Another academic year, another school year, another calendar year draws to a close. Down south we are blessed by the double impact of alignment between the academic year and the calendar year. The pressures and heightened activities of both conspire to produce a feeling that it is all a bit too hectic and we resolve that next year we will manage all this differently. But we never do.
It is the conventional response to be tired at this time of the year. Everyone is “looking forward to a break” and holiday plans are chatted about with enthusiasm even those that entail staying at home and rejoicing in a city emptied of the crowds who have now gone elsewhere to be crowds.
This year has, in New Zealand anyway, been a rather irritable one for education.
The school system was stirred by a number of issues that arose just as last year’s issue – the introduction of national standards into primary schools – was settling. It had been a long battle between schools who felt that the standards (NZ’s answer to NAPLAN) were damaging and constricting, unnecessary and misleading. On the other hand the Government felt that they gave valuable information to parents and caregivers that was necessary and informative in a manner that should not impact negatively on the school. It was a long discussion but schools by and large grumpily got on with the job.
Then along came the issue of student / teacher ratios – the formula used to calculate the number of teachers in a school. This turned overnight into an autumnal storm of impressive proportions. There were winners and losers in this – the senior secondary school being the winners – but this was quickly lost in the discussion, especially when it was realised that an allowance that delivered a considerable number of teachers to intermediate schools had also gone.
The Government blew the whistle and called the whole thing off. Claims of victory and defeat masked the fact that once again current practice had prevailed and things would carry on the same. But not for long.
The Minister of Education announced the establishment of a Minister’s Cross Sector Forum for Improving Achievement – a gathering of about 20 people who reflected the whole system, its component parts, its sectors, its major community groups and so on.
The discussion had gone indoors rather than being played out in the media. Here was an opportunity for vigorous discussion across the system to address the issues of why so many young people were failing and why so many were disengaging when so many were succeeding and doing well in our bipolar education system. In middle earth can the conundrum of western education systems be unscrambled? Watch this space.
At last early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary educators were starting to address some of the key topics. The urgency of this was increased by the commitment of the Government to a set of Better Public Service Targets which included three overtly aimed at education: access to quality early childhood education, the levels of graduation from high school and the numbers obtaining a post secondary qualification at about a diploma level. These are each a serious challenge to the education system and it is clear that there is work to do.
So it wasn’t helpful that when a new teacher payroll system was introduced it contained quite a few blips. This is a huge payroll with over 90,000 being paid each fortnight. So inevitably there would be slips and errors. This was neither desirable nor a surprise. What did surprise was the feeding frenzy from the media about the whole business. Teachers in New Zealand are not employed by the Ministry of Education but by their local school Board of Trustees. The employer / employee relationship is between the individual and his or her Board. But you could get no sense of that as the Ministry of Education in its role as salary servicing agent was the target for the raised voices.
Years ago I recall a similar situation and then the school Board as employer simply paid the teacher who had missed out by cheque and sorted it out. But the opportunity for yet another public stoush was not to be lost. And that was a distraction somewhat for at the same time things were happening at the post-secondary level.
The Tertiary Education Commission had decided that in the next round of funding, increased proportions of the lower level entry programmes in tertiary institutions were to be withdrawn and reallocated to the private sector and to the Wananga. The consequences of this are profound not only for the impact on institutions losing significant amounts of funding, but also for the impact on the nature of those entry areas in tertiary institutions. The polytechnics in New Zealand have the role of being the open access institutions that can take those who wish to work towards a serious qualification from wherever they are to that goal. The Community Colleges, TAFE institutions and further education provision, all play a similar role in other countries. This provision of a seamless progression through those early years and into “real qualifications’ is central to lifting achievement. But this could not attract the attention of the mainstream media.
That was partly because they were still thumping the drum on the restructuring of schooling in post-quake Christchurch. It is clear that the kinds of changes – mergers, clusters, reshaped institutions – are the sorts of changes that will have to become more common throughout New Zealand as the system repositions itself for the changing demographics. Christchurch is an early starter in this because of the damage brought about by two major earthquakes. The thousand of after-shocks have left people feeling that they need respite from all this.
It must be time for the Christmas break