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It’s time for a commission

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.30, 7 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The recent report from the Law Commission on booze, boozing habits and the impacts of booze was a sobering read commended to all who work with young people. But it was less the report itself than the manner of its preparation that has a lesson in it for education.

The Law Commission plays an interesting role in the legal fabric in New Zealand. Five Commissioners appointed by the Minister of Justice are supported by a relatively small team of researchers and some administrative support. The Commission works with independence both on issues it identifies with the law and the legal system and on specific areas on which the government seeks guidance and advice. Given this working environment, their reports have weight, are substantial contributions to discussion and are seen to be unbiased and informed views.

This is exactly what we need in education, an Education Commission modelled on the Law Commission. It would provide the government with learned, informed and substantial reports on issues in education which require attention but seem unable to free themselves from the tangled mass of vested interest and position to be defended. In education when it seems as if the mass of such issues has become critical we call for a Royal Commission.

The Currie Commission (1962) was the last full blown affair of this kind and it did address a number of issues: the recruitment and training of teachers; improvements in teachers’ conditions of service; the involvement of members of the community in the control and management of schools by restructuring administration at the district level; Maori education; a regular system of national assessment in the basic subjects along with a system of checks at certain points in children’s progress throughout the system and a range of issues related to the place and role of independent schools.

The problem with this approach is that they become a shopping spree for everyone to get their bit in and attempts to implement such a report inevitably results in distortions and different emphases from those intended. And public discussion that follows such reports usually take the form of once more through the chorus of the songs sung at submission time.

An Education Commission would be able to bring measured, researched consideration forward into the professional and public domain and perhaps enable us to work through some of the issues that percolate to the surface from time to time. Who might the commissioners be? If they are to have a role such as the Law Commissioners then the Education Commissioners would be experienced, highly qualified, comfortable in both the professional and public arenas of education and able to lead discussion nationally through major conference presentations, papers and publications.

Cost? Well less than a Royal Commission and perhaps even less than a team of consultants. The positions, if they are to be modelled on the Law Commission, would not be full time other than for the ongoing administrative team and the small research team. The Commissioners continue their daily work in whatever capacities they have – or so it seems.

What might the Education Commission consider?

The kinds of topic that the Education Commission might consider are ones where conventional advocacy groups are constrained by the requirements of the groups they represent, where solutions to issues might require changes to the law, to regulations, to accepted and conventional ways of working. They could constitute a series (as in the Law Commission’s series on the Courts) or one-off studies such as the alcohol report.

Now for some topics that the Education Commission might address or usefully might have addressed in the past.

Equitable universal access to early childhood

This is a vexed issue and the current collocation of policies and provision does not seem to be keeping pace with the changes in the demographics or in the social behaviour patterns of the community. Issues of bilingualism, of coping with sudden changes in demand, the location of early childhood centres in primary schools and home-based care are all dimensions that might be included.

Community contributions to schools

It would be good to have an authoritative look at the issue of community contributions to a school that sees hugely disparate levels of contribution being made in different communities. Does the state have a role, in the interests of an equitable system in regulating this? Should schools in communities with less capacity to contribute be funded to higher levels (oh dear, here come a few emails!). Who is responsible for the black education economy?

Governance of tertiary institutions

I wonder if the recent report on the governance of the ITP sector would have provoked a different reaction had it been produced by a body that could combine research and commentary rather than simply appearing out of the blue so to speak.?

Sectors and their role in students’ learning

Sometime the Education Commission could comment on larger issues and point to a future that might or might not be different. Sectors, for instance reflect in their current configuration the development of the education system rather than any body of knowledge about teaching and learning. What might the Education Commission think?

Curriculum sprawl

As the education systems have grown larger over the past century so too has trhe extent of the curriculum. To the three “R’s” has been added the two “E’s” (ecological sustainability, economic literacy) and a whole lot more. Little was taken out of the curriculum. Where did folk dancing go? An Education Commission might take a look at this – the curriculum not folk dancing!

The beauty of an Education Commission is that it could, like the Law Commission, act with independence relying on the experience and wisdom of its Commissioners tempered with the collective experience and wisdom and evidence of research.

Now, who is going to be a Commissioner? Well one would have to represent each of the sectors, state, integrated and independent – that’s 12. There would have to be one from each of the tertiary provider groups – that’s another 5. Then there are….. Commission, it could be more like a Conference unless we can bring ourselves to trust experience and wisdom.

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