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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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