A Feral Word Herder Reflects On Standards Now And Then

As some of you may know, I am a member of oz-Teachernet, sponsor and home since 1995, of the oz-teachers listerv. One of a number of regular, and arguably one of the most insightful and cogent long term contributors to this list is Peter Macinnis. Having served in a range of roles across the education spectrum, Peter brings an unparalleled historical overview of trends and fashions that have littered education reform. When this knowledge, combined with Peter’s unique turn of phrase, is focused on the latest pronouncements on the draft Australian Curriculum then I think it should be shared beyond oz-teachers. With Peter’s permission therefore I have reproduced, with minor edits, Peter’s message to the list,

[Oz-teachers] Falling standards

This is a message that I posted last May.  If there is one thing that makes me cranky, it is pathetic amateurs pontificating about standards in education.  I am more qualified to speak of falling standards among politicians than they are to speak of the same problem in education. Sadly, I have a good idea of standards, both then and now.

In a non-partisan way, I am disappointed to see that Kev and Jules are no better than the buffoons on the other side of the chamber when it comes to grovelling in a morass of lowest common denominators.  I have chosen to repeat this message, even though it is in the archives, because some people may need to have this sort of example close to hand, and may not be able to reach out for it as easily as I could.


In another life, I was often called upon to draft rude letters for an exalted personage. As anybody who knows me can aver, this was not really within my character, but a job is a job, so I persevered.  To make sure that the signatory was on safe ground, all of the rudeness was in measured doses, and backed up by fact.

While rummaging through an old file for something else the other day, I came across a set of quotes that somebody (name now forgotten) in the Head Office Library pulled out for me.  I suspect that the source was somebody’s scrap book, and I have no further information on the sources, but I believe them to be trustworthy and (E&OE) true copies of real comments.

I believe they are worth others having access to.  Plus ça change . . .

At a recent examination . . . only 40 per cent of those who presented themselves secured a pass.  This is a truly deplorable reflection of the examination system, which after all these years, and at the expenditure of an enormous amount of public money, has thus shown itself totally incapable of teaching the simple requirements of reading, writing and arithmetic . . . If the instruction imparted at our schools is so lamentably defective that it merely turns out pupils so shamefully inefficient that they are unable to undertake even humble clerical duties, what in the name of goodness is it that the scholars do to learn to equip them for anything better?

Truth, 9 September 1915.

Inspectors complain of the English which they do or do not find in the primary schools. Reading lacks fluency and expression; articulation is defective . . . Spelling has not reached a high standard . . . Grammar is the bugbear of most teachers and children . . . Even writing has not reached the satisfactory stage. “Back to the 3Rs” will be the necessary slogan if improvement does not soon show up.

Brisbane Daily Standard, 4 October 1917

Half the girls leaving school nowadays can’t wash up the breakfast dishes, cook an egg, fry a chop, or wash their own stockings. But they can turn out coloured drawings that would make a cow bilious, and can do eurhythmic stunts like a professional dancer. But they can’t do three messages without making a mistake in the change, while an attempt to peel a potato drives their parents to tears.

And the boys – they can’t break up a fruit case for the copper fire, knock in a nail to hang up a cheap calendar, or be entrusted with two orders for the butcher. But they can talk wireless like a scientist, discuss psycho-analysis, and play handball 14 hours a day.

A lot of expensive faddism has crept into our education system, and the things that they will be called upon to do every day of their lives, they cannot do.

Truth, 24 December, 1924

Can pupils who attend the primary and secondary schools of the State spell properly? Is sufficient time devoted to the subject, and are the methods employed effective?

Many people interested in the intellectual development of the rising generation maintain that, judging by the examples of spelling which come under their notice, the answers must be given in the negative.

Telegraph, 27 August 1930

After the introduction of a spelling list into primary schools, there was considerable informal discussion of the effect on the standards of spelling. As objective evidence of any change would be of value to the Curriculum Committee, the Director-General (on May 1 1951) approved an investigation to compare spelling standards with those of five and sixteen years earlier. To summarise the views expressed there was a general, but not a unanimous, feeling that a drop in standards had occurred which was especially evident as mis-spellings in written expression.

Research and Curriculum Branch, Bulletin No. 6, 1952


Now here are some comments from newspapers that I can vouch for: URLS are provided.


This school makes steady and satisfactory progress. More attention – has been paid, during the last year to the lower standards. The arithmetic of the second and third standards is still deficient. Very few scholars provide their own books, using instead the free stock originally intended only for children receiving gratuitous instruction.

The Western Australian Times Tuesday 27 August 1878


The value placed on chastity has undergone a bewildering change in our time; and promiscuity and pre-marital experiences were regarded “tolerantly by an increasing number of young people,” said Dr. Irene Sebire, Child Guidance Clinic director, at Blackfriars, Sydney, speaking at the summer school of the Australian Institute of Political Science.

“The family to-day is passing through a crisis-which many feared it might not manage to survive,” she said.

The Canberra Times Tuesday 30 January 1951

“I do not know whether something is wrong with our social standards, or whether it is because of defective education, but we cannot close our eyes to the fact that drink is, consumed in enormous quantities in excess of that required for refreshment.”

The Canberra Times Thursday 17 February 1927

Other curious URLs:

1937: http://ndpbeta.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/2437265

1945: http://ndpbeta.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/967395 (R. G. Menzies calls for more universities)

1891: http://ndpbeta.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/3528751 (columns 4 and 5)

_–|\   Peter Macinnis, feral word herder & science gossip.
/     \  Licensed dealer in refurbished shadows and infernal
\.–._*  engines for a multiplicity of non-violent purposes
v   http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/index.htm

Lucy the ladybird, teaching our children how to read by Matt, Marie, Luke and Finn

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