Standards of debate

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.26, 10 July 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

In 1996 I spoke about standards at a teacher education conference in Dunedin. In an effort to inject a little humour into my presentation I started out by saying:

“When asked what he thought about Western Civilisation, Gandhi replied that he thought it would be a good idea. I feel much the same way when asked what I think about standards – of course they are a good idea….”

The audience laughed recognising it as a whimsical way of providing a context – who would be against standards? That is not the question.

This seemingly harmless event provoked outrage in a 1997 report written for the Education Forum by Geoffrey Partington on teacher education. He thundered on about how my little whimsy demonstrated the extent to which teacher educators in New Zealand had embraced double standards.

“Had Middleton substituted ‘Maori’ for ‘Western what a reaction that would have received! Instead of roars of appreciative laughter, there would have been angry cries about racism, followed perhaps by demands for his dismissal.”

He went on to chide me for one of those little slips that even I make taking comfort from Somerset Maugham’s view that only the mediocre are always at their best. I had quoted G K Chesterton but it ended up in the paper as G K Chesterman. Oh dear! “Middleton’s own depth in Western Civilisation was indicated by his reference to one ‘G K Chesterman’ ” claimed Partington.

This was all picked up with enthusiasm by Martin Hames in his 2002 book The Crisis in New Zealand Schools, who reported all the above and went on to say “It may seem amazing that ‘educated’ people who owe their very affluence, freedom and security to Western civilisation, should be so ignorant as to the origins of those things as to denigrate the very civilisation that produced them. It may seem shocking that many such people are part of our educational establishment, but it is true nevertheless.”

I don’t mind being called ignorant, uncivilised, even ‘educated’ in inverted commas, but I do object to be labelled “part of the education establishment”!

It was about this time that C K Stead (Metro, 1997) referred to “the framers and defenders of this document [i.e. the then recently released English Syllabus] – the Roger Robinsons, the Stuart Middletons,…..” I along with Roger had become a class of people, a type of nasty.

I dwell on this a little to illustrate the point that a real issue that we have discussing education issues in New Zealand is our wanting to personalise the attacks. Or if real personal attacks are not possible, then attacking the character-type is the next best option. People are characterised as something like: 

  • the radical change merchant;
  • the union one;
  • he / she of political persuasion;
  • leader of conservative school;
  • leader of non-conservative school;
  • academic;
  • community spokesperson on everything;
  • the nasty……..

 Having got the character type sorted out, the argument can unfold in choreographed tedium. Take the recent discussions / arguments about national standards.

It would be a brave person who declared a complete opposition to standards. It is therefore necessary to be both in favour of standards and against the standards proposed.

The issue is not a difficult one. Do parents want to know how good the local school is in providing an education for their children? Yes. Does the community at large have a right to know that their money spent on education is being well-spent? Yes. Is an education system that is a high-performance one that is committed to standards? Yes.

So, national standards are needed. That then raises the question of how they should be designed, implemented, monitored and reported. I will leave the first three of those – design, implementation and monitoring to officials, experts and schools to sort out. And I presume they can because most of the discussion is not about those elements, it is clearly focussed on the reporting.

Some of the arguments about “league tables” are spurious. We like league tables when they apply to sport, to consumer goods, to movies and to a whole variety of things. We even tolerate them in education when the universities lust after whichever international league tables appear to advantage their position in the market.

So why are schools so worried? It gets back to the education types. The radical change merchant has a bob each way – they might bring about change but then again they might not. The union one rightly feels that spurious distinctions will be made about teacher quality and that complex difference between schools will be glossed over. Politicians always like them because generally speaking the community supports standards. The leader of a conservative school will like them backing themselves to do well while leader of non-conservative school will fear that the types of standards developed will punish them. And so on.

In other words the discussion can be scripted in advance and little additional light gets thrown on it as the debate continues. Standards are critically important and if the profession doesn’t grapple with it others will – the difference between developing and introducing them and having them imposed I would have thought.

But standards are a vexed issue throughout society. This is seen in the recent sacking of Lothario Worth. John Kay sacked him because he had standards. The media continue to press him to talk about it because they have few standards and are driven by the prurient desire to give their readers a second-hand, low-grade pornographic read. Of course they dress all this up as a matter of high principle.

And so do we when we talk about league tables. It is not what they contain as much as how they will be used. Ted Wragg wrote about such tables and their promotion by the Government of the day in the early 1990’s in the UK in his inimitable satirical style.

“A Department of Education spokesman described the league tables as a triumph for the Government’s information revolution. ‘This is a triumph for the Government’s information revolution,’ said Mr Henry Farnes-Barnes (59) from a prepared statement.

Asked why Swinesville girls’ secondary modern school had come top of the GCSE league table, when it had in fact been closed down in 1967, Mr Farnes-Barnes said that it was the view of ministers that good schools never die.”

Nor will the propensity of many in the education system to make use of the very worst features of league tables to their own advantage. That is why so many argue against them. It is not the league tables but the use we make of them.

Having said that, I do remain worried about the position on the league tables of my beloved Warriors.

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