(claimed to have been the call from a World War I General)
7 February 2012
Another Waitangi Day comes and goes and I am not sure whether we are better off because of it. What makes me wonder is whether or not we continue to have the will to be a great country or are content to get into the scrum of a country that is safe and OK. Have our aspirations as a country lowered in order to make the challenges seem less daunting?
Take education. New Zealand has a history of striking out to do what others had not attempted to do. A universal, free and secular education system was introduced ahead of other countries. Incrementally, access to free education was extended upwards.
Dr Beeby, working with a willing Minister, was quite prepared to put a line in the sand that represented a commitment to each and every young person.
We led the world in the focus we brought to reading in our system and high levels of literacy were an expectation, not simply a goal in a strategy. Sylvia Ashton-Warner, arguably New Zealand’s most famous educator took us to places where we simply had to think again about how we taught in diverse settings. Dame Marie Clay and reading recovery was later profoundly influential across the world both English-speaking and in other settings such as Singapore.
None of this happened because people such as these were content to follow. They took a lead and took New Zealand to good places as a result.
I have spent a good deal of time over the past five years thinking about our progress as an education system and have come to a point where I see clear dangers in our continuing to follow the examples of our peer education systems in the United States, Great Britain, Australia and Canada (with the possible exception of Ontario). By and large, this set of countries, along with New Zealand, is headed towards a bad space.
It is not really anyone’s fault in as much as in these countries no-one is responsible for educational failure. We are becoming soft in accepting that it happens. It is not good, but, shucks, that is how it is.
Well, it needn’t be so. If New Zealand could with confidence stride off in some new directions we might be able to once again lead rather than follow.
How we could do this is to look at elements in systems that do better than us and using the underlying principles, consider how we might bring about change.
Example #1. Some systems such as those of Scandanavia, Netherlands and Germany take more students to positive outcomes than we do. To do this they have different institutions at the senior secondary level that offer different and flexible pathways for students. Well we don’t want a whole swag of additional institutions. Taking the principles of differentiation and pathways we could with little disruption adapt our senior secondary system to achieve results at least as good as those other systems.
Example #2. We lose quite a few students along the way and really have little idea of why and perhaps even who they are. Other systems track and monitor students in a variety of ways and by allocating responsibility to different groups – educators in some systems, local government in others and social welfare agencies in a few. The principle is that tracking and monitoring is valuable and should be done by someone. Now that is not hard and a decision on this could be made surely.
We need to be competitive in a real sense – looking at the best practices overseas and turning them into practices which reflect the way we work in New Zealand, a small education system that spends enough money but is increasingly not getting the results.
So, there is no need to simply replicate stuff from other countries uncritically.
There is a mountain of evidence as to the success or otherwise of “charter schools” (and their other iterations as “free schools” and “academies”). It would be absurd to simply set out to have such institutions in New Zealand without considering the evidence, looking at the principles that underpin them and as appropriate turn those principles into a uniquely New Zealand way of working to the greater advantage of more young people.
Let’s not follow them blindly but be smart and lead once more.
Take the suggestion that we need a web site like Australia has with the www.myschool.edu.au – a site where you can see how good the local school is and how it compares to other schools. Well it is a pretty good site that gives good comprehensive information about each school and it requires an effort to use it for comparisons between schools. Let’s not copy it but look at how it could supplement the web sites that pretty well all New Zealand schools have. And National Standards are not NAPLAN thank goodness.
I think I have mentioned previously a colleague in London who wonders why New Zealand has any educational issues at all. “After all,” he says “you are such a small country you could all get together at the weekend and sort it out!”
Yes, we could. The tragedy is that we don’t.