‘My School’ isn’t really about my school

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at a local preschool information night. I had been invited to talk about school readiness from a school perspective, to try and allay some of the concerns parents have in terms of what their children need to know before starting school (nothing, in case you’re wondering) and to show that early years centres and schools work together for the best interests of their students. I was excited about this, supporting parents in ensuring their child makes a smooth and positive transition to school is something I’m passionate about. I love visiting other settings and seeing the great things other educators are doing and it’s exciting to start building meaningful relationships with our local centres.

The first part of the evening went well, there were jokes about shoes and lunch boxes, wry smiles when talking about who is more anxious starting school; the parent or the child, and a generally relaxed atmosphere. I had made a conscious effort not to talk explicitly about what happens at my school, this wasn’t a promotional activity, but had talked generally about what schools do to support transition. Sadly, the very first question at the end of the session changed the tone markedly. It was “Why are your NAPLAN scores so much lower than everyone else’s?”.

Talk about getting straight to the point. Except it’s not the point, not by a long shot. After taking a very deep breath, I proceeded to explain the contextual issues: ICSEA value, statistically invalid sample size due to small cohort etc and attempted to explain that this information probably doesn’t provide parents with much useful data on which to make a judgement about their child’s school. I was then met with: “But I’m a numbers person, numbers make sense to me.” At which point I wanted to curl up on the floor and weep. Weep for the system that sees parents of 3 year olds sitting on websites comparing schools based on a test that two classes in a school sat, on one day out of almost 200 in the school year, looking at numbers but unable to place them in context because the way in which those numbers are presented makes it seem cut and dried and weep because at no point did anyone ask a question about the emotional and social wellbeing of students.

Until this happened I’d been fairly ambivalent about My School. As part of my Masters I’d studied the development of it, I’d used the information on it when applying for jobs and I use it when preparing reports at work. What I hadn’t realised is that I approach this data with a fair amount of caution, I look at all the contextual information, I look for patterns not isolated scores. What is now apparent to me is that this is not what happens when non-educators look at this website. They see raw scores with angry red backgrounds to highlight just how very poorly a school is doing. They compare local schools not realising that even within a relatively small geographic area there can be vast differences in the demographic of school communities. They look at the angry red backgrounds and judge. They judge the students, the teachers and the community.

This saddens me. It saddens me because it means that the government and media and parents themselves have conditioned themselves to the point where a school is seen solely in terms of a number. For me education isn’t about numbers, it’s so much more than that. What about developing resilient and independent learners who respond flexibly to the changing world around them? What about tolerance and awareness of social issues and differences, developing citizens who are respectful, engaged and active members of their community? What about happiness and joy of learning? I’m proud to teach at a school that serves an incredibly diverse community. I’m proud every time I watch students interact with their peers who have specific needs or challenges. I’m proud when I see students excited about learning, making connections, solving problems and engaging in community action. I’m proud of my school’s NAPLAN results because I know the hard work and commitment they represent to an education that’s about more than a test on a single day, but an education that’s life long and empowering. What a shame that ‘My School’ isn’t really about my school at all.

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10 thoughts on “‘My School’ isn’t really about my school

  1. I think you’ve shared the frustration that many public school teachers feel especially those is disadvantaged areas. I constantly talk about everything else except for NAPLAN with my parents. I discuss daily improvements in learning, assessment portfolios, student growth,, formative assessment, emotional wellbeing, learning skills and the lack of need for summative tests. NAPLAN is misleading, unreliable, meaningless and does not improve student learning. As educators we need to give the right messages to parents with the understanding that some of them will never agree or see it our way. Great post. Thank you and know that you are doing the right thing and making a difference for the kids at your school.

    • Thanks Jason! To be honest I was so shocked at how much they wanted to focus on it that I needed to write something. It’s just so disheartening. I’ve never had that happen before. Worries me that it’s a trend we’ll see more of.

  2. Hi Michelle, earlier this year on New Years’ Eve, I heard someone ask a group of children, “What are you excited about happening this year?” One small boy answered … “I’m in Year 3 this year and I get to do NAPLAN”. My heart sank to my boots. Someone has been pumping this kid up to think that this is a really important thing and made him think that he will ‘smash’ it.
    I love teaching Year 3 and have taught them quite a few times. What do I really dislike about teaching Year 3? NAPLAN! I see some students brimming with confidence and willing to have a go at anything lose their self esteem because a test done on one day of the year, using language that is not ‘NESB friendly’ determines in their parents’ eyes whether they are ‘dumb’ or not.
    I try as hard as I can to educate these parents but in an ignorant world where results mean more than learning, it is very hard.
    Good on you for your efforts at the preschool. I sincerely hope that some of the parents were ‘soft soil’ to accept your ‘rain of truth’ and went away thinking about the true meaning of education … that it is empowering their children for their lives in the future.

    • Wow, I can’t believe a child said that about yr 3. What have ‘we’ done to them? It’s such a flawed system for so many students in so many ways.

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m very much hoping ears and eyes were opened at the preschool, time will tell.

  3. Perhaps NAPLAN could take a page out of IQ’s book and not release results to the public. Imagine if a single child’s or school’s average IQ score was displayed online. It would be totally unacceptable. These scores are utterly useless without context and interpretation from a qualified professional.
    In answer to the teacher’s question “why are your scores so low?”, that’s a totally immature question for a short Q&A. I recommend that next time you tell him “The school is aware of the score and is taking measures to improve it”. Get all politician on them!
    Thanks for the piece, it’s fortifying.

  4. Michelle, I asked the kids in my year 5 class what they were worried about and what they were looking forward to in an all about me type activity, many were worried about ‘natplan’ (lol) and some were excited about it! I let their parents know how I felt about it at the parent info night but thankfully no one seemed to be overly interested which is good. However, it concerns me the amount of time we are spending, in this first term, on learning that is related to NAPLAN. Before NAPLAN and Basic Skills did year 3 and 5 teachers plan their teaching according to their own agenda?

    Sorry to hear you had that experience but I am not surprised as I vividly remember playing at the park with my son, who would have been about 2 at the time, listening to mums talk about school choice!

  5. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Jane! It really worries me that NAPLAN is even in the heads of year 5 students, what a horrible thing to be thinking about when you’re 11. I hope someone’s doing a study about the impact of this sort of testing on the mental and emotional wellbeing of our primary school students.

  6. I just found this post while looking for something about phonics. I was one of the parents at that info session, I remember it well!

    Just wanted to let you know that I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems out there in parentland with the focusing on tests, at least around here. Although I wasn’t the parent who asked that first question, I don’t think NAPLAN was an overriding concern for them, or anyone else. As you wrote, though, it did unfortunately lead to more questions on the topic. I’m not sure why but I don’t think it really reflected an overriding concern about “performance” etc.

    A few thoughts on why it came up:

    – there’s definitely angst about catchments around here, but it’s more often about location (drop-off/pick-up logistics and so on) rather than school “quality”. Don’t underestimate the incredible strain of logistics when both parents work, one kid is in school, one’s in daycare 2km in the opposite direction, and the train station is over there. Sure it’s a first world problem but no-one wants to have to get their kids out of the house crazy early every day, or traipse all over the neighbourhood picking up siblings before arriving home tired and hungry. That kind of thing has a huge effect on kids’ wellbeing.

    – for those who, like me, had never even thought to look at NAPLAN scores, perhaps we wondered whether it’s something we should know about.

    – for those of us who aren’t educators, we simply don’t know where to start when we are trying to understand what school will be like for our kids.

    – I have a few other theories but really, I think a lot of it just comes back to it being the first question..

    Good news:

    – You answered the NAPLAN question very well, and really made it clear why it was a poor indicator.

    – I happen to know the parent who asked that question and they are quite happy about sending their kid to your school for K.

    – You’re a credit to your profession. Don’t sweat it about the pushy NAPLAN-obsessed parents — most of us aren’t like that. At least, not at pre-school 🙂

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