I mentioned a couple of weeks back that a Festival of Education was planned for Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for March next year.
This is a great idea. For too long we have placed the image of the profession, and of schools and those who work in them, at the mercy of a media rapacious for the shock, horror story and given the naysayers and doom merchants within the profession an open hand. As a result, education as a profession has an image and a reputation that needs attention simply because the view of the sector is one that is not performing, is focused on looking after the adults rather than the children and is usually opposed to change is simply not accurate.
A festival that is positive and showcases all that is excellent in our schools and other educational institutions is an ideal opportunity to get the balance right. For one thing is certain – those students who do well in the school system are doing as well as any in the world. In that sense there is some justification for the claim that we have a world class education system.
But in a truly world class education system that is also a high level of self-scrutiny, of reflection and of a preparedness to that the system identifies and responds to those students who are not doing well. Access and equity remain the key challenges. When students have their access to further and higher education and training limited by a failure to develop robust basic skills then a world class system would respond. When students are shunted into Alternative Education for which the entitlement ceases at age 16 years, a world class system would respond simply because it is a human rights issue. When teen Mums are in programmes that do wonders for them but for which the entitlement ceases at age 18 years, a world class system would respond.
And so a Festival that highlights all that is good and wonderful need not inevitably be one that is in the style of Pollyanna an event that isn’t also thoughtful and challenging. I know that the programme planned is intended to be just this. And the presence in New Zealand of many from other countries which represent a wide range of excellence at the same time is an opportunity for us to place celebration alongside deliberation.
It is clear to me that there is no reason why we cannot crack the tough nut of getting the equity of our education system to match the best of our achievement results. But it will require us to work differently. The Festival and the OECD visitors in the country for this period of time present us with just such an opportunity. We have to have the courage to ask our visitors for advice, for explanations of how equity is achieved in their countries and, most importantly, we have to be prepared to listen to that advice and act on it.
This will inevitably mean that we will have to do some things differently. And that will be the challenge instead of the old default position emerging once more – “we have a world class system and if only …..” and link our excitement about what we do well and excitement about what we can do better, we will look back to the summer of 2014 and fondly recall that it was something of a turning point.