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Lady of La Mantra

Stuart Middleton
1 February 2010

“Every day in New Zealand, 150,000 children are not being taught to read and write.”

This was the mantra that Education Minister Hon Ann Tolley repeatedly turned back to during a radio interview about the National Standards. These debates / discussions / arguments continue and the styles of the two sides have become an interesting contrast.

“Every day in New Zealand, 150,000 children are not being taught to read and write.”

The Minister has a simple and clear message in this mantra. Her message is short, understood by the community and, seemingly, not open to rebuttal from the professionals. To the government this is what the discussion is all about, the simple fact that in our education system too many young people are failing to put into place the skills of literacy and numeracy. For the community, this is a self-evident truth.

But the profession prefers complexity and our side of the discussion wants to get into detailed analysis of what the experience of other countries has been. We want to promote the usefulness of research that is methodologically elegant. Our predilection is to use words like pedagogy. When desperate we claim that “we are already doing this.”

But perhaps the position that is least understood by the community is our wanting a trial. They have been taken for something of a ride in the past by these tactics. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and education pilot programmes from New Zealand. Our track record is to elongate trials until eventually implementation is but a fond memory. Meanwhile…..

“Every day in New Zealand, 150,000 children are not being taught to read and write.”

There are reports that the government is talking with John Hattie about all this. That is excellent and they will be getting good advice from a sound professional who has both led in this field and has a grasp of the wider research. So will action follow? Will the course all this is on change?

Perhaps the educators need to start communicating much more simply to their constituency of parents. Hone Tuwhare had little patience with the monkey language of professionals which in a lovely poem, Deliver Us, he argued left us largely talking to ourselves. What might be some ofthe simple mantras that would get messages across?

“A place in a pre-school centre for every three year old.”

This would be a good place to start. Recent discussion of early childhood education provision in New Zealand has once again made explicit the fact that we seem to be making an effort but it is being swamped by the demands of the demographics. As predicted many times in my earlier columns, the 20 Free Hours policy has been untargeted and counter-productive. Fewer little ones now fill up a greater proportion of the places. The policy has been good for some parents but has made little impact on getting more little ones into quality early childhood education.

“What schools can do might be much less than we have come to claim.”

There was a tendency for the school system to take up a call for increased resources as the default position whenever change is proposed. Give us the tools and we will do the job! But there are many jobs that schools simply can’t do – compensating for poor housing, coping with inadequate health provision, providing the support for children that family sustaining wages bring into homes and so on.

What then can we do? The great irony is that we can teach young ones to read and write and do their sums. There might be evidence that when we succeed in this, we do it as well as any system in the world. But…..

“Every day in New Zealand, 150,000 children are not being taught to read and write.”

The English-speaking education systems (i.e. Australia, Canada, United States, Great Britain and NZ) all face the same dilemma. The students we are good at teaching are becoming a smaller proportion of the school population while those we have, in all honesty, always struggled with are becoming much more prevalent. What we used to think of as minorities will become majorities – indeed they already have in many places. The issues that we face in New Zealand are the same issues faced throughout those English-speaking education systems. What we have got in our favour is the question of scale.

Coping with 150,000 (if that is the figure) failing students is a much easier call than say coping with the issues of Hispanics in the US system. If we knew who those 150,000 young ones are, then is it beyond our wit to do something about it? If schools and their teachers do know who they are (Remember Claim 1: “We are already doing this.”) and can assess just where each student has reached (Remember Claim 2: “We already have a good testing regime.”) then why is this issue seemingly but doggedly continuing to haunt us?

“Every day in New Zealand, 150,000 children are not being taught to read and write.”

I cannot bring myself to believe that we don’t know what to do. I can only assume that we have somewhere along the way lost a sense of the points to which we should take young people in their journey through school. What constitutes good preparation for starting school? What should be the point that signifies completion of basic / elementary / primary education? What is the role of secondary schools in preparing students for whatever is to foolw?

Perhaps our understanding of student progress has been too fixed on accurate assessment of only where a student is rather than on where they should be and how to get there. We have replaced the six standards of primary education and the much more sharply defined purpose of secondary schooling with chunks of goals and purposes which are so large it’s easy for individual students to struggle and even to disappear. We have to address the fact that “Every day in New Zealand, 150,000 children are not being taught to read and write.”

Otherwise the Lady of the Mantra will continue to hold centre stage, the education system will incessantly tilt at windmills and too many students simply left wondering about the impossible dream.

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