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Month: January 2012

Talk-Ed: Yawn topics we can expect

Stuart Middleton
30 January 2012


So it’s back to school this week and the media are starting to grind out their annual stories that they dust off and make a gesture to updating at this time of the year.

At the top of the list is the question of cost.

This year the initial focus has been on stationery and the direction of parents towards a specific supplier. Of course the schools are clipping the ticket and getting a payment directly as a result.  The company then tries to cover itself in by describing these payments as “grants” to the school under its benevolent and philanthropic scheme which will have a catchy little name of some sort.

When I went to school we got the cheapest books we could find and covered them with wall paper.  Nowadays when they cover exercise books it is with a synthetic material that sticks to the books.  This is excellent occupational therapy for the parents that end up doing it.

Stationery is stationery.  Unless schools can show that they have secured a good deal for parents, a better deal than the parents could get on their own, they should stay out of it.

Then in a few days the story about school uniforms will appear in our papers.  This is now another anachronism in education.  Someone claimed to me the other day that the single achievement of the administrative reform of schools (as in Tomorrow’s Schools) had been to put primary kids into uniform.  I doubt very much whether a school can dress its students more cheaply than any school uniform.  I look in the windows of those uniform shops as I pass and on the basis of such scientific evidence, confirm that this is so.

A funny thing is that when I went to school there was no uniform but when I look at the school photos, invariably the boys are clad in grey and even a surprising number of the girls are wearing gym tunics of the old fashioned kind.  But our school clothes would have been in the category of “tidy” perhaps even “going out” clothes and so got a use that was wider than any school uniform of garish colour, quaint checks, logos and stripes ever would.

So with the wide availability of young persons’ clothing at cheap prices, the days of school uniforms should be numbered.  And the old argument that uniforms make it evident who should be at school and are a deterrent to truancy is well and truly defeated by the facts.

There could be an argument to be made about sunhats.  It is a sensible requirement for which compulsion can be justified.

So, stationery and uniforms will tie the media up this first week.  Then there is a lull while the media gets back into its diet of wall-to-wall coverage of road smashes, its continued support for the cult of the victim (of all kinds) and, since there is still time before summer ends, some competition that sees our morning paper filled with contributions from readers.

But by Week 3 it will be time for the hardy annual – the shock horror story of school fees.  Of course no-one cares what the independents do, they charge what they like and their parents like what they charge since they are too polite to say otherwise.

But parents of children attending state school do ask the question: “If my child goes to a state school in a system that has since 1877 claimed to have a system that is free, compulsory and secular, why do I get a bill for a sum of money to have my child compulsorily attend this free school?  This is a good question and it never gets a convincing answer.

In truth, these fees are charged by schools because they can get away with it. And this education black market distorts funding in an extraordinary way.  High decile schools rake it in while low decile schools do not.  The schools with arguably the greatest need are the ones with the weakest power in this.

It really should be regulated for reasons that are about equity, ethical behaviour and, indeed, the legal framework within which schools operate.  But as sure as there are little green apples, the practice will continue, the complaints will be aired and nothing will be done to address it.

How refreshing it will be if the newspapers prove me to be wrong.


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Pathways-ED: Teach First New Zealand or First Teach New Zealand


Stuart Middleton
26 January 2012


Debate goes back and forth about the plans of the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland to bring to New Zealand a movement that has its origins in the education reform zeal of the United States – Teach First [add Country name]. The results to this point internationally of such programmes are pretty neutral – works in some places, less successful in others.

Like most reforms in schooling the fundamental flaw that it has is that it will simply bring young teachers into the schools to do the same things that schools have always done. If you continue to do the same thing you will get the same results. This is so clearly true that it almost sounds trite when said now.

Recruiting young teachers differently doesn’t address the key issues that must be addressed which might be summarised as follows:

Is the curriculum right for the world in which young people have to survive? Clearly not. That is why so many young people do not succeed and are at risk.

Will socialising young teachers, however clever they might be and however they are recruited, into schools bring about curriculum change? No, it has always been beyond the power of young teachers to do other than fall into line, teach what is required of them and is mandated by departmental plans, curriculum documents and so on. If students are failing in the current programmes they will continue to fail in the programmes delivered by the Teach First novice teachers.

Is a general academic programme taught in the setting of a comprehensive secondary school in the interests of all students? Clearly not. The evidence is overwhelming that disengagement is the result of the narrowing of the curriculum, the general nature of the curriculum, the requirement that students stay in school until an older age and the removal of clear vocational pathways and choices.

The evidence is clear – the most distinct marker between those systems that are successful and those that are not is the extent of the availability of vocation choices for students.

These are fundamental issues. How we recruit and train teachers is not going to advance changes in any of these areas.

So the discussion about Teach First New Zealand is at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction.

As a Head of Department, a Principal and a Director of Secondary Teacher Education, I know full well that a trained teacher is likely to be a better fit than an untrained teacher. There are things to be learned about teaching and learning and teachers need to know this material. It can’t simply be absorbed in some way or another.

But I also know that there are many ways of packaging teacher education and the pressure-cooker / block course approach is as good or as bad as any other approach. In 1981 I wrote with a colleague a programme of teacher education based in a multicultural setting. It had many of the characteristics of the Teach First programme. Of course it was rejected back then when the mainstream teacher education system knew better!

There is an element of naivety in the claims that top Maori and Pacific graduates will be attracted into teaching by a programme that offers a Limited Authority to Teach salary. This is an untested assumption that seems to ignore the realities of the demand for quality Maori and Pacific graduates. It has always been the case that attracting young people to teaching is a combination of things – a sense of the worthwhile, a sense of vocation, empathy for young people, love of the academic discipline and… a fair and reasonable remuneration.

It is also somewhat ingenuous to put the Teach First programme forward as a key contribution to lifting the value of low decile schools. There is little evidence that low decile schools need bright young novice teachers any more than any school does. Is it understood that the “decile rating” system is a description of the students who attend the school, their families and the communities from which they come?

It is hard work being a teacher in a low decile school. High maintenance students, layers of language issues, communities keen to support their little ones but without the wherewithal to do so and less money sloshing around in both the community and the school, all conspire to place demands on teachers. Low decile schools are the creation of the state which created communities of disadvantage through housing policies and until these undergo a transformation (as is being attempted in Tamaki) schools will continue to be in a lonely battle against the negative forces that are the real issue. The responsibility for addressing these issues lies firmly with the state.

Leaking houses, toxic waste sites,  the Christchurch rebuild – there are many examples of the state accepting a responsibility to put things right.

Teach First can never put things right in education. Nor does to be fair teacher education. The changes required are fundamental and significant in their scale.



Talk-ED: A new year, a new response?


Stuart Middleton
23 January 2012

It’s that time again when all over the country students set off to start another calendar year of schooling, education and training. Some of those students will be the first batch of the 30,000 or so who will start school for the first time having reached that magic day, their fifth birthday. What a wonderful thing it is that we retain this tradition rather than do the bulk lot thing that they do in other systems (the Feb or Sept start).

The social contract is clear. Students are required to attend school regularly starting at the appropriate age, do what is asked of them, develop appropriate social behaviours and wear correct uniform. For their part, schools are required to teach a specific curriculum to a set of specific standards. If each party meets its obligations a young person should be able to face a secure future with knowledge, skills and aspirations that will take them into adulthood and able to earn a family sustaining age.

Well, that is all very well and good in theory. Increasingly schooling in schools is not enough and a postsecondary qualification is essential. So that brings into play another set of complexities – tertiary education. The young one’s starting school do not realise the extent to which that will present challenges that they are not often able to control.

So all of these little ones and their bigger brothers and sisters setting off to school at the moment in their new polo shirts of primary colours and sun hats big enough to camp under, face a treacherous pathway ahead. Actually they would have walked to school once upon a time but now an armoured division of SUVs will see them safely to school in many suburbs while in others parents will walk to school with them.

Do they know what their chances are?

I did a little study – what a real statistician would call a quick and dirty job – of a cohort of 100 New Zealand babies, right numbers of different ethnicities and so on, and applied what we know to be the success/failure trajectories of each group. I concluded that of those 100 babies born last year, only 29 would achieve a postsecondary qualification on the current performance of the education system, 71 would not. And I do not mean a degree qualification. I mean anything from a postsecondary certificate up. So about one in three will reach the minimum level of qualifications required.

That aligns with what we know to be the picture of disengagement and I do not see evidence that suggests that there is a trend of improvement. The increase in disengagement is stubbornly resistant to the efforts of educators.

One reason is that the demographics are working against us – the groups of students we teach well and to internationally stunning levels are getting smaller while the groups that struggle (and have for longer than we care to admit) are getting bigger.

Add to that the steady placement of vocational education options at increasingly older entry levels along with a blind belief that the comprehensive secondary school might meet the needs of all students (it never has in the past why should it now?) and that figure of 29% successfully competing a postsecondary qualification looks to be a stretch in 30 or 40 years.

Change in the education system is urgently needed and that is up to the grown ups not the little ones. So here is an agenda for professional concerns in 2012:

First, all jurisdictions want accountability one way or another so get over it and move on. If National Standards are right then change them but work constructively in the system rather than continue to bamboozle the community by staunchly rejecting standards – well that is how it seems to an outsider.

Secondly, seriously question whether we have been pulling the wool over the community’s eyes on the question of what schools can actually do. Less is more in curriculum design so sorting out what matters and doing that will make all the other stuff easy to do. If someone can read well they can do anything. Equitable access to technology is more important than more programmes (admit it, you got a gadget for Xmas and gave it to your grandchild to show you how to get it going).

Let’s be adamant about what schools can do and then ensure that we do that stuff so well that each and every student will receive a brilliant start in life through education.

Thirdly, get purpose into the lives of young people at school. Why they are there is the most important factor – if I ask a child in school the question “Why are you doing that?” and they cannot answer I seriously question the quality of the teaching.

Related to this is that focus on the end game of education. Forty years ago when everything seemed to be working and most people were in fact working, a central goal of education was to equip people to work. Is that such a bad thing? Sanitising education so that it is not tainted by vocational goals is crazy. Actually the universities know this and are blatantly vocational under the guise of being the critics and conscious of other people.

Having a strong focus on employability in real jobs need not in any way jeopardise the attainment of a liberal education which is in fact one which liberates and what could be more liberating to those imprisoned by educational failure to have such a quality education?

None of this seems very difficult really. It is just that it is urgent! Those little fellows starting the journey over the next 10 days or so need to be assured that it is worthwhile. The results in the school success statistics in 2025 will not be some disembodied set of figures, they will in fact be each and every one of these little ones.


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