A research report had just been released and after the presentation I turned to a colleague and asked:
“Do you mean to say that education cannot do much about social class and socio-economic factors?”
“Almost nothing,” he said in a resigned kind of way.
I walked back to the hotel with heavy feet. This was in contrast to the spring I felt in my step the next morning as I left the breakfast presentation from Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD Secretary General. The theme of his speech was predominantly that it is possible to improve the quality and equity of education in a very short space of time.
In fact, if New Zealand raised the performance of its low equity schools, it would be No.1 in the world. But the challenge is not only in schools identified in this way. The majority of low performing students are in schools not identified in themselves as low performing – the task and the challenge was there for all teachers in all schools.
This was not new to us but having it said with the authority of such a figure gave it added meaning and force. Schleicher identified six key areas on which to focus. And at the top was the necessary belief that all students can achieve. How often in New Zealand do we hear the apologists for failure blame the home and other factors in depicting a scenario without hope? The message all children need is “you can succeed”.
He went on to emphasise the importance of a well-developed delivery chain. This has notions of linkage and of strength. It also echoes the notions of pathways and managed transitions and seamlessness that are mentioned so often in EDTalkNZ. New Zealand is well placed with its attention to meta-cognitive skills but how strong are we in providing the democratic learning environment that was also part of this package?
Schleicher underlined the importance of having the capacity at the point of delivery – a profession that attracts the best teachers and leaders, retains them and sees them committed to system-wide development. This also requires effective PD that goes beyond mere participation, not just doing a course, but involves reflective activity, collaborative action with colleagues and suchlike. It seemed to me that a good bit of this PD activity is in fact about teachers working in new ways with each other.
The importance of balancing autonomy with accountability was another strong point made by Scheilcher. It was pointless to seek the one without accepting the other he made clear, the collaborative environment would ensure this achieved in a manner that added value to the system. I have thought often that New Zealand has an obsession with autonomy but a loathing for accountability. That is why the question – “Who’s accountable for educational failure in New Zealand?” – has long been able to be answered simply with “No-one!” But that might be about to change with the new responsibilities for Boards of trustees in the most recent amendment to the Education Act. But ascribed accountability is only part of it, real accountability is a deeply seated part of professionalism.
Then came a deeply challenging idea from Schleicher – put resources where they have the most impact. I didn’t think it appropriate to ask whether in light of this, the failure of decile ratings to achieve this is one of our dark and dirty secrets.
Finally coherence and who can argue with this. We can choose, he concluded, to have an education system that moderates inequality or reinforces it.
Question time. I got to ask a question. It was the question that nags at me every day, it drives my argument for new and different ways of working. But I gave it a go…..”Does anyone have to fail?” I asked. He spoke of the complexities, the issues, the combination of factors. Then Schleicher said “It is hard to change income inequality but changing levels of education inequality will bring change.” I think I had answer to the question I had asked the day before – education can do something to minimise the impact of socio-economic factors.
It used to be a joke that we asked visitors as they stepped off the plane “What do you think of New Zealand?” This time we got the answer from someone who knew us well.