Archive for Equity

All students are special, but some students have special needs

I think the 21st Century will be characterised by a phenomenon that might be called “condition creep.” This is where a condition starts to be redefined to such an extent that the clearly understood condition becomes obfuscated and the search for a “new” condition begins.

This occurred to me when listening to several speakers on the radio who were talking about the Dyslexia Awareness Week. In the course of this I learned that 45,000 New Zealanders suffer from dyslexia. This seemed rather high to me. But then it became increasingly apparent that the condition was now not simply the impact on reading of some neurological process that sees people confusing letters. It now seemed to apply to a lack of co-ordination, a series of learning difficulties and being a little bit off track in terms of teacher expectation.

I was reminded of the trouble that a UK academic got into a few years ago when he argued that dyslexia was often no more than a description by middle class white that sought to explain why Sally or Charles were having trouble getting the hang of reading or perhaps even being a little slow to pick up maths.

Of course he was wrong and his comments were a disservice to the young and old people who really do have dyslexia – there is no doubt that it exists. But in my time as a teacher of English and all my time working in education, I have to say that the clearly and genuinely dyslexic (in terms of the original definition) seemed to me to be quite small in number.

There is also the puzzling feature that white middle class communities have higher levels of reporting of dyslexia than the poorer areas where there is a significantly increased number of people with literacy issues. One wonders about this!

Some years ago I felt that the same condition creep was occurring with “ADHD” and right now I have to wonder about the spread of “depression”. What is it that makes us want to blur definitions? It can’t be a simple attempt at inclusiveness. Rather it seems to me that it might be a symptom of a community that has a number of people who are asking for help and of people who are seeking explanations by way of labels. In short, what is described as a condition might well in fact be a symptom for something else.

Another strange fact is that high decile schools access special assistance for students with issues when it comes to external assessments more than low decile schools and by quite a margin. The radio report I was referring to earlier noted that 17% of candidates from high decile schools compared to 1.0% of low decile school candidates were recipients of NZQA funded support at assessment time. It takes my mind back to the days when “equity funding” was dished out to institutions on the basis of the total EFTS. How’s that for targeted resource?

No-one sets out to rort the system on the one hand nor to deny a student that to which they are rightfully entitled on the other – but it happens. The swirl around the whole business of “special needs” and the support of students suggests a situation where we might have got something somewhat wrong.

Perhaps we should seek guidance from countries where they get it right?


Just a Spoonful of Sugar makes the lessons go down.

Goodness me, the Treasury caused something of a fluttering of feathers in the dovecote when they questioned the benefits attributed to programmes that provide breakfast or other food in schools. The key statement summed up their view:

Evaluations of school food programmes do not indicate that food in schools programmes are necessarily effective at achieving their intended outcomes. For example, a 2012 Auckland University study found a New Zealand breakfast programme had no statistically significant effect on attendance and no effect on academic achievement or student conduct. These findings on academic achievement and student conduct are consistent with the findings of well-designed international studies on school breakfasts in first world countries. Internationally the majority of studies found that even where breakfast was offered at school, there was no increase in the probability of a child actually eating breakfast

The responses to this were reported under headlines such as “Treasury officials should try working without food!” which shed a lot of light on the issues. I have long said in previous blogs that there is no evidence that hunger impedes learning. Sickness, unsafe environments, deep unhappiness will all impact on the engagement of a student but hunger on its own? No!

Otherwise you exclude a huge number of the world’s young people from learning.

Of course the people who work to take food into school are well intentioned and motivated by a genuine belief that what they are doing is helping. Certainly it might be helping students to feel welcomed at school, the social gains coming from shared consumption of food might well be worthwhile. But, Treasury reminds us, there is as yet no evidence that the students will learn better.

The real danger of adamantly asserting that young people will learn better when they are well-fed opens up an easy position for the apologists of failure who run the argument that these students do not learn because they are hungry. If they do learn better when fed then it has to show in some way and this ought to be capable of measurement.

Then there is the convenience of forgetting that many middle class young people do not have breakfast and this is a lifestyle choice they make. At best many students in many well-off homes have an at best desultory attitude toward the power of Kornies or yoghurt to unleash the brain.

Learning is far too complex to be simply fixed up by a sausage roll or a plate of breakfast food and that is what attention should be paid to. Why after 137 years of providing for universal education do we still have a school system that certainly allows all young people to enter but in no way provides for equitable and successful outcomes. Why do the stubborn statistics of failure still stalk us as they have done for so many decades?

Mary Poppins could get away with promoting a spoonful of sugar but that’s not going to work.

Children fail because of a collocation of factors which together probably are what equates to poverty and if not poverty than certainly to a state of being empoverished. The factors of this conspire to bring poor housing conditions, poor employment opportunities, poor health and access to healthcare, low access to quality early childcare education – the list could go on – all of which on their own could be pushed back but which in consort are a formidable set of hurdles for some families to overcome.

Of course this manifests itself in the classrooms of the country – sometimes in an isolated way and sometimes in a widespread manner. In the latter situation learning is difficult and the spiral of intergeneration failure continues to gather momentum.

So the job is not done simply through the provision of a bit of tucker.



Labour’s Lost Loves

You really have to wonder what’s going on. Here we are, 90 days out from an election and Labour at last releases some of its education policy. It’s a grab bag of unusual ideas at this stage – a copy-cat, a bribe to be good and a return to the scene of the accident.

The Manaiakalani copy of the digital device for all students in Years 5 – 13 is the best of the policies they have announced to this point. But the real challenge is not to see if the idea will work – they have shown that it will in Tamaki. It is not to see if parents and caregivers will stump up – they do in Tamaki.  It is not to see if it has a beneficial impact on achievement – it seems to be worthwhile in Tamaki. The real challenge is to see if an idea that works well within a defined project can actually be scaled up to be the normal way of working across the whole country.

There is no need for them to take this risk. The middle classes, the employed and medium and high earning parents are already giving these advantages to students. Many schools in middle and high decile areas are already asking students to bring devices to school. Again, and this is something of a repeated pattern for Labour, the policy is very poorly targeted. In seeking but not being seen to do something for its bedrock support it sprays the resource across everyone at wide groups of students both vertically (5-13) and horizontally (all schools) and while everyone is slightly better off, the key groups to whom priority should be given remain at a relative disadvantage.

Have they forgotten their classically un-targeted approach taken with the 20 hours free pre-school resource?

Then we have the “We’ll-Pay-You-To-Stop-Acting-Illegally-But-It-Is-OK-For-the-Rich-To-Carry-On-with-Gay-Abandon” Policy related to school donations. Schools that are Decile 1 – 8 will receive $100 per student if they agree to not ask for school donations. Yes, it will help low decile schools, no doubt about it, but remember that they are generally smaller than higher decile schools. And don’t forget that the $100 a student payment will be made to Decile 1 – Decile 7 schools. That is another “spray and walk away” approach to policy. the differences between Decile 1 and Decile 7 are huge, the differences between Decile 7 and Decile 8 are negligible.

The fact remains – demanding school donations is not allowed in neither law nor regulation. But Labour has said in almost conciliatory tones that it will not ask Decile 8 – 10 schools to take part in the scheme. Why would a Decile 10 school of 2,000 students forgo $1.8m in order to show solidarity with the low decile community? And why would a political party dare to take them on as a matter of principle?

I celebrate the extra cash that low deciles schools will get but this approach to deal with a reprehensible practice does not bring credit to those promoting it. Let’s have the financing of a few beers for those who don’t drink and drive, petrol vouchers for those who agree not to flee from the police when asked to stop, Countdown cards for those who agree not to shop lift.

This is bizarre!!!

Then we have the “Lower the Teacher/Student Ratio” policy.  It is almost a case of “Let’s-have-a-policy-that-denies-the-evidence” approach. The evidence is overwhelming – lowering the student/teacher ratio will have a low impact, if any, on student achievement. New Zealand’s pre-eminent researcher John Hattie has provided plenty of evidence that the effect size of lowering teacher / student ratios, especially the negligible -2 students impact of the policy will be not worth the effort. The scuffle with Minister Parata on the question of a couple of years ago saw the system lose some real potential gains (but not in the intermediate schools) and so we have the teacher union and principal associations appeasing policy back on the list.

And how much will this cost? Surprise surprise! About the same as the Government’s “Investing in Educational Success” policy will cost! Actually a key factor that will improve student achievement is the use of our most talented teachers and principals in spreading best practice. Is that not what Labour wants?

Elections are always fraught. Perhaps the issue is whether they are fought or taught!


Two out of three just isn’t good enough!


Universal, secular and free were the concepts that underpinned the establishment of the New Zealand education system in the 1877 Education Act. It was considered to be forward looking in world terms at that time.

The same sentiment was captured in the Beeby / Fraser statement in 1939 which tried to restate the 1877 commitment in a system that was growing quickly and admitting to a greater diversity.

“The Government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their ability, rich or poor, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers. So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system.”

This greater diversity spawned the Thomas Report (1942) which fiddled with the secondary curriculum with regard to School Certificate and later The Currie Commission of 1962, undoubtedly at that time, the most comprehensive review of education since 1877, reinforced the qualities of inclusiveness. Since then a succession of governments have interpreted through policy their own particular bent on what it all meant.

Universal? Well if you put to one side the students who are denied early childhood education and those who drop out of the school system, the system can lay some claim to being universal. So we will give that a pass mark.

Secular? By and large you could say that our schools are secular. Except for the state integrated schools that have permission to be non-secular and a range of schools with special character that reflect different sets of beliefs. It is unclear in the 1877 Act whether ‘secular’ meant ‘free from all religious observance’ or simply ‘non-sectarian’ but that might simply be a construction put on the Act to allow for the use of prayer and the singing of hymns that characterized school assemblies when I went to school. But certainly the system could be said to be secular in as much as the bog-standard school (not private, not state integrated, and not special character) is considered to be not based around or promoting religious practices.

Free? Well this one is the joke. Of course education is not free! Huge amounts of government funding in early childhood education ends up in the hands of business who charge huge amounts to parents for early childhood education. Yes, some get it for free but a large number do not. And the 20 Free Hours give parents some relief in accessing  ECE services but often as a supplement to the other 20 hours that they pay in order to work a 40 hour week.

The school system? Free? Now this issue has really surpassed itself in its annual outing which came later this year then previously. It has become apparent that the differences between compulsory fees (never, of course, called that) in high decile schools runs hugely above that able to be sought as community contributions in low decile schools. Not only that, the attempt of some high decile principals to describe the demands made of parents of primary students as “compensating for the advantageous funding that low decile schools get” should be treated as the joke that it is. Or perhaps it is simply delusion.

Of course, they righteously claim on the one hand that such fees are for activities and not tuition and on the other speak about the importance of a wide curriculum that involves the very same activities. The funding advantage of high decile schools over low decile schools is a very serious attack on the principles of equity and in these practices lie some explanations for the continued stubbornness of some of the statistics of disengagement and student achievement.

If it is appropriate for communities to fund education through direct contributions (school fees / contributions etc) as well as through indirect contribution (income tax) then some level of equitable funding across all schools should be achieved even if it calls for a lowering of the level of funding for high decile schools.

We spend as a country quite enough on education. The issue is not the quantum of funding but rather the use to which it is put.

And have we achieved an education system that is “free”? Not on your life and that is without mentioning post-secondary education – I shall take that up on Thursday!


Terve! Terve! Terve! What’s going on here?


There has been a great gathering of the good in Wellington last week – the International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

Like most international gatherings, the whole affair was choreographed in the interests of giving everyone a fair go at the air-time that was available. This doesn’t always allow for the real issues to emerge as there is an element of chance in the chosen country reports actually having something to say on the designated issue.

And this was the case with the plenary session on equity. Excellence and equity are the themes of the summit and why not.[1]  It is an OECD supported organization and their PISA activity is an instrument that makes explicit the relative performance of education systems in this regard. New Zealand does very poorly on the second of those measures – while high on excellence, it performs poorly on equity.

This is not to say that we don’t care about equity – we do but the path towards lifting performance on that measure is seemingly not becoming clear very quickly and the indicators are stubbornly slow to encourage us. So I looked forward to the afternoon that was to be devoted to a discussion of equity.

What did I learn? Well, that everyone seems to be struggling a little (and in some cases a lot) and the three or four high performers were annoyingly quiet on the issue. The warts are never going to be exposed in a setting of an international summit.

I learned a little more the next morning when walking from the hotel to the venue. I spotted a fellow with the right sort of conference satchel walking along Lambton Quay so I fell into step with him.

“Where are you from?” I enquired. “Finland” he replied. Ah, I thought, the holy mecca for those who seek the way, the truth and the light of equity.

We chatted and I shifted the topic away from the fact that the streets of Wellington appeared to be deserted (it was 8.00am on a Saturday!) and mentioned that I had read Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons, and felt that there were in that book some lessons for New Zealand.

“He was one of my teachers at High School,” my fellow Finnish walker replied exhibiting no relish at all for following up on that opening.

Change of tack. “Of course Finland took a bit of a slide down in the last PISA results,” I offered. We had stopped at a traffic light and he turned to face me. “That is because the students have got so slack.” “Is this perhaps the result of becoming famous for doing so well?” “I don’t know, I think that the parents care more about taking their kids to hockey practice and basketball games instead of seeing that they are doing their homework.”

The lights turned green and I wondered aloud why each of the Scandanavian countries had slid back a little. His instant analysis told me that Norway, it seems, is going to the dogs because it has so much money – he suggested that in a couple of years they would have so much money that they would be able to abolish income tax. There was a tinge of envy in his voice I thought.

By then there was a couple of people walking along the footpath towards us so I was able to comment on how busy Wellington was becoming. Perhaps first thing in the morning is not the right moment to get a conversation going about equity.

And so Day 2 started. First country up was Singapore addressing the question “How are learning environments created that address the needs of all children and young people?” A crisp, clear exposition of Core Values (Respect, Responsibility, Resilience, Integrity, Care, Harmony)  and a clear set of 21st Century Competencies free of the clutter that often surrounds such discussions.

I had the feeling that Singapore understood quite a lot about equity. No wonder they have a picture of a classroom on their $2 note.


[1] Actually, “inclusion and fairness” are also among the themes but I imagine that a non-inclusive and unfair education system is neither excellent nor equitable so I think that is covered!