What If We Have Got It All Wrong?

Distinguished Guest Writer

Bruce Jones is a very active, former primary school principal. I was fortunate to be able to visit his schools at Yungaburra, Atherton and Coolum where one could actually feel the learning in the air. Children were always busily active at learning experiences that they obviously enjoyed and the size of the classrooms went well beyond the school fence.

A super-active well-known critic of school standards, fond of stating her beliefs to  the world, lived on the Atherton Tableland west of Cairns. Bruce invited her to join him in his classroom and stay as long as she liked for as many days she liked and do as she pleased.  To her credit, she tried. Her advocacy for a return to the old chalk-talk, fear-based conditions ceased.

Bruce began his teaching career as a student in Group X, Kelvin Grove Teachers’ College, 1960, the last one-year teaching certificate course ever offered. Maybe the shortness of the training, with prac school one day every week and three extended prac school sessions in the year, set the foundation for his continuing interest in teacher education as crucial to the success of schools, and the concern for the education of children at their most vulnerable.

As a school principal he cut his teeth in large city schools, which gave him gum ulcers, being there when Scholarship ceased and primary schools were reconfigured. Well some were. From his first one teacher school, Teviot near Boonah, where thirteen children taught him the values of Family Grouping, to Coolum by the sea, where four mini schools operated, two fully multi age, two traditional 1960s format, and a nine day teaching fortnight for all, convinced him that economic rationalist policies spelt the death knell for primary school education in Queensland.

Throughout his career he was active in a number of community based projects including a public swimming pool at Pentland, the Yungaburra Markets established in 1977 (the school still the beneficiary of the event), the Atherton District Education Centre (ADEC) at Tolga, the Tinaroo Field Study Centre at Black Gully, Tinaroo, as well as a number of school/community based programs. His unpublished book, “Copycats, Stickybeaks and Scallywags, our Children All” is looking for a publisher.

After his long association with education he and wife Trish embarked on a decade of management rights, caring for properties in Wynnum West, Kangaroo Point and the Tinaroo Lake Resort with his family. Currently he is working with Parkinsons Queensland in event marketing to raise funds for Parkinsons and other neurological disease research. His hobbies include aquaponics and sustainable organic food production, plus abolishing NAPLAN.

If you are on a tourist jaunt around the Atherton Tableland, you are sure pass a beautiful park called ‘Bruce Jones Park’ – a public tribute to his community involvement.

Phil Cullen


What if we have got it all wrong

Bruce Jones

My dad suffered for almost all of his life with stomach ulcers and I well recall the vile chalky mixtures he was dosed with and the agony he suffered, always watching what he ate and driving my mum mad. He was never given the proper treatment, for it hadn’t been discovered. The Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterium was identified in 1982 by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who found that it was present in patients with chronic gastritis and gastric ulcers, conditions that were not previously believed to have a microbial cause. It was commonly thought that stress, smoking and diet were the principal causes. Today’s treatment for stomach ulcers includes the use of antibiotics to kill the infection, and acid-suppressing drugs. How wrong the doctors were for so long. (source Wikipedia)

So were you going to ask if schools cause ulcers? Maybe the way we’re going with GERM (global education reform movement) it might be a real possibility. In western culture, schools were established in the nineteenth century for the education of a society’s young for fairly simplistic reasons, to prepare them for the basics of life (“Duck your head” for a mining child to read was life or death); and to provide some respite for their parents who had to work to make ends meet. For the privileged there were private tutors and colleges, then universities. Depending on one’s place on the social scale children were kept mainly to the class into which they were born. Schooling of the masses was a direct result of the Industrial Revolution that led to the exodus of many from Britain. Social class education was soon established in the colonies, but for those wanting a real education the opportunity to return to the motherland was highly desirable.

So what has changed in the ensuing almost two centuries? We’ve found that a really good education is a highly desirable asset and it costs a lot of money, so preferably should be available to only those who can afford it. The massive growth in private education since the freeing up of federal funding by Dr. Kemp and John Howard in recent times has given a new slant on class based education, cleverly done through the political catch cry of Parent Choice. Are we sure that we are educating our future citizens the most effectively, knowing what we now know about learning and the brain?

Or have we abrogated our responsibilities as educators completely to the political whim of our politicians? They change their position according to their quest to win votes to rule. What if we have got it all wrong?

In Britain for a short period after World War Two, when resources were stretched to the limit, schools of all kinds had to be very creative and frugal as both material and human resources were in short supply. Primary schools became far less structured and far more supportive of the children in their care, many having been through great trauma. Classes were often of mixed ages with older children assigned to look after the younger ones and everyone tended to unite to survive. Teachers were forced to adopt a different view of the world and determined to lift the spirits of the young by celebrating the joys of childhood and take life one step at a time, to enjoy the moment.

The process towards an open education platform, tagged as progressive by staunch traditionalists, took more than a decade but by the late fifties many schools, which had adopted this pathway, began to stand out as good examples as to how children might better learn to live. The needs of the child were used as a platform to work from, not the needs of the vocal electorate as we now witness. The ideas of the great American educator of the early twenties, John Dewey, made a significant presence in educators’ thinking. Some gave these new methods a title, Family Grouping, and schools which encouraged the family ethos into their culture found that their charges were not only learning beyond their greatest expectations, but were much happier in a supportive and collaborative environment.Relationship education had real meaning. Teachers also began to change into a far more collaborative role, sharing their successes and problems, often teaching co-operatively, celebrating the joy of learning, for everyone.

The Scholarship examination regime ended in Queensland in 1962 signaling the transfer of year eight pupils from primary to secondary school. Within a few short years and with the more flexible opportunity provided for primary schooling some heard of these new methods from the UK, the US and NZ. As a result primary education in many schools took on a new child centered approach for almost two decades. In Queensland we even had a Director of Primary Education appointed, guiding the sector that had such different needs to pre-schools and secondary schools. Not only were teaching methods changing, school architecture was also. All new schools constructed in Queensland after the new Petrie Terrace State School opened in 1969 were built to an open structure formula, wrongly spoken of as ‘open area classrooms,’ a tag copied from the United States, which was also going through somewhat of a similar educational revolution.

The revolution lasted almost exactly two decades before the introduction of economic rationalism began to change our schools and the lives of our young learners back again to a more structured and Back to Basics regime. It must be noted also that very few secondary schools ever adopted the model of the ungraded classrooms. High schools have always been based on the subject first model, ruled by the timetable, with tests and results paramount. Teenage children can be a handful and need structure and discipline everyone agreed.

In the late eighties a new business model for all schools was being touted by our politicians, heavily supported by businesses and the private school sector, who saw the benefits to themselves by competing on a more business like footing, without the usual impediments of paying taxes yet still receiving ever increasing government grants to get their businesses established, or added to. Parents in the public sector were confused, often made to feel inferior, as the concerted media attack on public schooling ramped up and children’s needs were lost in the melee. Primary school architecture even reflected the loss of the child centered primary education as double teaching spaces were walled off, back into single, secure, secret rooms where ‘true competition’ could once again flourish. Testing came to the fore, beginning with the Year Two Net, sold as the necessary prerequisite to know who needed extra resources to help them. No account in graded classes can be taken of the fact that chronologically the children range by at least a whole year, three or more in other measurable traits. Kids don’t vote so why would we consider them in our decisions to pull down their castles?

In Queensland there was a glimpse of light in the mid nineties with the trial of Professor Alan Luke’s New Basics project with the accompanying Rich Tasks and Productive Pedagogies. Like almost all other educational leap forward programs the quick sand of inertia slowly but surely took hold and in 2006 Lesley Friend, team leader of the Rich Task Team, Education Queensland, wrote “In the current climate of negativity, blame and open attack, one wonders if there is capacity to sustain what is good, what has been so richly achieved by the hard work of teachers and schools. Governments are often guilty of leaping before looking and find ways of dumbing down the serious and complex nature of educating our precious youth for tomorrow.”

Truer words were never spoken for only two years later NAPLAN took over and subsumed all that had gone before, and the Murdoch press went into high drive to appropriate as much of the future market Rupert could consume. New Basics, costing many millions, had hardly lasted a decade, and was only taken on board by a small number of schools. After all it was just a trial, the same as Pre-prep and Prep, and Yr. 7 to High Schools were/are. Is there a joke there somewhere? New Basics didn’t fit the testing regime that was now biting into all classrooms. Multi age classrooms didn’t fit the testing regime structure either. When NAPLAN rose to national dominance the then premier of Queensland, previously the Education Minister, on ABC radio advised her schools to “Practise, practise, practise!” All lights turned green and a new industry called NAPLAN Support was born. Great news for publishers. Poor kids.

So now it is complete. We educate our must vulnerable and impressionable, our little children, our copycats, our stickybeaks, our scallywags, according to a structure devised by our politicians, foreign ‘experts’ and publishers whose eyes boggle with delight at the opportunity our education system has provided. We have truly adopted the high school culture the then minister of education promised me in the early nineties. We now ensure all children are taught the same content, based on National Curriculum content with C2C electronically prepared lesson plans (we called them Work Books in the early sixties as computers hadn’t yet been invented). We are also able to directly link teacher pay with NAPLAN results and our ministers of education across the country have a common tool and a common curriculum with which they can sprout their noble quest for the best education for all Australian children, so authentically supported by the media and the private sector schools. Our Education Queensland has decided to make our state schools clones of the private system. I think the US calls them Charter Schools.

Forget the wise words of the noted US educator Thomas Sergiovanni (deceased 2012) when he addressed a large gathering of educational leaders at the Wesley Hospital auditorium in 1998. He asked what the audience thought were the greatest problems schools in the US faced. Not drugs, not gangs, not poverty. It was disengagement of learners from schooling, from learning. Disengagement. The two strategies he advocated to reverse the trend were to have pupils educated in a multi age classroom structure within a small school environment. As simple as that. We called ours mini schools.

NAPLAN has it all, just as my dad had vile chalky medicines and a strict dietary regime. Only it didn’t work, but we     knew no better then.


Phil Cullen

41 Cominan Avenue

Banora Point 2486

07 5524 6443



2 thoughts on “What If We Have Got It All Wrong?

  1. Student engagement in learning through cultivating within them a zest for and love of learning was the resultant outcome of the inspiring leadership of Bruce Jones and his Coolum teachers and their conviction to the trial of a “Mini-School” concept. The caring, nurturing culture and the focus on individualised and personalised learning ensured no child was left behind! Why waste precious teaching and learning time and stifle the spontaneity and spirit of learning through the imposition of NAPLAN-TYPE TESTING when pupil success is already there to be seen and shared and our school authorities readily accept accountability for their child-focussed educative endeavours?

    Bruce Jones – We need more of you!

  2. Interesting analogy Bruce, and one that makes us consider just how unhelpful it can be to continue with an approach to education that is in so many ways not meeting the needs of young students.

    Also great to see your acknowledgement of the inequities that continue to grow between our education systems and schools. Schools should focus on building a community of learners with diverse backgrounds, philosophies and ideas. The increasing push to have schools run like businesses is leading to a greater focus on standardised testing and rote learning and less on providing quality education to all students. If those who create education policies are disengaged from the needs of learners, then how can we expect learners to be engaged with their schools?

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