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A Treasury of advice

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.6, 20 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The briefing papers prepared for incoming governments by the various ministries in Wellington are a triennial ritual that attempts to strike a tone somewhere between the welcome home of the prodigal child and the stern lecture from Grandpapa delivered to the child about to leave for university in Dunedin.

Those from Treasury are an interesting collection.

Education was centre stage in the Treasury briefing papers of 1987 when an entire bound book was devoted to it. This was the occasion to develop at length the notions that postsecondary education was a private gain and that the rot that had set in to the leaky system was the result of provider capture. Snook (1994) described the Treasury briefing to the incoming government in 1984 as “an amazing document from a department of state, which is supposed to give financial advice to the government. It is a work, not of economics, but of social philosophy.”

Teachers colleges received a going over, state intervention compromised equity and the administration of education was something between inept and serpentine, We all know what happened as a result. A frenzy of reform was unleashed that was unprecedented in the history of education in this country. But did things change really? The papers of 1993 stated that the experience of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms demonstrated just how difficult it can be to make substantial changes in the education sector.

Looking at the Treasury briefing papers between then and now encourages one to believe that there is some truth in this. Recurring themes are clear and repeated every three years. A key one is that the education system is not making the contribution it might to improving New Zealanders’ skills and adaptability (1990). This is expressed variously over time. A responsive and efficient education sector is necessary to improve the skills of the future workforce (1993). There is evidence that many young New Zealanders are leaving school somewhat less skilled than their international counterparts (1999). In 2001 there was the wish that the government should fund courses that that lift the skills of those participating in them. This was a goal greatly to be aspired to but seemingly difficult to achieve.

Another recurring theme was the juxtaposition against this were various expressions of pleasure at increasing participation. The irony of this seemingly passed by the writers of the papers. We now have a clearer view that increasing participation per se is necessary but not in itself sufficient to bring about increased educational outputs (that’s a good Treasury word!). The increases in participation noted in the 1993, 1999 and 2002 are finally put into context as the papers over time start to show a realisation that  those who were disadvantaged continue to be so in spite of what looks like progress in terms of numbers.

The 1996 papers somewhat awkwardly note that socio-economic background, along with innate ability, is a significant influence on educational outcomes for young people.

The papers are not without amusement. In 1993, in a list of “significant risks” they included implementing “Education in the 21st Century”. It was not made clear whether the risk was in implementing it or in not implementing it. This was the report that spelt out the notion of seamlessness and attempted to set up an education system without barriers. We opted for shapeless rather than seamless. Had we really tried to understand the notion of seamlessness we would now have been 15 years into the journey of developing personal pathways, of increasing pathways for students, of getting many more students through to successful outcomes in terms of qualifications and employment.

The papers of 2001 introduced the concern for the 18 to 24 school leaver cohort and noted that participation in this group is not growing. Since then we have come to understand better the phenomenon of disengagement and the growing issues of NEET’s – those not in education, employment or training. In that same year Treasury also noted the importance of early childhood education was critical and that a wise use of resources would be to concentrate on funding children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Current facts would suggest that this advice has not been acted on.

And so we move on to the recently released latest papers, 2008. Old Polonius Treasury adopts the second person giving them a more dramatic tone. The old Treasury themes are there – improving quality of expenditure, increased numbers of degree graduates and looking at the benefit system. When they get into a more derailed policy driven discussion the advice is clear.

In summary, schooling improvement should be achieved by increasing completion rates through a wider variety of options and pathways for senior secondary students who are more actively engaged. More controversial is the promotion of the idea of increased funding for independent schools and removing capacity restraints where schools are popular. Like chickens that eat eggs, once they start doing it is hard to stop them. Treasury officials have had egg on their beaks for a long time on this one.

The papers are stronger when they discuss the Youth Guarantee and the Trades in Schools policies. The need for more responsive and flexible secondary schooling and on identifying and supporting those at risk of disengaging (the word finally appears) is seen as a necessity. It is acknowledged that alternatives to school may be suitable to some students but the outcomes of such alternatives need to be robust.

Treasury is spot on in noting that changes to school funding rules and regulations could encourage partnerships with polytechnics to provide a wider range of vocational training courses. The recommendations in this area are sensible – expanding options for students, retaining schools’ accountability for under-18 year olds, increasing schools’ ability to use other providers while retaining students on their books and getting a greater focus on foundation skills for those students not currently succeeding.

It seems that much of the advice on education over the years contained in Treasury briefing papers, is not acted on. There are some key pointers in this latest set that deserve to be noted and the direction they suggest could, if acted on, save them having to continue to make the same points in 2011, 2014, and 2017.

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