Clare Martin’s NT government appears to be about to sign its very own slow-moving but certain political death warrant. Well, that might be slightly hyperbolic given that the CLP opposition here has been reduced to a rump of 4. But there are 4 or 5 Labor MLAs who unexpectedly won seats in the 2005 landslide and for whom the most polite description one could use is political deadwood. Their seats are intensely vulnerable, and once a big swing is on you can never be quite sure of its extent (as the CLP found out to its cost in 2001 and 2005).
At issue is a political timebomb called “middle schooling”, and it’s actually quite a good idea in itself. Years 8, 9 and 10 have long been dark nights of the soul in education for many kids, both in the Territory and elsewhere. Rampaging hormones make many of them almost unmanageable in class, and any academic learning they actually achieve during those years is a bonus. Experience elsewhere has suggested that it can make a really positive difference if those kids have a single consistent mentor who teaches them most of the mainstream curriculum, instead of moving from class to class and teacher to teacher 5 or 6 times every day.
Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Syd Stirling has allowed himself to be persuaded by half-smart ministerial advisers that a “crash through or crash” strategy on middle schooling is the way to go. So he’s just announced that they’re going to introduce the new middle school program throughout the Territory for the commencement of the 2007 school year (after a derisory two week public “consultation” period that is about to expire). Presumably Syd’s minders reckon that rushing it through like that will mean these huge changes will be well bedded down, with everyone affected being relaxed and comfortable about them, by the time the next Territory election rolls around in 2008.
I strongly suspect they’re making a fatal miscalculation. Certainly there hasn’t so far been the massive public outcry that recently greeted the Martin government when it mused about selling the Territory Insurance Office. This issue will be a slow burner, with parents slow to anger but even slower to forgive when they discover what Clare and Syd have done to their children’s education. They’ll be waiting quietly but determinedly with axes to decapitate at the first available electoral opportunity the party that drastically undermined their kids’ education (not entirely unlike the climate Paul Keating faced in 1996).
The problem isn’t with the inherent merit of the middle schooling concept. It’s the unholy rush to introduce it. There’s already been a lot of media and public discussion about the fact that many of the proposed “middle schools” don’t have the physical accommodation to house year 7 kids (until now high school in the NT has started at year eight), nor do the current senior colleges have room for year 10s (they currently accommodate only years 11 and 12). But the physical infrastructure is the least of the problem.
The central problem is that very few NT high school teachers are currently actually trained to teach right across the mainstream curriculum (i.e. both humanities and maths/science), but that’s what they’re going to be expected to do starting in late January next year. No doubt any competent high school teacher can be retrained to teach a broader junior high school curriculum given sufficient time. But 6 months is nowhere near enough, not when we’re talking about teachers who will only be able to undertake bridging/retraining courses in their spare time after school each day.
I reckon it will take 12-18 months at a bare minimum to get most teachers up to speed on teaching across the whole mainstream curriculum. In the meantime, current humanities teachers won’t have a clue how to teach maths and science and vice versa, while an entire cohort of Year 7, 8 and 9 kids will be missing out on key educational concepts vital to their success in senior high school and later life. If I had a child about to enter those high school years, as my partner Jen does, I’d be feeling decidedly homicidal towards the Martin government. The only reason most parents aren’t already feeling that way is that they don’t yet realise what is about to be inflicted on their teenage children by these dickheads.
Watch this space.