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Month: June 2013

Talk-ED: Simple Things That Work


Written by Marilyn Gwilliam, Principal, Papatoetoe Central School


We all know about keeping it simple (stupid) and in these somewhat complex times, it feels like a good way to go.

For those of us working in schools, we often reflect on what is working and what needs to change.  The simple solutions often  feel like the right solutions.

In the early years of schooling, we know that effective early childhood education usually ensures a positive transition to the more formal learning of the school classroom.  We know how an early intervention especially in year 1 and 2 can support students who struggle with their early learning.

We know that if this is an individual programme, or a programme involving just a small group of children, there is often a lot of  additional progress made as the teaching can be tailored to the specific learning needs of the children concerned. 

It can be as simple as that and I can’t think of any primary school principals who wouldn’t welcome the funding to employ teachers to implement a range of individual and small group instructional programmes in their schools.  We know that they work.

Recently on “Campbell Live” there was a refreshing story located in Auckland about a group of impressive young men from St Peter’s College in Epsom.  In their discretionary time, they assist young students with their reading at St Therese School in Three Kings. 

The teacher who coordinates this support programme commented that the regular individual assistance really helps to improve the children’s reading capabilities. The young men described their pride and satisfaction in contributing to the programme.   It struck me how simple and effective the programme is with no cost involved at all.

At our school, a group of granny helpers have supported one of our teachers for 16 years.  These women come to our school weekly and work with individual students throughout the year.  Like at St Therese School, we see exciting improvements in reading achievement.  The helpers work with the same young students regularly over the year, they get to know them really well and together, they ultimately share the buzz of success.

I know that programmes like these operate in many many schools up and down the country.  The young children involved enjoy success very early in their schooling.  Once their basic reading and maths skills in particular are established, we see this success building on yet even more success.  In each of these examples of a simple programme, there is no cost involved and there is plenty of evidence that they work. 

Imagine the outcomes if our schools were resourced in our MOE assured staffing that enabled us to employ additional staffing for specific learning support in the early years.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could ensure that each and every student who needed a personalised early learning intervention was assured of this?  And wouldn’t it be great if the intervention could be sustained, if required?

One of this government’s Better Public Services programme targets is 85% of 18 year olds achieving NCEA level 2 or an equivalent qualification in 2017.  Maybe the government would be better placed to achieve this if schools were given additional resourcing to implement early intervention programmes for the students that required them?

It doesn’t seem stupid to keep it simple.


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Pathways-ED: They learn to labour while we labour to learn


If I had heard it only once I might have simply believed that I had misheard but, no, I heard it a second time. It is apparently the case it was reported that in the UK, and this is what I heard: “poor white children” are now the “worst performing ethnic group in UK schools.”

This is somewhat astonishing in a number of ways. First, is the state of being “poor” sufficient to mark you out as an “ethnic group”?  A “social class” yes.  And it is true that often the picture of education achievement is one that does show concentrations of ethnicities in different parts of the achievement picture.  But usually an ethnic group is represented in achievement data at various points.  There will certainly be white students who are right up at the top of the achievement ladder and many others on each and every rung.  But have the “poor white” marked themselves out as being culturally different, ethnically different?

In the UK as in most Anglo-Saxon education systems the white children have had the lion’s share of achievement and success but there have always been some from that group who have had little success.  Similarly the fact that another ethnicity is over-represented in the lower end of the achievement statistics has never meant that none of that group ever makes it to the levels of excellent achievement.

But perhaps the combination of being white and poor in the UK has now created the conditions for educational failure that outweigh being poor and from any other group.  This is quite remarkable if it is true and it should serve as a warning to other Anglo-Saxon countries.

In the 1970s Dr Cluny MacPherson developed the argument that we had in New Zealand at that time clear signs that an “eth-class” was developing and this was based on the view that a cluster of combined characteristics including poverty and ethnicity were marking groups out from others.  There were certainly the signs of such groups forming in New Zealand at that time.  But I don’t think I have heard the term since the 1970s – perhaps I move in the wrong circles!  Is this the phenomenon that is seemingly appearing in the UK?

Or perhaps it is the flowering of a trend documented in 1977 by the sociologist Paul Willis in his book Learning to Labour.  His study has shown that a certain group of boys deliberately rejected the trappings of school success in order to claim as a badge of honour their right to replicate the plight of the working classes.  So mediocre school success would be the norm, jobs if they could get one would be in industrial settings, they adopted speech patterns and habits, and so on.

The “lads” in this group had developed an “oppositional culture” wherein in the interest of “having a laff” they would oppose the requirements of the school and all that went with being good students and gaining educational success.  At the time I read this as being a description of something that was peculiarly English and which I had seen in the east end schools that my work had taken me to.  But now I wonder as I see instances much closer to home where opposition for opposition’s sake seems to motivate some students, usually boys.

I came across some support for this that suggests that this might not be as fanciful as it first seems with the following appearing in an essay on Willis[1]:

In his article Stroppy Individuals or Oppositional Cultures in Schools Today?, Rikowski (2006) raises the issue of whether there are oppositional classroom cultures today or just badly-behaved individuals.  He highlights that although single disruptive pupils in classrooms are a problem, predominantly head teachers are still worried about gangs and therefore ‘cultures’ rather than individuals.  Rikowski supports the view that Willis’ study is relevant to modern education.  He advocates using the methods and insights of Willis to make sense of what is going on in our schools today (Rikowski, 2006).

Making sense of what is going on in our schools is a constant challenge and perhaps there are some insights in seeing a sociological explanation for the disenchantment of some students and some of our boys.


[1]James Thomson (2007)     An essay written for EDU3004 ‘Education, Culture & Society’, Education Studies, School of Education, University of Northampton

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Talk-ED: Is it Time for a Report on Education in the 22nd Century?


Out for the constitutional walk one afternoon recently I looked up the road and saw a silhouette that seemed familiar. One which I had seen many times in the 1980s and through the 1990s, one which was something of a cartoonists, delight.  It was the former Minister of Education (and other things) and Speaker of the House, Hon Dr Lockwood Smith.  I crossed the road to say hello.

The 1980s had been characterised by  the second of the reform trio – administration, curriculum and qualifications – while the 1990s were to belong to the third, qualifications reform.  Lockwood Smith was to feature prominently in both the tail-end of the curriculum reforms and the front end of the qualifications reforms.

I stopped to chat with him and among other things I reminded him of his commitment to seamless education. His smile, already broad, increased and clearly he saw this particular theme as one of considerable foresight which saw a different future for many students.

He was right. The key policy document that carried this message was developed and promulgated under his watch.  Education for the 21st Century (MOE, Wellington, 1993) sought to paint a picture of a seamless education system – one which flowed from the home right through to post secondary qualifications and entry into the workforce.

The key description of this seamless education system is premised on the fact that the curriculum and qualification reforms which resulted in the New Zealand Curriculum and the National Qualification Framework, had created the context in which seamlessness was possible.

Individuals, the document tells us “…will be able to undertake education in more than one setting at the same time and have their achievements recognised through the Qualifications Framework regardless of where they work or where they are enrolled.”  It would be a future in which students in senior secondary school, the report suggests, “could combine regular school courses with polytechnic or university courses and workplace training provided by local industries.”

This was in 1993!

The policy document wanted schools, tertiary institutions and private providers to exploit the greater scope they would have to  “enter into arrangements with each other or local industries.”  Not only that but secondary schools would have the an opportunity to offer courses which have previously been available only at polytechnics or universities. It was an opportunity that was offered but not taken up. It would be another 20 years before there started to develop a tentative start to such a proposal.

This policy was well owned by the then Minister, Lockwood Smith, who the document describes as “currently working with the education community to design a way of resourcing this seamless education system to allow these education opportunities to flourish, and to build an education system for the twenty-first century.”

The opportunities offered by Education for the 21st Century were simple and well within our reach in 1993 when they were proposed.  It is only since the implementation of the Youth Guarantee policy that movement towards the goals of the report have become discernible.

The diagram that was progressively built, through the first twenty or so pages of the document is in itself interesting – I like to think of it as an early model for some of the thinking that is now looking at the development of multiple pathways with its clear links between parts of the system.

While the lines that demarcate the different levels of education are still there and clear and straight and and less diffuse than I might like them to be, the attempt to create relationships between the parts is what might be thought of as an early prototype of the more connected system that we know is so critical if students are to succeed.

Missing is the role played by industry training but these were early days in the shift towards ITOs and new training schemes. It was at that time slowly dawning on people that industry  training needed to be revived.

In addition to the general philosophic material, the document also proposed a way forward for funding – the five emphases were access to Parents as First Teachers programme, increased access to information technology, opportunities for second language learning in forms 1-4 [sic], establishment of kura kaupapa Maori and increased participation in tertiary education and training. It would be interesting to see what our five emphases might be today.

I recollect that it was around the time of this report’s release in 1993 that the battle over qualification reform really started up and became a great distraction. Again a thoughtful contribution to the qualitative improvement of education for many young people became less important than that protection of territory.

I wished Lockwood well for his forthcoming tour of duty as High Commissioner in London and he thanked me for crossing the road to say hello. I then carried on my merry way reflecting on the opportunity lost back in 1993.







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Pathways-ED: Ranging across the jagged edge


It has long interested me that in education ideas come and go and some come and go again until the time is right or the soil is fertile and the context has become more compelling. This is the first in a series that will look such ideas that have come and gone and for which the time is now right to give serious consideration to those ideas.

Ranging across the jagged edge

In 1986, the late Phil Capper wrote a paper to the executive of the PPTA which he called The Jagged Edge. In this he surveyed a number of developments that had sought to respond to the changing conditions and demands of secondary education. He noted as important the then current curriculum and assessment reform, the development of transition education, the introduction of ACCESS (which he described as “the son of STEPS and the granddaughter of YPTP, parent of ……”), link programmes, education outside the classroom, the focus on bicultural education and lifelong learning.

Capper was making a simple point. Each of these developments constitutes a challenge to secondary education and there is a clear willingness to respond to those as they arise – usually by clipping something on to the system. But overall he sees these responses as ignoring a truth – that ”these developments make increasingly blurred (or jagged) the boundary between secondary education and things beyond secondary education.” He was to go on later in the paper to challenge the notion of secondary education as an entity.

He rightly characterised secondary schools as being in an invidious position – they fail to respond and in so doing miss the opportunities or they do respond then they have to make room “for a wide range of alternative methods of delivery, including such things as off-campus locations, courses with elements located partially in tertiary institutions, classes extending beyond the normal school day, increasing participation of adult students and units of instruction delivered by non-teacher specialists.”

Remember, this was written in 1986, 27 years ago.

He correctly linked the development of alternative approaches, usually shaped and funded as a special initiative such as ACCESS to “the disadvantaged and unemployed school leaver….. which is warning enough in itself.”

He got on the front foot on this issue and expressed a view that could find little support in 1986 and which is still resisted 27 years later.

“We can none of us be comfortable with the fact that there is no substantial training industry based on the raw material of alienated young people who hated and dete­sted their schooling.” (Capper’s emphases). “Even more disturbing, is that a good proportion of these respond positively to what is currently offered to them by tertiary providers.”

Capper painted a picture of the way forward as he saw it. In his future that included a jagged edge, the blurring of the boundaries between secondary and tertiary. He took an interesting tack – “It seems to me that the central assumption …of policies is that there is something called a seconday school in which people called secondary teachers impart something called secondary education to people called secondary pupils during a period known as the school day, term or year. When we encounter a person, activity, place or period of time which does not fit neatly into one of these packages, we spend a lot of time agonising, and then we may or may not develop a special case.” He argued that despite the willingness of schools to consider such “special cases”, he called for the need to consider a new policy setting that allows for working differently and concludes that such a setting would allow secondary education to “restate” their principles in ways that would make it possible to embrace special responses within these principles, rather than constantly making them [i.e. the responses] be seen as something beyond the norm and therefore rather dubious.”

Capper returned to these ideas in 1992 largely because other emphases had “swamped” the points he had raised in 1986 and he questioned the continued “validity of regarding the secondary service as a fixed and discrete entity.” He added another principle to his argument – the trends he was providing commentary on were “international trends.” He saw a consistent pattern in confusion that existed internationally and went on to put this into a context that sounds very much like a paradigm as outlined by Thomas Kuhn. He noted later that the “confusion is worst in the Anglo-Saxon countries.”

He spotted an important shift – age 16 years used to be the point of selection for further education and training but now, he asserted, “it is the point at which a diagnostic appraisal takes place to determine the most appropriate post-compulsory track.” He then outlined a future in which we could learn from the experience of others and spent time untangling further the central themes of his two papers – the secondary / tertiary divide.

His comments in this second paper which he described as an “issues-raising paper” was a discussion, that turned to thoughts of a future schooling delivered differently, in a new kind of space. He wondered with some optimism whether “the Picot reforms may prove to have been based on a disappearing model of what a school and its community actually is and therefore further administrative reform of a major nature may be required in 5-10 years’ time.”

The issues Capper raised are still there and the solutions and responses continue to be stubbornly elusive.



Capper P H, (1986)    Jagged Edge, NZPPTA, Wellington

Capper P H, (1992)    Jagged Edge Revisited: Part the First** – the Secondary Tertiary                                        Boundary, NZPPTA, Wellington.

** Capper wrote at the start of this paper that “Part the Second, to follow, will consider the primary-secondary boundary”


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Talk-ED: The voice of the vulnerable young


What do the following three events have in common – the re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch, the epic-length Novopay school salaries saga and the re-enrolment of a troubled young man in a Paeroa school?

Teachers?  Schools?  Boards of Trustees?  Issues?  Consultation?  Ministry of Education?  Yes, all of those things but I wasn’t thinking of those in particular.  Each of these three issues has seen the involvement of young school students in quasi-political protest and campaigning.  Many of them have been clutching banners which appear to have been made as class projects, many have wept at issues that were probably beyond their ken and most of them have appeared in front of television cameras.

I seriously question the ethics of all this.  The issues have generally been between the grown-ups and ought to have been played out between the teachers, the Boards, the Ministry of Education and whoever else had a hand in them.  The young pupils (and this does seem to be markedly a primary school response rather than a secondary school one) could quite properly have been left out of the street marches, the protests, and the hate messages (mostly directed at the Minister).  All of this was demeaning to the profession.

Questions should be raised as to the level of informed consent that surrounds a group of young students being mobilised into protest action. Who consulted the parents and caregivers? What was the explanation and information given, what were the opportunities for permission to take part offered to both the students and their parents and caregivers?  What protections were in place?  What assistance and guidance offered when students became distraught?  And could a pupil decline to tag along if they felt uncomfortable?

Then there is the appearance of young people in television news broadcasts.  Were full ethical procedures followed?  Or did the television simply tag along believing that they had no requirements to see that the photographing of young people was within guidelines and in accord with ethical standards?

I have previously quoted John Dewey who back in 1909 in his important book Moral Principals in Education succinctly stated the following:

There cannot be two sets of ethical principles, one for life in the schools, and the other for life outside the schools.

Are the principles and values demonstrated by the actions of the schools in the cases we are discussing genuinely those held by the communities they serve.  I don’t mean simply did the schools and the communities agree on the issue.  What matters are questions such as whether the ethical standards implicit in the use of young people in protest match up with what the community expects, believes in and supports?  And to what extent was the emotion of the moment driving these events?  The issue is not the same thing as the response to it.

Ethics is the study of ideal behaviour.  Researchers when they start out on a research project are subjected to intense ethical scrutiny quite properly and if that research is on or about young people the intensity of the process increases.  Is the research going to be conducted in an ideal way?  Above all there is a key concept with the involvement of young people that they are not being “used” in ways that place pressure on them or increase stress and such like.

Schools carry these ethical standards day by day, and minute by minute and they involve everyone who is involved in the enterprise.  That is why we are so shocked when high ethical standards are breached – especially when it involves students.

Our society goes to some lengths to protect its young and there is currently a huge concern that we are falling below an acceptable standard. Concerns are gravest when those institutions that should conserve the highest moral standards let everyone down.  Examples include child abuse in a religious environment, sex criminals who one way or another inveigle their way into the employ of a school, the inappropriate relationship of a teacher with a student – they all make us feel abhorrence  and the profession is diminished just a little each sad and sorry instance.

Therefore we need to practice a concern for young people in everything that we do in the name of education and schooling.

I wonder if in these three issues we did just that through our involvement of young vulnerable people.



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Pathways-ED: Hey mate, it's NAPLAN time


Just enjoyed the luxury of a weekend in Sydney – a chance to take a break and enjoy for a few days the Aussie ambience.

Of course if you work in education you never entirely switch off for the issues are universal and the concerns of a community for the education of its young especially but also the wider community generally is something all countries share.

But I was quite surprised by the extent of the coverage of education in the newspapers. Some of the discussion was timeless – are our children safe? There are it was reported two incidents each week where intruders enter schools and lock-down procedures apply. The more popular press showed concerned parents (and who wouldn’t be in such circumstances) calling for all schools to be fenced so as to deter these intrusions. Fencing has been something of a trend here in New Zealand over past years and it is surprising that Australian schools are still hanging on to a physical openness that once used to be typical here.

But a lot of the discussion hinged around the release of the NAPLAN results.

The NAPLAN is becoming a very big item in the Australian school calendar. It is a set of national tests in in language and numeracy (hence NAPLAN – National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) which students sit in Years 3,5,7,9) but the data is released by the body responsible for administering and reporting on the tests (the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority) only through the MySchool website (

Of course the newspapers can’t resist the temptation to try to turn all this into league tables and The Australian newspaper goes as far as to produce “Top 100” lists in a special lift-out supplement. But interestingly the stories that make the front page of that newspaper have headlines such as “Cane-country schools teach a lesson in how to defy disadvantage”. This all seems very jolly and “good-on-you” stuff. The article then reveals a stark truth – among the 1000-odd most disadvantaged primary schools in Australia, only 46 score above the national average in reading, writing and numeracy.

The stand-outs among disadvantaged schools where the results are markedly high do not claim miracles but rather an unrelenting focus on what is required to get students to learn – attendance, respect for teaching staff,  and community engagement which seems to be central to their success. Underpinning this is a clear and undented belief among those principals in the ability of all students to learn, a level of positivity that seems to me to be typical in the Australian educational discourse.

I have on other occasions been impressed by the ability of Australian media generally to handle education matters in a level-headed kind of way with contributions from professional bodies being ones that add to that quality. There is not the default opposition of pretty well all education topics that characterises the Kiwi way. This is not to say the education discussions are devoid of heat.  Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Queensland Premier Cameron Newman were at loggerheads. Newman proposes to pay teacher bonuses for performance and surrounds all this with all the words that go with “quality of education”, “concern for young people” and “rewarding our best teachers”. Gillard sees this as a betrayal of the federal reforms led by her, popularly known as the Gorski reforms, which would have seen money directed to schoo­ls rather than to teachers deemed to be high performing. The teacher associations are comfortable with one of these and not so much with the other.

But the coverage of this difference of opinion stood out on the rather flat and measured plain of education discussion.

“Flat” wasn’t the word for it when I had a look at the Australian House of Representatives (as one does when in relaxed more). They were giving the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 a second reading. This bill is all about reform funding for “participating schools” and suchlike. An earnest speech was being delivered by an earnest member of the Government. He was the only MP from the government in the House at that time. It was being listened to by an equally earnest and respectful member of the Labor Opposition who was at that time the only opposition member in the house. 

And this on the same day that the NAPLAN results coverage revealed that only 5 of the 10% of most disadvantaged schools in Australia were in the upper 1,000 schools. This is what reforms must address – and on both sides of the Tasman.



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Talk-ED: Free education! From what?


The New Zealand education system was established in the Education Act of 1877 as one which would be universal, secular and free.

Well the first of these, “universal”, is more honoured in the breech than the observance if you consider educational outcomes.

The middle characteristic, “secular” is disputed from time to time and the cycle is hotting up again on this one. The intent of the Act was I believe that schools were to be non-sectarian, non-denominational. If that is true then it has mostly been achieved as integrated, private and special character schools that cater for those who want a specific set of views, values and practices promoted within their school.

But the last commitment, that schools would be “free” is a real mess. Once again we see reports that the community contributed $98 million to New Zealand state schools  last year through “donations” which is a euphemism for “fees” and “compulsory charges”. These fees are levied on parents who have little choice in the matter. On occasion the fees have to be up front to secure an enrolment.

All this is, is a contributor to the iniquitous provision of resources to schools.

Higher decile schools get away with charging quite high fees while towards the lower end of the decile slope the schools have to consider whether it is worthwhile even asking communities for this extra money when those communities are under such pressure to pay for the daily necessities of life.

Up against this is a report that a young lady has been denied a ticket to the School Ball because the family are in the defaulters list for the donation. This puts an interesting spin on both the word “donation” and on the explanations that the school wraps around its actions. With 2,600 students and a reported fee of $175, they have a potential donation pool of $455,000 so it is a kitty worth protecting. And they would not be any means have the highest fee/donation.

It probably doesn’t stop there. In most schools students pay for being in a sports team, the costs of curriculum related field trips, items of equipment. Others demand that students have a “device” such as an iPad. Schools clip the ticket on supplying uniforms and stationery that are probably in the interests of the schools rather than the parents.

Higher decile schools have the opportunity to attract international students while lower decile schools do not. The reasons for this are various and some of them are not very pretty. But a school attracting 50 international students could be making anything from $0.5 million (this would really be conservative) to sums in excess of $1 million. They do this using state provided resources such as rooms, staffing  (for these students generate most of their teaching costs at the margins), principal salaries (since overseas trips to “visit markets” are an important part of activity it seems) and so on.

Again it is an income stream that is not equitably available.

I have not the slightest issue with any of this – parents have a right to spend their money however they wish and supporting their students in this way is nothing but commendable.

But it does stick in my craw when I hear the argument that low decile schools have privileged funding. Such claims can only be made by those who either do not understand the realities of a low decile school and its high demand students or those who have a very narrow view of the education economy.

Education is “funded” by the community. They fund it indirectly through taxes, a portion of which is passed on to schools, and indirectly though taking up the costs of education incurred by their children which includes the payments made by way of fees (that are all but in name compulsory) and the myriad of other costs that must be met by students if they are to have the full range of opportunities offered by the schools.

The real funding of schools is the total amount of money available to schools to spend. And here an issue lies. About 84% of state funding delivered to schools is fixed-funding delivered in little packets with its use clearly labelled on the front. This is not much different from the way my mother would budget using an array of tobacco tins, each labelled, into which she divided up the monthly pay packet faithfully handed over unopened by my father on pay day.

So a school relying on state funding only has in reality very little money that the Board or the Principal have discretion over. Imagine then the delight when those extra sources of funding open up.

If high deciles schools complain about the level of state funding for their school I would invite them to try running a low decile school with high maintenance students.

As Fred Dagg would have said – “You don’t know how lucky you are!”

As for the unhappy girl that can’t go to the ball? You aren’t the first victim of the school ball phenomenon but that is a grisly story that can only be told late in the evening.



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