28 November 2011
“Here we go again…” is sung lustily at one post-election event while at another “The party’s over…” draws towards the mournful exhortation to “send in the clowns…” The election designed to bring New Zealand down from the euphoric Rugby World Cup to the realities of living in the early 21st century has done its job.
Once upon a time we would be offered the chance to vote for “continuation”, “state control” or “prohibition” but that related to alcohol. The election seems to offer us the same choices but now they apply to everything.
And continuation received resounding support with the National Government led by John Key returned with a clear mandate. That is very much what it means for education – a continuation of the key policies that started to get traction for the Government during its first term in office.
The government will continue to seek ways to bring greater focus into the early childhood education area with the intention of increasing access to ECE for some of the communities that currently miss out. This will require a greater emphasis on ECE and a shift of resources that while ostensibly for ECE, are in fact consumed by childcare for those who work. I do not argue that this is not important, simply that it is less important than getting that essential access to two years of quality early childhood education for all students.
At the primary level, teacher unions, principals’ associations and some Boards of Trustees need to seriously question whether they want to continue the battle against National Standards or is it time to get on with meeting the intention of improving reporting on progress in schools and in turn lifting student achievement in primary school education. Goodness knows, we just have to ensure that all students leave primary school with a sound foundation of literacy and numeracy skills. Schools can achieve this for some students, why not for all?
On the way to vote in the election I walked through a primary school area in which there was a row of school gardens. We stopped to look at them. There was a wide range of quality in them. Along came a person who introduced herself as “the garden teacher”. We chatted and I commented that the students might be encouraged to weed the gardens. This led immediately to a too-many-students-only-so-much-time-we-do-our-best response. Same old, same old. Meanwhile the weeds take over some of the gardens and the nourishing plants wilt. Was this a metaphor?
Secondary schools can look forward to a new focus on a secondary version of national standards as part of an emphasis on greater accountability in the secondary school sub-sector. This will not be easy as old arguments will be played out against new ideas. What matters most are the patterns of success and failure, of engagement and disengagement which appear to be so stubborn and concreted in. Time ticks on and change in these patterns is now urgent and sometime soon will shift to crisis. Discussions about raising the age of eligibility for the pension will seem irrelevant in the face of the falls in the standard of living that will be a consequence if we cannot turn the patterns of educational success and engagement around.
It could be that in line with the last couple of EdTalkNZ blogs, some attention will be paid in the next three years to the relationship between the senior secondary school and the postsecondary sector. A clear way forward in addressing the leakage from education is to allow for more flexible and multiple pathways between the conventional curriculum of the school and the opportunities afforded through the postsecondary sector. To more easily achieve this there will need to be some synchronisation of funding approaches between the senior secondary school and the tertiary sector.
New Zealand has the legislative framework in place to allow this to happen. Students in school study postsecondary courses, there can be flexibility in funding, there is a softening of transition points, gradually there develops a little less ownership of young people based on age, more exploitation of the flexibilities of NCEA but we need to work harder on the application of the qualifications framework across transitions and between senior secondary and tertiary. So much of all this is within our grasp if we could develop an appetite to tackle the issues.
The tertiary sector will be expected to get on with whatever it does but within a fairly constrained budget envelope. Universities and Polytechnics will be expected to lead the innovation charge in complementary ways, research in one supported by technology transfer in the other.
Something could well be done about students fees and allowances. While the current system seems to have support from the ideologues, it is essentially a silly system which creates bad debt on the tertiary education balance sheet of a scale that would not for one minute be tolerated in business. There has to be a better way of getting the money directly to the institution and tying that up with performance measures without cycling the cash through the students.
I expect that the two minister approach – one for schools and another for tertiary – will continue for pragmatic reasons and to avoid conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile the students turn up at school this morning, for tertiary examinations and the NCEA exams continue, schools wind down a bit and it all seems quite remote from the events of the weekend.