Elections and Education – What a Polly Scramble!

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

20 October 2017

So now we know! The die is cast! The road less-travelled has been chosen. Our fates are cast to the wind. Or to put it another way, the Government has been declared. Education wasn’t a central star in the drama of the election campaign but plenty of ideas were dressed up as policy. Now there will be a scramble to give effect to some of it. It will be a little like a lolly scramble when energetic adult hurl lollies over the heads of children. The result can often be tears (“I didn’t get any!”) or complaints (“They pushed me and I fell over!” and even shrieks about fairness (“I only got two and he got fistfuls!”)

The next year will be something of a “Polly Scramble” as the three parties that will make us the next government scramble to get some meaning to wrap around their slim descriptions of policy intention let alone to bring it into fruition.

The thirty or so policies that I spotted are like a bag of all-sorts. Some are big, others are small but unlike lollies, some cost a huge amount while other have little cost beyond simply asking us to behave differently. And that is the challenge.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and education policies that have failed or perhaps not even been implemented or, and this is quite common, been socialised into the education system so that we can continue to act in the old way while seeming to adopt the new.

So, I offer the list below as an aide memoire when you are asked about the progress being made by the new government in Education. Or perhaps even when you are asked what it is that you need.

Education System             

  • Spend $6b over 4 years to include $1.8b for more teachers, PD, resources (Labour) nationwide PD for teachers to ensure meet student needs equitably (NZ First).
  • Increased PD and training for Trustees.
  • Increase spending by $315m to build a more inclusive education system (Greens).

Centres/Schools

  • Bring back more funding for ECE Centres employing 100% qualified and registered teachers (Labour).
  • Fund primary classes of 26 students and secondary classes to a maximum of 23 students
  • All ECE Centre employ at least 80% qualified staff within three years (Labour).
  • Extend 20 hours free ECE to 2-year- olds (Greens)
  • Actively support more public centre in areas of low provision (Labour).
  • $150 per student for school not charging fees or compulsory donations (Labour).
  • Re-establish curriculum and school support advisors (NZ First).
  • All students to have access to mobile digital devices (Labour).
  • Low decile schools to get free after-school care, free holiday programmes, free lunches and the all the schools get school nurses (Greens).
  • All schools to have modern classrooms within 12 years (Labour).
  • $2,000 PM Awards for Vocational Excellence selected by the school (Labour).
  • Review truancy contracts, their centralisation and the extent to which they meet local needs (NZ First).
  • Double the funding for the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) and the Early Intervention Service (EIS) (Greens).
  • Scrapping Public Private Partnership for providing school(Labour).
  • Doing away with Charter Schools(Labour).
    • Strengthening child rights in the Education Act to ensure every child can be included in their local school (Greens).

Tertiary Education           

  • Increase living costs to $50 allowance and a $50 increase in the amount that can be borrowed (Labour).
  • Postgraduates to get student allowances (Labour).
  • Tertiary students to get free off-peak travel on public transport (Greens)
  • Long course allowances and loans extended beyond seven years (Labour).
  • Free tertiary education (1 year free for a 2018 start and 3 years free by 2024) (Labour).
  • Wage subsidy equal to the unemployment benefit for employers taking on apprentices (Labour).
  • Bring back ACE funding for night classes for adult learners (Labour).
    • The School Leavers Toolkit school leavers will be getting a driving licence, possess workplace competencies, be financially literate, have budgeting skills and know their democratic rights and responsibilities (Labour).

General                                   

  • Fund properly Children’s Champions on the ratio Champs to kids of 1 : 400 (Greens).
  • Students with additional learning needs will have the opportunity to experience school camps and activities just like every other student (Greens).

I suggest you print this off, add any other policies that you come across and tick the ones that are implemented. Or when changes are suggested and/or made, see if you can spot them in this list.

Tertiary Education Free-for-all!

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ

30 August 2017

WOW! Free first year for tertiary education scaling up to three free years. This is a significant policy! If Labour succeeds in becoming the Government this should make a huge change.

But wait! Do we really know the extent of the problem that financial hardship which it is claimed stops people from going to tertiary? How many young people are qualified to go to tertiary but are unable to get there simply because of financial issues? Most of the students interviewed by the media who attest to financial hardship seem to be uniformly pakeha and, let’s not forget this, they are already at university. Addressing financial hardship for them is not about access it is about improved living condition and experiences. In terms of parity of outcomes and equity of access – is financial hardship a fact or an untested assumption?

In am aware of studies which suggest that in the southern region of Auckland by and large, those who are qualified to go to university, do get there. Many institutions have programmes for financial aid, for scholarships and so on. Youth Guarantee places in tertiary treat the right to a free education up to the age of 19 years more fairly than used to be the case.

But I would expect that if the financial issues of going to tertiary were examined with a little more granularity it would show that those not qualified to go to university include the greatest number of students who face financial hurdles is accessing tertiary educationof different kinds.

The media seems unable to reflect the fact that “tertiary”, as the word is used in New Zealand, covers a range of post-secondary opportunities and experiences not just going to university. The range of these distinctive tertiary pathways includes Wānanga, Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics, and Private Training Organisations. And tertiary could also be taken to include in different ways, the ITO’s who do engage in training in a different ways. And there might be a case to argue for those undertaking apprenticeships and other forms of in-work, post-secondary training to get some benefit from the no fees model?

But the real cost related to the post-secondary environment is not the cost to the students who successfully enter a tertiary institution but the cost to those young New Zealanders who leave school inadequately prepared for the next step. They still continue to give up before the finishing post and many students stumble across the line then fall. Failing is failing at whatever level and however it is funded. The cost of failure to a student is not the cost of the fee but a huge, damaging, and enduring cost to their lives and their families.

Secondary schools have responded well to the NCEA Level 2 Targets and to the opportunities gathered under the Youth Guarantee policy in Secondary / Tertiary Programmes (such as Trades Academies, Dual Pathways and ventures like the MIT Tertiary High School). Indeed, some schools have noted the mutual benefit to both sides of the provider relationship of such programmes.

If failure remains an issue in schooling then It seems odd to me that there is a fervent desire among the policy developers who propose no tertiary fees but with the same enthusiasm propose to remove national standards. An education system that is performing well has to do so at every level. Early Childhood Education, Primary schooling, secondary schooling and tertiary education all face challenges of student failure and disengagement and all have a responsibility to see that they did what was required of them to prepare students for life. Secondary and tertiary operate in an environment that has increasing accountability measures. So too should primary schooling.

Equity of access in education is not the ability to get through the gates of the academy, rather it is the quality of life and the opportunities that result from an excellent education. On this measure, we have some way to go!

Flexing Learning Environments in a Rigid System

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

10 August 2017

There has been chatter in the media about “Modern Learning Environments” (a.k.a. Flexible Learning Environments in MOE-speak) and even a Principal wondering whether what was being provided under this guise was suiting all children. Of course, this was countered by an enthusiast who had a catalogue of the key words –collaboration for innovation, teamwork, challenge, projects, and so on while making the link that such environments in the early years prepared students for the world of employment. All good!

But I do wonder whether the thinking recognises sufficiently that education is an inside-out process rather than outside in. A good teacher provides materials, opportunities, support, guidance and the tools for students to work with the material they have and, when the judgment of the teacher is sound in the provision of all this the student increases their knowledge, skills, interest and development by building on what they already have and we describe this as progress, growth and, in the end, learning.

New Zealand’s great teacher, Sylvia Ashton Warner, described the process as “taking the native imagery of the child and using it for working material.” Vygotsky wrote about “the zone of proximal development” where learning took place at the edge of what the learner already knew.

So, does the environment matter? Yes, it does. Some environments might actually impede learning and I note quite a large emphasis placed in the discussions of the modern/flexible learning environment on creature comforts – warmth, space, light, friendly acoustics, soft furnishings, lively colour schemes, these all add to the schoolroom being a place that is welcoming and nice to be in.

But it is not in itself, sufficient. To invite students into a setting that has the colours, activity, noise and stimulation of a theme park will not on its own achieve good educational outcomes. All these discussions end up back at a fundamental truth – teachers make great classrooms, not architects, interior decorators and elegant technological gadgets (now known as “devices”).

I have seen brilliant teaching under a tree in the outskirts of a village in the Solomon Islands. It was a young teacher. I sked here where the village school was and she replied that this was it. Under a tree, minimal tools, an easel with a small blackboard, students at multiple levels. I would guess that this was not the only school like this. And in developing countries I have seen facilities more reflective of the 19th rather than the 21st Century. But where the teachers were excellent, the students made great progress. To deny that teaching and learning cannot take place without a modern learning environment is to deny most of the world an education.

So, the truth is in the middle. It is great to have excellent facilities, no doubt about it. But it is better to see that every child is working with excellent teachers in ways that reflect their needs in terms of progressing their skills, knowledge and development. This requires teachers prepared to change and to work in new and different ways if the old and one-for-all approach has failed.

Students failing in school is still the biggest challenge and failure in one environment looks much the same as failure in another.

 

 

A fair share in an unfair world – The Demise of Deciles

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

3 August 2017

 

At last the decile system has gone! Announced in the early 1990s. it was intended to be a mechanism to take account of the socio-economic status of schools in assigning resources to all schools or, to put it more crudely, it was meant to deliver increased funding to schools who taught students who were at risk of failing.

The formula was built around five factors related to the socio-economic standing of parents and caregivers and their level of education, their occupations, the number of people living in the house, and the degree of benefit dependency.

Through a complex process of ranking across the five areas, the numbers were crunched and a “decile rating” tattooed firmly across the forehead of each school. This was to become a badge of honour for those in Deciles 8-10 or a mark of shame for those in Deciles 1-3. Schools in the Decile 4-7 range were in something of a state of suspended judgement in which the reputation of the school depended on other things.

At a time when it was launched there was a developing maniacal level of the worst sort of competition between schools. There was no show at all of the decile rating system being used as a neutral means of assigning resources more fairly. At that time, I was a Principal of a low-decile school. Rather than hugely increased resources which the high-decile schools alleged was being delivered to low-decile schools, I was instead the beneficiary of commiserations and voices lowered as a sign of deep sympathy by others when they discussed the school. That scheme could hardly have been launched at a worse time.

So, let’s be clear – when it came to reputation, high deciles were the winners and low deciles were the losers regardless of school quality. The shocking history of the way low-decile schools were regarded over many years was certain evidence that our national system was broken and that New Zealand could harbour no false impression that it was a united country at least in terms of schooling, This was a situation that flowed from the perceptions of groups of people about other groups of people; it flowed from the “secret courts of the hearts and heads of men and women”; it flowed from a media with a voracious appetite for slinging the dirt at those who were down; it flowed from real estate agents whose views on schools were based only on decile-ratings and “what that told you” about one area or another.

But those going to the low-decile schools saw themselves in this way. Of course, those who went to high decile schools knew they were better than others, those who went to low decile schools often enjoyed going to school, were taught by many excellent and a fair proportion of superb teachers. Teachers who knew that education was about helping people to grow and making changes were attracted to low decile areas. Never make the mistake of thinking that ‘high decile’ and ‘low decile’ are or ever have been an automatic proxy for ‘high quality’ and ‘low quality’.

But that has all changed with the announcement that deciles are out as a risk assessment of the student body in each school replaces it, perhaps 2019 students is in. While not a lot of detail has yet been revealed, some clear distinctions emerge between the old and the new.

  • The money will be follow the students assessed as carrying a risk into their schooling rather than being apportioned on the basis of a statistical generalisation based on a set of untested assumptions about a demographic group in a geographic area.
  • Schools who have disproportionate numbers of students with considerable risk will receive their fair share of the funding that reflects the actual proportion of their student numbers who meet the criteria and not be limited because they have been assigned to a category based on a relatively crudely decile or some part of a decile.
  • The early information suggests that the assessment will be on risk factors known to have a close association with low achievement, be based on actual families and young people who go to the school. The assessment will be based on data which reflect the actual issues faced by a student which impact negatively on their school progress.

The actual categories are a comprehensive list of factors that are known to directly impact on a young persons school performance:

  • Proportion of time spent supported by benefits since birth
  • Child has a Child, Youth and Family notification
  • Mother’s age at child’s birth
  • Father’s offending and sentence history
  • Ethnicity
  • Youth Justice referral
  • Benefit mother unqualified
  • Proportion of time spent overseas since birth
  • Most recent benefit male caregiver is not the birth father
  • Mother’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • School transience
  • Country of birth
  • Father’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • Migrant /New Zealand born
  • Number of children (mother)
  • Mother received third tier benefits (payments directed to alleviating hardship)

Clearly the calculations will achieve a far higher level of granularity than previously and, most importantly will not be made public – schools will receive their funding as part of the annual process – bulk funding, however unpopular with teachers, would be the ultimate protection of this anonymity.

The biggest challenge will be to the professionalism of all in education to resist attempts to undermine this new approach and to “leak” or to become partners in dirty tricks with the media that might wish to deconstruct the funding package – were this to happen it would simply perpetrate the dubious behaviours of the past. I have faith in the integrity of the our profession which I hope will in turn  have faith in this unique and bold approach to finding a level of social equity between schools.

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You take the high road and I’ll do the other thing.

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

28 July 2017

When I was leaving Intermediate school, I was headed, along with my twin brother, to Hamilton Technical College to do a course in carpentry. Our two older brothers had both attended that school and our Mother had gone there in the mid-1920s. We knew it was a good school!

But coming out of church one Sunday, the Principal of the intermediate school came across to our parents and said: “I want to see you about your boys!” We feared the worst but could not think why. Mum dutifully went across to the school on the Monday to talk with the Principal.

“Your boys should not be sent to Hamilton Technical College,” the Principal announced.

“Why?” responded a rather surprised mother.

“Because….” he paused a little dramatically, “they are academic!” he said.

Never one to argue with a teacher, Mum continued….“Well where should they go?“ she asked.

“Hamilton Boys High School – they have an academic programme,” he said.

“No,” she responded immediately, “they are too little to go to a boys school.”

Discussing this later that night at home we were all perplexed. What did he mean? What is academic? We had been called many things but never “academic”. It was a very unsettling time and where we once looked forward to going to secondary school with certainty about the future, we were now somewhat apprehensive. In the end, the answer to our dilemma was to go to a new school that had an academic stream. Which we duly did and arrived at the start of the year not really knowing or understanding what we faced.

It turned out to both bad and good advice that the Principal had given. Flawed rather than bad – we were simply unprepared for the demands of academic schooling and while our successes were good enough – we certainly explored the elegance of a low “C” and a high “D” – they were not robust in an academic sense.

Good in the sense that we were on a pathway that took us to university (first-in-family at the new Waikato University which had conveniently opened just when we needed it), on into teaching and rewarding lives in that field.

The Principal had however fallen into the trap of thinking that “academic” and “technical/vocational” were binary in terms of choice. As was common in those days, being a plumber was for one group while being a doctor was for another. These views guided a lot of decision making ib schooling such as designing tracks through school which really did commit young people to certain but not always necessarily secure futures. The academic / vocational choice was applied with a rigidity that was not helpful. And that is where the difference lies between then and now. In the more modern setting, learning and career progression require skills that are both academic and vocational.

Young people going into courses which are thought of as vocational or technical are often held back somewhat by their lack of academic preparation often described in New Zealand as having been “not very good at school”

Meanwhile the universities, which love to dine out on the fact that they are not vocational only open the doors to those who are generally academically ready to tackle their qualifications which are well and truly vocational – doctors, lawyers, economists, ophthalmologists, audiologists, and more are simply trades-in-white-coats. (Come to think of it, when I take my car in for servicing some of them are wearing white coats!)

There has been a convergence between academic and vocational education but this is not being sufficiently recognised in the way we go about organising education. We brand education activity as academic or vocation by institution type, by qualification structures, by levels of esteem, and by the way we carve up of the government education pie.

The result is not excellence but rigidity. We cannot seem to replicate in our education system, the flexibilities of Germany, the Netherlands and most of Scandinavia where pathways through education and training are flexible, where students can reflect their maturing aspirations by matching them to courses rather than being locked in inevitable outcomes. It is a much more sensible use of a country’s most valuable natural resource i.e. young people.

The new world is one which is characterised by multiple pathways, managed transitions, line of sight to careers, flexibility, seamlessness and high levels of engagement all. It is a very simple world to live in if we think that it is just matter of a choice between “academic” or “vocational / technical.” It might also be a world that has never existed.

The Dash for Cash Continues: The Election Year Money Scramble

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

25 July 2017

 

As money continues to be tossed around, the latest fist-full seems almost to have been targeted.

The suggestion that schools would get a cash payment if they opted not to ask parents for funds on the face of it, an intriguing and innovative idea aimed at trying to equalise the current iniquitous situation that results from demanding payments from parents.

Of course, I exaggerate. They do not demand money. Instead we have the wonderfully beatific sight of school communities rising as one in a sense of duty to make an exorbitant and, of course unsolicited, donation to the school.  Driven by that unifying inner urge that drives lemmings to the cliff’s edge, bargain hunters to Smith and Caughey’s Sale, and crowds to rugby matches, they are united in a common cause. And the schools smile as they count the cash.

Well, only some schools. Those who are already able to ask and ask and ask parents to pay for this and that and the other thing, all in the knowledge that if things get tough the Old Boys and Girls will rally round. But there are a lot of schools who serve communities that cannot contribute cash.

But wait! If the going rate for not paying school fees if to be a threshold of $120k then obviously schools that collect less will opt into the scheme and those who collect more will simple carry on.

Now, I must say that the schools that collect less will be very happy and so they should be. It a few years since I was in a school but we had to work hard to get a fraction of this and to get more would have been glorious – what might seem like a little when compared to the winnings of the rich state schools would have been riches indeed. So at least some punters will be happy. And it almost seems as if it was addressing equity.  But is it really.

The schools that have little difficulty in collecting cash will exceed $120k by far. It won’t matter to them that some other schools are now ahead of where they once were – they stay right out in front.

Now what might be fairer would be for a government to increase school funding on some fair and equitable basis, probably roll-related (which also favours the rich schools but it does have an equitable look to it) and to apply the formula across all schools.  Then they should deduct from that total funding to a school the amount that that school community has contributed. It was always a basic tenet of the welfare state that those who could pay, should pay.

This is a somewhat frivolous suggestion because some things never change and one of those things is that there will be rich schools and schools that will have to be careful within tight and small  budgets. It all contributes to the social inequities of New Zealand schools but who would want to have the success of the Scandinavian schools which manage social equity between school if it has to come at the cost of privilege?

Please Sir, I want some more!

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

24 July 2017

When little Oliver went to Mr Bumble with his soup bowl held out to say “Please sir, I want some more!” he went because the other boys, scoundrels all of them, forced him to. And was Mr Bumble right to react in the way he did? “Whaaat?”

I feel that we are in a situation somewhat akin to this with offers to spend an additional $4 Billion on education. More money for education sounds good but what does the “more” mean? Is more of the same in terms of what we are doing?

  • More NEETs arriving at the end of their educational journey to a place of little hope?
  • More of the severe skill shortages that hold us back?
  • More rigid adherence to the lock-step approach to navigating through the years and over the sectors?
  • More students dropping out of school?
  • More increases in truancy.
  • More children going to school to be fed?
  • More difficult children testing the system?
  • More disgraceful fights and goings-on between school students on social media?

If it is any of these outcomes and a whole lot more are not addressed and the money used to carry on the same ways then it will be money squandered. The key issues in education are really about the way current money is distributed and spent rather than the quantity. Without the detail, around both the spending of new money and the better use of existing money, we are simply ensuring that we will do the same and get the same – and that should not be acceptable.

One measure of the spending in the public sector is the % of government spending that goes into the different sectors. A comparison between the education spend in four countries is interesting: New Zealand, Australia (they are so like us), Germany (we would like their outcomes) and Sweden (we seem to envy much that they do).

Expenditure on Education as a % of Government Expenditure

  New Zealand Australia Germany Sweden
1985 9.1 % 10.0 % 9.0% 10.1%
 
2015 18.0 % 13.9 % 13.9% 15.1 %

Those raw figures might suggest that money is not the issue. We seem to all start from a similar base and New Zealand has moved well ahead. And yes, there is more complexity in such comparisons than I have suggested here. But…..

I am not arguing that we should spend less on education, rather I am asking whether we can point to gains and advantages over those three other countries that are commensurate with the spend, especially when in NZ so many little Olivers still have no soup in their bowl and many big Olivers are stuck in the rut of idleness?

I also wonder whether a better spend of extra funding should be tackling child poverty in ways that see all young people arriving at school ready to go, ready to learn and ready to succeed. There are critical features of children poverty that education cannot address despite the habitual promise of education “that if we are given the tools we’ll do the job.” The job that education can do is critical in seeing that expenditure in children’s health has been invested wisely, that reducing child poverty brings real benefits to the economy and the nation and that supporting families the critical contribution to creating the capability of people to earn a family sustaining wage, to support children that they have and to live a healthy life in which they contribute to their community.

If only Mr Bumble had seen the wisdom of giving little Oliver another bowl of soup!

Give me a SCHOOL! Give me a COOL! Give me a COL!

We live in interesting times. Take a SCHOOL, remove the s..h and you have a COOL. Take a COOL, remove the O and you have a Col.

The recent introduction into our schooling system of both COOLs and COLs is an interesting development. The first is about a different educational entity in the system which will challenge the conventional school while the second is about relationships between schools that will lead to greater effectiveness achieved through grouping schools in a region or, in some areas, through bringing together a faith-based group or a group of high decile schools which is also a faith-based group in a kind of way.

These developments point to two things – that the Government wishes to loosen the grip conventional schools have on schooling by creating COOLs – schools of choice for students who wish to pursue their schooling in ways that allow them to use their time differently. They can access school learning on-line at times that suit them rather than those of the regimented school bell system in the School Office. This will suit those whose talents are such that they wish to pursue a future in music, sports, and other areas of endeavour which are best pursued in daylight.

If you look at developments since 2009 there is a theme that emerges and that is a realization that the one-way approach that New Zealand had fallen into over the previous thirty years was being challenged. Staying in a conventional comprehensive high school for five years was not the best choice for all and it was becoming clearer that it had contributed to significant disengagement and static achievement outcomes.

Soon after the MIT Tertiary High School broke the mould and achieved the necessary changes to the Education Act, trades academies came along. Again, that theme – students got the message that some of your time in school could with profit be used elsewhere. Later, Youth Guarantee places in ITPs were offered and challenged the monopoly that the school system had in the area of free education. It had long been wrong that students could stay in school and pass or fail without question but a student who wished to leave school at the legal school leaving age had to start paying for that education. NZ was the only country in the OECD that had this quirky anomaly.

Around this time, a book was published in Canada called “The Comprehensive School is Dead!”. This was a slightly optimistic assertion but the prevailing wind was suggesting that an education system characterized by choice, flexibility and multiple pathways was more like to be a system that would meet their needs of a wider group of students. It has taken a long time to get out of the comprehensive rut but pleasing signs are developing that working differently produces different results. You don’t have to be Einstein to know this a – although it was Einstein who warned us – if we do the same we will get the same.

It will be interesting to see what develops but the COLs are seemingly well under way and, despite the rhetoric of the past 40 years which saw schools compete with each other one way or another, it is encouraging that schools are discovering that there are some clear advantages in cooperating.

Collaboration is tastier of course when sweetened with a little dash of cash! But more importantly it is encouraging relationships across the Berlin Walls that are called sectors (and both in Berlin, during the cold war, and in Education). There are two COLs that I am aware of that include primary, secondary, and tertiary providers.

I am told that approximately 17,200 secondary school students are doing some and, in at least one institution, all of their secondary schooling in a place other than a school. It is a little early to be welcoming the dawning of a new era but we should recognize that the signs are positive.

An Invitation to a Conference

You are invited to attend New Zealand’s leading Conference on Pathways and Transitions in New Zealand – Te Ara Whakamana : the 8th International Symposium on this important area in New Zealand education – offering options for students, leading students on to positive pathways to great futures.

For more information follow these links:

Homepage: https://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/tearawhakamana2017

Programme: https://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/sites/default/files/taw-programme-2017.pdf

Registration: https://shop.akoaotearoa.ac.nz/TAW17
Te Ara Whakamana 2017 MIT Manukau Campus Manukau Central
4 – 5 September 2017
Manukau Institute of Technology      Ako Aotearoa       Industry Training Fed.

 

Suffer the little children to come unto school

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

21 June 2017

 

The latest Education Review (Vol. 8, Issue 3, 2017) has a most interesting article from Dr John Boereboom addressing the issue raised in the recent Education Update Amendment Bill: What is the Best Age for Starting School?

The move towards cohort entry (that is when groups of around 5 year olds will all arrive at school on the same day rather than the current practice of starting on or close to their fifth birthday) must surely be questionable.

Boereboom notes that the policy will in all likelihood be popular and adopted by many primary schools. The perceived benefits to schools, the simplification of the enrolment process, the increased ease of planning programmes is put forward and I think he is right.  But…. Here we go again on change that is premised not on what is best for the student but what is best for grown-ups running the school.

The evidence for starting school early is fairly neutral but there is a bias in towardsthe negative side. So in reality there is no compelling reason for current practice to change.

It simply must be easier to introduce one child at a time into a group where a level of comfort with this strange place called a school has developed and where, in the best new entrant classrooms, there is a developed sense of “welcome into the whanau”, where buddy systems are possible and comfort can be offered to the new arrival appropriately by the more experienced class member. And what an opportunity for learning and development is in these experiences.

It must also be easier for a school to support the parent through that little wrench that we all feel when we leave our little ones on the other side of the school gate for the first time. It seems to signal the start of a process from which parents over time become increasingly estranged from the process of schooling. The group-shared anxieties of the change to cohort new-entrant enrolment are on both sides. Remember that when the flock is drafted both the ewes and the lambs are distressed.

But there might be an even more compelling reason to retain current practice. When a four-year-old talks excitedly about turning five, a key topic is about “going to school”. “And what will you do there?” Grandparent asks to which the little new student responds along the lines of “I am going to learn to read and write.” And we return the enthusiasm with a promise that of you come to school regularly, are a good little person and try your best, that is exactly what will happen. Of course, we find that quite a hard task but we give it a go. And admit it, you all have photos of your first day at school, and of your children’s first day at school, and your grandchildren’s first day at school – although this is probably taken in your lounge as the fashion parading of the new uniform is undertaken!

For one day, the day they turn five, a little person is the centre of attention and there is a clear focus on going to school that is probably not equalled in importance until that little person has become a big person and sets off to Graduation Day (18-20 years later) or Going-to- First Job-Day soon after that.

If we remove these rites-of-passage we take away experiences from children and adults that are of great importance.

There is a built-in contradiction in the discussion. As Dr Booreboom tell us: “Clearly the decision as to when to start school is unique.” There is nothing unique about turning up and rolling into school in a “mewling mob of frightened lambs.”

Young students can only succeed as individuals.