Legal Rap:
Linking Schools and Universities on the Internet

 

Mark Israel & Frank Sharman

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Traditionally, there has been little contact between secondary school teachers and university lecturers. This is a shame as increased contact could offer several advantages. Two years ago, we thought it would be worthwhile if we actually tried to do something about it in the subject in which we are involved as lecturers at Flinders University of South Australia. We started looking at what the Department of Legal Studies might be able to offer school teachers.

Legal Studies is one of the largest and fastest growing subjects taught in secondary schools in South Australia. Over 75 schools taught Legal Studies in 1996 and over 1800 students took the Publicly Examined Subject (PES) in Year 12. The course was also offered to students in the Northern Territory and a handful of schools in south-east Asia. The Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia (SSABSA) expects both the number of students and the number of schools to continue to grow.

Unfortunately, teachers of Legal Studies in schools face particular problems. Some of these are the result of the fact that only a small number of teachers actually have legal backgrounds. As a result, teachers sometimes find themselves working in Legal Studies with little, or even no, previous experience in the area. They may also find that they are the only Legal Studies teacher in the school which makes it difficult for them to exchange ideas and information with more experienced colleagues.

Other problems teachers face relate to the subject matter to be taught. Law can, and often does, change very rapidly. Last year's big issue may have been overtaken by a new problem the next time the topic is taught. For example, teachers covering the relationship between the states and the Commonwealth in 1995 could not simply continue to trot out the 1983 Tasmanian Dam case by way of an example. They needed to find out about issues as diverse as the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Case and legislation concerning homosexuality in Tasmania very quickly. In many jobs, it is difficult enough to gain access to primary legal materials, let alone keep up with changes.

In smaller states and territories, the problem is exacerbated. Like many other subjects, the syllabus used varies from state to state. However, it changes not simply because different Boards prescribe different topics. It shifts because of the jurisdictional boundaries of law. Every state and territory has its own laws, which means that material written in and for one jurisdiction may have very limited value in any other jurisdiction. This places a premium on Legal Studies material generated within a state, and, all told, it means that the lot of Legal Studies teachers, especially in the smaller states, is not always a happy one.

Legal Studies and Law are two of the fastest growing areas at the Flinders University of South Australia. It seemed to us that it would be a good thing if we made closer contact with the schools producing our students,. And if the work being done at Flinders could provide a valuable resource, then the university and the schools ought to be able to develop a project of mutual benefit. We should be able to support Legal Studies teaching in schools; help to stimulate students' interest in the subject; alert students to recent developments in Australian and South Australian law; and provide further ideas for Legal Studies teachers. It was from this thinking that the idea of producing Legal Rap arose.

Legal Rap

In 1995, the Department of Legal Studies and the School of Law at Flinders University started producing Legal Rap, a free journal for Legal Studies students in secondary schools in South Australia and the Northern Territory. We wanted to create something that would not just give more information about the law, but would help students think about legal issues critically, placing them within their social and political contexts.

We produced two editions of Legal Rap last year and another one this year. In the first edition, we investigated the Australian Constitution and considered how the growth of the Federal Government in Canberra has changed what goes on in state parliaments. We also discussed how this resulted in conflict between the Federal Government and the State of Tasmania over the legal rights of gay men. In the second issue, we examined the thorny problems of medical negligence and in particular the law relating to consent - an important principle continually applied in everyday life as people come in contact with doctors and receive medical treatment. The topics are both part of the Legal Studies syllabus for Year 12 and each issue provided an introduction to the topic, explained the main concepts, clarified definitions, asked questions, and gave ideas for class exercises and discussion. In the most recent issue, we looked at the rights of casual employees and asked if there is a need to change the law relating to casual employment, especially as it affects so many young people. Over the next year, we shall explore the role that law plays in protecting consumers and investigate the issue of Equal Opportunities.

While the journal is certainly available to all teachers who request it, it also available on-line so we invite everyone who is interested to have a look at Legal Rap on the World Wide Web. If your school has a home page, you might even want to link your page to our home pages which provide links to each issue:

http://cmetwww.cc.flinders.edu.au/Legal_studies/legal_rap/rap.htm

Basically each journal consists of four main parts. The leading article is generally written by an academic or legal practitioner, whilst the second part consists of ideas about how to investigate the topic further. An important part of the journal is the hypothetical fact situation, in which research assignments and short answer questions shadow the assessment exercises used by SSABSA. All these are written by a Legal Studies secondary school teacher. Finally, we provide a section on the more difficult vocabulary and legal terminology that are used within that particular issue.

It took a long time to get to this point. In fact, it took over six months just to set up the project in the first place. Starting from scratch, we were well aware that we knew very little about secondary school teaching, so we asked the advice of the Legal Education Teachers Association of South Australia and SSABSA. We also brought a senior Legal Studies teacher onto the project as an educational consultant. In April 1995, we produced a pilot copy of the magazine, which we toted around to schools. Unfortunately we found that although teachers appeared enthusiastic about the project and gave us verbal support, most were very reluctant to allow us access to their students for even 20 minutes. Twelve schools agreed to take part in a trial, however, by June we had only obtained feedback from seven of them, representing 150 out of an original target group of 330.

Nevertheless, despite the limited result of the trial, we improved the overall layout and launched the journal in September 1995. The magazine went out free to all Year 12 PES Legal Studies students in state and private schools in South Australia and the Northern Territory. We also sent copies to the few Malaysian and Singapore schools that used the syllabus as well as some schools in western Victoria and New South Wales to see whether those schools might find it useful.

The first edition was evaluated by the Adelaide Centre for University Education. Evaluation forms were distributed by mail with copies of Legal Rap and were returned by 292 students from 28 schools. On a seven-point linear scale (where seven was the top score), students rated the magazine as a source of information at 5.4; as giving clear explanations at 5.7; and as 'I would read the next copy of Legal Rap' at 5.5.

It is difficult to know how good these results are as we had no comparisons on which we might draw. However, the figures will provide a useful baseline for later evaluation. The accompanying qualitative feedback was generally supportive, as were teachers' comments.During the evaluation, we asked students and teachers what areas they thought we should include in the journal. On this issue we found that there was some tension between the two groups. Both students and teachers wanted us to deal with topics that were contained in the syllabus, however, students also wanted us to deal with other - generally unspecified - issues that particularly concerned them.

In future issues we will try to do both. While the first two issues were closely tied to the syllabus, the third edition examined casual employment, an issue that most school and university students will have to confront. Over the next few years, we also hope to write on the police and the law, sex and the law, and drugs and crime.

Legal Rap should form part of a closer relationship between Legal Studies teachers in secondary and tertiary institutions. We have learned a lot over the last two years and have several suggestions for other university lecturers who might be interested in undertaking similar projects themselves - involve teachers in the project as much as possible; never underestimate the amount of time you need to get feedback; never overestimate the amount of support that you will get from your colleagues; and, finally, persevere.

Of course, the relationship cannot be one-way. Academics do need help from teachers. If teachers want us to come and talk to their students about our work, let us know. Ask us to attend open days, conferences and meetings. We need to be told when teachers need help with particular subject matter. If we can find enough interest and enough money, we could put on a training session either for teachers or perhaps even for their students. If a large enough number of teachers approached us, we might even be able to set up a qualification in Legal Studies for teachers. Even if we cannot do that, we might be able to give advice on materials. We like to believe that Legal Rap has shown that we have a lot to offer teachers. We hope that we are right.

Mark Israel and Frank Sharman, Department of Legal Studies, Flinders University

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