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Month: May 2009

Governing principles

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.20, 29 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”
Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and writer (1842-1914?), from the Devil’s Dictionary

Governance is constantly being challenged in New Zealand. The series of business failures resulting from unsound governance over the past year, the bizarre events in many prominent sports at the top level seemingly resulting from the failure of Boards, the steady trickle of education institutions that are put under notice or have commissioners suggests that the state of governance in New Zealand is not as sound as it needs to be.

Recent events highlight this and some of the political dimensions of the issues – the Rankin File saga and the hikoi in Auckland last week both have in them messages for those who design governance structures.

The two dominant patterns of selection for governance in New Zealand are the selection on the basis of who you know, the other is selection because of who you represent. The first typifies government appointments and the second reflects many typical community not-for profit groups, school boards and so on. Both are flawed.

It is all very well wanting to get supporters onto boards and into positions where favour can return favour, but it is quite another thing to think that this is a suitable replacement for fitness for purpose. People of great ability and quality might simply be unsuitable for other reasons. This was the case with Rankin – her personal skills, ability and disposition are each irrelevant to many of those reacting to her appointment because other things get in the way. This might or might not be unfair. Effectiveness requires a sound and equal equation that allows a person’s skills and abilities to be applied effectively because of the regard in which they are held or the respect that surrounds them. To reject this in favour of only one half of the governance equation is high risk.

The other key factor that makes so many groups ineffective is the representative model. Many community groups believe that to be effective, the governance group must be made up of one of that group, and one of that group, and one of each of those five groups. But this has two weaknesses embedded in it.

The nominations from the respective groups (or perhaps more often it is a case of those who are prepared to put their names forward) might not address issues related to the skills needed, the mix and balance of competencies required in the group and often does not consider, because this process is incapable of doing so, the ability to work as a team. This situation cannot usually be put right through co-option.

The second issue with the group made up of representatives is the baggage that they bring with them into the new setting. Each organisation represented has its own set of policies, strategic objectives and agendas which place a glass cage around their representative. It doesn’t work. Sometimes that glass is pretty opaque.

But there is another generic weakness in governance in New Zealand. This is evident in the events surrounding the hikoi which was ostensibly about Maori representation on the new Auckland Super City Council. Should, the discussion runs, it be through positions designated as of right and filled through a process acceptable to Maori or do Maori simply take their chances in the ruck and maul of an “at large” election?

The answer to this should in 2009 be self-evident. It should have occurred to those with influence that Maori have as one of the two treaty parties, the other being the crown, an inalienable right to be represented on any governance group established by the crown. This principle starts with parliament and should be reflected in each and every regional and local territorial authority, district health board, SOE Board, and, yes, each council of tertiary institutions and each Board of Trustees of each school.

The local government act allows for such entrenched representation in local councils and the issue is not only that it remains almost exclusively unexploited but that the press and many sections of the community want to rewind this film right back to the beginning. Usually the film, however many times it is rewound, ends up the same.

So, having said that, how is education going from a governance point of view? Not very well. It is time to take another look at the composition of governing bodies and to temper the representative model (i.e. parents elected representatives only or government appointees plus a few other representative appointments) with the ability of Boards to make appointments to fill out the governance skill sets that are required. It is pointless to object to this as a “business” model when education institutions have been required to act as businesses since 1990 or thereabouts.

Would it be a “step too far” (and how many times have we heard that lately!) to suggest that this not only be an option but in fact was mandatory. It would be easy to develop a score card of governance skills and to measure each governance group against it.

Much of the failure of governance in education has been exposed by unsustainable financial performance which is the abscess that reflects greater underlying ills – poor strategy, poor resource allocation, the ignoring of financial indicators that warn of impending trouble, weak HR policies and management of performance, a failure to secure the confidence of a community and suchlike.

But in Bierce’s words – “the strife of interests that masquerade as a contest of principles” quickly could turn such a scenario into rather ugly politics. Is it not just this that has happened with the Super City and Maori representation? Is it not just this that has seen the governance issues in education not addressed since the one-hit reforms of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s?

New Zealand is due for some clear thinking about governance and education would be a good place to start.

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Motorway south

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.19, 22 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

There has been a lot of comment about the comment. Melissa Lee’s theory about the benefits of motorways for siphoning criminals from their homes into juicy sites for committing crimes has been well covered through thoughtful comment, humour, contempt, derision and pretty well the full gamut of emotion.

Best humorous quote came from John Pagani who suggested that “If Melissa Lee keeps digging the tunnel will be finished very shortly.” Best quizzical comment came from the NZ Police who, with a serious face, told us that “criminals are like anyone else and where they get off the motorway is over to them.” But there is no leeway for the Lee Way. Abusive comment that denigrates whole sections of the community is simply out of place in a modern community.

Some would argue that such comments are unthinking. Sadly they are not. Vygotsky summed up a critical understanding when he stated that “thoughts are not merely expressed in words but come into being through them.” The scary thing is not that she said what she said but that in doing so she revealed what she was thinking. What she said didn’t come from nowhere. Language and thought are one and indivisible.

All of this makes it harder for educators who daily work so hard at all levels in “South Auckland”. Their good work can in the minds of so many is diminished by one ill-judged comment.

Let us clear up one thing – the term “South Auckland”. As a term it belongs with Atlantis, Avalon, Camelot, El Dorado, Mag Mell and Shangri-La as a mythical place which doesn’t exist and to which all sorts of characteristics are attributed in order to pursue a fiction or to allow the leisured classes an opportunity to account for their failings by assigning them to the boundaries of that far-away place.

Once there was a South Auckland Province which started just south of Auckland and stretched to Napier and Taupo etc. But that was long ago. There is no place called “South Auckland” other than in the minds of people who live their lives outside of the Counties Manukau Region. Do those who would use the term understand that it is New Zealand’s most diverse community? That it has a regional economy that has at times performed well above the level of the national economy? That the average individual income of those who live there is higher than the national average? That unlike other Auckland areas it provides free access to its libraries, free access to its swimming pools, and is rolling out a programme of free swimming lessons to Year 3-5 students through the John Walker Find Your Field of Dreams Foundation and the only CCO running leisure facilities in the Greater Auckland Region, Manukau Leisure Services Ltd?[i]

But the policies that saw huge concentrations of low cost state housing, unprecedented in New Zealand, in to some areas within Counties Manukau has created challenges in education, health, and housing that no government, local or national, has been able to get on top of. By whatever ,measure of poversty that you care to take, the Counties Manukau area has disadvantage that is at least double that of any other area.  Access to early childhood education runs at half the national levels in some parts of the region. Teachers face considerable challenges, on a far greater scale than anywhere else in New Zealand in lifting levels of literacy and numeracy and in lifting aspirations of young people so that they can build on a sound base of skills to enjoy the futures that are taken for granted by so many other New Zealanders.

Melissa Lee has a responsibility, not only as a Member of Parliament, but also as a member of a migrant community, to accept a special responsibility to see that she uses her position to help build attitudes and behaviours that increase understanding and tolerance and which seek to understand how different communities whether based on ethnicity, or belief, or wealth, can contribute to the greater good. The building of a House of Representatives that better reflects the peoples of New Zealand is something to be welcomed provided that it has an impact on behaviour and the general willingness of the community to understand difference and to work to bring the privileges and benefits of living in a rich and blessed country such as New Zealand to all its citizens.

The issue is that it is not possible for people to start to work in ways that seek inclusive outcomes unless they have first understood what it is that needs to be understood. The cultures of New Zealand cannot enter the deliberations of the Houses of Parliament unless they have first entered the consciousness of Members of Parliament, Ministers, Party Leaders and officials.

Public utterances such as the Lee statement suggest that some might have still some distance to cover before they can say with confidence that they have sought to understand.

The invitation is there for Melissa Lee and, indeed, any other MP to visit Counties Manukau – take a trip to the land of South Auckland – just as many already have done so. So let there be no misunderstanding, you are welcome to come and learn about New Zealand’s most dynamic community that gives a glimpse of the future of this country. That is why it is important to get decision-making right. The invitation is made and I will personally undertake to get you in touch with the people you wish to see.

Meantime it would be wise to refrain from using the term South Auckland and to talk with real knowledge and understanding of real communities.

And while you are at Melissa, what would you suggest for motorways that allow all of those fraudsters who ran finance companies who travel from Remuera into South Auckland in great numbers – admittedly it is usually to go to the airport to continue their glamorous lifestyle elsewhere?

[i] Stuart Middleton is a trustee of the John Walker Find Your Field of Dreams Foundation and Chairman of the Board of Director’s of Manukau Leisure Services Ltd.

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Missed Connections

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.18, 15 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

 “Only connect!”  is the running message in E M Forster’s novel Howards End and it is an exhortation to bring together the disparate parts of life so as to get balance and, in the long term, a better result. There is a message here for us in education. If we were to seek increased opportunity to increase connection with, between and for students the benefits to students would be immense.

“Only connect!”  One of the key roles that Early Childhood Education plays is to provide a benign and empowering introduction to the education system for parent and child. Opportunities for many in those sections of the community that are likely to benefit most in this way continue to elude us. We miss an opportunity here to get connection with parts of our community that education serves less well.

“Only connect!”  Then there is the question of the sectors that I raised a couple of weeks ago. By breaking education up into these disparate and partitioned pieces we place the onus for achieving connection on the students and his or her parent rather than presenting a smooth and easy road along which they can travel. Students (and their parents) have a lot of other things to concentrate on without also having to be responsible for navigation. They need to concentrate on getting there, having the right preparation and support, making sound choices, staying the distance and achieving success without becoming distracted by a map that seems to bear little resemblance to their lives.

“Only connect!”  And within the sectors there are issues related to the changing of classes and teachers and the different demands of different levels. We know why we do things this way or at least we can rationalise it all but how easy is it for our community to grasp? Does something that seems to them to be simple – learning new and different things – require us to approach it in such a complex and at times convoluted manner?

“Only connect!”  the education world in general has now realised that a major issue exists at the end of secondary education (whenever that comes for a student) where the interface between schools and whatever is to follow is arguably the most difficult set of rapids for students and those who care for them to attempt.

The water rushes them ahead at this point, around, over and sometimes into the rocks of pathway choices, subject choices, career and vocational choices, and choices of institutions and providers. The work that is happening in some schools now to slow down the waters by starting the processes of decision making much earlier holds much promise and should be supported, Similarly the return to a more orderly education system at this level through a network of provision in which universities behave like universities and polytechnics behave like polytechnics will also help.

But perhaps the key connections will be the ones which education professionals make with each other. If education were an ecosystem then survival would depend on our becoming smart at seeing the symbiotic relationship between the parts rather than our simply relishing our spot in the food chain.

The rapacious decade of the 1990’s where students were there to be fought for, in which we all ate each others’ lunches, in which big was beautiful and bigger was more beautiful  took us nowhere and will increasingly be seen as time lost. This was time when we could have been tooling up an education system for what lies ahead rather than shoring up the system to make the most of what has always been.

The growth of our education system has been accidental rather than planned – there was no educational Mt Sinai from which tablets of stone were delivered to us saying this is how it shall be now and for evermore. Despite the tone of various reports over the years, attempts to change the system were attempts to bring some order to a system not built to a plan. The ark of the educational covenant when it is found will be found to be empty.

What was planned was that communities such as ours (and Australia, US, UK and Canada) would have universal primary (elementary, basic) education and a few would proceed to the conventional higher education academy for which a pipeline, secondary education, was required to deliver those few. At the end of primary education pathways would take students into the world of work or into the fee paying secondary schools that led on and up to the academy.

The growth of other options was slow as the British tradition of seeing anything other than a literary education as being inferior, influenced decisions. But other options did emerge and became an imperative after the Second World War when the group of five launched on a track of universal five year secondary education for a variety of reasons. Even the structures within which was tackled were rather haphazard. Junior high schools came but went nowhere, intermediate schools became a quick fix for population growth issues, single sex schools went out of fashion. We are now seeing the emergence of junior and secondary high schools again. All of this by and large took place and takes place without much discussion – it is a series of little bangs rather than intelligent design!

But the most random aspect of education and what could well become the most important lost opportunity for connection is the curriculum. Successive reviews have seen the curriculum feed on itself rather than the needs of the community and the economy. I can’t remember a review that has had the courage to conduct a real stock take of where we are and what we need, not even the orgy of consultation that characterised the Wellington (as in Merv) and Lockwood Smith reviews.

The current NZ Curriculum is a mighty fine document that schools can get their teeth into but will it promote connection? In other words is it an internal document for an in-house discussion or is it the document that will look outwards and tackle the issue of connection? It does mention that a target is to develop learners to be connected but to what?

“Only connect!”  – that is a challenge.

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The power of community

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.17, 8 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Last year I came across a programme in Washington DC in a school called “Communities In Schools” which, I was told was a national organisation that helped schools stop students from dropping out. I appeared that this group set out to provide community resources for schools in order to support students and keep students in school, learning and developing ambitions and goals.

They did this by bringing what they called “caring adults” to the schools to provide a “link between educators and the community”. This they claimed left teachers free to teach and students free to learn.

I thought no more about this until several experiences during the past week reminded me of the importance community to education and the work done by this group.

I visited Tauranga to meet a commitment and was met at the airport by an old friend, Brendan Schollum, who had gone to Tauranga as the foundation principal Aquinas College an integrated Catholic secondary school of special character. He offered to show me around.

What was instantly obvious was the sense of community that pervaded the school. This might be expected in a school that held philosophical connection to a religious community but it was something more. It was the expression of pride from the adults that impressed. At the airport a parent had come across to chat about progress a son who had been a student at the college was making. A parent walking along the footpath near the school waved a cheery greeting.

By the time we got to the school it was just after the last bell of the day. But I got the tour nevertheless. Teachers were still busy and happy to chat about what they were doing – cleaning up after a busy day, getting busy for another day and so on.

In one room a team of mothers were busy sewing costumes for a Gilbert and Sullivan production. In another a teacher had forty students singing beautifully. Sports action of different kinds outside.

I have often wondered why only some schools claim special character when if a school is connected to a community they also ought to be able to claim special character. But how is this to be described?

At Aquinas College they have a series of “touchstones” which capture what they see as their special character – prayer, truth, scholarship, service, joy and family. That was their expression of what mattered – and they had these qualities each on real stones that sat up the front of the chapel – touchstones to test the gold!

I have argued from time to time that all schools should be able to capture their “special character” in such a set of values, not these ones but ones that reflect their special community. I was interested to see a statement in the Aquinas material that “at Aquinas, we enrol families, not just students.” My point exactly just a couple of weeks ago.

The other experience was a visit to New Plymouth where the regional polytechnic, the Western Institute of Technology Taranaki, had organised a meeting of what I guess should be called stakeholders but in reality this was another expression of community. The turnout was impressive, the commitment and enthusiasm of the group even more so. This was a community coming together with a purpose, to expand the range of approaches and to work together to keep students in education and on the road to success.

Now that took me back to thinking about that crowd I had bumped into in Washington. The “Communities In Schools” (Iand remember that the US use of the word “schools” is wider than our our use of it) has worked to ensure that every child has access to their “Five Basics”: 

  • a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult;
  • a safe place to learn and grow;
  • a healthy start and a healthy future;
  • a marketable skill to use upon graduation;
  • a chance to give back to peers and community.

Parents at Aquinas and the gathering in New Plymouth were both motivated by just these concerns which recognise that schools / institutions cannot operate in isolation from communities nor can our young people make it on their own.

Some young people do not have a caring adult who can provide support while in our communities are many older, wiser, fit adults who are probably waiting to be asked to contribute through such involvement.

Safe places to learn and to grow need to be created and not simply assumed.

We know that a healthy start is sine qua non to a healthy future.

And is not a key purpose of education to have a “marketable skill upon graduation”?

By seeing members of the community working to help students in a variety of ways, young people learn the value of service and of membership of a community.

Some schools can create communities seemingly on their own while others cannot and require greater contribution from a wider community. Even postsecondary institutions require a community to support their students. While the communities of other providers, business, industry and commerce are obvious ones, there are also members of the communites of practice – current and retired – who could profitably be harnessed to help.

I think that in the old days the School Committees had a real sense of we are the community and we are here to help and there was probably a more benign attitude among the business community towards the training and preparation of the novice members of the trades and professions.

Many of the reforms of the education systems in English speaking countries have excluded communities though changes that would claim to give them closer connection. The turning of preparation for the trades and professions into the business of the education institutions, the use of a community groups to govern, the artificial complexity of the education discourse, the repeated patterns of failure in some families and throughout some communities and so on have all conspired to push communities back from engagement in the most critical experiences of their young ones.

It is time to get communities back into education and to use effectively the power of community members to work alongside the education professional.

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Lessons from apprentices

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.16, 1 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

It is usually true that learners’ success in programmes can be related to a recurring set of influences. Despite changes in the settings in which education and training takes place, these influencers remain constant in their impact.

Many students can succeed given more time. The rush to complete within and only within the designated lock-step length of the programme means that some students fail because they needed a little longer. Others of course will have been frustrated by not being able to move faster. But still the programme has its inexorable pace measured out by calendar years.

Success comes more easily to those who enter with sounder academic preparation often measured by higher level qualifications at entry. It is this factor that largely determines the degree of support required to get a student through the programme successfully.

The people impact of the instructors, teachers, programme managers and so on are alsoan important component of successful education programmes – obviously!

Finally there is an ethnic pattern that repeats itself in New Zealand from programme to programme – Maori and Pasifika do not enjoy the same levels of success as other ethnicities.

So, time, academic preparation, people and ethnicity feature as factors in the levels of success in programme – and this pattern repeats between programme, between provider types and at many different levels.

So it was little surprise that a recent analysis of the completion rates of Modern Apprenticeships should bring out exactly these factors in commenting on the low level of completion that dogs training of this kind. And this is a programme that has consistently failed to meet its targets.

So what is the issue? We can attend to the time available and more flexibility is always in the interests of students. So let’s do that now – forget the one size fits all and allow more individual pathways. Academic preparation is more difficult. The cost of allowing some students more time can be compensated by allowing others to complete more quickly. The great promise of the qualification reform was that “time served” would be dead – well we haven’t achieved that yet.

As an aside, it was pleasing that Waikato University is looking to allow students to complete a Masters degree faster than is currently allowed. This could trigger a trend that focuses on standards at completion rather than the more industrial X number of hours.

With apprenticeships standards and competencies should be the key measure, not time served.

Academic preparation similarly should be able to be addressed. The report notes that those with higher entry qualifications complete their apprenticeships more swiftly and that those in the 18-20 year old bracket are also successful. Well this is also not a surprise. But it would be a sad day if apprenticeships were seen as being more appropriate for those who were already successful in the education system. Apprenticeships were an alternate route to success – practical, on the job learning, a co-operative enterprise between the indentured tradesperson and the novice. Might it be the case that the introduction of block theory courses was something of a contradiction of this principle?

But we love binary distinctions – theory / practice. Good practice is good theory and theory counts for little until it is manifest in practice.

Having good people as Modern Apprenticeship co-ordinators was also a factor in higher rates of completion. I imagine that the best co-ordinators demonstrated the best practice, developed the best relationships, were the best at understanding the progress of the trainees. In the old days when apprenticeships had an element of “sitting next to Nellie” this also applied. “We’ll put him with old Tom – he will show him the ropes.”

It is more of a worry that the ethnicity pattern that features in all tertiary education repeats itself in Modern Apprenticeships. Again, Maori and Pasifika perform less well in the Modern Apprenticeship setting. The uptake of modern apprenticeships is also low among these groups. Again issues of settings and support might be a factor here. The old Maori trades training was wrapped around a set of values and procedures – a twenty-four seven setting, whanaungatanga, care and help outside of the job and so on. Lessons here?

The key point is that this report should encourage us to address the issues rather than wring our hands and start up the sport of blame and accuse that is the substitute for an intelligent response. The report noted that this programme was attracted to the “young with few school qualifications.” This is a tough group to try to serve. The Minister is right to respond by seeing it as a priority that the success rates be lifted but it won’t be achieved without changes.

The reported response of a spokeperson for the Industry Training Federation was strange. He saw the issue as being one of vocational training rather than trades training largely because the “polytechnics had a low success rate as well”. It is difficult to know what comparison was being made here but it couldn’t have been between the overall performance of polytechnic vocational education (with a completion rate of 48%) and industry based Modern Apprenticeships scheme. The report is silent on any comparisons between industry-based and polytechnic-based apprenticeships and this might be worth following up.

It is a useful report which suggests that it is time to take a look at the scheme and see where improved performance might be gained.

But we do struggle to recapture the glory days of apprenticeship training when the government employed 80% of apprentices through lands and survey, the public works department, the P and T, the railway workshops, the armed services and so on. The demise of apprenticeship training in the 1980’s was a direct consequence of the withdrawal of the government of the day from the economy.

We all want apprenticeship training to succeed – but is this simply nostalgia or was it really the success we think it was. And if it was, why does that success elude us now?

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