age students. The remainder attend independent schools and the large Catholic school sector. Set in the context of approximately 700,000 students, police statistics are a little less alarming.

A more helpful perspective can perhaps be found by comparing Queensland exclusion rates with Scottish figures.

The Courier-Mail highlighted the fact that there had been more than 37,000 suspensions from state schools in Queensland in 2003-04 and 773 expulsions.

There will also have been students older than the statutory minimum leaving age who were subjected to what is known as "cancellation of enrolment" and these do not seem to be recorded anywhere.

However, taking the number of suspensions as 37,000, this would equate to an exclusion rate of about 8 per 1,000 pupils. For the same period, the Scottish figures for exclusions would be running at about 50 per 1,000 pupils.

Although comparisons can be odious, a simplistic view of these statistics still implies the situation in Queensland's state schools is significantly better than in Scotland. However, working in the system here, it is difficult to discern such a marked difference. There is a clamour from the Queensland teaching unions for the situation to be addressed.

Similar elements to Scotland emerge. There are issues of falling recruitment and retention - one in five Queensland teachers leaves the profession within five years - and these difficulties are attributed to the growing problem of disorder in schools.

There is a healthy media debate about truancy and the inability of the system to re-engage disenfranchised students and there does appear to be a genuine impotency about any interventions to attract back the "jiggers" and "waggers", as they are known locally.

The family, of course, has come in for a fair degree of criticism and the issue of "parenting skills" is a cause for much debate.

The Courier-Mail is quite sympathetic to teachers and parents, suggesting that it would be wrong "to blame over-stretched, anxious parents who simply feel unable to cope with arrogant, violent offspring any better than teachers".

One of the most successful television programmes in Australia at the moment is Supernanny and much of the attention this British import has attracted relates to the debate about parenting skills.

Much of the debate in schools, however, has that familiar flavour of "something needs to be done" and the plea usually implies the remedy may be found elsewhere andor provided by someone else. As in Scotland, this is less about some underlying negative philosophy and more about an ageing workforce, low morale or a discernible weariness of attitude.

The issue of state spending on education looms large. When ranked for spending, Queensland is one of the lowest placed of all the states across Australia.

The resolution of such matters is political and so tends to move slowly.

There are, however, initiatives happening in schools and in the wider world of education in Australia, some of which are known to educators in Scotland and some of which will be less well-known but are worthy of some consideration.

Ian McEwan, an education psychologist from Dumfries, is on exchange as a guidance counsellorpsychologist at Marymount College, a Catholic secondary school near BrisbaneNext week: possible causes for Queensland's exclusion rates

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