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Carr’s Column – Touring North Coast Schools

September 1, 2010


Accepting an invitation from teachers who’d won my overseas scholarships (a scheme I launched with money from a Fulbright Distinguished Fellow Award and which has been expanded with the help of private sector sponsors like Westfield and Macquarie Bank).  I was able to see in two high schools this week some inspiring education leadership.  

In a staff room yesterday on Tuesday August 31 I chatted with teachers at Richmond River High School, a fine weatherboard heritage building with a glimpse of rainforest covered uplands.  The teachers were unanimous that the NSW curriculum is simply the best in Australia.  No arguments, no ifs, no buts.   

I was able to tell them that Professor Greg Craven, Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University, had reported to me that his children had gone to school in Western Australia and Victoria and New South Wales.  The New South Wales curriculum was far superior of those in the other states, in his view.   In fact he had me accompany him to a meeting with Education Minister Verity Firth to underline the message these standards should not be sacrificed in the move to a national curriculum. 

Senior teacher, John Ryan sent me this comment:

 “The day after he visited we debriefed on Bob’s talk to year 11 students. Everyone found the talk compelling for a number of reasons but chief of them was the very real interest Bob showed in their own lives.  Bob was impressed when he learned how many students were involved in some form of community service or another: playing music in retirement villages, volunteering in the Rural Fire Fighting service, Girl Guide leaders, award winning public speakers  were just some examples in a room where easily two thirds do community work.”

He continues ” I invited Bob to visit because I knew he could speak about the connections between literature and history from a highly informed position and with real passion for his subject. But while he was doing just that; explaining how literature could allow us windows into the past to better understand what happened and who was involved, students noted and were impressed as Bob delivered positive and empowering messages about the value of self education, indeed of education. He spoke of his own humbling realization that he needed to get behind the brick and mortar to find out the stories that went into creating Ancient Rome. He also explained why we had to keep our own consul, weigh up evidence when reading say, Richard III, which, as he pointed out, skewed the character of Richard so Shakespeare would not fall out with Elizabeth I, a monarch whose family had defeated Richard’s to claim the throne. Bob talked about his own life too… hardly surprising students felt less jaded about political careers after meeting him.”

This was a point I made when I visited Mullumbimby High School and spoke to a group of history extension students from that and neighbouring schools.  “The whole purpose is to lift other states to our standard and not to dumb this state’s curriculum down to theirs,” I said.  

In a History Extension class at Mullumbimby High School

The audience was living proof of NSW curriculum rigour.  They are studying history extension because I and education minister John Aquilina introduced it.  It – that is, history at a new advanced level – is study at a standard comparable to university.   The students master the principles of historiography, as they confirmed in their discussions with me.  And they pursue serious research – I would call it a thesis – into a subject of their choice.  

Ancient history is booming in the school system, something I had determined as Premier to achieve.  And again it can be studied at extension level. Our’s is a curriculum that doesn’t talk down to students.  

At the same school I visited a support class to speak to students with disabilities who now spend most of their time in regular classrooms returning to the support unit when they need it (the Head Teacher who was running this program Mark Smith, had been one of the beneficiaries of an overseas scholarships and had used it to look at the integration of youngsters with disabilities in Scandinavian school systems).  One of these youngsters spoke about her fondness for Broadway musicals; and another, his idea for a movie script based on three mates being sucked into to a Harry Potter movie.  “Take out copyright on that one,” I advised him.   “Hollywood would be interested.”   

Students at Mullumbimby High School seem as interested in history as any guest speaker could hope for.

Later on I was able to talk to students about politics and urge that they join the political party of their choice and try to make a difference in the world.  

I witnessed a dedicated drama teacher oversighting HSC performances and was reminded how the subject is as much about presentation skills and organisation as it is about theatre narrowly defined.  “See Me and Orson Wells,” I advised one of the students “It’s all about you and your colleagues.”   

These schools confirm the vitality and democracy of community-based public education, of the life that exists in the comprehensive state school system.  Will we one day reach the tipping point where it becomes only a “residual” system?  That would be a tragedy.   

My thanks to Donna Pearson, the History Teacher and Deputy Principal from Mullumbimby and John Ryan, History and English teacher from Lismore, for invitations.  

With Mullumbimby High School History teacher and Deputy Principal Donna Pearson.

So far 308 teachers have travelled overseas with the help of the NSW Premier Teachers Scholarship.  

Byron Bay:  

Helena and I enjoyed the weekend at Byron Bay before visiting these two splendid high schools. Very sad to see its major secondhand book shop in Jonson Street closed down.  It had a very good American history section.  A tragedy to see a quality secondhand bookshop go under, the kind of place which would have the three volume Lee’s Lieutenants in the window and a shelf or two of books on Nixon.  

Byron is doing it tough.  A high Australian dollar has meant fewer backpackers from overseas.  But I can recommend the following eateries which join with the spectacular sweep of beach and coastal views to lend this spot its appeal: Dish on the corner of Jonson and Marvell Streets with healthful and upmarket cuisine;  St. Elmo on the corner of Fletcher Street and Lawson Lane and Traditional Thai Shop 5 – 2 Fletcher Street which readily responded to our request to serve food without coconut milk (devastating for coronary health and the worst thing imaginable in terms of cholesterol).


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