If Julia Gillard is known for one policy direction, it is her advocacy of making educational opportunities available to all. Her passion for this idea is clearly genuine, and has survived her move from Minister of Education to Prime Minister. It is also personal. She enjoyed her schooldays at a good government school (Unley High, across from my nana’s house on Kitchener Avenue) and believes everyone should have access to that sort of quality.
Providing opportunity is a wonderful goal. The ALP in particular has a rich history of concern about it. And innovations like the MySchool website, it seems to me, actually enrich the debate by giving people an idea about how we’re actually doing in spreading educational opportunity.
But when I have conversations with people about educating our kids, opportunity is not the issue that comes us the most. People talk instead about the importance of getting their kids to focus. This is a surprisingly consistent result. It comes up when I talk with the theatre director and musician with three brilliant kids, and when I run into the Indigenous woman in her 60s who take care of kids from troubled homes, and when I chat with Mark down at the footy club who has a middling-smart son at a solid public school.
Opportunity is not what they worry about. They are not rich people – some of them are genuinely struggling – but they can always scrape together the money for textbooks, new or secondhand. They have Internet connections and can see the enormous amount of great material available on the Web. The local public schools are good, though not perfect. They reckon the teachers are decent people.
Their concern and those of many others – myself included – is broadly the same: to extract the most from their education, kids need to be able to immerse themselves in what they are studying, and a lot of kids just aren’t doing that.
All these people see student focus as vital if kids are going to really benefit from their schooling. They also think it’s getting harder. If television made it trickier, the Internet makes it far tougher still: kids often need the ‘Net for homework, or at least claim to, but once connected they succumb to the delights of Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and that new blog about … whatever. Quite correctly, parents and guardians suspect “multitasking” means “doing several things half-arsed rather than one thing well”. And they worry that the broader cultural signals don’t tell kids that they need to focus on intellectual work in order to realise its rewards.
Good schools seem to understand this. At a recent high school parents’ night, I sat in a room of parents and teachers all concerned about and struggling with the same challenge. We discussed strategies ranging from having kids do their homework in public areas of the house to buying routers that block Facebook access. (The school involved was Northcote High School in Melbourne, which I have come to admire for the high quality of its interaction with parents. I know of at least one pricey private school which could learn a great deal from them.)
Yet I don’t see much research work looking at this question. ACER, for instance, doesn’t seem to be publishing on it.
So my first question is: Does anyone know of work being done on getting students focused and immersed?
My second question is: is the focus issue as widespread a concern in the community as I think it is?