Wednesday 13 December 2017

My little boy's class struggle

Amanda Phelan is one of the many economic refugees who fled Down Under during the downturn but how would her son cope with a very different school system?

Amanda Phelan

THE small, tow-headed boy from Dublin grins in homesick delight at the gaggle of young women from Donegal sharing his bench as he waits for the bus to his new school up the road from Bondi Beach.

"So do you love it here, wee man?" smiles one of the girls in a gentle, teasing burr that reminds him of home.

"Not really," says the six-year-old, whose parents are among the thousands of economic refugees trying out life in the Lucky Country. These young families are the human face of recent figures showing a 25pc increase in Irish applications to emigrate to countries including Australia, the US, and Canada.

"Ach, why not? It's beautiful -- and so sunny and warm," the girls squeal in surprise.

The boy, Rory, a happy child whose easy-going nature won him the nickname of 'Buddha' as an infant, draws himself up. "My heart's always warm when I'm home in Ireland," comes the reply.

The Donegal girls melt. And with prose that purple, maybe the young fella should be back in the land of saints and scholars.

As many Irish people make the round-the-world trek to Australia in search of a better life, they will be contending with differences of culture as well as climate.

So what's life like if you make the swap from downpours to Down Under?

For many families, education is a key concern. A lot of what's on offer in Australia is good -- plenty of places in government-run schools, a mosaic of multicultural mixed backgrounds, and a healthy outdoor lifestyle.

But for Rory, who was a student at the close-knit Burrow National School in Sutton, north Dublin, some aspects of the transition are challenging.

"Why is nobody smiling at me on the bus?" he asks, used to good-natured Dubs tousling his blond hair and having the craic.

And, at school, he finds the 'no touching' rule for students and staff a contrast to the casual arm-holding of his friends, and the odd hug from his teacher at the Burrow School.

On the academic side, a new tougher results-based programme is being phased in to Sydney schools. Low levels of literacy among up to half of Australians fuelled the push for change in the classroom.

The result? A new national curriculum with a strict focus on literacy and numeracy, and regular tests to check the outcomes, with the results published on the internet so schools can be ranked in league tables.

"Good," you hear parents think. But under this system, children as young as five can spend more than 55pc of their school day writing mathematics and English into textbooks. Learning through play? Forget it. Fun in the classroom? No way.

"The thinking behind this is that an early focus on numeracy and literacy is the foundation for learning, and we need to get that right," says Ric Cliona, a senior assessment officer with the New South Wales Department of Education.

But some argue the policy is counter-productive, and is imposed at a creative cost.

"There is a global movement in understanding the significance arts has in education, and Australia seems to be missing that," says the president of Art Education Australia, Marian Strong, who is a member of the group developing the new national Australian curriculum.

As children move up through primary school towards secondary school, the pressures intensify.

Students face a test at age 11, with the brightest getting places in high-achieving academies known as 'selective schools', because they select their intake, and the rest going to 'ordinary' high schools.

This system enraged one Irish mother, who wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald complaining about a process she summed up as "the fish that John West reject".


"Some public schools -- particularly in the city -- were left with students who were not bright enough for the selectives, or whose parents were not rich enough to send their children to the private fee-paying schools," says Annette Blackwell, a university lecturer and former journalist, who moved to Sydney with her young son 20 years ago.

"I considered returning to Ireland when my son was 15, and looked very closely at and compared the core curricula.

"I found the Australian one to be richer and a lot more focused on a well-rounded education."

But six-year-old Rory, who never missed a day of school in Dublin, isn't so keen on his new one at Bondi's Wellington Street.

"They want me to be 16, and I'm six," he mutters in uncharacteristic reluctance.

The decision to stick to literacy and numeracy teaching means less time for art or creative outlets such as school theatre, which he loves.

These subjects come under the title 'other' and are allotted only six per cent of the space in the official NSW syllabus distributed to parents.

At Rory's school in Bondi, the annual school play has been abolished, says the headmaster. "It was taking up too much time, so we introduced a debate instead."

That sounds good. What would be a typical topic? 'What is a loser?'

In contrast, at Rory's school in Ireland, plays are a regular event and themes include 'We can all make a difference', illustrated in hilarious formation by a bunch of youngsters trying to pull an enormous papier-mache turnip up from the stage.

Eileen Geaney, who took up the role of headmistress of this close-knit school last year, is a strong believer in child-centred education.

This means encouraging students to learn with their teacher, but also to feel part of the community and, well, enjoy being children.

"We're like a family," Ms Geaney says. "Not just of students and teachers, but parents and all the volunteers who come in and give us their time."

This flexibility pays off, and most of the students, including Rory, thrive academically and socially. In Australia, the tests show he's off the charts with reading and spelling abilities.

Plus, the Burrow School isn't just for children from the relatively wealthy Howth and Sutton areas.

The school takes in a wide range of children from a variety of backgrounds. Ms Geaney is proud of this socio-economic and multicultural mix. As well, she advocates inclusive education and, where possible, children with special needs are educated with their peers in mainstream classes.

Demand for the 200-plus student places from junior infants to sixth class is high and the school has to turn away as many pupils as it can accept.

For Rory, a typical day when he was in senior infants began at 8.35am and finished at 1.15pm. Subjects taught include maths, English and languages in 30-40 minute slots, with a break for play and lunch.

His teacher, Ms Williams, encouraged her pupils, and if they were really enjoying a subject such as English, she'll let them run with it over schedule and make up for it the next day.

One day towards the end of last term, Ms Geaney was in the corridor with two anxious-looking students.


"Boys, give me those paper aeroplanes," she demanded. Was she going to confiscate the planes? Punish their creators?

"I love flying these," grinned the headmistress, aiming one in a perfect arc. This more informal and personal approach is a great feature of Ireland, which has to be one of the most kid-friendly cultures in the world.

Perhaps we don't give ourselves enough credit for having good schools and a sound education ethic. Certainly, we rank well in OECD surveys.

Rachel McGrath*, an anaesthetic nurse from Howth, spent time growing up in Perth and now travels there with her husband and three children for a couple of months each year in January.

Her daughter, Emily, is a senior infant pupil at the Burrow School.

"I don't believe that a public national school in Perth would be as good as the Burrow," says Ms McGrath.

In Australia, as the new national curriculum is imposed, there is much soul-searching about whether the formula is right.

In Ireland, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment keeps tabs on our changing society and whether its needs are being reflected in the education system. Literacy and numeracy are important, but other more holistic factors are taken into account.

The resulting primary school curriculum aims to: "Enable the child to develop as a social being through living and co-operating with others and so to contribute to the good of society," according to the council.

In Sydney, school hours are longer than here -- from 9am to 3pm -- and the syllabus is strictly followed.

But there are pluses there too though: taking part in a Bondi Beach sculpture exhibition, and organic food in the canteen with a no-sugar, no sweet drinks policy (this might be more appreciated by parents than kids), and a vegetable garden run by students.

But Rory isn't convinced, and after a few weeks in Australia, he still wants to go home to his beloved Burrow. His class sends an enormous, colourful handmade card to the homesick youngster: 'Come back soon', it says. He keeps it under his pillow for weeks.

Although he joins the junior lifeguards, and enjoys his days at Bondi, every so often he pleads: "Mam, when can we go home?"

He doesn't care about the weather ("too hot") and he doesn't know about the economic downturn.

But he knows his heart. Then finally, due to a combination of personal and professional reasons involving his parents, he gets his way.

So there he is, a perfect school tester for Australia and Ireland. Tried both, loves the Irish.

*name changed

Irish Independent

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