(Image: AAP/David Mariuz)

While COVID is stealing so much, it might also serve as the “disrupter” to the education system we so desperately need.

Billions and billions of dollars each year is poured into a creaky old system that has failed to develop with the community, and the world, around it: Naplan tests; changes to the syllabus; add-ons to an already-packed curriculum; in some states, an extra year of schooling; an overhaul of teacher training.

And the result? Our performance on the global stage remains stuck behind many countries. We throw more money at it. Our politicians whinge. And in homes across the country hard-earned cash is directed to tutors.

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So why isn’t it working? There could be dozens of reasons, but let me focus on two.

First, the role of principals and school leaders is ignored. Whether the policy debate is on the curriculum or mental health policy, the impact of COVID or the legitimacy of homework, their insight is brushed aside. They find out about lockdown extensions and the impact on schools at daily press conferences just like the rest of us.

But they are not like the rest of us. For seven or so hours a day, they see our children and their peers in class and at lunch, in group discussions and sitting idly by themselves. And what is worrying them? That those making the policies are not seeing what they’re seeing. That policymakers are not hearing about the escalation in suicide attempts, and the epidemic in self-harm and school refusal. That policymakers are not seeing young children who have forgotten how to socialise, or even how to talk to a peer; good students who have given up on study because the uncertainty in the pit of their stomach makes it impossible for them to plan their day.

Why is it so difficult for politicians to seek expert advice? And wouldn’t COVID be a wonderful “disrupter” if it provided the impetus to value that knowledge more?

Second, in some countries sleep is considered as important as diet and exercise. Even in adults, a good night’s sleep is invaluable — a 2019 Australian parliamentary report showed that 3017 deaths in Australia between 2016-17 could be attributed to inadequate sleep.

Up to 85% of teens do not get enough sleep, and one reputable study has found that “poor sleep in young, non-depressed Australian women was found to increase the risk of subsequent depression more than fourfold within a decade’’. And all that was before COVID visited our shores early last year.

Sleep patterns change in teens and many cannot fall asleep to match the early deadlines of their parents. And nor can they rise and feel ready for the day when the school bell rings.

This is not new research. In the United States, a comparison was drawn between teens driving to school for an early start, compared with those who had an extra 90 minutes’ sleep. It found a 70% reduction in car accidents when schools started later.

That is one reason why the New South Wales government trialling staggered start and finish times is so important. Some states have already done it but it hasn’t resulted in significant, widespread, long-term change. Why? Because later start times confuse peak-hour timetables and parental work commitments, and a host of other reasons.

But perhaps we should put students at the centre of the decision and work around them. Allow teens to begin their school day as late as 10.30am, or whatever time the best worldwide research suggests. Or finish at 7pm, with dinner provided as part of the school package? Or school from home one day a week because it is beneficial for students — not because it is required by COVID restrictions?

Who knows? Perhaps if we thought outside the box — and sought the advice of those who run our schools — we might find that NAPLAN isn’t needed and that the curriculum doesn’t need repeated makeovers. We might even catch up on our global counterparts.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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