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Stuart Middleton’s latest posting
Inspirational rather than perspirational
25 January 2010
There was a popular slogan that ran through management literature a decade or so ago – “Don’t sweat the small stuff!”
As we start another decade it is probably useful to identify the stuff that isn’t small and worth a little sweat.
In Early Childhood Education this is easy – access to 15 hours of quality early childhood education for each and every pre-schooler in New Zealand. A country that prides itself on the the quality of its overall education system can have no other goal – it is simply the foundation on which later education success is built. Everything else isn’t worth working up a sweat.
In Primary Education (and that includes intermediate schools) it has to be an unrelenting focus on the acquisition of basic skills. Without the sound basis of literacy, numeracy and digital skills that are the responsibility of primary schools, little else can happen without great cost to the community and pain to the individual. The curriculum for primary schools covers a very wide range of activity and learning areas but the purpose of these is simply to give teachers something to teach basic skills with.
Secondary Education similarly has a simple goal – to give direction and shape to a young person’s education so that the skills and knowledge that they have gained to this point can be applied in a manner that ensures a sound future. This includes the development of the generic skills of learning to a point where they can be transferred by the learner to apply to new settings. This sounds a little like lifelong learning methinks. The mark of success of secondary schooling is the extent to which every school leaver continues on a seamless track to further education and training or into employment for work-based training.
Postsecondary education (well it ought to be tertiary education but it will be a while before that name can be applied appropriately to all that follows “secondary” schooling) takes these learners with secure basic skills, with robust learning skills and leads them into the higher qualifications that life will demand of them. Not all these qualifications will be at the highest level brecause there are skills required out there at every level – the middle technician through to the most esoteric and theoretical academic, the skilled routine worker through to the brilliantly skilled craftsperson.
There that is done! Now we know where we will be headed in the twenty-something years of the next decade -access, basic skills, then focussed skills, eventually lifelong learning and finally postsecondary qualifcation. Setting such clear goals for each stage of the education system should allow those stages to focus on their part and their contribution.
The goals of education are elegantly simple and the ways and means horrendously complex. But that is our problem not the public’s. So we have to focus on the big stuff and not get all sweaty about the other stuff.
So what do we have to leave behind, move on from?
National standards for a start. We have failed to bring the public with us on this one so now we simply have to implement them and show what a good job we are doing. The national standards cannot make educational failure and disengagement any more explicit than they are already but they could well show many in the community just what a good deal so many students are getting.
Then we need to get over and move on from the current hesitancy to highlight educational issues in racial terms. The unwillingness to be explicit about the racial characteristics of educational performance is not helping anyone least of all schools. How can we develop a rational and fairs approach to resourcing schools when the task they indidually face is being masked by this way of operating.
New Zealand is facing huge demographic changes and we have little chance of first understanding these and then responding to them if the discourse on education is to remain beige.
Finally, and this is the challenge for the decade, we need to seriously question the extent to which sectors in education continue to serve a useful purpose. The stages they represent are in fact little more than the growth rings of the development of our kind of education system. Primary and Higher Eduction were there first, then grew Secondary and Early Childhood Education. It has little to do with students and the way they learn or develop or respond.
Intermediate schools were a response to the boom of babies after the Second World War rather than a considered response that flowed from a measured discussion – what a pity the middle school discussion never got off the ground.
Perhaps it is time for us to seriously consider how we are to position our education resources to meet the needs of the next 100 years. But let’s start by making this decade simpler and more purposeful, more inspirational than persirational, concerned with the big stuff not the other stuff.
Above all, let’s have a decade of everyone working together – teachers, communities, government agencies, politicians. That would have to start with much wider agreement on what matters.