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Month: December 2009

Time to say goodbye

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.49, 18 December 2009,  p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

Now is the time to say goodbye.
Now is the time to yield a sigh.
(Yield it, yield it)
Now is the time to wend our way-eee
Until we meet again-eee
Some sunny day

So used to end each edition of Not Only But Also with this little ditty which was never sung the same way twice. Apart from those of you who turn to the back page straight away (go on admit it!), you will know that this column appears in the last edition of Education Review in the form of a weekly publication.

Yes, after 12 years of writing this column (I think this is the 400th column) it is sadly true that this remarkable weekly publication, Education Review will not arrive each week in staff rooms. “Goodness me,” I hear you shout “how will we know what is going on?” That is a very good point and one which underlines the gap that this paper has filled. Editors Jan Rivers (initially) and then John Gerritson have served us well by providing not only all that newsy stuff but also commentary and conversation, controversy and counter-punch.

Looking back over the columns that have been my great weekly Sunday pleasure to write, it is interesting to see the topics that have most claimed my attention.  NEETS and disengagement (on 27 occasions) is at the top of the list with Language, literacy and language learning (24) close behind. NCEA (12) and examinations (11) have also had a fair share of air time as they say.

But I am but surprised that the most consistent concern of the columns has been the people in education – adults, famous New Zealanders, educators and pupils, lecturers and students. People are at the heart of what we do – of what we teach and who we work with. No-one sets out in the morning committed to getting it wrong, no-one attempts to teach a lesson, develop a policy, devise a funding formula or think of regulations that will deliberately have at its purpose the assassination of learning. But it happens.

Never forget that the inscription on the knife that belonged to Madame Butterfly’s father was “Who cannot live with honor must die with honor.” Dignified admission of error would go a long way to making the education conversation much less distorted by the dogged defence of positions. Come on – we all want the same thing. Stuart launches into Con onor muore!

So I make no apology for doggedly drawing attention to the need to fix up the senior secondary end of the compulsory system. It was never about teachers, it was and is all about students.

Politicians have featured on a few occasions among them Benson Pope, Brash, Collins, Cullen, Lange, English, Obama, Key, Lockwood Smith, Maharey, Mallard, McCain, Tolley (all listed alphabetically to maintain the scrupulously even-handedness of the treatment). I don’t much mind which side of the house they come from when it comes to education – identifying the issues and addressing them through equitable policy settings is all that matters to me. Both the last stages of the Labour Government and the current position of the National Government, the focus on 15 to 19 year olds is exciting and proper. The dreadful waste of human capital the flows from disengagement, drop out and the damnable failure artificially injected into the system by inappropriate assessment is simply unsustainable. It is the educational equivalent of global warming and less hot air and more action could well address both issues!

Quite a few of the columns have set out to be humorous. If you sometimes do not take yourself too seriously then you have the luxury of not taking others seriously. We are in education a pretty grim group and we would sometimes do well to lighten up a little especially among ourselves. Reaction to some of these columns has not always been ecstatic and I did once wonder whether it would all end with my exiting with Antigonus – “Exit pursued by a bear.”

Questioning the trendy and playing value of the tried and tested, the simple and the basic was also something of a sub-text. I had always admired Rattigan’s The Browning Version with the retiring teacher, Andrew Crocker-Harris a teacher of classics who is to have the traditional right of a retiring teacher to address the end-of-term prize-giving snatched from him and given to a trendy sports teacher. It is about a clash of values and a real difficulty that we face in New Zealand education is that we know with certainty which values we no longer respect but are much less clear about what has replaced them.

Crocker-Harris asserts himself at the end of the play with a phone call to the Headmaster confirming his intention to address the final prize-giving “As is my right.” Who is to assert themselves in New Zealand?

And that is why this last edition of the weekly Education Review has a tinge of sadness about it. Who is to lead the conversation now? We are possibly now bereft of the opportunity to raise issues and to debate them at length and over time. Will the discourse now be confined to academic journals and PR spin?

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The good, the bad, and the tertiary

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.48, December 11, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

We didn’t hesitate to celebrate the start of the New Millennium on 1 January 2000 so I guess it is acceptable to close this decade on 31 December 2009.

The Nineties were characterised by the responses to reforms and changes in the administration of education, review of the curriculum and exploration of the potential of qualification reforms. These impacted particularly on the school sectors and by the end of the decade there were plenty who were hoping for a little respite from what they saw as continual debilitating change, they wanted their Lange cup of tea.

The Nineties also saw the development of new approaches to tertiary education as the PCET reforms set in. The large institutions, committed as they are to research-based activity and evidence-based response, became feral and embarked on an orgy of self-gratification through competition and expansion. Even small regional institutions believed that they deserved to be national brands. Deregulation became disorderly and the financial savings promised by the new competitive environment were evaporated by wasteful duplication, extravagant marketing and the presence in Auckland of large numbers of institutions seeking cash with the fervour of the gold rushes of old.

So when the New Millennium heralded the start of “The Noughties”, there was plenty to attend to at pretty well all levels of the system.

Early Childhood Education continued to challenge us in terms of resources which were seemingly seldom where they needed to be. It is ironic that the Brash 2025 Report calls the growth in provision and subsidies for ECE a “middle class churn” while the huge demand for services in poor areas, working class areas, continues to move ahead of the supply.

The school sector in the Noughties continued to do what it has always done – close the classroom door and get on with it. Children have continued to learn at about the level and rate they always have. What has changed however has been the discussion on ‘if that’s the case then how do we know” from politicians. So the decade is lurching to a close with a vigorous debate on National Standards. Academics unite to send open letters to the Minister. National professional organisations are to various degrees disturbed, disappointed, and despondent about it all. But it is going to happen and will continue to fester away well into the next decade, The Teenies.

Where there has been significant action in the school sector has been at the senior secondary school level. The decade has seen debate on NCEA rage away while the qualification grows in stature and acceptance and will prove in The Teenies to be flexible and useful. Because what was discovered in The Noughties was that the inflexibility of the senior secondary school had consequences that were starting to become very apparent and which raised questions about sustainability especially in light of the demographic shifts in the secondary school population.

Senior secondary schools appeared on the scene without a national discussion as to how we were to address the senior levels of secondary schooling and the transition into post-secondary education. If in The Teenies they simply replicate existing curriculum and lead only to conventional transitions one would have to wonder if it was worth the effort. If however they introduce new curriculum that reflects the flexibility of NCEA and create new porous transitions to post-secondary education and training it will have been a worthwhile change of direction.

Through The Noughties the previous government moved to understand and address the issues of disengagement from education and training and the need for increased flexible pathways, a direction continued (but expressed in a different way) by the current government. Trades Academies, Tertiary High Schools, increased involvement of polytechnics in secondary school programmes are all ways in which flexibility and porius transitions will be increased. And the move to all students to retain their right to free education and training in settings outside the school gates is a most positive note on which to end the decade.

When I was a boy we used to go to the movies on Saturday afternoon. Inevitably many of the films were those grainy black and white westerns which had in them an episode in which the stagecoach got out of control as horses bolted and the driver fell off his perch at the front. Would they be saved? Who would miraculously take control?

As The Noughties unfolded I came to realise that these stagecoach episodes were allegories about tertiary education in New Zealand and that the decade was all about getting the stagecoach under control.

The tertiary horses had well and truly bolted at the beginning of the decade, the tertiary stagecoach was out of control, people were after the bullion stashed under the seat. The damsel in distress (a key part of stagecoach episodes) trapped inside, arms flailing, demanding that someone do something while the horses continued to act with a mind of their own was played to perfection by Janice Shiner while the day was saved by the cowboy who found yet another way of getting out the widow, climbing up onto the top of the stagecoach, narrowly missing getting killed by a low hanging branch, but managing to grab the reins and bring the horses under control at the edge of a precipice the size of the Grand Canyon. This part was always played by that doyen of many tertiary westerns, Max Kerr.

The Noughties have been marked in the last five years by attempts to bring about a more orderly and disciplined system where funding by volume was replaced by a more measured view of what institutions ought to be doing. In a sector that had substantially grown downwards to include a plethora of courses at low levels, some of dubious worth, many leading to no enhanced access to a productive future for students, the attempts to get institutions back into the areas they ought to be working in was timely. This will continue to the theme.

But tertiary education needs to have both a long term strategic plan – what would the sector look like in 2030 and another more immediate set of responses to plan for how it is to get there. Let’s suppose that we can solve the issue of academic preparation for young people coming out of the compulsory school sector, what do we do about the considerable number of people in our community who have seen all educational opportunity pass them by or for one reason or another have been failed by the education system. A short term strategy is needed to get them re-engaged while at the same time the tertiary education system must not be allowed to slide back to where it wanted to take itself early in The Noughties.

If that happened we would see a switch of genre – from western to zombie.

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A sorry state of affairs

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.47, 4 December 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

I am going to be the Brenda Lee of the education world.

I’m sorry, so sorry
That I was such a fool
I didn’t know
School could be so cruel
Oh, oh, oh, oh
Oh yes
You tell me mistakes
Are part of being young
But that won’t right
The wrong that’s been done
 I’m sorry, so sorry
Etc etc etc

I want to say sorry to the students who leave school without the skills to be independent.

I want to say sorry to students who miss out on getting into medical school.

I want to say sorry for having a school built below a slag heap in Abervan.

I apologise to earlier generations who didn’t attend secondary school even though very few did and despite the fact that not going to secondary school had no impact on their lives, I’m sorry.

But I draw breath in this orgy of apology. Why all this sorrifulness? Well, it’s the fashion now to say sorry for things that you weren’t responsible for. It shows greatness of spirit and takes the attention away from the things for which you might be truly sorry.

Writing recently in The Spectator, Roy Liddle describes such an apology as “the quintessential example of the modern apology; a politician who is not remotely contrite apologising for something for which he had not the vaguest responsibility and for which therefore, he cannot be blamed. A non-apology apology then – an apology for something someone else did, and what’s more, did in the best of faith.

He was commenting specifically on the Gordon Brown / Kevin Rudd pas de deux of apologies to The Forgotten Generation of British children who were packed off to Australia by parents in a scheme devised by the governments to give them a life of new opportunity away from the drudgery of post-war Britain.

Yes, they seem to have been treated a shabbily at times but no number of apologies will change that just as the as the amount of clerical abuse of young children is not minimised by any number of apologies from the church. Being contrite after the event, even after a hundred years, or 60 years, does not alter one bit, the horror or the hurt, does not put into a good light something that will always be abhorrent. So why do it, apologise that is.

Well it is an attempt for leaders to show strength of spirit. I am not talking about the regret expressed after an accident and at the time of it. I am meaning the apologies that come well after the event. Mt Erebus for example. Air NZ cannot put right by apology that which was wrong in their actions thirty years ago.

So what about the apologies from the Crown that accompany Treaty of Waitangi grievance settlements? Well, without the cash they would be pretty hollow although perhaps there is a dimension in these instances where a Bergsonian view of time means that the Treaty was signed yesterday and grievances still hurt today. In these instances there could be an element of truth in what Boese’s assertion that “forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future” and that is what I see happening in the case of treaty settlements.

But this is not the case in other apologies. I do not see forgiveness, simply increased anger and a further opportunity for people’s hurt to become explicit and be exacerbated.

In a related area, I have long wondered why there is such a strong demand for remorse and contrition by people who have had some hurt visited on them by others. In courts comment is often made that some criminal has failed to show remorse leading up to sentencing. Is it not understood that those who are capable of committing serious crimes against people do not live ina space where remorse is an option?

The might be a thin line between a demand for remorse and feelings of retribution. When you are on the side of an issue that has little power you are reduced to demanding an apology. But often, especially in the historical examples it is the apologiser who decides that there is advantage in saying sorry.

How many principals and teachers have attempted to resolve a playground scrap or some other issue by demanding an apology from the perpetrator? And how successful has that been? Well probably very successful depending on the extent to which the issue was trivial. Asking the perpetrator to say “rhubarb” would probably have worked as well and extracted a laugh from both sides. – it is simply a little ritual.

How often in some trivial dispute has sorry failed to conclude things? Go on say sorry! No!

And what about the ritualised apology of parliament? “The Hon Member for Lower Parnell is a thief and roguish blackmailer who is not to be trusted with chickens….”  “Point of order Mr Speaker.” “The member will apologise.” Then follows the Mallardism –  “I ‘poligise an’ w’draw Mis’ ‘peaker.” Honour is restored.

I spent time in Russia in the early 1980’s with a Canadian principal colleague. In those days you had to tour with a group and owe had secured a couple of places in a Uk trade union delegation. Also in the group was a woman from Germany who spent the entire tour apologising to our hosts for the atrocities visited on Russia during “The Fascist War” which was how World War II was referred to by the Russians.

Her anguish was deep and genuine, her tears were those of a person disturbed when confronted with the evidence. She was deeply remorseful. But it was for something in which she had played no part and about which she could do nothing.

Which brings us back to where we started.

On the other hand, we might be better off if we thought a little more about the impact of what we were doing and thus avoided the need for later apology.

Sorry if I have gone on at length about this

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