Friday, May 29, 2009

Oh My

Family Life Education (otherwise known as sex ed) started at FCPS this week. The school hires someone to come in over a 3 week period and provide the pertinent facts and information to the students. It's geared to age and development levels. Yesterday the grade 5/6 students had their first session, and the presenter was wrapping up their time together with a discussion about not making assumptions, of making sure kids are open-minded about another person's appearance because they may not know a person's gender, and making sure they remain open to individual, unique appearances. I guess Gabe had a puzzled look on HIS face, because she turned to him and said, "Little girl, do you have a question?" There was a moment of silence in the room and Gabe's teacher Haley had to hide her face. "I'm a boy", said Gabe.

Some of the extras at the school are hired out -- the public school system has had to privatize some of its programming and has to compete with the private system that also receives government funding. Previous federal governments changed the entire education system via legislation and funding to allow the development of private schools. At the same time, funding to the public school system was eroded. So now public schools must compete with private schools for students. Private school education is paid for with after-tax dollars, so you need a good income level to give your children these supposedly more wonderful opportunities. And the private schools definitely try to offer a great and exciting variety of learning experiences (in class and out) to attract students. All schools receive funding from the government based on the numbers of students enrolled, so recruiting is important. Of course, in a recession, with people losing jobs, or getting less money for their work, it can become difficult to pay the extra dollars required. It will be interesting to see if private school enrolment decreases in the present economic climate. Our school is public and is wonderful, probably the best experience Nicole, Gabe and Kai have had yet in school.

The public schools have had to deal with decreased budgets (via taxes) and parents of children in the public system are generally required to pay for many of the extras -- of course camp was an extra, but at the beginning of the year there were required payments to help support the teaching that the children will be receiving -- supplies, books -- well beyond what we were paying in Canada. I do not mind paying these costs. We are, after all, recipients of an excellent program here at FCPS, and are more than happy to contribute. But the big issue for me is the lack of public government budgetary support, leaving some schools in the lurch. A school in an economically disadvantaged area might not be able to provide all the extras if parents can't afford to pay. Pre-school/childcare programs were privatized as well, made into businesses, and in April, one of Australia's largest pre-school childcare providers went bankrupt, leaving many parents and children in the lurch.

The current Labour government has supplied additional funds for Australian schools in its stimulus budget. This means schools can apply for funding to improve the school grounds/facilities, as long as they use local contractors and workers. This creates jobs, which is one of the goals of the stimulus budget, which has yet to be passed by the Australian parliament. Schools were able to apply for this funding, and are now able to start making some long-needed improvements. FCPS has received close to $2 million to add 4 classrooms, and improve some of the existing spaces. And it's much needed for this growing school community.

One of the requirements of receiving the funding is that the school displays a letter from the Minister of Education. Much has been made of this "abuse of power" by the Opposition, who declared it to be blatant self-promotion on the part of the Labour government. Yesterday, in Parliament, it culminated in some excitement -- the Prime Minister showed some laminated pictures of schools who were benefitting from the stimulus money they'd received. Well, the Opposition couldn't take this sitting down -- after a break they appeared with a 4 page laminated spread with graphs and dollar amounts to chastise the wastefulness of the Labour government. You can imagine the text messages being sent behind the scenes in order to create those charts! The Speaker was not impressed, and required the Opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, to sit down, and limited the size of the props to one page only. Scissors were called for, so Mr. Turnbull could trim the pages (quite dramatically) to meet the Speaker's demands.

It will be interesting to see what happens if the budget isn't accepted. The Labour government has a majority in the House of Representatives, so they won't have a problem at the first stage of approval. But the elected Senate, which doesn't have a Labour majority, and is required to approve bills at the second stage, could possibly be a problem, unless demands of certain independent Senators are met. And the government doesn't automatically fall, like it does in Canada, if a confidence motion related to the budget is not passed. But there is a mechanism, called double dissolution, that could trigger an election if the same bill loses at the approval stage for a second time. That is being discussed as a possibility, for the spring.

I'm not comfortable with the thought of privatizing what I think should be public institutions. The health care system also operates on a dual basis -- private and public health care providers function side-by-side. The latest budget seeks to make changes to the deductions people can claim if they pay for private health care insurance, an increase to the retirement age to 67, the development of a funded maternity leave provision (16 weeks), amongst others. It's a completely different mix of public and private than what I'm used to in Canada. It's a great experience to see it from a different angle -- Tom is working in a private school, so his experiences there are different than what he is accustomed to in Canada. And that's why we're here -- to learn and experience something different.

And Gabe is a boy, yes, as is Kai. The woman who delivered the Family Life Education then commented that perhaps the 2 weren't fraternal twins after all... maybe she can start her next session with the topic of mono- or dyzygotic twins and introduce them all to what happens when the egg is fertilised and splits.

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