A solid first innings

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.43, November 6, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd
Wellington 

When it was said that journalism is merely history’s first rough draft, the commentator was suggesting that we should stand by for at least correction and some revision. Which is just as well when you read some of the stuff that passes for commentary on Education in the weekend newspapers.

Take for example recent articles on the achievements of the government in its first year in office. Let’s ignore all the overall comment and focus just on education. One writer awarded Minister Hon Anne Tolley 3 out of 10 on the basis that the National Standards were causing a bit of a fuss.

There were also comparisons made between the UK’s Prime Minister Thatcher and New Zealand’s Minister of Education Tolley suggesting that her relationship to the education unions as something akin to that between Thatcher and the National Union of Miners in the 1980’s?  That reporter put forward the proposition that just as Thatcher couldn’t finish off the miners in 1981 and had to wait until 1984 to do the business, Tolley could not deal to the PPTA and the NZEI at this time but was stockpiling coal in order to get them in about 2011.

The reporter should be reminded that there is more to history than Billy Elliot and that the education union leadership in New Zealand is a little different from Arthur Scargill and his hoons.

A good report card should emphasis what the student has done so let’s do just that.

National in opposition and leading up to the election had some clear policies which included the development and introduction of National Standards, Youth Guarantee, and Trades Academies. This trio of initiatives was to address the clear focus in the policy on 15 to 19 year olds where considerable concerns had arisen. Interestingly, Labour was also putting an emphasis in this area through its Schools Plus set of initiatives.

Words are one thing and actions another. The National Standards were developed and have been written and are now being promulgated. There has been opposition to them, hardly of Scargillian proportions, but opposition nevertheless from the education unions. This appears not to be shared by the community in general. Getting my first glimpse of the National Standards last week I was impressed by the extent to which they should not distort the curriculum and if their implementation is done with flair they will be a useful addition to the tools that teachers have in assisting dialogue with parents.

So, National Standards promised and on track after 12 months.
Youth Guarantee was intended to address the barmy situation where in order to continue education outside of the secondary school, students had to forfeit their right to a free education. Extending the entitlement to free education and training to settings other than schools should provide for more flexible pathways for some students.

Intended to be introduced in 2011 the provision of 2,000 places for 2010 is a good effort and allows tertiary providers to position themselves to offer productive programmes for this group of school leavers.

So, Youth Guarantee promised and on track after 12 months.

Trades Academies were pretty much only a germ of an idea as the election loomed so where has that got to? A call was put out for ideas, a little over a hundred came from providers, shortlists were developed and it looks as if five proposals are under more intensive development with a further six being worked on in some way. These programmes will place schools and post-secondary trades training providers into a closer relationship and allow students to access industry recognized trades qualifications earlier.

So Trades Academies promised and on track after 12 months.

(Interest declared here.) In 2008 Manukau Institute of Technology proposed to and was encouraged by the previous government to establish a Tertiary High School – a programme that allowed a group of students to continue their senior secondary schooling in a different setting, dual enrolment, dual qualifications and so on. The new Government has also supported that initiative.

Now it all hasn’t been progress that has been received with unrelieved happiness. The cuts made to Adult and Community Education hurt some and their severity surprised many. This all had something of a look of unfinished business that seamlessly flowed from the relentless attacks on low level courses made by the then National Spokesperson on Education in the couple of years leading up to the 2005 election. The then National Spokesperson on Education was now the Minister of Finance and even the rhetoric was much the same – Moroccan Cooking has replaced Twilight Golf. Someone should take fingerprints!

And the Education (Polytechnics) Amendment Bill that set out a programme of radical surgery on the Polytechnic Councils produced a series of submissions to the Select Committee that made pleas for the large and representative councils to be allowed to continue. But while the submissions were heard they seem likely to have fallen on deaf ears. Governance in the polytechnic sector has been identified as an issue to be dealt with.

In amongst all the other bits and pieces that have surfaced there has been increased funding for Early Childhood Centres ( must try harder here), increases in the Youth Opportunities provisions (pleasing) and a positive reaction to the job summit discussions with support for the university programme of Summer Scholarships and increased place in polytechnics (well done).

This incomplete survey of the first twelve months of the new Government in education gives enough for us to conclude that there has been a clear commitment to policy – and voters that don’t like the actions that flow from policy can hardly retrospectively replay the election. Students and young people have been a focus in developments (that’s why I haven’t mentioned school property) and that is pleasing.

So where do we end up with the scorecard for the Minister? Well, the scores are fatuous so none of those. In summary, a strong year with substantial policy targeted in the right areas and brought to life in a time of austerity (now there’s a Thatcher word!).

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