Life’s Lessons and Leaving School

As three of the moderators are very busy, and as moi is slacking, we have a second Guest Author this week – Gorgeous Dunny, with one of his Memoirs of a Country Employment Counsellor. Many thanks, GD!

Now home to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, this was the home of the St. Moritz Ice Skating Rink in Hindley Street, Adelaide
(Image credit: icelegendsaustralia

Inspiration and life lessons can spring from the most unlikely sources. One of the most significant moments for me occurred when a group of us young men went along to the then new San Moritz Ice Skating Rink at Hindley Street Adelaide in the early 1960s.

None of our group knew anything about ice-skating. In fact, I was the only one that had even been on roller skates. After getting our skates fitted we ventured on to the rink. The surface to my feel seemed very fast, as if the ground was slipping away from under you. It was totally unlike roller skates. The others were as intimidated, and like the hundreds of other new skaters, we cautiously made our way around clinging firmly to the rails. Not so, Carnesy, another member of our group.

He astonished us by going straight out into the middle of the rink, immediately falling flat on his back. That’s another thing about ice, too. Once he hit the rink, his clothes became soaked with water. He was rescued by officials and placed on dry ground, but was quite undeterred. As soon as he’d wiped enough loose water from his clothes, he went back and repeated it: out into the middle of the rink, falling straight away onto his back, and carried off.

Again he was soon back, varying the procedure only by occasionally falling forward or sideways. He was tall, and with arms and legs outstretched as he lay face down on the ice, he took up quite a bit of rink space. At one point, another passing blade skater went straight over his hands, leading to blood everywhere -on the rink and on Carnesy’s hands and clothes. After a little first aid and drying off, he resumed. It was as before, going out into the middle and almost as quickly falling over.

To us, he was proving a greater entertainment than the attractive young girls in their brief skating outfits. Certainly among the crowd making their way around the rink rails, he was a big attraction as he found new ways of crashing. But one strange thing happened towards the end of the night, and since I hadn’t noticed any change I was truly astonished.

That is, by the end of the night Carnesy could skate, not perfectly, but definitely skate. We were still clinging to the rails. I found that amazing, and thought about it then and later. (Post-Carnsey speed skating)

The lesson seemed to me that if you wanted to learn something, you had to leave the safety of the rails. So what, if you made a fool of yourself and were laughed at? Nothing much could be learned from the safety of the rails and the security of your friends. Falling over and getting yourself soaked is nothing if you can learn and take something from it.

I applied that lesson in the two major careers of my life: tourism and counselling. In tourism, it helped because my quiet nature was not what you’d expect in sales-type work, where extroverts were predominant. All the time I encouraged myself, leave the safety of the rails, never be afraid of falling over if you can reach towards your end goal.

It was similar when I entered labour market and then employment counselling work. Never be afraid of mistakes. Always be clear on your end purpose and goal, regardless of where you might be at the moment. Often, of course, that end goal might not always be clear in detail. In counselling, that required a sharing of goals with the client. Often it did need considerable questioning, interviewing and research before we could reach an agreement on what was attainable.

The school leaving age had been a vexed question over a long time. In the 1920s, my grandfather pulled my father, then aged 13 years, out from school. By the time I was at primary school, the minimum school leaving age was 14 years. It changed not long after to 15 years. The curriculum was loosely derived from the English Preparatory Schools model. That is, examinations were set at a standard considered likely to prepare a student for university study.

Not only that, a student could only progress to a higher grade after passing the required level at that grade. Some students never did. It was not uncommon for some students to be up to three or four years older than the average class age.

The consensus right up to my school days was that those students should be pulled out of school as soon as was allowed. The aim of supporting parents was to try to place such a person in a job where he/she might obtain reasonable skills and secure employment.

That could involve low and semi-skilled occupations such as railway firemen and porters right through to trades apprenticeships.

Often it led to very good employment outcomes for students that performed poorly in a prep school-type environment. Their particular skills were simply not suited either to literacy or abstract concepts found in a prep school curriculum. But give them something tangible to master and they could be highly functional and competent.

Over the years it has led to opposing views on the merits of early school leaving. There has been an assumption, in this post-Keynesian age of higher unemployment and greater uncertainty, that retention at school is better. Employers, often having too many applicants for their vacancies, take the simplest method of screening, such as looking at school-level attainment. Those completing year 11 or higher were assumed to be better qualified, than those only getting to year 9 or 10.

It created a vacuum for early school leavers. Many aged 15-17 years could get low-skilled work, often at take-away food outlets, because of the low pay for their age. But once becoming older, they were no longer wage-competitive. Other younger ones took their positions, while they often did not have the skills or experience to compete with older workers.

In South Australia, my department and TAFE looked at this problem. They came up with a system of offering pre-vocational trades training courses for young unemployed people. These courses were an excellent introduction to the trades. Those completing them were successful as trainees, gaining apprenticeships and thus skills and secure employment. So much so that employers actually preferred them to those finishing year 11. It saved the employer a lot of time on elementary and supervised tasks that they’d usually have to give to first year apprentices.

With employers only wanting pre-vocational trainee graduates, pressure was soon applied to open such courses to all comers. As a consequence, the competition for places was intense. Most places, apart from a small quota for severely disadvantaged unemployed, went to those completing year 11 or better. So it was almost back to where it was.

Those types of considerations were at work when Paul’s mother saw the Hamilton CES Manager and then was referred to me. The situation was a little complicated. After an unhappy first marriage she was determined to make her second one work.

Equally, she was determined not to neglect her son by her first husband. He had settled uneasily into the new household, complicated also by the troubled times of early adolescence.

Paul was not openly hostile, but rather silent towards the stepfather and his mother. He had alarmed her recently by declaring that he intended to leave school as soon as he turned 15 years next January (it was July then). He was only then completing year 9, and she thought it was far too early for him to be leaving school. She had not shifted his resolve, and she asked if I could talk to him. I agreed and arranged to interview him.

Paul looked even younger than has 14 years, confirming to me his mother’s anxieties in his leaving school this early. Although he was quiet, he was quite clear in his resolve to leave school. I went through the usual run of employment anxieties associated with early school leaving. In particular, I expressed concern about how he could compete in a poor labour market. But none of it swayed his determination to leave. I left it unresolved for the interim, but felt I needed an alternative plan if I was to reach some sort of agreement between mother and son.

I contacted Paul’s classroom teacher, who was empathetic and gave me a very detailed briefing on Paul’s position. He’d described Paul as an average student in the lower-performing spectrum of classroom students, but neither struggling nor badly-behaved at school. He said he believed that somewhere Paul had made up his mind that there was nothing further he could learn in a school environment. He believed that given Paul’s attitude that he was right to want to leave. It was an unexpected response from a professional educator, giving me further food for thought.

Paul was my case client, but my sympathies at that point were with his mother. I had worked not much earlier at Elizabeth CES, scene of the highest rate of youth unemployment in the country. I believed then that you needed to take advantage of every chance to compete for scarce job/career opportunities. And if that meant passing year 11, so be it. But since I could convince neither Paul nor his teacher, I needed to try another approach. I felt I would need something different to achieve an agreed outcome.

At that time, I had dealt with several apprenticeship placements. I was impressed by the training approach of on-the-job work and learning, combined with block release to TAFE workshops and classroom to get the formal qualifications and theoretical knowledge. Never be afraid to do something different if it will achieve the desired goal.

I wondered it we could work the converse of the apprenticeship approach. That is, have Paul on ‘block release’ from school classroom activities so that he could attend workshops where he’d work specifically with machines and tools.

At that time Skillshare Hamilton had recently acquired some metal lathes and woodturning machines. A retired tradesman was in charge of the machines, teaching interested young people in how to use them to make things. I thought that possibly we could re-ignite his interest in learning by working at the practical task level. I discussed it with his teacher, who liked the idea, but cautioned it would have to be approved by the school.

I called Paul in. He immediately liked the idea. He agreed to the only condition I put on it, that he’d be open to the option of staying on at school the following year. I put it to Skillshare, who were happy to oblige. I then went back to Paul’s teacher, who explained that what I proposed, although excellent, was unprecedented. He said it would need an expert opinion in writing to the Principal. Even then he doubted if it would be approved, but he’d support it as Paul’s classroom teacher. I knew it would take a special effort from me.

In this country region, I was the nearest thing to an expert on vocational matters. Even so, I was neither Australian Psychological Society (APS) accredited, nor formally qualified as an Industrial Psychologist. In my Sydney days in the 70s, I’d been a successful poker player. One of the keys was to know when to fold early if the cards dealt offered only a small chance of improvement. Mostly I had a reputation of not bluffing. It was not strictly true, but disguised by my penchant for only continuing when I knew I had good cards.

I resolved to try a bluff with the principal, helped a little by my English major and my ability to use language well. I would word it in such a way to give the impression of being an expert on the labour market, education and training. On the letterhead, I used a Department of Employment Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA) logo, not the branch Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) Hamilton one. I even used similar tactics with my own name.

I didn’t cheat on my title as Employment Counsellor, but after my name I did the unprecedented of putting in BA (New England). That was more pretentious than I liked to be, and in any case the BA was a double English major. But that was essential to the bluff.

If not looked at too closely I would pass muster as a qualified expert offering a recommendation for a student concerning his future. None of what I put in that letter was a lie. It was just done in such a way to give the illusion of an expert giving a professional opinion. And in another sense it was that.

I proposed two hours release two days a week. The classroom teacher rang me and was delighted to inform me it was approved. I quickly alerted Paul, his mother and Skillshare to the decision and the days and hours of the release. All were pleased.

After it was started, I called occasionally at Skillshare when Paul was there. Paul seemed happy enough, even if more interested in his Skillshare mentor than me. The mentor was convinced that he could get somewhere with Paul over the next four months to school’s end.

Two months later, Paul’s mother called in to see me. She was delighted with the progress Paul was making. She said it was almost impossible to stop him talking about what he was doing working on the machines. That alone was a huge transformation from his nearly silent position previously. On a personal level, Paul’s interest in machines and tools had led to a warmer relationship with his stepfather, who as a farmer was very handy and had a range of tools and machines on the property.

She believed that he would still probably leave school as soon as he turned 15 years, but she was no longer worried about his future. She was satisfied that he knew where he was going and would get whatever employment he sought. I gained similar information from his teacher. Paul was quite positive in school classes, but his heart was in the machining work.

At the end of the school year, I called in Paul. He confirmed these points and expressed thanks for what I had done. He was definitely leaving but was satisfied he’d looked at all the issues. He actually had a job offer, thanks to his mentor at Skillshare, who had passed on his details to a prospective employer. The mentor was sure he was placed in good hands.

The employer was a journeyman tradesman based a long way off at Sealake. He’d already met Paul and his family and given them assurances on his accommodation and support. It was not clear it could lead to an apprenticeship, but Paul believed that he would learn enough to have a good future.

It was not exactly the outcome I’d been directly hoping for when I made this unusual arrangement. Yet I had to be pleased about it overall. He had a purpose in wanting to leave school. He knew what he needed to learn to get the type of work he wanted and could do. A clear vocational direction drawing on a person’s talents and potential is about all I could reasonably expect.

Today, over twenty years later, the situation has improved for those students not needing an academic preparation. In Victoria, students can elect to take Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL). It allows them a chance of obtaining more tangible skills that they can use in going for and obtaining work.

In an interesting postscript ten years later, I suggested a somewhat similar plan to a friend who was deeply worried about his stepson’s progress through secondary school, and remained pessimistic about his chances of passing up to year 11 or 12 and getting a job of any kind given his shyness. Here, the lad had a passionate interest in computers and almost nothing else. At least the school system was more flexible by then.

What I suggested was that he seek a release from secondary school to attend an information technology course at TAFE. The level of the course could be accredited towards his VCE anyway. Again there was a transformation once it was approved and he was released. He not only scored highly on the course, but at secondary college, his marks and his enthusiasm for other subjects improved, especially English. He got a good VCE score, and won an IT cadetship at his first application.

None of this answers the question of the ‘right’ school leaving age. If anything it suggests that it will vary with the individual. But it does suggest that the traditional school environment is not suited to all, and that a lot of lessons can be learned in other parts of life. Even from something as simple as an ice skating rink.

312 thoughts on “Life’s Lessons and Leaving School

  1. I think Ashton Agar may secure a bat manufacturer’s sponsorship after his effort last night. He could certainly use it.

  2. About sexism at Wimbledon – this has to take the cake. It only counts when a bloke wins.

  3. I was wondering where BB has got to as well.

    I suspect BB., in the light of recent events, has yet to reach the end of his own personal alphabet of abusive terminology……But he’ll get there soon!

  4. Hi all

    I just had a look for “And The Word Was Gough” that C@t mentioned last night. No go, I’m afraid. There was a link to the entire album on the Midoztouch forum from a few years back but that’s dead now. I did find this though. Looks interesting but I haven’t had a listen yet:

    Since Federation composers have included references to politicians into their songs. David and Jordie Kilby load the jukebox with a few of their favourites

  5. Good Morning Early Openers! 🙂

    Re Bushfire Bill: As I understand it, he has had his grandchildren down from Wingham (?) for the duration of the NSW School Holidays, which finish this weekend.

    He may need to recover after they have gone! Or maybe not. He is made of tough stuff. 😉

  6. I was wondering where BB has got to as well.

    I’m around, but am currently in the middle of entertaining one 12 and one 14 year old down from the country for the school holidays.

    I keep repeating to myself: “Gone by Sunday. Gone by Sunday. Gone by Sunday…”

    Last night I was calibrating one of my lenses and when it was finished I put on Indiana Jones & The Holy Grail as a test movie. After 10 minutes I went to turn it off and was asked to leave it on.

    “But you’ve seen this movie a hundred times!”

    “Yeah, well, 101 won’t hurt. And it IS a good movie.”

    “Agreed. It’s a good movie.”

    “So let’s watch it.”

    It WAS a good movie. After that I insisted on some cinematic history and ran The Third Man”.

    Little buggers they worked it all out in the first five minutes… all except how Anna walks straight past Holly Martin after Harrly Lime’s second funeral. They thought the two would get together.

    Then we watched One, Two, Three… Cagney’s little known B&W Cinemascope comedy gem, with Cagney playing the head of Coca-Cola in Berlin while the hotheaded boss’s daughter elopes with a smelly, Communist firebrand and gets pregnant to him. Cagney has to arrange a quick elevation of the Commie to German royalty status, and capitalist ways, before the parents arrive to reclaim “our little girl.” A minor classic and a brilliant performance by all concerned, especially Cagney.

    Lastly I put on Roman Holiday which I (and they) thought they would find boring. Instead they loved it and watched right through to the end, around 1.30am, laughing all the way.

    Seeing as the youngest film among the four (Indiana Jones) was over 30 years old (and the oldest nearly 70 years old) it was a good night. One thing those boys will have to sustain them in dreary Wauchope will be a well-rounded cinema education.

    For the record, we went through six hamburgers, two bars of chocolate, two packets of salt and vinegar chips, a 1.5 litre bottle of coke, thhree glasses of chocolate milk, a bottle of wine, and a late Thai beef salad that I made for myself, but which they decided to ask me whether “I wanted all of that.”

    HI went to bed at 10.30 wagging her finger at us and saying, “Now don’t do to bed too late you guys.”

    “We won’t,” came the triple throated reply.

  7. Interesting:

    The Whitlam era does not escape the satirists and the song writers. The collection
    includes episodes from the
    Mavis Bramston Show,
    Rubbery Figures, Fred Dagg and songs such as
    The Song of Whitlam
    And The Word Was Gough

    So, the National Film and Sound Archive has a copy. Maybe they allow downloading of their content? Also, I’m sure Mike Carlton has a copy or 3

    Me? Um, I can’t afford a digital turntable atm. I just got hit with a $600 quote to get the front wheel bearings fixed on my car. 😳 😦

  8. Oh well…just leaving to go to the central market for the big once-a-month shop….see you at Zuma’s 12.30 for lunch!

  9. Trying to catch up on discussion re old records but cannot access OLDER COMMENTS. The button is covered by “Comment Navigation” in bold type. Can anyone help?

  10. Barry J,

    It’s a “feature” of Internet Explorer. If you use Chrome or Firefox instead, the problem no longer exists.

  11. Heard David Bradbury on News Radio describe Abbott’s non show at the NPC yesterday as like “a cockroach scurrying off into the darkness.”
    A nice turn of phrase I thought. 🙂

  12. Roger,
    It’s sniping at 20 paces over Rudd’s NPC speech yesterday between the Opposition, who are trying to diminish it’s worth for all they are worth, and the government, who are trying to diminish the Opposition down to the level of insects in the night. 🙂

  13. I too have a copy of the Word was Gough. My turntable is quite basic, with no digital attachments.
    The record by Peter Luck and Michael Carlton (no Mike then) has 4 tracks on side 1 and 7 on side 2.

    Side 1
    1. In the Beginning
    2. The Childe Harold
    3. David and Goliath
    3. The Book of John

    Side 2
    1. A Star is Born
    2. The Miracle Worker
    3. Gough’s Prayer
    4. The Disciples
    5. The Last Prawn Night
    6. Resurrection
    7. Gough is My Shepherd

    Well done

  14. Fiona
    Thanks for that. I have Firefox installed as well as I.E. Prefer I.E but will give it a try. I have not had the problem previously.

  15. Good conversation between Fran Kelly and Chris Bowen about his new book, ‘Hearts and Minds’:

    [audio src="" /]

  16. I remember Peter Nicholson (cartoonist for The Age) in the 1970s used to do short political animations that were featured on the Channel 9 nightly news. Can you imagine that happening now?

  17. Barry J,

    You are welcome.

    I suspect it’s an interaction between WordPress and IE – WordPress may have done an update without checking that the update still runs properly in IE as, so far as I understand, far fewer people use IE now than formerly. I haven’t had the energy to contact WordPress to ask them whether this might have happened.

    My work-around solution is to catch up older pages in Chrome, then switch to IE for the current page.

    (Stop groaning, all youse nerds!)

  18. I just saw this in the local paper. Heaven help us. This pair of idiots are likely to be the next MPs for Lyne and New England.

    Spare a thought for us country bumpkins, you lot. We’ve lost the two best blokes you could wish for as your parliamentary representatives. Instead of Oakeshott and Windsor we’ll get an arrogant gastroenterologist who wants to be a politican because medicine bores him and Bananaby.

    You all know more than anough about Bananaby. Let me fill you in on David Gillespie.

    Well-to-do son of the squattocracy, educated at private schools, inmate of the notorious St Johns College where he was a mate of Abbott’s, best man at Abbott’s wedding. Currently running a private medical clinic owned by Ramsay Health. Not at all interested in public education or public hospitals. Has a shady past connected with National Party shennanigans in Port Macquarie. When asked about Abbott’s direst action plan a year ago he said ‘I’ll have to look at my notes’ and still hasn’t managed to answer the question. Very fond of swanning around town in a shiny new VW Amarok plastered with his name and National Party logos, not so fond of explaining policy or his plans for the electorate. All sizzle, no steak, as they say.

    As I said, heaven help us.

  19. C@tmomma
    I thought it rather apt.Tony has a tendency to scurry off when bright lights are shone on him. Debates and Press conferences being two examples.
    Rudd did well at the NPC yesterday. No matter what I think of him personally,he is a very effective political operator and communicator.

  20. That Rare Collections thing is worth a listen but could have been twice as long and gone into a lot more detail. They mention the book “The Balls of Bob Menzies: Australian Political Songs 1900-1980” by Warren Fahey. As luck would have it, Goulds in Newtown have a copy for $12. I trust they’re pulling it out of the cavern for me as we speak.

    Years ago at a Politics in the Pub (Thurless Castle, Cleveland St), Bill Leak and Warren Brown (on the uke) did a song based on George Formby’s “When I’m Cleaning Windows” about Little Johnny. Most unflattering as I recall. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the words at home somewhere, signed by Bleak with a portrait of, basically, a cock with Howards head on it. I’ll have a hunt for it over the weekend.

  21. Indeedy Jack. The year in review (1999?) with Mungo, Ellis & Bleak was possibly the funniest and most slanderous hour and a bit I think I’ve ever heard.

  22. Indeedy Jack. The year in review (1999?) with Mungo, Ellis & Bleak was possibly the funniest and most slanderous hour and a bit I think I’ve ever heard.

    I remember Mungo being very diplomatic, though a little incautious, Leak being a tad more daring and suggestive, and Ellis (dog under one arm, bottle of scotch under t’other) spewing forth the funniest, driest, most slanderous accusations imaginable, working blue and dripping with sarcasm.

    It eventually rubbed off on the other two.

    Brilliant day!

  23. Paul Budde, in a wide-ranging interview with Joe O’Brien on ABC24, spoke very well about the back story relating to Mike Quigley’s resignation as CEO of NBN Co.

    He made a very good point that, as a result of Abbott and Turnbull, in an unprecedented way, targeting the CEO of a business in a political fashion, that Mike Quigley had decided he had had enough. Especially considering the monumental health issues he has had in his recent past.

    He came out of retirement to do a labour of love, and now he is going back into retirement.

    If you can get a hold of the Budde/O’Brien conversation, it is well worth a listen to.

  24. This little black duck

    We may need to get CTar1 to have a word with your mates when he goes over 🙂 They seem to have started a new series of Yes Minister.

    [The farcical attempts of contractors to rid the Treasury fountain of DUCKS

    The taxpayer has picked up the bill for private contractors to spend hours trying to persuade ducks to leave the Treasury, it emerged today.

    The Facilities management help desk logbook for incident number 177853 on 20 June 2012 reveals that at 9.02am the initial request was created: ‘Ducks in the courtyard garden. Request presence of an operative.’

    By 9.22am an ‘operative was attending incident’. At 10.11am the contractor reported: ‘I attended area and confirmed this is a male and female duck. Issue has been discussed previously with RSPCA, they won’t attend the building for ducks, and I called Royal Parks but they also won’t come remove ducks as it may cause injury to the duck and people in this area.

    ‘They have advised us to put signs requesting that people do not feed the ducks, and also to frighten them frequently so they don’t feel comfortable here, they should then leave of their own accord. Advised seniors of the above.’

    The problem then seemed solved, but by 10.40am there was a u-turn. ‘Please ignore previous,’ the logbook stated.

    ‘Have been advised that signs should not be put up yet without permission, and that the birds should not be frightened – we are responsible for guano only, not removing the birds. Awaiting further instructions.’

    Several hours later the situation escalated, with a plan to remove the ducks altogether.

    ‘Have been advised that previous instances required the ducks to be caught and removed as there is insufficient space in the courtyard for ducks to take off,’ the contractor wrote at 1.10pm.

    ‘Message left for operative to contact the Help Desk.’

    The drama rolled into the next day, when an update was posted at 9am. ‘No ducks in the pond and disturbed all the bushed. No ducks present. Seems they have left on their own.’.]

  25. ‘Have been advised that previous instances required the ducks to be caught and removed as there is insufficient space in the courtyard for ducks to take off,’ the contractor wrote at 1.10pm.

    ‘Message left for operative to contact the Help Desk.’

    The drama rolled into the next day, when an update was posted at 9am. ‘No ducks in the pond and disturbed all the bushed. No ducks present. Seems they have left on their own.’.]

    So there was room for them to take off after all? 😀

  26. Does the Coalition think if they say Kevin Rudd’s name enough with snarls on their faces, a la Hockey, that that will be enough to convince people he is shonky? Labor people did it for 3 years and it only made Rudd more popular, not less! 😀

  27. Or some Peregrines turned up!

    And the ducks found a way out of their confined space pdq! 😀

    Btw, I named my first born after the Peregrine Falcon. I wanted it to be his first name but his father thought it a bit wanky, so it became his 3rd. I thought Perry was neat. It wasn’t to be. 🙂

  28. “@SabraLane: The Fed Govt will cover Peter Slipper’s legal costs, if needed – Acting Spec Minister of State Gary Gray to detail reasons shortly.”

  29. Take that! Tony Abbott! So much for your tactic of attempting to bankrupt MPs with vexatious legal actions who are not on your side of politics, or any more, in a Hung Parliament, before the new Members and Senators Insurance Scheme kicked in on July 1!

    I hope it hit you out of the blue today like a 4×2 to the head!

  30. C@t
    I couldn’t agree more.
    Wouldn’t it be delicious if all this Ashby stuff turned to poop just before the election!
    Karma, I’d say.

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