On the road with a giant
When Professor Tony Vinson travelled thousands of kilometres through NSW to gather evidence for the landmark Inquiry into the Provision of Public Education in NSW at Federation's then president, Maree O’Halloran’s request, I was one of the Officers who accompanied him.
One tour was a three-day trip from Dubbo through to Nyngan, Cobar, Wilcannia, Broken Hill, Tibooburra, Wanaaring, Bourke and back to Dubbo accompanied by fellow Country Organiser Charmaine O’Sheades. Professor Vinson’s interest in public education and the responsibility he had been given were obvious as, while we were driving, he continually went over the issues raised by parents and teachers along the 2000km journey.
Tony found an easy rapport with those we visited, whether playing table tennis in the staff room at Nyngan High School, talking to Aboriginal students in Wilcannia or listening to on-air students at the Tibooburra Outback School of the Air.
At Wanaaring, in 40C heat, he observed the teaching strategies of a single teacher dealing with a class that ranged from five-year-olds to students in their final year of primary school.
He said the visit to such remote schools well illustrated the need for teaching practices and curriculum to take account of the backgrounds, interests and likely futures of students in different locations, and found it “uplifting” to see teachers in the remote centres striving to find a balance among these considerations.
“While it is appropriate for an educational authority to safeguard the community’s expectations of schools and teachers, the Department of Education and Training should see its educational role as being supportive of the professional work of teachers rather than controlling that work to the last detail,” he told a Broken Hill public meeting organised by the Barrier Teachers Association in 2003.
“Overall, the inquiry recommendations are intended to reinvigorate public education, not just tinker with it,” he added. Teachers had to be at the centre of that reinvigoration "and salary justice for them is an important part of the comprehensive plan”.
Tony wasn’t fazed when we had multiple flat tyres while travelling cross-country from Milparinka to Wanaaring Public School: he just got out of the vehicle, rolled up his sleeves and gave me a hand to change the tyres and enjoyed a well-earned ale when we returned to Tibooburra to have the tyres repaired.
He was particularly pleased to return to Broken Hill where he had competed in athletics competitions when a young man — he was a champion middle-distance runner.
I also had the pleasure of hosting Tony in the north-west of NSW on three occasions when he visited many schools and attended a combined Armidale-Moree-Tamworth Districts Secondary Principals Conference held at Inverell in late 2002.
He told the principals that the enduring impression he had gained from carrying out the inquiry was “the precious cultural heritage” of service before self that characterised the work of teachers.
“Whatever else is done to improve the operation of the public education system, the preservation of that inheritance should be the number one priority,” he said. As the former head of the penal system in NSW, Tony had strong views about the role of education in keeping people out of gaols.
“Social justice demands our community invest more energy and resources in ensuring that young people are given a good educational launch in life rather than continue with the ... ever-expanding penal estate in NSW,” he advocated.
You can be sure that he was a strong supporter of the Gonski recommendations!
Tony’s third visit to the north-west saw him visit high schools at Oxley, Peel, Gunnedah, high and public schools at Walgett, Burren Junction Public, and attend a public meeting at Tamworth.
These visits featured maintenance and funding issues, supply of suitably trained staff in regional areas, information technology and lack of IT technical support staff, the busing of students past their “local” school and the commensurate cost to the community, discipline and violence issues and their impact on student and staff morale, and the issue of integration.
The subsequent report highlighted the “Role of Teacher Professionalism” and stated: “The primary purpose of public education is to teach respect for the rights and views of fellow humans, appreciating differences among people, teaching collaboration and teamwork, membership of a shared community and understanding of democratic principles.”
Public education has lost a great friend and, perhaps more importantly, a warm and compassionate human being.
Owen Hasler is a Life Member