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Month: June 2009

Access and equity

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.24, 26 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The unintended consequences of change are not a cause for blame and finger-pointing but it does require a mature response, a calm head and the courage to change course.

This seems to me to be the key lesson of the recent discussion on Early Childhood Education and the qualifications that teachers have or need. Of course logic would tell us that in a specialist area that is a critically important as Early Childhood Education, high qualifications that reflect sound understanding of teaching at this level, that provide a theoretical base on which programmes can be developed to meet the needs of the learner, and which provide for continuity of leadership are simply a good goal to aim at.

All this seems sensible and an excellent direction in which to head.

But the reality is something else. High qualifications in Early Childhood Education have largely become the generator of high levels of subsidy from public money for the proprietors of early childhood centres. The increased funding generated by higher level qualifications leads to a grotesque distortion in the use of money within the sector.

Perhaps the discussion has raised questions about whether the need to have appropriate qualifications across the entire staff of an early childhood centre is the same as everyone having the same high level qualification. This is something that has simply been accepted as a sine qua non – helped along I must say, by the regulations. But this situation has  has never applied in other sectors where a great variety of qualifications at different levels are seen as appropriate.

In the secondary sector one thinks of the deal that the technical teachers received over the past fifty years where they worked with high quality industrial qualifications for lower pay than their colleagues with degrees. When this issue was tackled in the early 1980’s it was largely through an amnesty. In the end it was easier to destroy the industrial arts curriculum than sort out the issue.

That Early Childhood Centres have the potential to become very profitable businesses is evidenced by the growth of centres, many specifically designed for the purpose and built on expense real estate. The dangers of this private enterprise approach have been well illustrated by the collapse in Australia of the ABC Learning Centre network. Private enterprise cannot meet the demand for early childhood education – it also requires investment of the state. And private enterprise has never wanted to do the hard yards in areas which have little money.

With nearly 40% of ECE teachers “unqualified”, the issue seems whopping. But in a balanced team different people will bring different skills and understandings to the task. Surely “unqualified” in this sense simply means “uncredentialled”.

I also believe that the 20 free hours has exacerbated some of the issues. Fewer students are consuming more of the places due to this extra bit of help that parents can get. I have no issue with this but it has not addressed the major issue in the Early Childhood education sector – access.

We know that two years of quality early childhood education is wonderful preparation for school. Those who get this are advantaged as learners right through their educational life. A lot of the ECE resource is, however, going into looking after the really little ones rather than this pre-school group of 3-and 4-year olds. Over 40% of 1 and 2 year olds are enrolled. Much of this is perhaps more a reflection of the pressure families (both single-parent and two-parent) feel from a financial or career point of view. Why can’t we as a civilised country address these issues to the advantage of both the parents and the children and free up more of the resource for the critical 3 and 4 year olds?

While all this discussion continues, there is little talk of that key issue – access. In the Counties Manukau region there are 28,000 children below the age of 5 and yet there are only 10,300 places in early childhood education facilities. Only 36% of students have access to that educational experience which we know is crucial to later success. Surely we do not wonder too hard about the origin of later issues when we so resolutely despatch little ones along the low road to educational failure.

The only solution to this is to not look to the private sector to bring their ECE business to town. The only solution is for the state to provide ECE facilities and services for 3- and 4-year olds in areas such as this. The best option would be to provide early childhood education services within each primary school up to a scale that would meet local demand. The land is available, the site is secure and the playground is relatively easy to achieve.

Staffing is the next big challenge. Questions must be asked about whether there is such a need for an evenly flat qualifications structure. Then there is the pool of inactive teachers. Many of these are Pacific-trained teachers who could easily and quickly be retrained. I know of one organisation that claims to have 100 such teachers on their books and ready to go, but action is slow. Pressure-cooker teacher education courses were de rigueur once.

I have little patience for some of the grizzling that has gone on in this discussion. Those who chose to ignore the requirements can hardly expect to impress us with their indignation. But it needs sorting out.

Of course it also needs commitment from a whole education system that this is a priority area for spending. The investment at those early years will save costs in later years. Marian Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund put it like this: “We invest in children because the cost to the public of sickness, neglect, dependence, and unemployment over the long term exceeds the cost of preventive investment in health, education, employed youth, and stable families.”

The troubled 15- to 19-year olds were once little ones. How many of them might have been saved from themselves and in the process saved us if the $1 billion they cost us each year now had been invested in their early childhood education?

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Desk-top memories

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.23, 19 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Shifted house, downsized and there is no room for my single-seater school desk so I have put it in my office. And much comment it has prompted I must say.

It is interesting that you can deduce a lot about the nature of education and the times as they are revealed in a piece of furniture such as this.

For a start it is made out of beautiful Kauri timber. Many of these grand trees of the forest must have been committed to providing seats for school kids over the years. Still it was a time when native timbers were plundered for use as housing framing and flooring. But clearly there was little teaching about renewable resources and the importance of sustainable forest management.

The seats are in the nature of stable boxes or the stalls in a cow shed. They provided a clear anchor for students and kept them sitting nice and straight facing in the proper direction – which would have been the front of the room – with little movement other than on the prompting of the teacher. These were classrooms in which students undertook one-way instruction and daily gave thanks for that which they were about to receive. Along with the discipline of the seating arrangements would have gone another discipline of hands up and permission given prior to the offering of an answer.

The top of the desk itself is offset to the right. Of course, all normal students were in those days right-handed and lefties were not to be encouraged. Fixed attitudes would also have underpinned how writing was taught and there would only have been latitude for individual style at a later age.

This desk has a feature that is nice – the top also slides backwards and forwards to allow students of more ample proportions to enter and exit the stall. This particular desk came from a secondary school – a Catholic girls’ school actually and Sister Augustine would not be pleased at all at what was written under the desk top. Graffitti is one of those things that has given rise to legends about how outrageous things were said but I wonder if it was more talked about than practised. Hacking grooves into the edges seems more to ave been the work of idle hands than any attempt to break out!

This desk has its original inkwell, a lovely ceramic receptacle with a concave top with a hole in the middle. What a pleasure it was to be chosen to fill the inkwells. Taking a bottle of Stephens Ink – usually black or blue/black – the chosen one would then walk around the room filling inkwells from the lovely neck of the bottle that was complete with a little pouring spout. Now, many of those who see the inkwell launch into a story about how their mother had her pigtails dipped in the inkwell presumably by the loathsome boy or horrid girl in the desk behind. 

Again I wonder if this really happened or was it one of those urban classroom myths that have persisted.

In Standard 3 and Standard 4 I sat in the double seater version of a desk like this. You certainly had to get on well with the other inhabitant but I don’t recall any real issues apart from the odd bit of cheating in which we led each other astray.

It was quite a routine to have a desk inspection. The class would be given a warning of the inspection and there would be some frantic cleaning out of paper, the odd old school lunch or part thereof plus perhaps items of clothing worn to school but not worn home. “Don’t forget to bring home your green jersey,” had been the parting words from Mum for a week now.

Surprisingly the last two years of primary school were the only years I sat in a desk such as this. In the primers we sat on Lilliputian chairs at low tables – but I am really very confused about all this. In Standard 1 and Standard 2 we have new square desks with lift-up tops. But in Standard 3 and Standard 4 it was over to Mr Burr in the old block with the original furniture. My picture of him is of a short man sitting behind the old style teacher’s desk – the oblong one with the 4 inch upstand across the front of it. This was rimu I imagine as I have one and it is rimu. The room was very full of furniture.

I bought my old student desk through TradeMe and was surprised at the number of school desks for sale. Actually it appeared at that time that there was actually a school selling off its furniture over the web. The items for sale were not antiques or perhaps even worth much but they were clearly the square student desk on a tubular frame and I wondered how good an image this was for a school and for education.

Where would it end? It might be a good thing to have a giant education jumble sale as a fund raiser at a central city site. Old School Journals (I would be in for these), unused scientific equipment, sports gear no longer needed and old, really old school desks would be a great attraction I would have thought. But what would the Auditor General have to say? There must be a huge amount of stuff lying around schools that is worth something but is of little value to a school.

But I wouldn’t trade my little desk for anything. I am small in stature so can sit at the desk and work. It is just right for writing with a fountain pen. Now…. that reminds me. On the desk is a little wire stand just up by the inkwell for the placing of the nib pen. This seems to me to be a gracious touch. I have only recently understood the teacher’s joke all those years ago when I asked what it was for. “That’s for his nibs!” he said with a smile on his face.

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Leaping ahead of ourselves

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.22, 12 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The International Olympic Committee has just announced an exciting new development for the Olympic Games. In a press release from the IOC President yesterday, it was announced that in the track and field programme the long jump would be combined with the high jump to create a new event – the Vertizontal Jump. In this event the athletes would, in one movement, take off over a long jump pit and then clear the high jump bar in one mighty effort that defies imagination.

It might also defy the laws of physics. But that is progress.

The polytechnic world is watching these developments with interest because a similar effort is being made within that sector to promote a not dissimilar development. The equivalent of the Vertizontal* Jump is the inexorable trend to increase access and participation while seeking to have an emphasis on Level 4+ qualifications.

This development defies the laws of the physics of learning. We know that learning that is best is continuous therefore it must start exactly where the learner is in terms of their progress to that point. Linked to this is Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development. Put simply, learning takes place just past the point at which previous learning has taken place. So reaching learners requires us to actually assess where they are and start from that point.

Level 4+ is a goal, it is the high jump, it is the end point in a journey, which is the long jump, rather than a starting point. Students who are equipped to get stuck into Level 4+ programmes are almost certainly already at Level 4. If we are to be serious about getting students to Level 4+ qualifications we have to be realistic about the continuous pathways that polytechnics will have to offer. This means that polytechnics will have to offer programmes at Level 1 and Level 2 and Level 3. It means that polytechnics will certainly have to offer entry level programmes for those whose lives have not equipped them to undertake study towards employment.

Now this raises a couple of issues – first the issue of second chance learners and secondly the pathways required for many school leavers into further education and training.

Second chance learners need provision by way of lower level programmes as stepping stones towards those Level 4+ programmes that will take them into higher qualifications and enhance employment opportunities. Second chance learning is not an easy track. One USA commentator states baldly that the one thing we know about second chance education is that the first chance would have been better.

Second chance learners can also benefit from tangential pathways such as those offered by adult and community education. I am not going into the merits or otherwise of specific programmes but there is evidence that programmes of this kind are a positive pathway into the very programmes that lead to Level 4* qualifications.

School leavers are another group who find the Vertizontal Jump just too hard. In fact those who are really struggling opt to enter the Hop Skip and Jump instead – they hop out the gate, skip classes and jump the educational ship. If we are serious about addressing the group of disengaged students we had better be serious about continuous pathways through Levels 1 – 4 in order to get them into Level 4+ programmes

The USA Community College was invented to provide open access to further education and training and has become something of a metaphor for equal opportunity and access. They carry a mission to take and serve anyone who turns up and thus keep intact the American Dream that each and every USA citizen can “go to college”. In New Zealand, the only institution that can adopt the same mission is the polytechnic and Level 1-3 programmes will be to them what remediation programmes are to the USA Community College.

In an ideal world all students would be on a flawless path to educational excellence that sees them well into higher educational qualifications sometime in their teen years. But that is not the situation that we find ourselves in at the start of this century. Either educational institutions open up to cater for wider groups in the community or progressively fewer people will reach high level qualifications. This is an equation that brings with it economic and social threats.

Groups of at-risk young people are faced with a horny dilemma – the institutions and pathways that have contributed to their situation (admittedly they have willingly gone down less productive pathways in many instances) are then held up as the only pathway out of their situation. The truth is always in the middle – educational institutions might well be the best option through which to seek redemption but it will not be educational institutions doing the same old thing.

That provides a challenge to most aspects of educational provision. Funding mechanisms need to have a capability to mount programmes that are different, quality measures need to be able to take such flexible provision and delivery into account. The notion of levels might have to be suspended until the educational infrastructure required in a successful student is reconstructed and in some cases built for the first time.

We can dream of a time when such work is rare. A time when all students are on positive and successful tracks working with purpose towards sound qualifications and a set of personal skills that enables them to contribute positively to their community, to be successful in employment, to have the capability to earn a family sustaining wage and to make the best of the talent and skills they have.

That, after all, was the New Zealand educational dream – that each and every person will have an education which achieves that – the educational nightmare comes from thinking that this requires us to ensure that each and every person will have the same education.


 * I am indebted to that great philosopher Archie Bunker who invented the word “vertizontal”. Like all great thinkers and writers he believed that language should be his servant!

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The day Baxter came to school

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.21, 5 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

It was quite a day when James K Baxter visited the school. Back in 1972 there was a much more straight- laced attitude to a wide range of matters and schools were pretty much immune to the changes that were happening in the community.

The curriculum was still then traditional and in the senior school governed exclusively by the examination prescriptions. But a chink in the armour had been exposed by a strange subject called “Liberal Studies”. It was designed to bring “life skills” into the senior school programme and to encourage senior students to engage with the world outside the University Entrance Board Handbook.

A friend of mine had rung up and told me that James K Baxter would be in Auckland asking whether I would like to host him on a visit to the school. Of course I would. Who wouldn’t want this poet and high profile social commentator to be part of a Liberal Studies programme? Baxter was at that stage in his life well out of the mainstream of New Zealand society with his commune life, his identification with and advocacy for the mentally ill, his general “hippy” lifestyle and, of course, the bare feet, the long hair and beard and the raincoat.

Recollection of these events and the memories around them were revived when reading The Double Rainbow[1] by John Newton, an account of the years spent by Baxter in commune life at Jerusalem, a small settlement up the Whanganui River, and the impact of this on the lives of the local communities, both Maori and religious.

Well, the arrangement was that I should pick Baxter up from Carrington Hospital which I duly did. What is now the Unitec polytechnic campus had two institutions on it – Oakley Hospital, a conventional mental institution under the leadership of Dr Savage which was committed to the accepted medicated routes to recovery while Carrington Hospital was set up to allow Fraser McDonald to pioneer a much more community-based approach. Eventually it was this latter model which was to prevail over the old closed institutions (Baxter called them “bins”)   but at that time there was considerable controversy over it.

Baxter came down on the side of the angels and on getting into my car said in the rather mournful tone – “When you have met Savage you have met the devil, when you have met McDonald you have glimpsed Jesus Christ.” This was typical of the aphoristic commentary he was known for; he had mastered the sound bite while others still chewed away on these tough issues.

As a young teacher I felt some sense of responsibility in transporting New Zealand’s greatest poet across Auckland in my Morris 1100 but the chatter was serious and rather one-sided and I had no cause to fear silences. As planned, we arrived at the school and went into the Principal’s office. “Good afternoon Mr Baxter”, handshakes and that rather stilted conversation that marks awkward chit chat.

“Could I take your raincoat?” the Principal offered only to be told “No thanks, it’s part of the uniform.” And later when offered an apple, Baxter put two into his raincoat pocket – “These will come in handy later.” It was a relief when the bell rang and the Sixth and Seventh Forms were assembled and ready for this liberal studies session.

It was a grand time with Baxter in fine form. I recall that he mostly preached the sermon that is reflected in the frontispiece to Newton’s book, a traced outline of a hand on which the five messages are written, one on each finger: 

  • to share one’s goods;
  • to speak the truth, not hiding one’s heart from others;
  • to love one another and show it by the embrace;
  • to take no job where one has to lick the boss’s arse;
  • to learn from the Maori side of the fence.

On the palm of the hand is written: 

When these things are done, the soul
rises to the surface of the friend’s face,
like a fish to the surface of the water,
and the soul is always beautiful.
When Maori and pakeha do these
things together, the double rainbow
begins to shine.

He didn’t read any of his poems, not that is, until the Head of English, always prepared, produced several volumes of his verse and he was away. Beautiful readings of wonderful poems, each followed by comment that was apposite to both the issues of the time and the nature of the audience.

All of this might now seem rather normal but it has to be understood that secondary schools in the early seventies were conservative reflecting the communities around them. Liberal Studies was an opportunity to bring into that setting some of the challenges to thinking about social issues that the conventional curriculum didn’t approach. Students were by and large immersed in the traditional literary cannon while outside the school gates Hair, Bullshit and Jellybeans and the Little Red Schoolbook grabbed their attention. The Holyoake / Marshall government descended into bumbling while the world’s youth increasingly saw direction in Ginsberg and the power of the flower.

I wonder if the students that afternoon as they spent time with Baxter realised just how special it al;l was? Some would have been captivated to have this poet in theor company, many more would have responded to the challenges he was posing. The realisation that he would soon be dead of course has impact only retrospectively.

I was delighted that a student who had been there recently made mention of the day Baxter came to school. The conversation was not so much about Baxter but about how different that experience was from the rest of his school experience.

Senior secondary schooling should be about exposure to ideas and to those whose thinking challenges us to believe that the world might not yet be formed perfectly, that change is possible, that what seems hard now one day will seem simple. If these things are not encouraged in the young then what will young people seek?

Pots of gold rather than a double rainbow?

[1] Newton, John (2009) The Double Rainbow: James K Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune, Wellington, Victoria University Press.

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