Archive for Primary Education

No! You can’t take that away from me!

In amongst the swirl and the noise created by the suggestion of “Global Funding” and “COOLs” and other things in the Education (Update) Bill currently before the house, a really tragic change is about to be visited upon the school system and yet I hear no cries, of “Stop!” or allegations that the very heart of our traditions are being destroyed. No, just a silent acceptance.

I refer to the proposed change that gives to Boards of Trustees and Principals the right to decree that children reaching the age of 5 years might have to start school at the beginning of the next term rather than on their birthday.

Is nothing sacred?

Since the beginning of history going to school is what you did when you turned five. Any four year old, when asked about the forthcoming birthday, will reply to the question “What happens then?” with a bright and cheerful “I go to school!” “And what will you do when you get there?” the conversation continues. “I will learn to read and write!” is the confident reply from one who has yet to discover that learning is not always a piece of birthday cake!

pic1

Most New Zealand homes have photos of the respective first days at school – nowadays often showing the poor little person in a grotesquely large school uniform that they will “grow into” sometime in the years ahead! My own mother made sure that my twin brother and I had a photo taken – new shirts, new shorts, new sandals, new school bag and a sun hat large enough to camp under.

It was a significant day not just for us but for Mum and our older brothers one of whom still went to the primary school. For one day of the year we were important. And when we got to school we joined a class of other little people but we knew some of them – they were from the neighbourhood. Others had been there a little while and could look after us – they knew the ropes. Miss White the teacher, a tall woman with a big boot on one foot paid special attention to us and the day went well. Actually this was not taken on my first day at school but the day before. This was because we were going to be too busy on the morning of our first day according to Mum.

But so important was this day that Mum, who had something of a feel for events which she would describe as “history” and therefore accuracy was a critical. After the first photo taken on this gloriously sunny February day in Hamilton we had to go and dress up in our wet weather gear in case it was raining on the first day at school!

pic2I always had my twin brother with me so never felt lonely or lost but what a relief it must be when a five-year old first goes to school to have the help of others in the class. Teachers make very effective use of this – “Tommy, will you show Stuart where the toilet is?” Imagine the chaos of a whole room full of newbies, five-years old, all having left their mothers or fathers, milling around wondering what to do, where should they be, and when is “Mum / Dad / Carer / Au Pair” coming back to get me out of here? It will be like a paddock full of lambs after they have had their tails docked and have not yet been reunited with the Mummy Sheep.

Once again, schools are to change their way of working to suit the grown-ups rather than taking account of the needs of the children. Once again we are doing something because Australia has done it – the old let’s-copy-someone-else rather than have the courage to do it our way.

Voltaire once said that “when it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.” Rather than simply promote the change, let’s have some reasons why it is necessary from a five-year old’s point of view to change our tradition of introducing young ones to school on their fifth birthday.

Suffer little child to come unto school

 

I was more than a little shocked to learn the other day that an experiment has started by which little ones at the age of five years are starting school at designated times rather than on their fifth birthday as has been the custom for well over a hundred years. 

This is crazy! The custom and practice of starting school on your fifth birthday has served the country well and, as Voltaire might have commented: “When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.”

No argument to change has been put forward other than the convenience of the adults that work in the school system.

Development psychology has no strong argument that would promote the need for a cohort start rather than the staggered start of the birthday custom.

There is no evidence that starting on your fifth birthday is detrimental to progress.

All in all it is one of those things that simply catch on because in the absence of other ideas doing something about student achievement in the early school years seems better than doing nothing.

Whether a five year old is “ready” for school is largely the result of the experiences the child has in the environment in which they are raised. The uncritical acceptance of any pre-school experience rather than none as being enough cannot be sustained. Students are stretching out in their development right from birth. And research has shown over the years that young children have five universal needs:

 

  •          the benefits of sound nutrition, good clothing and shelter, economic security preventative physical and mental health services and appropriate education experiences;
  •          strong nurturing relationships among family, community and each other;
  •          opportunities to develop skills and talents and alongside this early identification of and response to specific and individual learning needs;
  •          a safe environment free of violence and discrimination;
  •          a community that heals our little ones when they are damaged through omission or harmed through neglect or violence.

 

Now this takes a huge community effort – it can’t be achieved by people working on their own, cope with varying degrees of pressure and disadvantage and it starts when little ones are born and doesn’t stop for many years. But still we continue to surround the 0-5 and early schooling with claims that are largely myths. Learning happens only in school – myth. There is within each child a condition of “readiness”[1] – myth. Whatever “readiness” is, it can be measured and be measured easily – myth. Give students a little more time and they will come right – myth. Children are ready for school when they can sit quietly at a desk and listen – myth. 

The real danger that lies in the shift to a five-year-old cohort starting at two designated dates in a school year is simply to load the burden of a feature that thwarts student progress through schooling – the lock-step age related cohort that underpins the organization of schools. The fact that five year olds reflect a wide range of development, of skills and or preparedness is not something peculiar to five year olds. It is true also of most students.

But still the machine grinds on. Students present themselves on the parade ground on a specific day to be marshalled into little pedagogic platoons to be marched off to do whatever daily orders demand. “Today we have the naming of parts…”

The challenge to schools is to introduce increased flexibility so that students can move at a pace that reflects their needs and progress. Teachers have to cope with up to thirty students each at their own particular spot in the educational journey. To think otherwise is simply a little self-delusion practiced in order to maintain current structures.

To now introduce that one size fits all over the top of a group of five year olds beggars belief. When a five year old started school on or near their birthday they were special, welcomed into school by excellent teachers who eased the experience into something that was generally exciting and smooth. Where there was upset it was handled with sensitivity. Imagine a teacher coping with a room full of such little lambs bleating, nervous, disoriented.

It seems cruel to me! Is this yet another change that will catch on for no obvious reason?



[1]A useful discussion of readiness to start school can be found in Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, High, Pamela C. (2008) http://www.rorlosangeles.org/pdf/Pediatrics_School_Readiness.pdf

Party at Hekia’s Place – BYOE Bring Your Own Excellence along

It looks as if 2014 is shaping up to be somewhat unusual for education in New Zealand – three key developments are happening.

In March a set of Education Festivals will be held in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Developed by Cognition Education and with the four key themes of COLLABORATION, INNOVATION, COHESION and CELEBRATION.   The festivals are co-ordinated by Cognition Education with the support of the Ministry of Education and will coincide with the 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession, jointly hosted by the OECD, Education International and New Zealand through the MOE.

The festivals focused on two key dimensions, the performance of students, teachers, schools and institutions in our community and the proud record New Zealand has inspired improved educational achievement in other countries by sharing our expertise and systems.

The press education receives is generally at best miserable and at times plain negative. I have frequently pointed out that the profession too often contributes to this. Here is a golden opportunity for education to put on its best clothes and strut its stuff in public and rather then spout clichés  about a “world class education system” , to allow the outcomes of the work of schools and other education providers be seen and enjoyed by a wider community. Let the work and skills of our students be the push for the excellent brew that comes out in most schools.

An added opportunity is to be able to do this while an international community of educators is here as our guest – a chance not only to show and teach but also to listen and to learn. The participating countries at the 4th International Summit are the top 20 education systems as measured by the PISA  results and the five fastest improvers.

This is a unique opportunity for New Zealand to learn and to gain insights into how we can match achievement data with greatly improved equity measures.  Both the festival and the summit will allow us to share insights with others and to learn from the insights of others. This is not a bragging contest but potentially could be a fine week for education n New Zealand.

The Minister of Education Hon Hekia Parata is behind both of these initiatives and her leadership deserves strong support from the sector and from all levels within the sector.

The third element that could lift the image of education in New Zealand is the announcement, also from Minister Parata, of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards to be introduced for 2014. The tertiary education sector has had just such a set of awards for about 10 years and they have been markedly successful under the astute leadership of Ako Aotearoa.

This new set of awards will focus on early childhood education, primary and secondary schooling and collaboration between secondary schools, tertiary providers and employers. This last award – collaboration – is particularly pleasing coming at a time when it is emerging that pathways between sectors will be a critical feature of the new environment that will allow us to address equity.

Ands that brings us back to the festival and the summit. We need to see these three developments as a set of tools that the education system can use to create a better education sector, one characterised by collaboration, by clear evidence of excellence and by a commitment to improved equity of outcomes. We will do this in part by seeing collaboration (bringing the fragmented sector together for the festival) and celebrating (excellence in teaching through the awards) as necessary to lifting our game. Necessary but not in themselves sufficient – long term change will require us to make a habit of collaboration and celebration.

In summary:

  •          Festivals of Education  – Auckland (21-23 March 2014), Wellington (29 March 2014) and Christchurch (23 March 2014)
  •          The 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession – March 2014 
  •          Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards – entries close 31 March 2014

Roll on March I say.

 

 

There’s more than one way to reach the stars!

Rather than let off a few sky rockets on yet another silly day we remember, hard on the heels of that even sillier day called Halloween, I thought I would throw a few ideas up in the air as we head towards the end of the year. These are called game-changers. They would lift educational performance in New Zealand. We have known most of these for a long time but other things get in the way. On Thursday I will give a complementary list of show-stoppers.

Principals of secondary schools are welcome to use these lists as they put the final touches to their prize-giving addresses.

The “Game Changers” List

1. Access to early childhood education

It astounds me that in this rich country we still have uneven distribution of opportunity for early childhood education. I do not need to repeat the evidence, it is over whelming. And the lack of equity in the area is hidden by two factors – quirky gatherings of information about actual participation (likely to be lower than reported) and the evening out of statistics into regional and national figures.

A stark statistic: In the Tamaki suburb in Auckland there are 7,000 youngsters under the age of five and there are 2,000early childhood education places.

A quick but excellent fix: In areas of low participation, add an early childhood facility to each primary school – same Board, same management, shared outdoor facilities, great savings. Best of all, it would be goodbye to the entangling bureaucracy that surrounds the development of conventional centres.

2 Greater attention to basic skills in primary schools

I might be naïve but it is bizarre that in the country that led the world not only in reading performance but also in the teaching of reading that so many children fail to reach a safe standard in the eight years of primary schooling. The same can be said of mathematics (sometimes called numeracy). Add to the list the development of knowledge, social skills, preparedness for further education, and exposure to arts and practical skills all in a context of new technologies and you would have not only an interesting programme but one which didn’t place so many students on a trajectory of failure.

A stark fact: Students show a decline in learning in key areas between Year 4 and Year 8.

A quick but excellent fix: Demand that primary schools do less but that they do it to higher standards. The foundation skills are taught in primary schools. Isn’t it ironic that the term “foundation skills” has been transferred to the first several years of post-secondary education and training for those who have failed to accrue such skills and this is clearly too late.

3. See a clear distinction between junior and senior secondary schools.

Education systems that we admire and would wish to emulate invariably have a clear distinction between what is in New Zealand Year 10 and Year 11. The first two years of high school are years of finishing off the processes started in primary school and the preparation for discipline focussed study that is in a context of future employment. Years 11 and 13 in these overseas systems are clearly differentiated with the availability of clear vocational technical opportunities emerging to complement the university track (which is working well in New Zealand). In other words, young students have choices about their futures.

Another shared feature is that at that age students are credited with much greater maturity but also supported to a much greater degree. The style and organisation of schooling is more akin to a tertiary institution than to the primary schools from which the secondary schools evolved.

A stark statistic: By age 16 years 21% of 16 year olds have dropped out of New Zealand schooling system.

A quick but excellent fix:  Sorry folks, but there isn’t one. This area is where the most comprehensive reforms are needed. Put simply, apart from the track to university, the New Zealand senior secondary school is broken. That style of education no longer suits too many of our young people. Don’t despair – we share this with our sibling systems in Australia, the United States, the UK and most of Canada. WE need to look elsewhere for evidence of what works and then craft our own responses for our particular circumstances.

4 Cement the output of graduates from tertiary education to employment.

There needs to be a clear line of sight between tertiary programmes and employment. I know that the universities resist any such notion – I have been told by those who know that such a connection is not helpful – “We do not train people, we educate them.” Just think of it, all those untrained doctors, ophthalmologists, engineers, lawyers – what rubbish such a claim is.  And in light of the unrelenting marketing of universities as the place to secure a future, to get high earning powered positions it is simply not sense.

Tertiary education is expensive both for the taxpayer and for the students who are the sons and daughters of taxpayers. They have a right to know that their investment in education at a tertiary level be it at a university, an ITP, a PTE a Wananga or wherever will lead to a job. If a degree in business has prepared you to look after the valet parking desk at the airport (as was a case I came across recently) then it can only be concluded that the programme offered little in the way of access.

A stark statistic:  About one half of those who start a post-secondary qualification actually complete it.

A quick but excellent fix:  it seems as if we are drifting towards a situation where tertiary providers are to be held accountable for the progress into employment of their graduates. If this were applied to all levels and types of tertiary education it might well be a good thing. Of course it would have to be first accepted that a key purpose of post-secondary education and training is to get the appropriate job. This might also require a better connection between demand and supply in the labour market. Consideration of these a matters need to be sped up.

Talk-ED: Change in Auckland without the shake

 

There was a good response from the piece last week about the population changes facing New Zealand as the growth focuses on the Auckland Region. The fact that 38% of New Zealand’s population would be contained in the Auckland region quite clearly has implications for all other regions. I suggested that the changes proposed for Christchurch should be the start of a national discussion on the forms of education and training that are appropriate for the future.

One correspondent thoughtfully asked “And what are the implications for Auckland? Do you think that no changes are called for?” And so, on to Chapter 2…

Quite clearly Auckland will change quite dramatically and the large amount of green field development will see large areas requiring new schools, better transport and increased education provision right through the system. So here are some suggestions.

New early childhood education centres and schools will be required as new communities are developed particularly in the north and the south of the region. It is wishful thinking to believe that this can happen without changes to existing provision. Some schools will close; others will need to get larger; some will merge; and so on. It will be Christchurch come to Auckland albeit a much gentler shake-up.

As increased interest in the schooling sector starts to promote the notions of different ways of working, of a multiple pathways approach to senior secondary schooling, of increased growth of secondary / tertiary interface programmes and other new ways of working, the face of the secondary school system will inevitably alter. Auckland has recently seen the building of Junior and Senior High Schools without any overall view as to the role of such institutions and the impact of this development on the wider system.

So how will Auckland change in its education provision?

For a start, it is expensive to provide great increases in university places. I suggest that the Epsom and Tamaki campuses of the University of Auckland be converted into “community colleges” taking students from Year 13 and combining it with the first one or two years of an undergraduate degree. This would create space in secondary schools and at the university where the impact of such a move on undergraduate / postgraduate ratios would be advantageous. Equitable provision would probably demand that such a community college be established in the north of the city as well.

Polytechnic provision. Given the fact that Auckland already has less polytechnic provision than the population demands and the fact that participation in polytechnic education and training is at half the level of the national rates, this sector is one in which large growth can be expected. This should be planned growth rather than reactive provision which always runs after demand and never quite gets there. There is probably a good case for another large polytechnic to be created in Auckland or it could be a major new campus within a federal relationship with either or both of the two existing polytechnics.

A clear emphasis on growth of provision in Auckland must be on trades and technical areas (Disclosure: I work in a polytechnic) but this is essential for the skills levels of in both Auckland and the rest of New Zealand. The skill base needed to maintain industries and infrastructure and to cope with extraordinary demands such as is currently evident in the Christchurch Rebuild, the Leaky Building Response and the sheer size of the demand for new housing in Auckland. A significant portion of these new skills will have to come from Auckland. Therefore, look to see an increase in programmes such as those currently under the banner of the Youth Guarantee policy, look to see an increase in early access to vocational education and training, look to see young people get traction from Vocational Pathways and so on.

In short, we are facing a major repositioning of education especially in the senior secondary school and that will inevitably be the basis on which new secondary schools and other kinds of education and training provision that will be developed in response to the new demands.

You can be sure that Auckland will face changes that are dramatically more significant than those elsewhere which will be typified by a need to cope with declining demand across the education system.

Sensible management of the education system will seek to maintain universities at a viable and productive size throughout New Zealand so that will be one area where Auckland students might just have to travel to access university education if they fail to secure a place in an Auckland institution. And that is not such a bad thing.

We are talking about these major changes being required within 30 years. The discussion must start now.

 

 

Pathways-ED: The crusty issue of hungry students

 

We used to talk about a hunger for learning and a thirst for knowledge. Now it seems we mostly just talk about hunger.

Children cannot learn if they are hungry – we have heard this shibboleth for a long time now but it has never acquired a status of being any more than an assumption. Now along comes a research study that finds that when the assumption is tested it is found to be less than robust. Or put more strongly, there is no evidence that children who are hungry cannot learn.

If, indeed, you believe that learning is not possible if you are hungry then you dismiss learning as being out of reach for quite a proportion of the world.

On the other hand if by “hungry” you mean “didn’t have breakfast” then that is a different matter. I know of middle class young people who do not have breakfast – they learn and they survive in schools.

Now we need to be clear that the multiple factors of disadvantage that characterise poverty will certainly act against a child’s learning. Poor health, bad nutrition, damp housing, over-crowded living conditions, low or no regular family income, all these factors will impact on a child. But these go far beyond being hungry.

A lot of education systems do something about this systemic issue.

In Finland all students of all ages in the education system get not only free health care but also a free lunch. They are about the same size as we are and they spend about the same amount on education. We envy their levels of achievement so anything they do should be thought about carefully.

In the USA most states have a free lunch programme that is means tested one way or another. Of course that will raise cries of stigmatisation through identification of those with need but those arguments are generally coming from well-fed adults.

Similarly, in the UK, children qualify for school lunches and in fact the school lunches and the “dinner ladies” have long been a tradition. A positive relationship with a dinner lady really helped one of my sons settle into an English school. But it is also in the UK that arguments have broken out about the quality of the school lunches provided by parents.

Jamie Oliver even has a “school lunch manifesto”.

“As many of you know I released my new school food manifesto this week outlining my concerns for school food in England today and the actions I think need to be taken by government to ensure our kids continue to get the great all round food education they need to feed themselves better in the future and to help reduce the crippling rise in obesity. I have been overwhelmed and delighted by the support I have received from you guys out there for the manifesto. So thanks and big love to my fellow school food campaigners, school caterers, the press and the general public…. the fight continues…..”  All good stuff for the ratings.

A Chicago principal had her own campaign and banned lunches being brought to school by students on the grounds that they were of such poor quality. Students either bought their lunch at the school dining facility or they went hungry. It is reported that quite a few choose hunger over the school-provided option. Of course some of those students might simply have no money and this is the critical issue. If providing a nourishing meal for a young person (it could be breakfast or lunch) is beyond a family then we all own an issue that needs to be addressed.

When I went to school (fade in the violin music) we received a plethora of health checks and we received a half-pint bottle of milk each day. Such events were sometimes enjoyed and sometimes endured.

One thing New Zealand is good at is producing food. Might not the government consider a social investment contract with food producers to supply/provide a small percentage of their production for use in schools for all New Zealanders. This would apply to the basics mostly – surely a baker could put one out of every hundred loaves aside for the schools. It might well be possible, would take a little organising and would achieve what is needed.

I recall when I went to school that we would sit under the trees to eat our lunch. We had lunch boxes but many didn’t. One group of kids brought their jam sandwiches to school wrapped in newspaper. Having written that I am wondering whether that really happened or am I confusing my own experiences with those of Kezia in Mansfield’s The Dolls House.

It’s  funny how memory can sometimes confuse fact and fiction but that also happens in many education discussions, none more so than this school hunger / breakfast / lunch business.

 

Pathways-ED: Accentuate the positive!

 

There is something a little misleading when arguments are conducted mostly in the negative. A recent educationalist from Finland visited the country and most of the media coverage appeared to be a list of things not to do. It was a catalogue of things that were familiar to us.

Don’t have a national testing regime, don’t consider differential pay for performance and so on. They constituted a list that fitted neatly into the predilection of those who argue for no change.

What would have been instructive would have been the challenges that the Finnish experience poses to the New Zealand current way of working. Here is a little list of things that Finland has done and which the same educationalist is enthusiastic about:

  1.     provide free lunches to every child in school;
  2.     unify the Year 1-10 into one sector with shades of difference rather than wholesale difference between the first 7 years and the last three years;
  3.     introduce a clearly differentiated set of pathways at the Year 10-13 level that includes access to technical and vocational pathways;
  4.     treat young adults like adults rather than the young – the upper secondary school allow for student choice, are not based on age related cohorts, students choose courses rather than subjects and so on;
  5.     make a Masters level degree the basic teaching qualification at all levels;
  6.     require regular upgrading of qualifications of teachers;
  7.     make teaching a high-appeal career – 10% of applicants are selected (compared to 42% in New Zealand) and teachers are held in higher esteem that doctors by the public;
  8.     cluster schools and allow a lot of local independence in each school;
  9.     all tuition right up to university qualification is free;
  10.    there is only one teachers organisation that covers the total spectrum from pre-school through to higher education.

All of this requires a vision and a level of professionalism that we have yet to achieve. Especially in the matter of social justice and equity. The Finns believe that learning about and within a mixed social environment is a key contributor to one of the major outcomes of education – a society that is just, fair and balanced in its respect between people and the way it treats special need and disadvantage. Schools therefore are planned to be mixed to something of the same degree.

The result of this appears to have been a key to producing the smallest difference between schools in the OECD without detracting from and perhaps actually being a key contributor to Finland’s high PISA ranking. Meanwhile we continue to wear decile ratings as either a mark of honour or a badge of shame greatly to the detriment of one end of the range and consequently we have one of the biggest gaps between schools. In dropping decile ranking in its reports, is ERO giving a message to us all?

To return to the nature of what we call the senior secondary school years – Years 11-13. In Finland the Years 11 -13 are based on courses that last about six weeks. Students choose the courses they want on the basis of their pathway plan (each student has a personal careers advice / information /guidance / education allowance). Systems of co-requisites and prerequisites give longitudinal coherence to study without compromising the choice element.

In this tertiary style approach, Finnish students are required to complete 70 courses in the three years. Most students study more than the minimum and many achieve around 90 courses successfully completed. Meanwhile we struggle to get many students up to the minimum.

While the teacher education results in the Masters level qualification required for teaching at all levels and while those courses have quite a degree of shared content, there is a slightly different emphasis in what appears to be three slices – the pre-school / early years, the middle years of the “community school” and the upper levels of that school. But the shared level of course content that all have allows for flexibility.

Finally,there is the question of hunger – does New Zealand have the hunger to do the things that need to be addressed to lift our world rating and to move our education system into the ranks of systems with equitable results? Finland clearly did but we need to take a good hard look at ourselves.

The public discourse is all about what NOT to do with very little focus on changes that need to be made. In this respect the discourse is timid and negative. Let’s get rid of the fear of ideas and have much more talk about what we might do. It has become a cliche that to continue to do the same things but expect different results is a clinical sign of madness. The evidence suggests that change is needed, big change, and fast.

When visitors come to New Zealand we should exhaust every last idea they have which might inform or excite us rather than simply seek support for digging our collective toes in.