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Think-Ed: The National Sport of bagging the National Standards

Stuart Middleton
21 February 2011

There are, we are told, 500 primary schools that are standing out from the Government’s requirement that they report to their community on National Standards. They disagree with the approach one assumes and believe that they can do as they please in this matter.

Recently they leapt on some comments from the Prime Minister, made during the visit to New Zealand of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard, that there were issues with the National Standards and that the implementation was bringing these to the surface. “There we told you so!” was the cry, “even the PM says so.”

Well in fact what he said was only that there were issues with the National Standards and that further work would be needed. It seemed to me that he was being entirely open about a major policy being rolled out across the country that relied on the large number of Principals and even larger number of teachers in a large number of schools for its implementation. This is a complex development and while many in New Zealand have great difficulty dealing with uncertainty, it is not possible to finish a development without starting it as they would seem to wish. You can’t finish a development before you start it as some would seem to wish.

This results in pilot schemes, trials, reviews and a swill of consultation, the net result of which is usually the socialisation of a change into the ways things have always been done. It is not the issue of what a development does to schools but rather what schools do to a development.  Change, if it is to happen, requires us to cope with uncertainty and to demonstrate a flexibility of thinking and a capacity to modify our actions in the interests of continuous improvement. There is no fixed state.

It should also be remembered that PM Julia Gilliard, when she was Minister of Education, gathered together a coterie of like-minded Principals around her and with them agreed to push ahead with the  website. In its own words:

My School enables you to search the profiles of almost 10,000 Australian schools. You can quickly locate statistical and contextual information about schools in your community and compare them with statistically similar schools across the country…

My School 2.0 will be ready to be released from 4 March 2011. The expanded and updated version of the site will provide parents and the community with information about NAPLAN performance as well as information about school finances and school communities. To find out about the new features of My School version 2 click here.

NAPLAN is the Australian National Assessment Programme for Literacy and Numeracy, a national testing programme. Now if some New Zealand schools would prefer to have tests arrive at the school in sealed envelopes which after having been sat and graded will be reported on in a web site that offers an easy technology for the comparison of schools – the X-box of League Tables – then I am surprised. If testing regimes brought about improvements in performance then why do they consistently and comprehensively fail in the USA? If the test approach works to lift reading and mathematics standards then why does the UK struggle?

New Zealand has set out on an accountability regime that is different. It is a high trust model that says to schools that they have competence as professional for the teaching and assessment of learning and the evaluation of progress. Schools achieve this in many different ways. But let us have a consistent standard of reporting this to parents so that they can find out about their sons’ and daughters’ progress in a consistent manner that meets standards in reporting. Give me this approach over the test-driven one any day!

The height of absurdity from those who oppose National Standards was reached when it was announced that Mary Chamberlain, who has led this development so well after having contributed significantly to the development of the curriculum, was leaving the Ministry of Education in order to spend increased time in Auckland where she lives. This was seen as an ideal opportunity to stop the development, to pause in its implementation, to have a rethink and so on. Time to have a cup of tea!

Developments are never the work of one person and while the burden of leadership in them is a significant responsibility, a good development is not contingent on that one person. Ideas and principles will prevail, momentum will continue and life carries on.

I worry that once again in the Education system we will carry into an election year some of the old tired arguments and the opposition to National Standards has now become one of those. The real issues that we should be seen to have commitment to tackle are to do with achievement and the long tail of educational failure that in terms of the international community to which we aspire to belong, is as long as it gets.  The issue is the 20% who leave school before the legal school-leaving age and it is about those who stay in the system for little or no reward.

Real issues deserve attention and the irony here is that for once the issues we should be tackling head on are the very same issues governments (for the awareness is now bipartisan in New Zealand) would also care to address. We should be working with them to develop a strategy, a plan and a way forward. This would be much more productive than carping on about National Standards.

It is time to get over it and move on.

Published inEducation


  1. Edgar Wilson Edgar Wilson

    Thank you Stuart. For years, including time on a Primary BOT, I requested valid comparative data on how the children were progressing. Repeatedly I was told ‘we know best’ Having taught secondary for 28 years I question whether teachers, myslef included, do ‘know best’. The community, involving families, indivduals, employers seem to have a pretty firm grasp on ‘what is best’!

    The sooner the National Standards is implemented in a valid and useful way the sooner the large number of post secondary people with no or low literacy/numeracy skills can have positive intervention at an early time in thier lives.

    I very much appreciate your thinking and I hope the positives you are expressing become reality with the National Standards.

    All the best, Edgar

  2. Neil Robinson Neil Robinson

    Sadly, this article misses the point. As an experienced principal I can assure you that primary educators are not against change per se. I can’t think of a time when we have not been part of educational reform of some sort or another. This is business as usual. The main issue here is that the National Standards have not been researched and are not accurate and will therefore produce assessment data which is false. my dilemma is, should I use proven assessment methods and provide my parents with accurate information, or should I tell them things that I know are not true?
    I am a strong advocate for telling parents exactly how it is. Whilst there is definitely room for improvement in this area, National Standards will not solve this or any other issue.
    Incidentally, according to the latest OECD data, Australia’s position in the world has dropped since they introduced National Standards. Am I reading it incorrectly, or is New Zealand the best performing English speaking country in the OECD? Let’s us not copy a system which has failed.

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