Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Parents Furious After Boys Suspended For Using Fingers As Guns

Is it child’s play or a serious threat of gun violence? For the second time in less than a month, a Maryland child is kicked out of school for using his finger in the shape of a gun.

No one is debating the importance of keeping children safe. The question being asked is what’s child’s play and what’s not?

There’s controversy at a Talbot County school after two 6-year-old boys were suspended while playing cops and robbers during recess and using their fingers to make an imaginary gun.

“It’s ridiculous,” said parent Julia Merchant.

This is the second time a Maryland child has been suspended for such play. Earlier this month, 6-year-old Rodney Lynch was suspended from his Montgomery County school after pretending to fire an imaginary gun more than once.

“Just pointing your fingers like this and then she did the pow sound and I just went like that and then I got sent to the office again,” Lynch said.

The school reversed its decision after Rodney’s parents appealed.

“They’re saying he threatened a student, threatened to shoot a student. He was playing,” said Rodney’s father, Rodney Lynch Sr.

“I do not believe maliciousness was involved here,” said child psychologist Dr. Joe Kaine.

Kaine says most 6-year-olds’ minds aren’t developed enough to understand why their idea of fun play might make adults upset.

“I can certainly appreciate that at school, that’s not a type of play that they are going to endorse and I certainly support that, but that’s where we educate the time and place for doing things,” Kaine said.

A number of parents agree.  “Suspending them is a bit harsh and I don’t think that’s gonna do any good for the parent, child or school,” said Janet Geotzky.

The number of suspensions has been on the rise in Maryland. School leaders say they will try to reduce those numbers.


Why pushy parents are the bane of British private schools

Under-pressure parents are increasingly complaining to their children's prep schools. But teachers know that academic success can’t simply be bought.

In school staffrooms, the stories are legion: the father of a five year-old who asked her class teacher at parents’ evening, with a straight face, whether his daughter would get into Oxford or Cambridge; the mother who emailed her seven-year-old son’s housemaster every evening at around 10pm for a whole term demanding news of her darling; the Russian oligarch who informed the head during a tour of the school that he would only send his four-year-old there if she was accelerated by two year groups because she was so bright; or the couple who turned up with a bundle of banknotes when they were told their twins weren’t academically able enough to be placed in the group getting extra coaching for common entrance.

Recently we heard that in a survey published in the new edition of Attain, the house magazine for the 600 members of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS), “the vast majority” of head teachers at these fee-paying junior schools named the “unrealistic demands” of parents as the “biggest frustration” of their job, streets ahead of paperwork, rapid changes in government policy and overall workload. One spoke of some parents having the “attitude” towards education of “being a customer buying a product”.

Clearly, high-achieving parents at every kind of private or independent school often have unrealistically great expectations. Alexia Bracewell, head of Longacre School for two to 11-year-olds in Guildford, Surrey, was one of the frustrated heads in the IAPS survey. “I’ve had parents, typically those who have been to Oxford or Cambridge, or Eton or Harrow, who come in to see me because they are upset that their child isn’t shining in the core curriculum subjects,” she says. “They assume that ability in those areas is genetic, and that any problems must therefore be the school’s fault. I have to explain, as respectfully and tactfully as I can, the nature-nurture debate.”

And pressure from demanding parents is being ratcheted up. “As the economy declines and families are stretched even further to pay fees, they have even greater expectations of the value-added a private school can offer, and rightly so,” she adds. “That is why they are making sacrifices to pay.”

The result, though, is that key exchanges between parents and schools end up being committed to paper and filed. “Increasingly I am finding that I have to put things in writing,” says Bracewell. “For instance, when I advise parents against selecting an elite, hothouse secondary school because, even if their child is tutored within an inch of her life, she still may not pass the entrance exam and, even if she does, may not thrive there, I find that some go away and enter her anyway. Then, when she fails, they come back and blame me: 'You never told us this was going to happen.’ That is why I have to keep a written record.”

Her frustration concerns only a tiny minority of parents, a message reinforced by Julie Robinson, a former prep school head and now director of education and training at IAPS: “Yes, of course I’ve come across unrealistic parents – we all have. But in general in life you have the 80-20 rule, where 20 per cent of the people make 80 per cent of the problems. In prep schools I’d say it was more like 90-10.”

So what prompts this minority to take up such a disproportionate amount of head teachers’ time? Peter Tait, head of Sherborne Prep School in Dorset, is reluctant to blame them. The problem, this New Zealander says, is the education system in this country. “Many of these parents are in a tough place at the moment, especially in those parts of the country such as London and the South East where there is a shortage of places at the most esteemed secondary schools. And they are willing to fight hand-to-hand to get the best for their son or daughter, which is not in itself a bad thing. Therefore, they are very, very demanding of prep schools.”

At the heart of the matter, he believes, is the rapidly changing concept among fee-paying parents of what constitutes value for money. “We have moved strongly across the board in education towards a dog-eat-dog world of individualised learning and teaching to the test. In the process we seem to have lost a sense of the school and the classroom as a community.”

Tait has a plain-speaking message for any angry parent who comes to see him to complain that their little Johnny isn’t making the necessary grades to get them into the secondary school of their aspirations. “I tell them to relax. Their child is in professional hands. We can take the pressure off children, especially at such an early age, rather than increase it. And if they insist on talking about [secondary] schools where the competition is fierce for places, I advise them to go and see the local GP nearest to that school to find out how many children there have developed eating disorders or mental illness because of stress.”

Testing, examination pressures and the scramble for grades and places, though, are part and parcel of every schoolchild’s routine, whether they are in the private or the state sector. So do parents react differently to those issues if they are paying fees?

Margaret believes that they do. She has taught for 25 years in and around Liverpool in both state primaries and prep schools and wants to remain anonymous. She left the private sector, a decade ago, disillusioned by what she saw as its upside-down values. “In the primary schools where I have taught, there is more of a sense of the parents respecting the teachers. In the prep school, it was as if the parents were ultimately in charge, and the teachers subservient.” In the end, she says, it comes down to money. “I’m not sure if it was me projecting on to them, or them on to me, but every parents’ evening I felt as if my job was on the line. And that was something shared with others in the staffroom. If there was an issue with a child, we felt inhibited about asking the parents what we could do together to tackle it. They were paying, so it was our job and our job alone to sort it out.”

That message, she says, was reinforced from above. “We knew that if we didn’t attract and retain sufficient parents willing to pay fees then we could lose our jobs. We were constantly being told by the head that the school would fail if we weren’t 'working at two levels above the national curriculum’.”

Such an explicit demand is unusual, says Julie Robinson. “In my experience prep school heads are very careful about making such extravagant promises to parents because every child is different. But, while it is important for parents to realise you can’t pay your child’s way into Oxbridge, those who work hard to afford fees have every right to focus on value for money. The challenge is finding a common language for quantifying what represents value.”


For-profit schools coming to Australia

Global education companies are planning to open Australia's first for-profit schools targeting local primary and secondary students as early as next year.

Fairview Global, a for-profit schools network based in Malaysia, will send scouts to Australia within six months to find potential sites, with the aim of opening two schools next year and in 2015.

"We plan to have one school in the west and one in the east of Australia - cosmopolitan cities of intellects with international-mindedness," said the chairman of Fairview International Schools' governing council, Daniel Chian.

At present, private schools must be not-for-profit to receive public funding, a status held by Catholic and independent schools. Schools are for-profit if revenue is passed to an outside person or group for financial gain. They are legal to operate.

Mr Chian said the expansion plan was being guided by a former vice-chancellor of an Australian university who is now a member of the Fairview governing council, but would not reveal the name.

A second company, Gems Education, based in Dubai, hopes to open a school in Australia. Its original plan to start one in Melbourne was shelved two years ago.

The moves have outraged the president of the Australian Educational Union, Angelo Gavrielatos. "These are large companies driven by a profit motive that consider education as the last bastion when it comes to untapped resources. Our children cannot be seen as a commercial resource - a plaything for companies to make profit."

The NSW and federal education departments said they had not received any inquiries from overseas for-profit education companies.

For-profit schools are banned under Victorian law. "The regulator - the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority - cannot register a school, primary or secondary, for profit," said a Victorian Education Department spokesman.

Some for-profit schools exist in Australia but they mainly cater to foreign students.

A Fairfax Media investigation could not identify a for-profit school aimed at the mainstream student that is part of a global brand such as Gems Education. Gems Education claims to be the world's largest kindergarten to year 12 private education provider, offering the British, Indian, US and International Baccalaureate curriculums.

The company's communications director, Richard Forbes, who is Australian, said it had received three inquiries in the past three months from Australian investors interested in setting up schools, but its focus was on developing schools in Africa and south-east Asia.

Arguing for profit-based education, Mr Forbes said US studies showed a large portion of public-system investment never reached the classroom.  "In a competitive environment, an environment where the customer - the parent - has a choice, the quality must be high or they will look elsewhere," he said.

The former deputy prime minister Mark Vaile is a consultant for Gems Education, which is making profits from schools in at least three countries, including Britain.  "There are schools for profit in the UK and in the US, so in an economy like Australia's there will be that level of competition, they will eventually appear," he said.

A former dean of education at the University of Melbourne, Brian Caldwell, agreed that for-profit schools would make attempts to break into the Australian market in the next five to 10 years.

"But I don't think it's likely to attract significant enrolments, and I don't think they are the answer to improving Australia's school education - they're not viable," he said.

A spokesman for the NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, gave Fairfax Media the same response as the department on the legality of for-profit schools, when asked whether he would allow for-profits to operate.


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