You may have heard, if you live in New Zealand or Australia, that our schools are bastions of lawlessness. Where gangs of thugs roam like the survivors of a post apocalyptic wasteland, feeding on the weak and growing strong on the marrow of the vanquished. Ok, maybe that’s a little over dramatic, but that’s certainly the impression that news outlets seem to be striving for. Apparently our kids are subjected to a ruling class of bullies and not only are we powerless to stop it, our teachers are not even aware of the problem. At least that’s way news organisations alleged a new study from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement says. I found only a single news story that even referenced the study by name or treated the matter with anything like an even hand.

The study was Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, notice the curious absence of anything remotely connected with bullying or social behavior in that title. That’s no mistake, the bulk of the 512 page report (actually two reports, one for science one for Math, both this length)  is concerned with the treatment of science and maths in our schools and how our students fair on the international stage. The report devotes a total of 7 pages to this topic (bullying) that is apparently of paramount importance. I would have thought that our poor performance in science would have been the real story, but why bother to read the full report when an easy 400 words can be written about a tangential topic.

So how was our Bullying score card filled out, what criteria was used to determine our performance in this area? You may already have realised that this study was not really geared to look at this particular question and the methods of data gathering reflect that fact. The conclusions of this part of the study were generated from two short  questionnaires given to Teachers and students separately, the questions for the teachers were: 

  1.  This school is located in a safe neighborhood
  2. I feel safe at this school
  3. This school’s security policies and practices are sufficient.

 For the students the questions were:

  1.  Something of mine was stolen
  2. I was hit or hurt by other student(s) (e.g., shoving, hitting, kicking)
  3. I was made to do things I didn’t want to do by other students
  4. I was made fun of or called names
  5. I was left out of activities by other students

Children were categorised according to how many of the questions they answered yes to. 5 No s garnered a place in the High category of the “Index of Students’ Perception of Being Safe in School”, two Yes answers placed them in the Medium column and 3 or more in the Low. The final result being that of the children surveyed 22% felt very safe (by these measures) and 33% did not. With 42% of medium safety. So the data was all subjective experience, which was fine for the study they merely correlated feelings of safety with academic performance. But the news coverage all but forces us to conclude that there are real objective ways in which we have unsafe schools. Students perception aside (it’s important but irrelevant to my point) there were no ways in which the actual safety of our schools was measured. There are multiple way this might have been done for instance finding out:

  • How many serious incidents are reported, with a basic characterisation of the incident;
  • How many times teachers needed to intervene in situations;
  • Are weapons a concern?, what kind?;
  • How many disciplinary actions were undertaken;
  • How many students expelled…

I’m sure you could think of many more, each able to be objectively counted and compared against other school/countries. The point is that the sensationalism our having unsafe schools trumped accurate reporting of how the data was collected and what conclusions can be legitimately drawn. The Brisbane Times quoted Queensland Primary Principals Association (APPA) spokesman Tony McGruther  as saying ”Australian children have been made far more aware of the issue through strong anti-bullying campaigns in schools and are therefore more likely to identify incidents of bullying and then report on those incidents in a survey”, this is a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the results and there is no reason to prefer one over the other.

I find it far more concerning that we are below average when compared to the rest of the world when it comes to the science education of our young people. Fewer of our students reach international benchmarks, in general have fewer science achievements than our world peers (we beat Scotland!), have less emphasis place on science homework and are given fewer hours instruction in science per year. Compare, New Zealand hours of science instruction per year for 10 year olds: 45, Columbia(the highest in the survey): 139. 139 hours, Columbia values science education more than us, Columbia! . And by many measures we are worse now than we were in 1995. Only 28% of students reported having 0-25 books at home.

The one place were we outstripped almost all else was having computers in the home, 91% reported yes putting us on a par with the United States (90%). Yay for us.

Edit: After re-reading the report I noticed that 39% of the children had >100 books in the home and this correlated with better achievment. I found this to be very heartening indeed.