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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

stories for grown ups « Previous | |Next »
November 22, 2007

Aeons ago when John Howard said kids should be able to leave school at year ten I figured we were in for another one of his devious, booger-headed plans to keep us all as stupid and pliable as possible. Why else would he suggest such a thing when we all know year 12 is an intrinsic good? But for reasons John wouldn't have a clue about I've come to agree with him.

Over the past few days I've learned that about a third of the kids who, on paper, are doing years 10, 11 and 12 aren't really doing it. Public or private. I know this because my 14 year old son is one of them. The eff word has had a bit of a workout around here lately, mostly in the 'you're effing joking' context. But no, they're not joking.

These kids have left school in real life, even though they're still technically at school. And since there's no such thing as starting in the mail room and working your way up any more, there's nothing else for them except passing time until they're old enough to have outgrown masses of useless regulation.

This is a longish story.

I knew my son hadn't been overjoyed about school since he realised early in the year that if he wanted to stay popular he was going to have to pick on kids he liked. Or at least stand by and watch other kids do it. He did the honourable thing and stuck by the chubby redhead who can't ride a skateboard, which was exceptionally brave, but ultimately pointless. No single kid is ever going to change playground culture.

This year I've had more meetings at the school than in the other nine years combined. He's still some kind of weird savant with maths, but everything else has gone to custard. At least he was still at school, right? Well, no, actually.

When your kid has been absent for 10 consecutive days you get a phone call which, oddly enough, isn't about where your kid has been, but whether the school has made some kind of administrative error. I stupidly went along with the error inference and forgot about it. No child of mine would contemplate wagging school for two solid weeks. We take education seriously in this house.

That phone call taught me nothing, but the next one taught me I'd been wrong the first time around. However the first one taught him that you have to turn up at least one day a fortnight to avoid trouble. He got away with it until, along with 10 other kids in his class, more than a third, he missed an exam and the teacher rang to explain he was going to fail.

That's part of the trouble though. The senior years are about education if you want to go to uni, which he doesn't. And what's the point of writing a four page detailed report on mythical creatures you've encountered on an imaginary island if you can fail and go up a grade anyway? School was like a holding pen and he resented being treated like a sheep. Especially when the flock mentality revolves around cruelty to your fellow sheep.

Critical thinking is a necessary skill if kids are to grow up being anything more than droids, but the downside is that they can always cast their critical eye over the system they're in, and it's not too difficult to see its inconsistencies and work your way around them. And it takes less imagination than mythical creatures.

Long story short, the mum network reports this is not unusual. What is unusual is for parents to refuse to go along with it. We're supposed to keep pretending, keep the right boxes ticked and the youth unemployment stats down. Go through the formalities.

There are not a lot of options for the rebellious parent. After two days of phone calls the 'earn or learn' mantra was demonstrably hollow. The 'learn' actually means attend school one day a fortnight and stay on the rolls. The 'earn' is also illusory. When it comes to employing kids in a job with a future, for every rule there is a contradictory regulation.

We appear to be stuffed. As Alice Cooper would say, school's out. I'm not prepared to pretend he's at school if he's probably not. And I can sympathise with him about the culture. Nor am I prepared to have him sitting around the house, unlike a lot of other parents in this situation who are black and blue from hitting dead ends. He can't start learning a trade unless it's linked to a school based traineeship, which requires us to pretend he's at school four days out of five. He can work full time as long as it's a dead end job of some kind.

For the time being we've settled for the work experience loophole. He's working with his dad, so we know where he is and he's doing something useful. Even though he's actually learning a trade, the experience won't count technically because it won't contribute to a qualification, which has to be earned through the appropriate channels. I secretly hope he hates it so much he'd rather write four page detailed reports on mythical creatures he's encountered on an imaginary island. Either that or being excellent at playing Final Fantasy turns out to be a career option.

Meanwhile, school retention rates continue to impress. We can reassure ourselves that an education revolution will make us the smartest country on earth. I wonder though, whether we'll ever be smart enough to outsmart the kids we've taught to recognise a con when they see one.

It reminds me of the kid who got around the government's family safe internet package in under 10 minutes, or whatever it was. We're being all earnest about preparing the next generation for the future, but we seem to have built a system designed first and last to preserve the myths grown ups are so fond of.

| Posted by Lyn at 2:10 PM | | Comments (20)


Lyn, great post. It touches on a lot of things I think are wrong with the education system, which for many reasons continues to fail to apply what many educators and educational theorists know about the curriculum, school culture and our society as a whole. I was quite successful at my distinctly working class school (and thus went toe University) but there were times where I was incredibly bored. Other kids would have been even more bored and less interested in being there and there was little that they were being taught or that they could learn due to the restrictions of the curriculum and the system as a whole.

I really disagree with the focus on getting everyone to do Year 12 unless the system is drastically changed to reflect the many different aptitudes, learning styles and personalities that can be found in the school population. When people talk about how easy teachers have it, I think of how easy can it be to have to 'manage' large numbers of students who have no interest in being in the school system, while at the same time facing pressure from various sources to try and keep them in it and learning in the accepted way.

Lyn, I'm curious to what State this is in?

Also in hindsight I think from around year 10 that school education should trend more towards making you employable and getting a successful job whether you finish school in year 10 or year 12. Otherwise its just a ride for the sake of a ride. As you basically just said.

Have you read "He'll be OK" by Celia Lashlie.
It might be a good time for you to step back and leave him and his dad to bond at work a bit. End of school soon. Come Feb it could be all about something else :)


You're basically describing what's known as multiple intelligences, which allows that different people have different aptitudes and the sausage factory model of schooling will always fail some. It's geared to the mediocre. There are ways of getting around it, but we've chosen the factory production line model for education.

I really feel for teachers who genuinely want kids to succeed but have to work within the system as it is. The whole thing needs an overhaul to meet the needs of kids as well as the needs of our society.

My grandmother used to say 'Do as well as you can, but respect the dunnyman, if it wasn't for him we'd all be up to our eyeballs in shit'. The education system seems to accept the need for dunnymen, but at the same time doesn't allow them to exist.


Queensland. We're originally from NSW so I'm aware there are differences. When we left Sydney 12 years ago they were drifting back to the streaming model which is closer to meeting aptitude needs.

The idea behind most of high school is to make kids employable. They start doing career-directed courses in the second year of high school. I think the trouble is that it's still "school" with all that implies. The focus is work, but the setting is still school, if you know what I mean.

Some of them seem to need the security or sense of continuity they get from school. Others don't need that but there's no other option. At least, that's what it looks like to me.


Are you channelling my mum? You're being more subtle than she was, bless you.

No, the deal was that I was in charge of the education and his dad was in charge of all things manly. He's also very close to his uncles who are 18 and 23 and determined he fall in with the strong fishing tradition in the family. There's no shortage of man school in his life.

In fact, now that you mention it, which of course you didn't but I'll pretend you did anyway, his grandfather left school at 14. And for similar reasons. He went on to huge success as a fisherman, writer and photographer, which is a good story to tell him right now, even if we live in different times.

Thanks for that Les. I'll let you know how we get on.

sometimes i'm sorry i never tried to raise a child, but a second later i come to my senses.

i taught high school very briefly in the 70's, a memory that came back vividly when i read that part about how difficult it is to control a class when several members don't want to be there.

the cane was still in use then, maybe it still is, but when i finally sent some kid to get his hand rapped i decided i wasn't cut out for teaching in nsw.

one of the characteristics of living in an hierarchical society is that bureaucracy is inflexible. even in dealing with kids, one size fits all. doesn't the fact that ten kids were absent for an exam set off any alarm bells? probably does, just no one is listening.

still, humans are resilient, and kids often survive adolescence in spite of grown-ups.

but the core of this story isn't education or psychology, it's politics. 'education' policy is corrupted by the drive to minimize unemployment. this is just another instance of social policy being bent to serve the career interests of politicians.

i don't vote for them, my conscience is clear.

Great post Lyn. I have a brother who is currently going through a similar scenario in NSW so can empathise.


I'm amazed at how many people have said this wouldn't be happening if kids were still caned. I've just told them kids resent the system they're in, and they figure kids will stop resenting it if only they're caned enough? I admire you for refusing to play that game.

The teacher wasn't surprised when the 10 didn't turn up because that level of absence is normal. Not always the same kids. The teacher seemed resigned to it, but was quite pleased when I started prattling on about the politics. I imagine a lot of parents would blame the school.


So NSW hasn't done any better then? How very reassuring.

Been there done that. The biggest problem with the upper years is they still want to cast you in one mold.

Take a long hard look at tafe. he has to find something that interests him.



He brought up the possibility of tafe himself today. After one week out of school he's more positive about himself and optimistic about his future than he's been since high school started. It's quite amazing.

Lyn I really can't recommend it enough, in my case I did year 11 and 12 there 1973, 1974) and went on do do engineering. You are treated like an adult and the range of options is large.

This one isn't for the blog just some comments from a farther that didn't like the final years and has had a son with the same problem.

To be blunt if he is bright enough and has enough gumption to wag school he will be ok.

In our case it's a high IQ combined with dyslexia. Quick to learn, shocking writing. Having admitted my problem I am not even going to attempt to find the missing s, ed and ings (I have got better with age).

In my case I left school under my own steam and went and got a job. I soon realized it was an education or being told what to do for the rest of my life, so I finished using the TAFE system and then went to what was then called a collage of advanced education at the time to do engineering, these are now the dawkins universities.

If he drops out now it is not all over if he later wants to do a degree, the system allows mature age student intake.

For my son, I did well enough to afford private education for the kids, if you get the right school it can make a big difference. If your thinking along those lines:

1) Look at their art and craft rooms, do they take them seriously.
2) Talk about kids that are a little different, all schools have them, the one that worked out well for my son looked after the differences and didn't try to turn them into academics, they worked hard to find their interests and catered for them.
3)Ask them how many kids are they refusing to let do year 12 in an attempt to raise their score, if the answer isn't none, walk out.

I believe the key is to find something they are good at that is appreciated by their peers, in my sons case it was singing.

Another story, my wife has a cousin, she talks about being lined up for spelling tests so he could practice. He is now a crane safety instructor working around the world earning more than the rest of us.

Gosh, when did school become compulsory to year 12? I missed that change.

Apart from TAFE, and if its the social environment at school rather than school work itself that is getting him down, and he's a bit of a self starter in the right environment, another option is by distance ed. from home (no NOT homeschooling, he will still have tutors, teachers etc but contact via email, phone). You can even get through your work faster, without the distractions of class mates, and pick up a few hours work at the local supermarket or a local tradey, building up some employment history along the way.


In our case it's high intelligence and social sensitivity. I'm beginning to wonder whether it's so geared to the struggling kids that the smarter ones suffer. Maybe we need to go back to the cold war opportunity school model.

At this stage it looks as though he will go back to formal education at some stage. I started uni in my 30s so he knows it's not age-limited entry. The word 'school' is a negative for us, no matter how good the facilities are.

Also, he's just seen his first pay packet. It's amazing what that can do to motivation.


Now that you mention it, I don't recall anyone using the word 'compulsory'. They just say you can't leave. It seems to be one of those cases like 'multiculturalism' where if you don't use the word then the fact no longer exists.


Thanks for the suggestion. I'll look into it. I thought it was home schooling, tafe or nothing.

I am not sure that there are any schools here on the coast that could be categorized as "Bad Schools" Some do seem to have better resources though as is the case everywhere.

I tell my kids that it is important that your teachers see that you WANT to learn. There are kids in every class that don't want to learn and this may well vary between subjects too.

When Johnnie Bloggs goes through the system and comes out the other end unable to read or write to a particular standard it is usually the case that he did not want to learn and not the teachers, governments or systems fault.


I wouldn't blame the school at all. In fact it's probably not a matter of blaming anybody or anything in particular. If anything it's what you can expect if you need to manage a large number of human beings who all insist on being individuals.

On the bright side, I told him his grandfather's story and he brightened up considerably. Then he went fishing this morning. That's a good sign that tells me his mind is calm.

Oh! So it is you that is the fish wife now!


Since the day I was born.