At the start of every school year there is always a great deal of commentary and advice on education – however rarely do we hear the voices of school students themselves.
Yesterday I tabled in State Parliament the views of 1,812 Western Australian students on their education, what helps them engage in their learning and what makes this difficult. This extensive consultation, involving Year 3 to Year 12 students from all regions of the state and across government, Catholic and independent schools, provides valuable insights for both educators and parents.
School is a key influence on any child’s life. It is the pathway to future employment and further education and all WA children and young people must have the opportunity to benefit from early and ongoing engagement in learning. This engagement can be measured by a student’s attendance, academic achievement, liking of school and sense of belonging at school.
Overwhelmingly, students told me that relationships – with their teachers and school leaders, their peers and their families – are the foundation for being engaged in learning.
For parents sending their children back to school this week, this is an important reminder to look beyond league tables and academic success alone when assessing your child’s school and examine the relationships they have with their teachers and other students.
Aside from the immediate benefit of making a student’s education journey more enjoyable, when students have a strong foundation of positive relationships they are more likely to speak up and seek the support they need when experiencing difficulties with their learning or issues such as bullying or mental health problems.
Students told me that they want their families to show interest in and encourage their learning progress, provide them with motivation and support and be involved in their learning – although excessive pressure and overly high expectations will hinder a student’s engagement.
The relationship between teachers and their students is crucial. The 1,812 students consulted had clear views on what they felt made a ‘good’ teacher – one who creates a positive, fair and supportive classroom environment, delivered interesting and relevant lessons, gave their students a say in decisions that affect them and treated them with respect. Students also recognised that they themselves play an important role in creating safe and respectful learning environments at school.
Overall, this consultation found that our schools are meeting the needs of most children and young people most of the time, but there are areas of concern.
With 1 in 10 primary school students and 1 in 5 high school students indicating that they do not always feel safe at school, the range of quality resources and programs available on issues such as bullying are not having the impact they should. Schools need to be adequately resourced and teachers need time to understand and implement these resources consistently to ensure they are meeting the needs of their students.
Aboriginal students identified the quality of relationships with teachers and peers, the availability of support for learning and health problems (particularly difficulties with mental health), as areas where many experienced greater challenges than their non-Aboriginal peers.
Children and young people with long-term health problems or disability also identified issues that impact on their engagement in learning that urgently require greater attention.
It is encouraging that many of the students who shared their views recognised the value of their education, understood the importance of regular attendance, liked their school and felt part of their school community. However, the voices of these 1,812 school students clearly tell us that we can do more – and I have presented their views to government to assist in the continuous improvement of our education system so that all WA children and young people can access the benefits a quality education can provide.
Colin Pettit is the Commissioner for Children and Young People. He is a former teacher and principal.
*Published in The West Australian on page 20, 30 January 2018.