Big pressures on our schools

IF YOU speak to the principal of just about any Australian school, chances are they'll tell you two things about the changes they've seen in the last couple of decades.

First, they'll mention increasing pressure to improve test scores in the traditional areas of the curriculum, most obviously literacy and numeracy.

But they'll also tell you about the paperwork and the ever-expanding array of policies for which she or he is accountable: bullying, sex education, child protection, skin cancer, alcohol, drugs, nutrition, obesity and mental health to name only a very few.

In other words, schools are being asked to do more and more at a time when they have less and less spare time to devote to "non-core" activities.

As a physical educator, I've been particularly concerned by the way many schools have responded to calls for them to combat childhood obesity.

Our enthusiasm for dumping complex social problems on schools leaves them with few options

Small children being forced to run the dreaded beep test and being subjected to public weigh-ins are just a couple of examples of clearly ineffective and probably harmful school experiences that will do nothing to help children lead healthier lives.

It should come as no surprise to anybody to learn that in many cases, schools - particularly primary schools - bring in outside help to manage the policy burden that confronts them.

Research tells us that these services, for which parents often have to pay extra, are either poor quality or used in a one-off fashion with no meaningful follow-up. That is, they don't work.

The sting in the tail though is that these activities are not really intended to work. They exist primarily to help schools demonstrate their compliance with the flow of policies dreamed up at head office.

The point here is that our enthusiasm for dumping complex social problems on schools leaves them with few options.

The greatest contribution a teacher can make to a child's health and wellbeing is to teach them as well as humanly possible in the subject matter they have been trained in.

* Dr Michael Gard is a Senior Research Fellow at Southern Cross University's School of Education.



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