Ditch the national curriculum
While preparations continue for the implementation of a uniform, nationwide Australian School Curriculum, some states like NSW are wisely delaying the process. At the same time the draft curriculum, particularly in the humanities subjects of history and English, has been severely criticised as devoid of essential content, ideologically skewed, and absurdly politically correct. Just as important is the weak case for uniformity and centralisation in the first place.
We are told that lack of uniformity between the states is a problem for employers and for children who move from one state to another, but there is scant evidence that this is a serious problem justifying the loss of potential for experimentation and competition for excellence in a non-uniform system.
More importantly, the claim that a national curriculum will produce better educational results deserves scrutiny. It is probably true that the less than satisfactory condition of state schooling owes much to its extreme bureaucratisation and capture by interest groups, especially the teacher unions. But why should we not expect the same, on a national scale, from a large federal bureaucracy and the even more sharply focussed and more extensive power of the same interest groups? If established, how much more difficult it would be to reform a national system if it failed and how much greater the damage if it did?
And what is the evidence for the claim that centralised national systems produce better outcomes?
The International Student Assessment program and the International Mathematics and Science Study assess student performance from countries that have, and countries that do not have, national curricula and standards. The results and statistics are extensive and detailed. The summary outcome is, on one hand, that Australian Students have been outperformed by students from countries with national standards. On the other hand, Australian students have outperformed students from some other countries that also have national standards.
Moreover, many of the lowest performing students come from countries with national standards. If this sort of analysis is confined to OECD countries, a similar pattern holds. The great majority of countries assessed had national standards, but their results did not show that their students regularly outperformed Australian students, and many performed worse. Canadian students, from a country without national standards, do well on international assessments.
To put it briefly, these international assessments show no significant relationship between national standards and curricula and better student outcomes. This, along with the dangers of a loss of variety and innovation with the disappearance of a working states system and the manifest deficiencies of the draft curriculum, justifies abandoning the project before more waste is incurred.
Playing by the rules makes prisoners of children
LIKE many parents, I have been wondering where the space rockets went. In the past decade, space rockets, merry-go-rounds and monkey bars have been quietly disappearing from our playgrounds. Australian Playground Safety Standards have been changing the design of children's play spaces to remove danger, risk and quite a bit of fun.
While the Australian standard for playground equipment is not mandatory, it has become de facto compulsory because compliance can be referred to in court action against childcare centres, schools, restaurants and local councils.
The standards reflect the efforts of lobby groups such as Kidsafe, which have successfully linked injury rates to campaigns to restrict children's play. Kidsafe claims, "Each year about 350 Australian children (aged 0-14 years) are killed and 60,000 are hospitalised because of unintentional injuries." The group peppers its website with warnings such as, "the average backyard is full of dangers".
In reality, serious injuries from play are pretty rare. A 2009 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found the most common causes of child deaths were traffic accidents, drowning and assault. The most common causes of injuries were falls, road accidents, poisoning, burns and scalds, and assault. And while the number of falls is high the severity is usually not. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 93 per cent of falls were of 1m or less, such as falling off chairs or out of bed.
While play is rarely bad for you, missing out on play can have lifelong health and social consequences. Which is why safety regulations are now being questioned by a range of academics, parents and play activists who are worried kids are being denied opportunities to exercise judgment, weigh risk and take responsibility: in short to grow into adults.
Many parents are looking to reverse this trend and have flocked to advocates of free play, making bestsellers of Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods and Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids. Tinkering School founder Gever Tulley's TED talk Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do has become a social media hit.
This month the Victorian government acknowledged the shift with VicHealth's Physical Activity Unit, Sport & Recreation Victoria and Playgroup Victoria jointly presenting Tim Gill, author of the British bestseller No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society at an event called Taking Play Seriously.
Gill has been visiting Australia for several years since attending the Get Outside and Play conference in Perth in 2007. As someone who travels the world championing freedom in childhood he can see how things are changing. He told The Australian that: "Very few playgrounds in Australia look as grim as playgrounds had become in the UK around the turn of the century . . . children had to abuse the equipment to enjoy it."
Britain got a wake-up call in 2007 when a UNICEF survey rated it among the worst places in the world to grow up. At that time Play England, part of the British National Children's Bureau, found that about half of all children were being prevented from climbing trees and 17 per cent were not allowed to play running or chasing games. The government's response to the UNICEF report was a huge investment in Play England to build 3500 new and better playgrounds.
In Australia things got gradually less fun in our playgrounds but not so badly or quickly as to create a backlash, but eventually the missing space rockets were just too hard to ignore. Gill sees in Australia, "growing pockets of people spreading the word" about the need to restore challenge and fun to childhood.
There are pockets such as the Bush Babies playgroups, which are popping up across the country, and the Bush Kindergarten at Westgarth in Melbourne, which is modelled on the growing movement of Forest Kindergartens in Britain. London now has more than 150 pre-schools that specialise in getting children out into the woods to climb trees, hike and play in nature.
There is a growing desire among parents to revive exciting, fun and adventurous Australian childhoods.
The message appears to be finally making its way to the top thanks to people such as Robyn Monro Miller, chair of the National Out of School Hours Association, who has been putting play on the political agenda. Last year, the Minister for Childcare Kate Ellis introduced a learning framework for outside school hours care programs to ensure children spend more time in active play.
The most significant barrier to the revival of childhood freedom is the persistent fear of strangers. A VicHealth study, Nothing But Fear Itself, found Australian parents are restricting their children's independence and freedom despite the world not becoming more dangerous.
Following the Daniel Morcombe abduction tragedy the Daniel Morcombe Child Safety Program will now be a mandatory part of the Queensland curriculum and Premier Anna Bligh says she will be lobbying for the implementation of the package nationwide. While the final structure of the program is not yet settled, the stranger danger message is clear.
Gill says you cannot ask a family to put a tragedy into perspective or move on; however, we should remember, "the risk from dangerous adults is lower than it's ever been". Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron reinforced this last year, calling for, "a stop to the senseless rules that get in the way of volunteering (and) stop adults from helping out with other people's children".
In the question and answer session after Gill's talk in Melbourne, a mother of three told the audience how she had heard him speak the week before, after which her 10-year-old son asked her if he could go to the local skate park on his own. Thanks to Gill's talk, she said yes. That evening, she saw her son's status update on Facebook: "this was the best day of my life".
Gill admitted later on his blog: "I do not mind saying that I welled up a little as she told that story. Nor that I am welling up now as I type it."
The culture of fear that has defined approaches to the regulation of children's wellbeing appears to be under challenge if not yet reversing. The goal of those advocating for change is to give kids the gift of freedom.
"My dream is that these gifts of freedom are not rare gems to be treasured and celebrated," Gill says, "but part of the everyday currency of family life."
New Farm State School bans tiggy (tag) in playground
A QUEENSLAND primary school has banned popular chasing games Tiggy and Red Rover from the playground. New Farm State School, in Brisbane's inner north, outlawed the popular lunchtime activities because of injury fears. Students have instead been told to play safer games like chess and snakes and ladders.
NFSS principal Virginia O'Neill has outlined the "temporary" ban to parents and students, saying it is necessary to protect students from "Prep to Year 7".
The move has been roundly criticised as "safety madness" and another case of cotton wool kids.
Ms O'Neill says the chasing games have left first aid staff working overtime with frequent accidents and disputes. Instead, pupils could play boardgames or could take part in organised sports such as soccer and netball.
Townsville's Belgian Gardens State School sparked outrage in 2008 after pupils were banned from doing unsupervised cartwheels. It later emerged that some parents had lodged lawsuits seeking compensation for injuries they claimed their children had suffered at school.
Psychologist Karen Brooks said games were crucial to a child's development and physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. "Games like Tiggy and Red Rover teach kids about co-operation, teamwork and risk taking," Dr Brooks said. "It's a way of accomplishing and achieving in their own peer group in a generally safe way where adults aren't involved. To ban it is just so ridiculous."
She added: "We're talking about an obesity crisis and here we are preventing them doing what kids naturally do."
Schools were likely being forced into extreme measures because of pressure from parents to prevent accidents, Dr Brooks said. "Schools are just protecting themselves. This reaction is indicative of society as a whole and it's gone crazy."
Weight loss expert and former teacher Sally Symonds said the dangers of stopping children from playing outweighed the dangers of allowing them to play. "Given the rates of obesity, it's certainly not a great way to go," said Ms Symonds, author of 50 Steps to Lose 50kg ... and Keep It Off.
"For kids, play is a really vital way of encouraging people to see activity as part of normal life."
Bureaucracies can do no wrong
Look who's polluting: Sydney Water's shame. Imagine the outcry if this had been a private company!
UNTREATED sewage and heavy metals from the nation's biggest water utility are contaminating some of Sydney's most picturesque waterways and posing potentially widespread health risks, but the extent of the problem has been kept quiet.
The $32 billion Sydney Water Corporation has breached its pollution licences more than 1000 times in the past five years. And yet the NSW government's Office of Environment and Heritage has not prosecuted one of the breaches.
In many cases, a Sun-Herald investigation has found, untreated effluent overflowed into waterways such as the Georges River, Berowra, Cattai and Narrabeen Creek, which leads to Newport beach.
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Sydney Water has also been unmasked as the state's biggest polluter of mercury, but the OEH has placed no restriction on how much it can discharge.
The federal government's National Pollutant Inventory shows Sydney Water's North Head sewage plant dumped 24 kilograms of mercury off Manly in 2009-10, through its deep ocean outfall pipe. That dwarfs the next biggest mercury polluter, the Springvale Colliery's 0.66 kilograms.
Medical studies published in 2008 revealed the cases of three Sydney children found to have toxic levels of mercury after eating fish, which had long been exposed to mercury.
"Every other industrial facility has managed to reduce its mercury pollution to almost nil," said the chief executive officer of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Pepe Clarke, when told of the breaches. "This is an extraordinary situation and they need to explain it to the public."
The Sun-Herald's inquiries reveal hundreds of cases a year involving Sydney Water, many involving a failure to improve environmental performance, odour problems, mechanical failures, high levels of heavy metals and untreated effluent overflowing into waterways, much of it blamed on human error, broken pipes and crumbling infrastructure.
In the mid-1990s, the then Sydney Water chief executive, Paul Broad, said the authority had tackled pollution of beaches and some rivers, but he conceded "the big sleeper has been the sewer overflow issue".
The State of the Beaches report for 2010-11 does show big improvements in pollution levels at ocean beaches. It is a different story for estuarine and freshwater river swimming sites. The worst-rated swimming spots include Malabar beach, the Narrabeen Lagoon and Kyeemagh Baths.
Examination of the OEH's own public records for the past five years shows high levels of zinc and aluminium have been reported in the discharge from some Sydney Water sewage plants. They also show reports of untreated sewage regularly overflowing into unnamed waterways and into one school - again, not identified - in the suburbs around the Malabar treatment plant.
Sydney Water has 24,000 kilometres of pipes, many of which are almost 100 years old, servicing 23 sewage treatment systems across Sydney.
An employee of 20 years and now an environmental scientist at the University of Western Sydney, Ian Wright, said it was well known 5 to 10 per cent of sewage never made it to a treatment plant. "There is a network of creeks around Sydney that are being contaminated," Dr Wright said. "We know there is continual leakage from old, cracked and broken pipes - we can see that from the nutrient spike in the waters. The majority of urban creeks around Sydney would suffer from time to time from sewage … There is also a greater risk than average for any disease that people in that area might be carrying to be passed on. Hepatitis is a classic example."
Sydney Water is not required to publish information on its website about the amounts of heavy metals it discharges. Its managing director, Kevin Young, said it was undertaking a program known as SewerFix to upgrade pipes and infrastructure. By next June it would have spent $560 million over four years fixing leaks and blockages in pipes. In the past five years it had rehabilitated 500 kilometres of its 24,000-kilometre wastewater network.
At a rate of 100 kilometres a year, it would take hundreds of years to upgrade the whole network.
An environmental expert from the University of Wollongong, Sharon Beder, has long warned that Sydney's rivers and beaches are being regularly polluted. Professor Beder, the author of Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing, said: "Things are getting worse because the licence conditions were set at levels that were achievable at the time [about 20 years ago]."
The government had since loosened licence conditions under which industry pays for the right to pollute. Even the less rigorous conditions were not being met, Professor Beder said. "Basically the system is not keeping up … successive governments have not been willing to spend money on infrastructure."
The OEH had shown itself to be incapable of enforcing environmental laws, she said. The OEH has also not prosecuted the Lithgow sewage treatment plant, operated by the local council, which has shown faecal contamination in its discharged waters every year for five years.
This water goes into the Sydney drinking water catchment area. The OEH has defended Sydney Water's record, saying the utility had made many improvements and that they are working together on pollution reduction programs at North Head, Malabar, Bondi and Cronulla.
The OEH said it had asked for 62 pollution-reduction programs for Sydney Water, issued eight infringement notices and given three warning letters in the past decade. None has progressed to a prosecution. The Environment Minister, Robyn Parker, said she had been advised that Sydney Water had made many improvements. "However, OEH have identified that there is more to do on sewer overflows, particularly during wet weather," she said.
James Clark-Kennedy, the campaign manager for the Clean Oceans Foundation, said the OEH could not properly set the standards or pretend to police them while it was a servant of the same government. "The public perception is that the watchdog is there to protect [the public] … not other government departments," he said. "The teeth need to be put back into the watchdog. We need to create the political will to spend money on improving the system. But while the government is relying on the dividends, it is a bit like being addicted to the pokie tax."
Sydney Water recorded an after-tax profit of $305 million to June. It will pay a dividend of $230 million to the government this year, rising over the next four years. The pricing regulator is reviewing its proposed price rise, which could cost households an extra 15 per cent over four years.