Dear Ms Gillard

Dear Ms Gillard

21 May 2008

Morag Fraser

Dear Ms Gillard,

I realise your hectic schedule doesn't allow for many school excursions. So I am asking you to come on a short virtual tour with me. So much education research must pass your desk, too many models—Swedish, Scots, American, English etc, so I am not going to burden you with statistics—well, only a very few. Instead, why don't we walk, drive, listen to a couple of kids, think, meet some teachers, have coffee and talk school.

The bookshop first. We've already picked up the kids at 3.30pm and checked out the new building (a capital grant to replace the dour old demountables?). After the necessary pit stop (girls concentrate better when their inner cannibal is sated) we sit on the tiny chairs that make them look charming and us ridiculous. It's good to have your perspective rearranged occasionally. The teenager ranges over books with puzzles and diagrams and hard sodoku. She is growing a little bored in maths. What to do? We'll talk about that later.

The nine-year-old is searching for the third book in a series. Both girls are out of earshot so I can tell you that reading is, for the younger one, a new and unexpected passion. Why? Perhaps because the skill—acquired painfully—has finally become almost effortless. Perhaps—and I'd put money on this—because this year she has a teacher who clearly inspires and gives her confidence. You only have to walk into his classroom to see how and why. All primary school teachers are good at display but this teacher is a master at the kind of visual extension that highlights his students' individual achievements while boosting their learning. I sat there distracted by his natural history charts for a full half-hour while he gave his 'welcome to parents and children' talk early in the year. The whole classroom was a lively museum exhibit. The talk was good too, with his students included, part of the action—and clearly proud to be there. So it's not surprising that the nine-year-old hasn't answered 'Stuff' to the routine 'what did you do at school today?' query once this year.

Yes, we'll get her reports with their scaling and grading and placing and alphabetical coding and strained individual assessments, but they are not the vital sign we are looking for. The little girl curled up on the couch with her eyes bright and her head in a book is. 'I'm in the reading challenge', she tells us, 'and I've read twelve books already.' And then she tells us what the books are all about. Bob Carr couldn't be keener.

The sodoku kid is a different proposition: impatient, lightning-fast at grasping concepts, a little imperious in her judgments. I remember teaching children like her—challenging, probably smarter than oneself. Glorious to have in a class—if you had the time, energy and flexibility to vary the curriculum to fit with their rapid fire. I remember being driven crazy by long meetings at which we discussed (endlessly!) assessment techniques when all I wanted to do was go home, read what these clever young adults had written, give them a proper response, and then devise the next lesson to keep them firing. And that was in the days when one did not have to attend to any of their social or parental issues. Or their mobile phone addiction.

Let's have coffee (tea?) now so we can talk a little about work-life balance and how it affects kids. But before we leave the bookshop let me introduce you to the girls' primary school principal. She's buying books too, and as this is a inner-city village (kids can walk to their local state school), teachers and students often run into one another. She greets the now-high-school student like an old friend and then embarrasses both girls by noting one's new hair and the other's extraordinary clothes ('You always were so creative, you two'). You can see she is both shrewd and diplomatic—and has time to be loving. While they feign a cringe, both girls cherish being recognised. You can't code that experience into a report form.

As we sit down let me introduce you to a former school principal. He now helps administer a group of schools—private, low-fee paying—and does research on the side. He'll show you his (happily few) stats, which indicate that the variable that best accounts for VCE success is the quality of the teaching. I've put it crudely—you two can talk more formal and usefully nuanced analysis together while I check on the kids. Perhaps you can ask him whether an increase in salary is likely to be his prime motivation. Ask him about leadership and cooperation in schools—about competition and teacher compensation, what works (for children as for teachers) and what doesn't. He might even mention that old vocation and vision thing that teachers (and politicians) still carry with them. Excess baggage? I am certain neither of you believes that.

Why don't you both talk equity in education provision. Get into the nitty gritty, the Realpolitik of education funding. He's a veteran of the state-aid debates, so he'll understand the pressures you face. Ask him about 'parent choice' and 'accountability' rhetoric. I'm sure you have your own views. And afterwards he can drive you to the airport, still talking—about trust maybe—while I go off and check out the Chaser poster with the girls. Yes, I'll get tickets. Maybe you 'd like some too? Work-life etc.

Finally, and I mean this without a trace of John Clarke-Bryan Dawe irony, thanks for your time.

Morag Fraser is an adjunct professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University.




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