MELBOURNE – Keith Jackson’s recent account of the displeased response to his reforms, including increased staff accountability, at the International Training Institute reignited my own reflections on such matters during my time in the Papua New Guinea teaching service in the 1960s.
As a good public service should, the PNG education department had a range of monitoring and accountability mechanisms with which we chalkies had to comply.
These included the requirement to produce five-weekly curriculum plans, weekly detailed lesson plans and daily attendance records.
As head teacher, it was my responsibility to review my colleagues’ curricula and lesson plans and to provide a monthly report to the district education office detailing attendance numbers and other matters worthy of the district education officer’s attention.
A less formal line of accountability was to the Parents and Citizens Association – whose main concern, in my case at Passam Primary T School in the Sepik District, was raising money – and then being loathe to spend it.
Fulfilling these responsibilities may have been time-consuming, but they were far from onerous – unlike in my last job selling insurance education in China and South East Asia.
This involved the development of strategic and business plans and million plus dollar budgets, providing monthly activity reports and being subjected to exhaustive quarterly performance and budgetary reviews, the outcomes of which determined the amount of my performance bonus, if any.
In stark contrast, head teacher performance reviews comprised, in my case at least, an annual visit to the school by the District Education Officer and they were, by and large, a distinctly informal, almost casual affair. (In honour of the occasion I would nevertheless swap my preferred sandals for desert boots and long socks.)
By the time the DEO had visited each class, chatting to teachers and children and casting a quick eye over curriculum and lesson plans, there was generally only a short time for a formal interrogative conversation – which included, over the years, such vital suggestions as planting hibiscus hedges around the school perimeter and using the spines of palm leaves as shelving for books.
That said, there was the occasion when I was chastised for failing to comply with the rules regarding the attendance register. It was my practice, in the interest of efficiency (or so I thought), to record absences only. I was reminded, somewhat sternly, that I was required to record both attendances and absences
In due course, a report would arrive outlining the DEO’s findings, offering suggestions regarding improvement opportunities and providing a rating out of 10.
On reflection, given the circumstances of the times, the head teacher accountability and performance management system was fit for purpose and worked well enough.
It was also based, of necessity, on a high degree of trust: that we would fulfill our responsibilities professionally and effectively with little or no direct oversight other than the required provision of attendance numbers and bland reports.
It depended, as well, on the authorities’ confidence in our professional capabilities – and on our own self-discipline, especially for those of us who did not work in town centres or outstations where the Assistant District Officer could keep an eye on our behaviour.
I know of no instance where any chalkie abused that trust and confidence – not to say that it didn’t happen somewhere.
In the final analysis, one of the ultimate tests of our performance and accountability was the number of our Standard 6 graduates who secured a place in a high school or a job.
In the East Sepik in those times, with only three high schools, the best I could ever hope for was that three or four of my Standard 6 class of 40 or more would go on to high school and maybe another three or four might be accepted into the police force.
While these dismal prospects weighed heavily on my and my fellow head teachers’ minds, they had little or no effect on our commitment to fulfill our professional responsibilities as best we could.