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Month: May 2010

ThinkEd: Questions that are ponderable

Stuart Middleton


31 May 2010

 There are questions that float around the education world that I wonder about. Do you?

Have we learnt the lesson that policies which are untargeted will eventually become perverse?

The 20 Free Hours was always going to miss the group it intended to help – those who struggled to get children into early childhood education because they simply didn’t have the money for fees. Instead it became a means of freeing up money for those who were already able to get their children into a programme. Alternately it meant that some who could afford say three days early childhood education while they returned to work were now able to increase that to a full working week.

They should not be criticised for that by any means but the outcome of all this was that there was no increase in access for those sections of the community that could not afford any ECE or were in areas within the community where none was available.

Why reward employers rather than teachers when teachers improve qualifications?

 Again, Early Childhood Education has provided a valuable lesson for the rest of the system. Linking the MOE subsidies payable to centres to the level of qualifications of staff meant that over time lifting the level of qualifications of the teaching staff in a centre became a perverse driver for profit rather than a positive driver for quality provision. Private providers of ECE were able to offer incentives for those whose qualifications were gained on the back of other centres and were then rewarded with higher subsidies.

Teachers should be paid for improved qualifications but that should be reflected in wages. There seems no good reason why Early Childhood Centres should not be on the same financial basis as the primary or secondary sectors.

 Was it inevitable that National Standards would become less of an issue when teachers got on with what they do best – teaching and knowing what they are doing?

The great hoohaa about national standards always reflected poorly on the professionalism and quality of teachers. They know all of this stuff and the existence of a framework for reporting enables them to demonstrate to their communities just how well the children are benefitting from good teaching. League tables when they make their inevitable appearance will be simply a load of media piffle.

Have the reforms coming out of Tomorrow’s Schools reached the end of their useful life?

Voter turnout for our national elections sits currently at about 80% of voters while local authorities are get about half of this voter support, about 40%. The recent elections for Boards of Trustees make for pitiful reading. The advertisements in my local paper show that the average of the top three candidates elected to their respective six Boards of Trustees  did so on the strength of a turnout that was 12.5%, 16%, 16%, 18.5%, 23% and 33% of parents respectively. Boards of Trustees must now have the lowest level of turnout in elections held in New Zealand (this included a good range of deciles too).

Now this research will not create a new standard in the psephological arts but I am wondering whether it is time to say that the governance of school is by and large undertaken by groups that might not really have a warrant to do so in terms of democratic representation.

What recent statistic rang bells for me?

A small group of developed countries now takes a hugely disproportionate number of doctors and nurses trained in developing countries. That group is New Zealand, Australia, United States of America, Canada and the United Kingdom. This is the same group of countries in which the phenomenon of disengagement from education had developed and flourished.  Go figure, as they say.

New Zealand is also in this pattern with one exception – it finds it hard to welcome and integrate health professionals from the Pacific largely because of English language requirements that a good proportion of home-grown health professionals would not reach.

Whose end of the court is the School Ball in?

Why don’t some people get it? The whole school ball fiasco is the responsibility of the school – the Pre-balls (and why they have escaped attention beats me), the actual Ball (can there any longer be any point to these at all?), and the After- should all be consigned to the scrap heap of social change along with the Debutante Balls, the Grand Parade at balls, the Maxina and a whole lot of other stuff which might once have been good but which now are not.

 Will it take a scandal or tragedy before schools say, sorry but…. And the idea that parents should accompany their children to the after-ball for the sole purpose of buying the plonk is so bizarre that we give thanks the idea came from businessmen and not school teachers.

There will be other questions but they will have to wait.


Think-Ed: Post- budget musings

Stuart Middleton


24 May 2010


The government is getting good advice from somewhere and this is apparent in the budget announcements related to education.

Of course there was the compulsory and indignant hue and cry about Early Childhood Education. But changing policies in ECE is not a form of child abuse nor should any education sector be left alone to travel in unproductive directions when it is clear that change is necessary.

The 20 Free Hours was always going to be something of a dog. It was totally untargeted and the fears that it would not increase participation nor would it see inroads being made in areas where access was appallingly low. This has turned out to be true. Fewer students consume more of the resource and while the 20 free hours is fine in theory and attractive to young parents – of course it is – it needed a good re-think. If the additional spending ($200 miliion) had been announced without the other attendant changes it might even have been greeted with glee.

The much praised intention of getting in place a highly qualified teaching force in early childhood education is becoming something of a perverse driver of funding allocation. Centres can effect dramatic increases in funding by getting their staff qualified without any increase in the numbers of children who have access to ECE. I was startled a little by a recent newspaper article I read in which the proprietor of a ECE centre spoke with pride that the $70,000 they had spent in getting their staff up to the required level was a good investment in terms of the additional funding that it brought in.

With ECE spending now at $1.4 billion it seems appropriate to ask whether it has the impact on education that it should. And whether the funding is being consumed increasingly by factors that do not increase access.

A few extra places for tertiary seems appropriate – not many but a few. But floating around this was a hint that the issue of paying out for unsuccessful students is a luxury that one day will have to cease. This will be one of the biggest issues tertiary education has had to face when the government decides to act – middle of its second term perhaps?

It is interesting that the fact that about half of those starting a post-secondary qualification complete it while about half do not has been remarkably static over a very long time and it seems to be able to resist reforms, increases so-called in participation, the growing of “tertiary” offerings downwards and so on.

Finding a mechanism to fund only success will not be easy. Of course the universities will be able to respond simply by becoming more selective which will suit some of them but not others. There will have to be some really hard thinking around the place “open access” has in our system. This role is carried by the community colleges in the US and de facto by the polytechnic system in New Zealand.

And this is where early childhood education (with its 20 free hours) and tertiary (with its open access) come together to share a similar issue. How do you balance the importance of targeting expenditure with the fact that you have to throw it around a bit simply because it is difficult to predict success. Perhaps the answer in both cases is to give the money directly one way or another to the parent of the little ones and, in tertiary, to the prospective student.

At this point reasoned discussion is usually drowned out by a wild mob screaming “voucher, voucher, voucher!”

But to continue. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the tertiary student to be accountable for their success and therefore their ability to continue studies rather than the institution. Failure to maintain a satisfactory level of success simply sees the allowance withdrawn. This would place an appropriate level of pressure on the institution which would be relying on continued success for enrolments at higher levels but that is exactly the case now.

This is all very well but one suspects that throwing the cash at it is in the long term the cheaper option. The word cumbersome springs to mind in thinking about the systems required to manage all this.

Targeting resources in education is perhaps not a very precise science. I guess it depends on whether you are content to hit the target or whether you want to hit the bulls eye.

Access has the look of a good investment. But it is unless it is measured in terms of outputs rather than inputs. It is what the Early Childhood Education programme gives a little one access to which matters. Presumably this is access to a good start at school or is there another purpose that I haven’t latched on to yet?

At a tertiary level, access is about what the tertiary education experience gives you access to – increased opportunity, employment, the ability to support your family and so on. Access isn’t worth much if it means only getting in to the place and exercising your right to fail.

It’s not so much the spending but the way we are spending.

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Think-Ed: Out of our minds and beaten?

Stuart Middleton


17 May 2010

Have we all gone stark raving mad?

It is a clinical diagnosis of insanity to continue to behave as you have always done but expect different results.

We are constantly showered with clear evidence that we have issues in New Zealand with violence and booze – the two are not unrelated. In schools this past week we have grappled with two major issues – booze and violence. And yet the solutions offer little hope.

If ever we needed courageous leadership it is now.

Take booze for example. The government backs off and leaves the issue of youth drunkenness unresolved. This in turn leaves schools somewhat on their own grappling with the issue – especially as it expresses itself in the form of school after-balls and the 3am swill that they have become. Schools continue the mantra – they are nothing to do with us. They are wrong – they are everything to do with schools since it is schools that provide the network used to set up these insidious and dangerous functions. The school ball is the first and necessary half of an evening which has as its second half the school after-ball.

The answer is clear. If schools want to stamp out the after-balls they simply have to abandon without compunction the practice of school balls completely. Don’t hold them and then there would be point in after-balls. Young people could simply get drunk as they do on the other 51 weeks of the year. Or do they? Perhaps after-balls actually entice young people who are not yet heavy drinkers a little further along the path.

It is not as if school balls themselves are entirely plain sailing. For many years drink, hotel rooms, pre-balls have all contributed to the looseness that has found full-expression in factories and other seedy environments throughout the rest of the next. The first segues into the second as smoothly and seamlessly as a Viennese waltz.

It was once and still might be a tradition for retiring principals to express to their colleagues their great relief that they would never have to attend another school ball.

What is most appalling is the seeming connivance of parents in all this. Quite clearly there are parents who are prepared to assist their children in either helping organising these events or at least participating in the deception that is involved. If schools do not have communities behind them then they might just accept that the cause is lost.

I wonder if the expulsion of students attending after-balls would achieve an improvement. It wouldn’t but it would make for interesting television and perhaps the school that sacks 100 senior students for attending an after-ball on the grounds that they had wilfully disobeyed instructions, had put other students into risk of harm and had brought disgrace to the school. This could be supported by a good police effort in bringing charges against all adults involved.

Of course, you think, this would never happen and you would be right. That is how large the gap is now between the values of schools and the behaviour of the community.

Otago University has taken quite some time to steel itself to the reality that it has to take action against the lawless and drunken behaviour of many of its students. Perhaps their hesitancy has been a degree of doubt that this is what the community actually supports.

As a community we cannot continue to leave educational institution isolated on these issues of moral values and behaviour.

Right in the midst of the ball season and all that goes with it now we get a survey that shows support for the return of caning. Here are a few simple questions:

Would the teacher stabbed in his back in class have been expected to whip out his cane and joust with the perpetrator? Would caning have had any impact in the girls’ school where a student was carrying knives? Or is it intended that girls be caned as well? Would caning produce an environment in which bully decreased? Is it a coincidence that those supporting this latest call for caning to be reintroduced see it as a package involving the legalisation of smacking and the use of longer prison sentences? What chance do schools have to get it right when the community seems quite unable to get an agreed position?

I have said it before – the only safe place to draw a line about physical punishment is where it is clearly and without exception banned.

Of course there are a huge number of wonderful things happening with a great number of young people. But the focus is constantly on the bits that are going wrong. What a pity, what a great pity.

And one other thing – it would be so good to ban those stupid hand signals that seem now to be de rigueur across all groups within the community. It only socialises the use of them by gangs and those who use them aggressively.  And that is exactly the process by which drinking to excess became normal and how we ended up with the view that order can only be maintained in schools through physical punishments.


Think-Ed: Building for the future – tests and edifices

Stuart Middleton


11 May 2010

Things are playing out along similar lines on both sides of the Tasman with regard to the reporting of student progress to parents.

Last week teachers in NSW decided that they would not co-operate with the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy programme which has the unfortunate acronym of NAPLAN, I kept thinking NAPALM as both sides bombed in their respective arguments.

Just as in New Zealand, the Minister is able to keep up a simple argument – parents have a right to know and so on. But this time Minister Julia Guillard (or one of her officials perhaps) took it all a step further. When teachers said that they would not administer the NAPLAN tests, officials swooped on schools to collect the test papers with the claim that they would administer the tests themselves in church halls if they had to! This was Keystone Cops farce at its best. Eventually the government offered a Working Party and the teachers backed off if not down.

Now the whole business emphasised a critical difference between Australia and New Zealand. Over there the reporting programme is based on tests – external tests, delivered to the school and administered on the same day to all the little ones – this is School Certificate with trainer wheels and NSW teachers are right to call it crazy. At least in New Zealand teachers have the choice of assessment tools and procedures they can use provided they are able to report progress against standards that are prescribed,

But is the heat of the issue in Australia that surprises me. Gilliard has one of those Australian manners that mean when she gets on to the front foot she is aggressive and frankly unpleasant. She introduced the “myschool” website which offers to parents a chance to get the league tables without having to wait for the media to piece it together. Parents’ right-to-know-about-their-“schule” and all that.

I predict further troubles with the direction they are heading in. And it is not as if everything else is going well in the school sector.

When the economic recession came along the Australian federal government launched into a programme they called the Building the Education Revolution Programme in which a new school hall or library would be built in each and every school. The problem was that it was a new school hall or library whether you wanted or needed one or not and some schools most certainly did not. Others thought the idea great until they saw what they got!

It is reported that some schools had perfectly sound buildings removed to make way for the new hall only to find that the old one it replaced (which was too small to fit the school in) was too small to fit the school in. In one case this was achieved by demolishing a child-care facility to make room for it! In another a perfectly sound classroom block (surplus to requirements you know) was bowled over. Schools were pretty tetchy about it and have been for some time.

Now the Auditor General reports that the planning of the programme was flawed right from the start and that the $AUD1.7 billion blowout was inevitable. The $AUD12.4 billion allocated to the BER programme was simply calculated on the basis that at least 10% of schools would not participate and more would accept something less that then the maximum grant. So what on the face of it looked like a wonderful chance to enhance infrastructure is suddenly getting bas press. The well-meaning scheme was designed also to support te building industry and they have certainly come to the party with construction costs for some single storey school halls costing twice as much per square metre than a Sydney high-rise.

It is all very well for the Australian government to introduce scorecards of various kinds to assess the quality of the work of teachers and schools (however well such a programme is dressed up to be about the progress of students) but what about a scorecard for the performance of the government? Was the $14.1billion spent to this point on building the education revolution well targeted? It seems not. Would it have every produced the kind of step change that constitutes a revolution? It seems not.

But it did provide the Rudd government with some great press early on when the scheme was announced.

Quick political wins in education in Australia are seemingly not being translated into long term gains and that is the issue.

Would not an “education revolution” have focussed on the literacy needs of young Australians and could not the resources poured into school halls (and some into libraries) have been more wisely spent on better instruction, better levels of availability of high quality teachers and better ways of getting government, teachers and communities to work together to win the real war – the battle against incompetence, lack of skills and impoverished life chances? Of course it would.

But then there would not have been the political photo-opportunities for politicians. Better to open a building than watch as a national testing regime fails to lift literacy and numeracy rates.  

Thank goodness New Zealand has not gone down the road to more testing. Buildings are testing enough!

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News Ed: Bard language

Stuart Middleton


4 May 2010

Recent news is of a teacher sacked for teaching students King Lear. It transpires that the allegations of improper behaviour hinge on her using a “modern” version of the play. It is one of the schools that are established to pursue a particular set of values and behaviours as is their right. And it is unclear whether Shakespeare in the original can be taught,

That aside. Are we to conclude that the teaching of Shakespeare is acceptable when student don’t understand it? That shouldn’t be hard, students have for years struggled with The Bard and it is only the rather glib contact with his language that has obscured the adult content of these plays taught to young ones.

My Mum would have taken the view that if they understood it then no harm would be done and if they didn’t? Then no harm would be done. But offense in the eyes and ears of the beholder so there is little point in thinking that your own values will prevail. If a school doesn’t want translated Elizabethan smut then so be it.

I remember as a young teacher using the musical Hair to engage an English class and they were engaged – especially with a sung version of the Shakespearian soliloquy “What a piece of work is man….” which really showed wonderfully well the rhythms of a soliloquy seemingly written in prose. The principal became aware of it and asked what the lessons were aimed at. I think I satisfied him and he settled for giving me the advice “Be careful, we don’t want to encourage that sort of stuff.” I think he meant other parts of the show rather than the Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet could never have become the teen favourite it has if the grownups had understood the language but perhaps that is a good thing. The emotion, the general drifts of the plot and the power of the theme were always great to teach. And to support it with Tchaikovsky’s wonderful Romeo and Juliet – a stirring piece which he labelled an Overture – Fantasy.

Shakespeare is not the real world. Nor some of the responses to his language in whatever form.

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Think-Ed: Fiscal obesity and binge thinking

New Developments at EdTalkNZ

Starting from this week, there will be three kinds of postings on EdTalkNZ:

Think-Ed:              the weekly column style commentary on some aspect of education that is posted each Monday;

News-Ed:              a shorter response to key pieces of education news as soon as it happens;

Lite-Ed:                  occasional light pieces that remind us that the essential tool for educators is a sound sense of humour.

There are chances for you to respond to these and your responses are greatly welcomed.


Fiscal obesity and binge thinking

Stuart Middleton


I wonder if there are conditions in Education called fiscal obesity and binge thinking?

Fiscal obesity is a condition of education system health brought on by inappropriate consumption of funding. Driven by this obsession with eating cash and with no systemic equivalent of stomach stapling on the horizon, the response to any suggestion of increased activity is a request for additional resources. Consequently the education system has become over-weight and can seemingly move only slowly.

If progress is to be made then we will have to understand that it’s not only the amount of cash we eat in education that is the issue but also the kinds of cash we have an insatiable appetite for. At the top of the list is straight out formula funding that damages the health because it encourages inactivity and is automatically available – the door of this fridge is never locked! Better would be a demand that there be an examination of the food/funding being consumed now and an ability to see that sensible amounts and a balanced diet would achieve more.

Surely we can cut down some of the funding levels in the interests of increasing achievement levels? Somewhere there must be something currently funded that we can reduce, or cut out, or use differently in order to do something else. There must be funding that we could openly identify and question if we weren’t justifiably concerned that we will lose it should we do so. Would it not be good to have a budget that focused not on the cash that was to be distributed but rather a set of imperatives for use of the cash we already have? Would it be a challenge to then set out the parameters for education itself to redistribute funding?

Obesity is often but not exclusively an illness of advantage – those who can afford more food are fatter through over-eating (travel to the USA for some evidence of this) – and, ironically a disease of disadvantage – those who cannot afford appropriate food eat too much of food that is too wrong! So redistribution could well achieve better results across the board.

On the other hand, raising this question could result in a bout of binge thinking. This is characterised by unrelenting discussion on one aspect of education without addressing the wider holistic settings in which that aspect has to operate.

Binge thinking about funding early childhood education has seem the 20 Free Hours resource being so badly targeted that it is producing the perverse effect of reducing access to early childhood for some areas while fewer little ones consume more of the places available. Getting high and happy on the idea that access and more of it is better for everyone ignores the hard cold sober fact that access probably has to be rationed.

We know that two years of 15 hours a week quality early childhood education a week makes all the difference to the subsequent educational progress of little ones. But we measure access by the number of the little ones who get into the sandpit. If a little one is consuming 30 hours a week then they are also getting someone else’s share. The binge says more is better – it’s not our consumption of the ECE resource that is the problem, it is the way we consume it.

Binge thinking also affects our approach to change in education. Recourse to the rosy glow of Shangri La that is our own recollection of education, the community calls for much less change in education than the results currently justify. What is lost in the haze is the fact that education was never asked to work with the range of students (both age and needs) that it has to now and yet we belt out songs of the old days and demand that education now does something that it has never achieved – balancing universal access to primary, secondary and tertiary education with sound educational outcomes for all. The reasons for this are matters for another day; suffice to say that hard, cold, sober thinking would see the need to think differently about pathways and the importance of questioning the ability of the education system to achieve outcomes that reflect equity in their distribution and access in the opportunities it leads to.

No it’s back to the piano for a good old sing-song until the keg of educational thinking is empty.

Binge thinking also characterised much of the discussion about National Standards, as the discussion proceeded all sight was lost of both the actual purpose of the government’s proposal and the validity of the concerns educators had. Less of this discussion would have been more and the solution of simply having to get on with it is surprisingly sobering.

The health of the education system is critical to all health in the community – it is important that we have a check-up from time to time.