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  • OPINION: Cut, paste school reports mean nothing

    THE cut and paste school reports from schools are nothing more than a system developed to avoid the fact that standards are falling. This type of reporting simply feeds parents meaningless information.
    Nanjing Night Net

    Parents on several occasions have come to me with report cards asking what they mean. I tell them that they are meaningless, as students are not given marks or grade placings. The glossy paper and flowery gobbledegook are designed to confuse rather than inform.

    Teachers are not allowed to tell the truth and only officially sanctioned comments, chosen from a prepared list, are put on reports. This self-serving system means that children cannot fail and teachers and schools cannot be challenged.

    Image creation is everything these days and schools are well and truly into the fantasy world of smoke and mirrors. This is most evident when you trawl through their websites.

    I browsed a few. The same delighted children doing exciting things can be seen on many different school websites.

    When I asked the Education Department about it, it said that the website ‘‘template service’’ was part of their corporate look, available to schools to use if they want.

    The same seems to apply to school reports.

    There was a time when reports were honest and parents believed what they read. In my experience, they rather liked being told the truth even though the comments may have been unflattering.

    Today, in the public school system, it would be impossible to report that a child was ‘‘lazy’’, ‘‘disruptive’’, ‘‘inattentive’’ or ‘‘rude’’. It would also be a rarity to find a school report where a pupil was given say 68per cent for maths, which placed him 16/28 in the class with an overall grade placing of 52/120.

    Parents who have lost faith in the system and want to get to the nitty-gritty do have an option but it involves time, effort and money.

    A private educational institution can measure a child’s IQ. If, for example, little Billy has an IQ of 120 and is 10 years old, he should have a reading and maths age of an average 12 year old. (Ten points of IQ equates to one year’s intelligence.)

    If the school report is glowing with all sorts of meaningless adjectives but young Billy’s measured performance is below par, parents have every right to query the validity of the document.

    Privately, teachers tell me the weight of meaningless documentation they must comply with leaves them burnt out.

    Our NAPLAN testing is an attempt to independently test schools to ensure standards are lifted and funding follows.

    This is steering our schools away from the ‘‘Mickey Mouse’’ stuff and stressing the basic skills that parents and industry demand.

    Those who send their children to private schools pay a fortune in fees. They expect – and get – accurate and revealing information about their children. There is far more emphasis on academic excellence.

    The public school system should do the same.

    Geoff Walker is a former state school teacher.



  • MOVIES: Frozen warms the heart

    COMEBACK: A scene from Disney's latest animated movie Frozen, which is being tipped as an Oscar winner.A CRITICAL and commercial success, Frozen marks a second renaissance for Walt Disney's legendary film studio - and is widely tipped to win its first Oscar for best animated feature next weekend.
    Nanjing Night Net

    The movie, which has made nearly $US1 billion ($1.12 billion), is the culmination of a revival driven by fierce competition and the studio's purchase of rival Pixar in 2006, bringing boss John Lasseter into the Disney fold.

    Critics have hailed Frozen as one of Disney's best ever movies, following the success of The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled in 2010 and 2012's Wreck-It Ralph.

    If the movie does win at the 86th Academy Awards, it will be Disney's first best animated feature Oscar since the category was created in 2001.

    Disney has come a long way since the turn of the millennium, when the studio had been sidelined by Pixar and its string of blockbuster hits from Toy Story and Cars to Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Up.

    "Just like Great Mouse Detective was a step up from the nadir of Black Cauldron, so Princess and the Frog was more successful than the earlier films like Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons," said Tom Sito, professor of cinema at the University of Southern California (USC).

    It is not Disney's first comeback. The 1970s and '80s were tough for the studio, until a new generation of animators arrived to create films like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and 1994's majestic success The Lion King.

    Ironically, the Prince Charming of this latest rebirth had been the studio's main rival: Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar, who was named Disney's animated creative director after his company became part of Mickey's empire eight years ago.

    "Since the merger with Pixar in 2006, Disney Animation is once more under the direct guidance of an animator, John Lasseter. This had not been the case since the death of Walt Disney in 1966," Sito, a former Disney animator, said.

    The Toy Story and Cars creator "brought in a lot of new talent to the storytelling departments: clever young writers and directors . . . We also [saw] a return to the movie-musical format after a 20-year hiatus, which for Disney has always been a specialty," he added.

    Music is at the heart of Frozen: the movie's keynote tune Let It Go is a frontrunner to win the best song Oscar next weekend.

    Peter Del Vecho, producer on the film, said Lasseter changed the culture at Disney Animation: "We're a different studio than Pixar, but a lot of the same ideas that he learned there, he imported to us.

    "The main thing he imported was that we as filmmakers have to take ownership of our product. John sets a very high bar in terms of story, in terms of research, and you always want to hit that bar."

    But the studio's culture is also highly collaborative, with directors and screenwriters on projects able to voice their opinions about others' films after in-house development screenings.

    "The best idea wins, you're encouraged to make mistakes and to take risks," said Del Vecho.

    "We're responsible for each other's films, meaning that I went to Tangled screenings, I went to Wreck-it Ralph screenings and gave notes just as filmmakers and writers on other projects come and give us notes. Our movie couldn't have evolved without that kind of open collaborative environment." AFP

  • WINE: New beginning for vineyard complex

    LIKE Dolly Parton, who confesses to having any of her "sagging, bagging or dragging" 68-year-old body parts "sucked, plucked or tucked", the Upper Hunter's Arrowfield Estate has had many makeovers in its 45-year history.
    Nanjing Night Net

    REFURBISHED: Emma and Karen Williams in the newly opened Hollydene tasting room.

    Now, however, the Jerrys Plains property that in 1977 boasted the largest producing vineyard in Australia and was devastated by fire in 1999, seems headed for a bright new future under the ownership of Central Coast couple Karen and Gary Williams and their family.

    Last week they brought the scenic 3483 Golden Highway complex back to life by opening it as the Hollydene Estate at Arrowfield tasting rooms and cellar door, incorporating a spacious fine-dining restaurant and function room presided over by young Czech-born chef Pepa Hanus and his wife Laura.

    The cellar door is open seven days between 10am and 4pm, and the Vines Restaurant is open for lunch from Monday to Thursday, for lunch and dinner on Fridays, and for breakfast and lunch on Saturdays and Sundays.

    Karen and Gary, who had in 2005 purchased the Hollydene vineyard, on the Golden Highway at Hollydeen village, 10 kilometres west of Denman, and in 2006 the Wybong Estate vineyard, in Yarraman Road, Wybong, bought the Arrowfield property in 2011.

    Using grapes from these three vineyards and fruit bought in from the Mornington Peninsula and the Orange area, Karen Williams has assembled a smart portfolio of 17 table wines, sparklers and liqueurs crafted by ace young Pokolbin-based winemaker Matt Burton.

    The buy-out of Arrowfield from Inagaki, one of Japan's foremost sake brewing groups, gave Karen and Gary 81 hectares of land, 18 hectares of vineyard, but not the Arrowfield brand.

    Last year they sold the property to the adjoining Coolmore thoroughbred stud, leasing back the winery and a surrounding 19 hectares of vineyard and gardens. Coolmore is adding the remaining 63 hectares to its stud landholdings.

    The winery, which commands superb views over Coolmore and along the Hunter Valley floor, had previously stood abandoned and stripped of all its wine production gear and former restaurant equipment.

    At multimillion-dollar cost, the Williamses have imaginatively refurbished the building, upgraded the surrounding gardens and revived the old vines, some of which date back to 1969 when Sydney-based Pacific Islands trader W.R. Carpenter and Co Ltd bought a large tract of Hunter River frontage land.

    Carpenter used 650 hectares for a charolais cattle stud and devoted a further 480 hectares to a massive vineyard and hilltop winery.

    The opening of Hollydene at Arrowfield is the culmination of an expanding Upper Hunter investment by Karen and Gary Williams that takes in five vineyards, beef cattle, sheep and cropping properties.

    Singleton-born Gary is a former mine manager at Mount Thorley and Bulga Coal, who now heads a major mining consultancy business that has an office in Jakarta.

    Karen, a Sydneysider who worked in hospitality at the Menzies Hotel before marrying and coming to the Hunter with Gary, is executive director of the Hollydene operation - part of the United Pastoral family company.

    Karen and Gary have six children and seven grandchildren and daughter Emma is Hollydene's business and administration manager.

    The couple lived in Muswellbrook before moving to the Central Coast, but retained a strong love of Hunter life, leading them in 2004 to buy the Roseglen vineyard at Wybong and prompting Karen to begin the wine course at Kurri Kurri TAFE. They later sold Roseglen to buy Hollydene in 2005.

    Arrowfield has been "sucked, plucked and tucked" plenty of times since the founding W.R. Carpenter company hit deep trouble in 1983. It was taken over by Ric Stowe's Western Australian Griffin Holdings Ltd group, which in 1986 sold Arrowfield to John Messara's Australian Racing and Breeding Stable Ltd.

    The Messara group set up what is now the Coolmoore thoroughbred stud on part of the property and opted out of the wine side of the property in 1989 by selling to a group headed by Nick Whitlam and wine merchant Andrew Simon.

    In 1990 the Whitlam-Simon group sold the Arrowfield wine business for $7.4 million to the Japanese Inagaki family of Toyama.

    The Inagaki ownership saw numerous management changes and was hit by a disastrous 1999 mid-vintage fire that destroyed the restaurant, cellar door outlet and 36,000 bottles of stored wine.

    Despite a praiseworthy rebuilding program, by 2010 Inagaki had had enough and Arrowfield was shut down and stood unused and empty until eventually sold to the Williamses in 2011.

    Jail's recycled sandstone a feature

    THE Hollydene vineyard and its distinctive polygon-shaped winery were established in 1968 by Sydney fashion retailer Ken Commins and later taken over by Brian McGuigan's Wyndham Estate group.

    The 60-hectare Hollydene property's vineyard once covered 48 hectares and is now six hectares, with the balance being used for cattle and pasture growing.

    The Wybong Estate vineyard was established in 1967 by leading Sydney orthopaedic surgeon Bob Smith and grazier David Hordern.

    Bob Smith and his wife Theo took sole ownership in 1983, and enlivened the Upper Hunter social scene with weekend food and wine festivals and jazz concerts in the lovely sandstone winery built from stone from the old 1840s Bengalla jail.

    Highly regarded winemaker Jon Reynolds and his wife Jane bought the property in 1989 and established a fine reputation with their Yarraman Estate wines.

    Karen and Gary Williams's 2006 purchase of Wybong Estate gave them 142 hectares of land, in which there are 14 hectares of vines.

    The Hollydene, Wybong estate and Arrowfield vineyards provide them with shiraz, chardonnay, semillon, tempranillio, sangiovese, traminer and verdelho grapes.

  • OPINION: Hospitals bear brunt of primary care cuts

    MANY in the Hunter are awaiting the outcome of the Commonwealth Government’s Commission of Audit. The question is not whether health will be cut, but where.
    Nanjing Night Net

    Health is one of the fastest growing and biggest expenditure areas of government. A Productivity Commission report showed federal spending on health grew 4.9per cent a year over the past 10years. Health spending per head by all governments rose 37per cent over the same period. This is not a uniquely Australian trend.

    Everyone in the health system knows we need to improve the cost-effectiveness of our system, while not detracting from the patient experience and health outcome.

    Commenting on the Productivity Commission report, Health Minister Peter Dutton said the figures highlighted the challenge the government faced in placing health on a stable financial footing. The government aims to cut waste and invest in areas where the benefit to patients is greatest.

    Last year, Professor John Horvath, a former Commonwealth chief medical officer, was appointed to head a review into the operation of Medicare Locals. Formed in 2011-12, Medicare Locals evolved from Divisions of General Practice. In the Hunter, the former Hunter Urban Division became the Hunter Medicare Local. Many people would be aware of Hunter Medicare Local through the GP Access After Hours service, which runs five after-hours GP clinics in the Hunter.

    Hunter Medicare Local is confident that any considered examination of the system will confirm what has been consistently demonstrated in international studies for more than a decade: the sustainability of any health system is improved by strengthening primary healthcare.

    It just makes sense to treat health problems before they become serious and require more expensive hospital care.

    Unfortunately, what we know is that primary care and preventive programs are often the first to go when health budgets are trimmed. By far the biggest and fastest-growing spending category in health is hospitals – they receive almost $18billion more in real terms than they did 10 years ago.

    A significant percentage of the patients in hospitals – the most expensive part of our health system – could be and should be receiving more appropriate community-based care.

    If we are to get better health outcomes at a time of fiscal constraints we need to start using a more business-like approach to spending, not just continually pour more oil on the squeaky wheel of acute care.

    Good businesses base their spending on developing a sustained income stream through improved effectiveness and efficiency. To achieve their goals, they take a longer-term view of where they will get “the best bang for their buck”.

    Hunter Medicare Local can show it is delivering better health outcomes and better value for money through programs such as Connecting Care in the Community. This program supports people with chronic disease to better manage their condition to improve their health, well-being and quality of life, prevent complications, and reduce the need for hospitalisation.

    Studies involving patients from Maitland and Newcastle show a 32per cent reduction in emergency department presentations, a reduction of 12per cent in the number of admissions, and a reduction of 32per cent in the length of stay in hospital.

    Millions of dollars have been saved by this program alone, not to mention the benefit of improved health for the patients involved.

    Hunter Medicare Local is strengthening our primary health system, reducing the demand for more expensive hospital care and providing better, more efficient access to services closer to where people live.

    Some say health decisions are really not about health, but about money. From our perspective, you can apply good business principles to achieve better health outcomes, and Hunter Medicare Local has demonstrated this.

    Investing in primary care is very clearly an investment in improving health outcomes, but it is also an investment in ensuring the sustainability of our health system into the future.

    Despite uncertainty, the Hunter Medicare Local board is continuing to take a bold and innovative approach to healthcare, one that is acknowledged nationally.

    We look forward to bringing a final plan to the public in the coming months.

    Meanwhile, we wait to see if the government will not only continue to support primary care, but also invest in building a more sustainable health system for all of us.

    Karen Howard chairs the Hunter Medicare Local.



  • Thai army chief warns country on brink of armed conflict

    Bangkok: Thailand's powerful army chief has warned that opposing groups are mobilising to fight each other and his country faces collapse unless a political crisis that has dragged on for three months is urgently addressed.
    Nanjing Night Net

    General Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a rare television address that if there is further loss of life "the country will definitely collapse and there will not be any winners or losers".

    He said military intelligence suggested there were many armed groups assembling, including those involved in bloodshed in the capital in 2010, an apparent reference to pro-government red shirts.

    Thailand's National Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara also warned the country was on the brink of civil war.

    "If the situation goes on like this, the country will collapse," he said.

    Red shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan has announced that supporters of besieged prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra will make their biggest move next month as legal action is taken against her over a controversial subsidy scheme for farmers.

    "If we don't come out now while the government is still the winner then the country will go the way of the anmart (elite)," he said.

    But military sources say General Prayuth has asked Ms Yingluck to persuade the red shirts not to mass in Bangkok because of fears of clashes with anti-government protesters who are backed by mysterious, highly-trained gunmen who many observers believe are soldiers.

    The men have fought running battles with police, raising concern about a potentially dangerous rift between police and the military.

    General Prayuth's comments followed a sharp escalation of bombings and shootings in the conflict that has so far left 20 people dead and almost 800 injured.

    Analysts saw his comments as a signal to anti-government protesters they cannot rely on the military to stage a coup as it has done 18 times since the 1930s.

    General Prayuth said the military does not support any side but repeatedly referred to the "constitution" and the responsibility of the government to enforce laws.

    Anti-government protesters have for weeks blockaded government departments and shut down parts of Bangkok to cripple the government, which was democratically-elected in mid-2011.

    Protest leaders are wanted for treason but Thailand's politicised courts have refused to approve arrest warrants for some of them.

    General Prayuth said "many sides" would like to see the use of force to settle the crisis.

    "I would urge you to reconsider, compose yourself and ask yourselves whether this would end peacefully," he said.

    Reading from a prepared statement, General Prayuth said the army was collecting evidence against those responsible for violence, which included the deaths of three children last weekend.

    "Someone must be held responsible for serious acts but it doesn't mean the military can use force to resolve the situation because the current conflict occurs at numerous levels and involves officers and many groups of civilians," he said.

    "If the military is used to try to solve the problem ... laws and the constitution will have to be nullified," he said.

    "Many parties may want to use this method but let us reconsider and come to our senses as to whether the problem can be resolved through peaceful means or not."

    General Prayuth urged all sides to hold talks as soon as possible.

    Ms Yingluck said in a separate interview that "there is nothing better than all sides coming together".

    "When violence is used the pain will be felt by the whole nation," she said.

    But protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, who has declined repeated requests to meet Ms Yingluck, continued his attacks on her, claiming her condemnation of the weekend's violence was insincere.

    Mr Suthep, a former deputy prime minister in a military-backed government, said if armed red shirts came to Bangkok security authorities, not his supporters, would have to deal with them.

    The conflict in broad terms pits two groups of Thai elites against each other, one led by Ms Yingluck's elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra and the other backed by Bangkok's middle class and royalists.

    Mr Thaksin,a  former prime minister forced from office in a 2006 coup, lives in exile to avoid a two-year jail sentence for corruption.

    This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.