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Month: April 2009

Unpacking boxes, finding memories

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.15, 24 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

I have just shifted house and have come to realise that the act of unpacking has something of the excitement of an archaeological dig about it as layers of items are revealed, the tissue paper gently put aside, the bubble wrap giving a distended glimpse of whatever is inside.

Many more, than I might have realised, of the bits and pieces that were dragged across the suburb had an education link and this surprised me. Foremost amongst these was the sigle seater kauri school desk. It is over 100 years old and was recently restored in a most caring way that would have found approbation on The Antiques Roadshow.

“This is a most splendid example of the New Zealand school desk from the late Habens or possibly early Hogben era. Tell me, did you use this type of desk yourself?” “Well actually only in Standard 3 and 4 where we had the double seater model.” Ah yes, that was a later innovation. I adore the patination of the desk, the delicious ink drops around the inkwell. And this is what sends shivers down my spine – an original white ceramic inkwell. Thank you so much for bringing it along. The problem is that it doesn’t easily fit in the new place!

Not like the rimu teachers desk that I got for the new study, that fits, but only just! It has the same ink stains. I remember being chosen to go around the classroom with the large bottle of Stephens Ink with the little pourer at the top of the neck. It was with great power that each inkwell would be filled. The desk has an upstand around the front that always faced the class and approaching the desk, especially if summoned, had all the solemnity of Judge Judy – “Please approach the bench!” But it is a grand teacher’s desk.

Packing up was full of surprises. I came across an aged brown paper bag that had treasures of school in it. The items given to us when Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1953 – a medal with a blue ribbon and a fold out concertina-picture of the state coach – were especially fun. So too were some secondary school artefacts – the sergeant’s stripes from the school cadets.

Let me make clear that I gained these stripes while playing in the school band. At the start of the school year all the boys in the school were lined up on the field in order of height so as to make up platoons of boy-soldiers that looked good on parade. My brother and I were second and third from the end. A tiny little fellow was at the end. Well we were placed in the last platoon – tiny soldiers too small to carry a gun! It was either this humiliation or joining the band and eventually making the level of the three stripes – no, not adidas!

Finding each little memento triggered memories and stories, some told truthfully, others embroidered by time’s multicoloured threads.

Then there were the boxes of the kids stuff – her three girls and my two boys. Why do girls save old school uniforms? And school magazines while boys save little that their father hasn’t thought to put aside. One box had all the school reports from father and two sons. I can say confidently and on the strength of this robust sample that reporting improved dramatically between the 1950’s and the 1980’s. The only example of my own school work that I appear to have kept is a Camp Diary written for a Form 1 camp in 1957. I must say that if I was in my own class 15 years later I would have been repeating much of the work – it was pretty unformed in every sense of that word, scrappy and untidy. I assume the ticks on each page meant to indicate that it has been sighted.

What worries me a little is that I have yet to find the box with the various collections (well that is rather a grand word for it) of school journals, reading series, Biggles and The Hardy Boys. They must be here somewhere waiting their turn.

School Journals were an amazing feature of New Zealand schools and provided generations of little readers with little readers to cherish and, proudly, to take home for reading each night. Often this was done in a little cardboard folder carefully made and decorated (crayon and dye again!). Little readers had access to the work of such writers as Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, Elsie Locke, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy who published her first work in a School Journal. Poets such as Alistair Campbell and James K. Baxter were presented alongside playwright Roger Hall and writers Jack Lasenby and Anthony Alpers and artists Roy Cowan and Juliet Peter and E Mervyn Taylor. Children were allowed to read the best of those who wrote and illustrated. What a goldmine it was.

And there is a copy of a Broadcast to School booklet – just like a School Journal but printed to go with the regular broadcasts to school – remember when the loud speakers were vehicles for the delights of music and singing and the spoken voice rather than the squawking purveying of messages and admonitions from those who must be heard despite not being seen?

The last treasure I come across is an old book, a copy of The Education System by A G Butchers published by the National printing Co. Ltd. of Auckland in 1932. Butchers earlier wrote another book called After Standard IV., What? and here we are in 2008 still asking what is essentially the same question. I often dip into this book to remind me that education is a profession of tradition and nowhere more so than in the issue it grapples with. Butchers deals with the hot topics of the day – assessment, funding, control, the structure of the system, how to keep kids in school, and many more.

It’s a bit like shifting houses – we still get up in the morning, go to school and come home at night. What takes so long to put stuff in cartons and to take them out again are the many little journeys of remembering that it all unpacks.

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A question of fillings

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.14, 17 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Reforms and cucumber sandwiches are all about the bit in the middle.

A cucumber sandwich without the cucumber in the middle tends to leave those eating them feeling that somehow this all might have been better. But you can’t blame the sandwich – someone did this.

It is often the same with reforms. It is not that the reform is wrong or has faults but rather what people have done to them. You see, the issue is not what reforms do to people but what people do to reforms and this is where the bit in the middle is important.

The Tomorrow’s Schools Reforms as they have come to be called were based on a radical change that saw on the one hand, schools and on the other, and in a direct relationship to it, the crown (for that read government). This seemed a huge and distant relationship to manage. But there were bits in the middle that were designed to make it work. Education Service Centres would be established that would focus on the needs of a smaller cluster of schools and help them manage that relationship.

Community Education Forums would be established that would allow wider communities to have their say, to express views about the bigger educational issues and maintain a place in education that was beyond the gates of the school their children went to.

But both of these bits in the middle were abandoned – the critical mechanisms for gluing the schools to the government were never put there.

Then there is the case of the qualifications reforms.  Changes proposed on the basis of a Qualification Framework that would provide a common currency of qualification recognition and value regardless of the institution or level. Each qualification in New Zealand would be mediated by its place on the framework which would explain to employers, caregivers, and grandparents just where a qualification was in terms of level and scale.

But it took so long for the framework to get traction that when it seemed finally to emerge everyone had moved on to other things and qualifications in New Zealand, rather than being seen as a tidy and methodical set, continue to be questioned and challenged. Again that bit in the middle.

A more recent example of the middle phenomenon is the demolition of the stakeholder engagement section of the Tertiary Education Commission. Perhaps some of the rhetoric that surrounded this group was a bit out of synch with reality but there was, in the dual role approach of the members of the team, some valuable functions which we have yet to be assured will not simply disappear. For instance, among these tasks was the frontline concern for Pasifika in the Auckland region. Auckland is by far the largest concentration of Pacific students in tertiary education in the world and it made sense to have someone with a designated concern for Pasifika to be there on the ground in the region. It is a question of voice.

But no, the bit in the middle must go.

Finally there is that Royal Commission on the Governance of Auckland. First look seemed to be positive – the Government in Wellington, six Councils in the region and then Community Boards for the local communities. So guess what the first casualties were – the bit in the middle!

The abandonment of the concept of local councils leaves us ripe for a replay of the Tomorrow’s School business where for over 15 years, low decile communities and their schools struggled to get the fair deal that seemed to come as of right to more middle class areas. Communitiy Boards – perhaps as many as thirty – are unlikely to have an equal voice or even speak the same language both metaphorically and actually.

Despite the cries over the decision to do away with Councils, no-one is proposing a return to the borough councils of old. Just as no-one cried out in defence of the Education Boards. Or the myriad qualification and accreditation bodies that once existed. People welcome change but would it not be a good thing to make change comprehensive and complete. And why ask Picot and his group, Hawke and his group, Salmon and his group to think it all through and then set out to build only part of the plan.

At the head of the Whanganui River, at Maungapurua, is a very splendid bridge built in the 1930’s when it looked as if the community of farmers in that region would grow. But it didn’t and they walked off the land. The contractor pointed out that this bridge might not served the purpose for which it was intended anyway as it is in a fiendishly difficult location. Would it be OK if he didn’t go ahead?

No, the wisdom of the bureaucrat prevailed, the contract had been signed and the bridge must be built. It was. And to this day there is no road that leads to the bridge and no road that leads away from it. Nothing wrong with the bridge, but even the bit in the middle is no good on its own.

New Zealand as a country seems to feel that implementing some of the recommendations or proposals that seek to bring about a reform is as good as going the whole hog so to speak. But often when this happens we are left coping with reform that offers upheaval but little of the anticipated improvements. I used to think of this as a peculiar ailment of education but perhaps it is more a part of our general national psyche – we are a nation of tinkerers.

We are also quite properly cautious. After all, we wouldn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Never mind that in failing to attend to structural reform (the gaps in Tomorrow’s Schools, the qualification framework, the truncated implementation of the Royal Commission and so on0 we end up tossing out the bath and then struggle with both the baby and the bathwater.

Never mind, pass the cucumber sandwiches. Oh all right then – a piece of bread will be OK.

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Zoning out

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.13, 10 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Taken at face value, reports that current arrangements for zoning are preventing students enrolling at the secondary school attended by their mother or father suggest that it is time to look at zoning again.

A key role for schools is to serve the community and this can be interpreted in terms of geography, a physical local zone, or in a variety of other ways. The communities that cluster around different sets of religious views are well served by their particular schools – Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish, conservative, evangelical and so on. Those with specific views on education can opt for Montesorri or a range of other schools with different ways of working.

Different ethnic groups are catered for through nga kura kaupapa Maori, or Muslim schools, or Pacific Island language nests and other kinds of schools.

But it seems that wanting to attend the state school your father or mother went to will not be a reason to allow the school to give preference to that child rather than another who also comes from out of the zone. This seems daft.

Having spent time at Berkeley a little while ago I was greatly impressed by the Homecoming Weekend when families – two or three generations of them – return to their alma mater to celebrate the connection of schooling that gives the family members something special to share. And so too could it be with some of our schools that over many generations have educated different generations of the same family.

Of course it is a simple thing to correct – this strange business. The rules of school zoning need to allow for a next generation student to be enrolled thus reducing the number of out-of-zone places to go into the ballot by one. Would this be too hard?

The argument that having some schools well over-subscribed while others have space is wasteful is a good one. We don’t want that. So school rolls should be tightly regulated to make effective use of the state’s resources. Independent schools can do as they like – that is a straight business decision for them. But state resources should be managed well.

Perhaps a solution is to create another category of student – son or daughter of former student. As space becomes available at schools, zones can be adjusted to ensure effective use of sites. In this case the rights of siblings to attend the same school would need to be protected.

We have had twenty years of searching for the market that was going to deliver the uplift in quality. We have waited in vain for competition to lift achievement standards. We have been patiently waiting for the system, freed from provider capture,  to relentlessly pursue the private gain of students without any clear change to the profile of success. Education marches on.

The reforms of the late 1980’s attempted to change the business of education into an education business and in so doing turned school zones and the freedoms to enroll students into key strategic factors in the battle for market share. Then the rules were changed and it seemed to settle down. But every now and again the issues rear up. Real Estate agents continue to plug the GZ and add $100,000 to a house that is in it. Understandably there are plenty of people whose concern for their children drives them to make the investment.

But many others have no choice and happily attend their local high school or primary school and do well. But not in the same numbers. It is therefore a little bizarre to hear reports that 20% of students in state schools are from “out of zone”. Several high schools have in excess of 60% out of zone enrolments while many are around 50%. This is surely unwise.

In New Zealand’s largest city education is credited with generating 30% of the daily traffic. How things have changed in a lifetime. Fleets of buses criss-cross the Auckland region delivering young people to schools outside of their part of town.

In the old days (fade in Andre Rieu), we attended local schools, travelled by foot or by bicycle and parents were comfortable in the knowledge that the local school was a good school. There was none of the mobilising of battalions of SUV’s to transport platoons of little soldiers to far off battlefields where the fight against ignorance could be fought. No, it was simple. We packed our school lunch, said goodbye to Mum and set off. To primary it was on foot and our group grew as we called in on successive friends who then joined the trek. To secondary it was on bicycle, wet or fine. Remember the sea of bicycles at each secondary school as recently as the 1970’s?

A review of school zoning has been announced so let’s get back to the basic principles.

All parents should be able to send their children to the local school and be assured that the quality of education is high quality, well resourced and likely to give opportunity for each student to realise their full potential.

  • State school resources should be regulated to maintain maximum use of facilities through regulating the size of schools.
  • School should have some flexibility in accepting sons and daughters of alumni but not at the expense of maintaining a controlled size. 
  • Where schools have special character (single sex, religious orientation, special character and so on) should have some flexibility in enrolments but state schools in this category should operate in an environment in which schools size is regulated.
  • Minimising the impact on traffic in urban settings should be a consideration.

Getting an accurate picture should be more easily achieved now using the unique student identifier and the postcode. But just like much that we do, progress will come only if we want access to educational institutions that is equitable, fair and recognizing the different aspirations of members of the community.

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This sporting life

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.12, 3 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

I love sport. I will watch it on the TV more than I should especially when the mighty Warriors are playing. How blessed we are to have so much sport on TV!

But it is a poor substitute of playing sport. Thank goodness our schools and educational institutions are still interested in sport.

Back at Frankton Primary School we would look forward each week to school sport. Off we would go to Boyes Park in Hamilton to do battle with Whitiora and Hamilton East. And as summer turned to winter we gave up cricket for rugby. The good thing was that we never had our unique skills coached out of us largely because we were never coached. Teams were assembled in those days rather than picked. Taking part was at least as important as playing well. Positions in teams were assigned and not a reflection of skill. I played lock in one of the Frankton Primary rugby teams if you can believe it!

I think the attraction of playing lock was that you got to wear the head gear –a smelly harness of leather and tatty cloth that must have been a sight to see but I tell you, just strapping it under your chin was empowering as they would say now.

In cricket I was even more hopeless except for one day when I perfected a single-finger-across-the-seam spin and got a couple of wickets. I went home to await my call-up to the New Zealand team which had just been bowled all out for 26 by England. The call never came and I went to school the next day.

I wished I hadn’t because half-way through the morning a teacher poked his face around the classroom door and said “I hear you have a pretty mean single finger spin, Middleton.” My face was redder than a Kookaburra.

At intermediate I was able to get into soccer at long last – my older brother had played for some time. I loved it and it was no surprise that when I went to high school that was my sport. Arthur Leong was the coach – he was selected for New Zealand and was an inspiration. He got us into club soccer – Hamilton Tech Old Boys – winner of the Chatham Cup in 1962 (the greatest day in New Zealand sport!!!). I was not in the team.

At secondary school I played tennis as well and I don’t think I was very good because the only thing I remember about it was walking across the Hamilton Railway Bridge on the way to Saturday morning tennis to meet a mate in the team to be told that John F. Kennedy jr. had been shot! I lost that day!

So on to university and those famous tournaments. From what I remember, and that is not a lot to be honest, I lost comprehensively in every game. In fact, in one game the opposition, having studied my form, asked if it was all right if he played with his track suit on!

Gradually one gives up sport although I should mention my career as an archer. My son had taken up field archery and was pretty good. So rather than spend all day in isolated forests I became a barebow archer. Lots of fun. It is with great humility that I admit to being runner-up for the 1993 Pacific Field Archery Barebow Mens title. OK, there were only two of us in that division and the points were 1320 first and 567 second. But that didn’t diminish the thrill of the silver jingling around the neck.

So it was on the basis of those recollections that I applauded the commitment of Minister of Sport Murray McCully to the promotion of sport in primary schools. That is where it begins. Schools are central to sport in New Zealand and any government that recognises this is on to a winner – literally.

If we are serious about sporting success then we have to be serious about the success of sport in schools. Getting kids involved is more important than worrying about the preciousness of quality coaching until about the age of 12. Then it should start to get serious for those who exhibit superior skill and potential. And any funding regime that ignores the pool of talent in the Counties Manukau region simply doesn’t know that if you want to buy good fish you go to a fish shop!

Secondary schools are critical and SPARC would be better to focus on this amazing pool of talent if it is really serious about elite performance. But regions such as Counties Manukau suffer from underfunding because of the emphasis on programmes. Thank goodness for trusts such as John Walker’s Find Your Field of Dreams in Manukau City. This trust recognizes that mass participation is the base on which elite sporting performance is based and sets out to do something about it.

I think that the days of provincial competition in various sports are finished and that a better format needs to be found. I have no hesitation in promoting the notion of “college sport”. There is much to commend a national sporting competition in different codes (rugby, soccer, netball, hockey, volleyball, basketball and perhaps others) that pits tertiary institutions (the universities and the larger polytechnics) against each other.

In such a competition young people of sporting talent would produce games of high interest and we would be secure in the knowledge that these young people were working towards real qualifications in real areas of achievement. The myth of USA sporting scholarships is just that and so is the mistaken view that USA college sportspeople both get huge payments and are excused academic work.

This is the future of New Zealand sport – linking it more closely to the education system. It is a sound investment getting general commitment to sport in primary school. Building on the specialist skills at secondary school and then giving sport real expression by a national competition that would well and truly capture the imagination of the nation.

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