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Month: November 2013

After the Festive Season – A Festival!


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.


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Lessons on a Sunday morning

I went to church this morning, as you do when you are in Tonga.

The service was at Tupou College located just out of Nukualofa and one of the three major colleges in Tonga. It has a roll of around 1,000 and caters for boys. I noted a number of features.

The service was long, in excess of two hours, and I did not note a single instance of attention waning or impeccable behavior lapsing. The boys gave the service close attention right through.

The sermon was long and addressed the theme of “endurance being necessary in the search for your soul.” The message was aimed at the boys.

The singing was spectacular in a way that only Pacific boys’ singing can be. The responses, the hymns, the unplanned singing that accompanied the donation blessing (see below) were of a standard that would neither be expected nor encountered in a New Zealand school.

There were items by the school brass band – an outstandingly talented set of musicians and, of course, they accompanied the singing. One item – a selection from von Suppe’s overture to Poet and Peasant as good as you could hope to hear anywhere. The entire school marched back to barracks (i.e. the dormitories) at the end of the service and smart they were too.

Parents and community were involved. In fact a purpose of this service was to “bless” the donations groups of parents and staff had fund-raised over the past several weeks. $40K doesn’t sound a lot to most schools in NZ but this was a huge amount relative to the total funding of around $200,000 for the entire operation of the school including staff. It was indeed mana from heaven.

The living conditions at this residential school are typically Pacific i.e. tough, demanding and even harsh. But there they were, at church on Sunday morning with their all-white uniform immaculate.

So you get the drift – a church school practising its values in a way that allows students to make the most of their talents, inspires the community and the students with the talents of other students and doing it all with good connection to families and community.

I looked at these students and asked myself why the New Zealand education system struggles to bring Pacific students to excellent educational outcomes to the extent that it does. Why are Pacific students succeeding is so many ways at one school in the island nation when most New Zealand schools (well not just schools, educational institutions generally) struggle to get acceptable results despite the huge advantages in funding, teaching quality and resources.

I think I spotted some of the answers this morning. First and foremost is the values base of the school. Now I do not think that this requires schools to be faith-based but I do think it is a demand to reflect the faith of others. If children come from homes that have ongoing regular relationships with the faith base of a church, we might reflect on the extent to which our system has turned its back on this.

The requirement that we have a system that is universal, free and secular does not preclude a presence of values but does offer a prohibition on narrow, single-track church approaches. I suspect that a student coming from Tupou College into a New Zealand institution would in this area regard the environment as rather barren. Similarly, how genuine is the invitation of the institution to a parent about involvement. Rather than a “you need our help” we might try a “we need your help” with all communities not just those who conventionally populate the BOT and the PTAs.

The answers we seek about Pasifika education and which require us to hold symposiums, conference, summits and think tanks might just be there and is staring us in the face. Has anyone done a study of effective practice in Pacific schools and brought it forward as a potentially useful place to gain ideas for the improvement of our own schools?


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Party at Hekia’s Place – BYOE Bring Your Own Excellence along

It looks as if 2014 is shaping up to be somewhat unusual for education in New Zealand – three key developments are happening.

In March a set of Education Festivals will be held in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Developed by Cognition Education and with the four key themes of COLLABORATION, INNOVATION, COHESION and CELEBRATION.   The festivals are co-ordinated by Cognition Education with the support of the Ministry of Education and will coincide with the 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession, jointly hosted by the OECD, Education International and New Zealand through the MOE.

The festivals focused on two key dimensions, the performance of students, teachers, schools and institutions in our community and the proud record New Zealand has inspired improved educational achievement in other countries by sharing our expertise and systems.

The press education receives is generally at best miserable and at times plain negative. I have frequently pointed out that the profession too often contributes to this. Here is a golden opportunity for education to put on its best clothes and strut its stuff in public and rather then spout clichés  about a “world class education system” , to allow the outcomes of the work of schools and other education providers be seen and enjoyed by a wider community. Let the work and skills of our students be the push for the excellent brew that comes out in most schools.

An added opportunity is to be able to do this while an international community of educators is here as our guest – a chance not only to show and teach but also to listen and to learn. The participating countries at the 4th International Summit are the top 20 education systems as measured by the PISA  results and the five fastest improvers.

This is a unique opportunity for New Zealand to learn and to gain insights into how we can match achievement data with greatly improved equity measures.  Both the festival and the summit will allow us to share insights with others and to learn from the insights of others. This is not a bragging contest but potentially could be a fine week for education n New Zealand.

The Minister of Education Hon Hekia Parata is behind both of these initiatives and her leadership deserves strong support from the sector and from all levels within the sector.

The third element that could lift the image of education in New Zealand is the announcement, also from Minister Parata, of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards to be introduced for 2014. The tertiary education sector has had just such a set of awards for about 10 years and they have been markedly successful under the astute leadership of Ako Aotearoa.

This new set of awards will focus on early childhood education, primary and secondary schooling and collaboration between secondary schools, tertiary providers and employers. This last award – collaboration – is particularly pleasing coming at a time when it is emerging that pathways between sectors will be a critical feature of the new environment that will allow us to address equity.

Ands that brings us back to the festival and the summit. We need to see these three developments as a set of tools that the education system can use to create a better education sector, one characterised by collaboration, by clear evidence of excellence and by a commitment to improved equity of outcomes. We will do this in part by seeing collaboration (bringing the fragmented sector together for the festival) and celebrating (excellence in teaching through the awards) as necessary to lifting our game. Necessary but not in themselves sufficient – long term change will require us to make a habit of collaboration and celebration.

In summary:

  •          Festivals of Education  – Auckland (21-23 March 2014), Wellington (29 March 2014) and Christchurch (23 March 2014)
  •          The 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession – March 2014 
  •          Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards – entries close 31 March 2014

Roll on March I say.



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After the game-breakers comes the show-stoppers


Last time I made contact with you I noted a few “game-changers” and promised to follow this up with some “show -stoppers”. These are things that cannot be put aside – they have the capacity to make or break and the choices are ours to make.

Show-Stopper #1             Access to early childhood education

Not surprisingly I have placed the first game-changer at the top of my list of show stoppers. If we don’t solve the issue of access to early childhood education places urgently we will get onto the greasy slide downwards where the backlog of educational failure starts to swamp the system.

Parts of the US are already there with some communities in California spending huge amounts to get students through the system so that they can go on to community colleges where they focus on remediation course because they have learned so little at school and then leave community colleges after 15 years of schooling still unprepared for employment and/or further education and training.

I had water a leak that investigation showed was down near my gate where the pipe entered the property. It was no good trying to fix the leak inside the house where we were cosy and warm. Nor was there any point is tackling it at the outside tap where the light was good. It was only solved when the leak was fixed at the gate. Our education pipeline will continue to leak badly until we address the leak near the gateway to education.

Show-Stopper #2             Teaching of Basic Skills

When I visit the US there are three New Zealanders that people have heard of – Sir Edmund Hillary, Dame Marie Clay and Sylvia Ashton-Warner . Two of these are teachers and both focused on reading and language as the foundation of all learning and indeed in the case of Ashton-Warner, the development of identity. New Zealand was seen as a leader in teaching reading. We were better at teaching reading to monolingual youngsters than to the rest but nevertheless, we knew how to do it.

Why then do so many students fail to get a basic grounding in the real foundation skills? Have we lost focus? Do we now lack the skills? Have we become too clever for our own good in turning our backs on basic skills taught with pretty rudimentary materials, School Journals and Janet and John . Schools are better equipped, libraries are better stocked and new helping technologies are available to an extent that has never before been the case. Why then does anyone fail?

One key area of failure is the continuing inability to grapple with the issues of students who bring another language into the classroom. It goes well beyond mere words. A colleague in London concluded a paper he had written on this topic with the sentence – “At the end of the day, Sharma walks home to India.” As Russell Bishop says – Culture Counts.

Show-Stopper #3             Re-discovering a sense of a national system

I have before said that what is colloquially described as Tomorrow’s Schools should be looked at closely. But the lens that we use when doing this needs to be one that enables us to see a national system of education in which the sum is greater than the parts. Currently, the sum is somewhat less than the parts as overall performance continues to disappoint. The Minister was right to signal that it is time to look at the decile ratings applied to schools – they have become a damaging dog of a thing. Worse than failing to bring about the improvements in performance and were that were claimed for the ratings, they might well have contributed to the frustrations.

And we must recapture the notion of a national system of education, not just schooling. It will require parity of esteem between all parts of the one system, each making a critical but distinctive contribution. I do love the feel of Finland’s approach – similar qualifications for all levels, one teachers organisation (ECE to tertiary) and a national commitment to a national system.

And that might be the solution to the next show-stopper.

Show-Stopper #4             Increasing the public esteem of education and those who work in it.

In Finland teaching is the most highly esteemed profession. Can we achieve that in New Zealand? Of course we can simply by….

  •          exhibiting increased characteristics of a profession – teachers council that leads the profession, an education commission to lead thinking and development, effective professional standards, greater quality controls over entry to the profession, and a requirement for ongoing professional improvement;
  •          matching promise with delivery of positive outcomes;
  •          developing  closer relationships with communities, with parents and families, with business and industry, with other levels within education, with the professions and so on;
  •          and I am sure you can think of others.

But first we must want to be a professional and want to be one profession.

Goodness me, I have run out of space and I haven’t mentioned a couple of other huge show-stoppers. They will keep for another day.


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There’s more than one way to reach the stars!

Rather than let off a few sky rockets on yet another silly day we remember, hard on the heels of that even sillier day called Halloween, I thought I would throw a few ideas up in the air as we head towards the end of the year. These are called game-changers. They would lift educational performance in New Zealand. We have known most of these for a long time but other things get in the way. On Thursday I will give a complementary list of show-stoppers.

Principals of secondary schools are welcome to use these lists as they put the final touches to their prize-giving addresses.

The “Game Changers” List

1. Access to early childhood education

It astounds me that in this rich country we still have uneven distribution of opportunity for early childhood education. I do not need to repeat the evidence, it is over whelming. And the lack of equity in the area is hidden by two factors – quirky gatherings of information about actual participation (likely to be lower than reported) and the evening out of statistics into regional and national figures.

A stark statistic: In the Tamaki suburb in Auckland there are 7,000 youngsters under the age of five and there are 2,000early childhood education places.

A quick but excellent fix: In areas of low participation, add an early childhood facility to each primary school – same Board, same management, shared outdoor facilities, great savings. Best of all, it would be goodbye to the entangling bureaucracy that surrounds the development of conventional centres.

2 Greater attention to basic skills in primary schools

I might be naïve but it is bizarre that in the country that led the world not only in reading performance but also in the teaching of reading that so many children fail to reach a safe standard in the eight years of primary schooling. The same can be said of mathematics (sometimes called numeracy). Add to the list the development of knowledge, social skills, preparedness for further education, and exposure to arts and practical skills all in a context of new technologies and you would have not only an interesting programme but one which didn’t place so many students on a trajectory of failure.

A stark fact: Students show a decline in learning in key areas between Year 4 and Year 8.

A quick but excellent fix: Demand that primary schools do less but that they do it to higher standards. The foundation skills are taught in primary schools. Isn’t it ironic that the term “foundation skills” has been transferred to the first several years of post-secondary education and training for those who have failed to accrue such skills and this is clearly too late.

3. See a clear distinction between junior and senior secondary schools.

Education systems that we admire and would wish to emulate invariably have a clear distinction between what is in New Zealand Year 10 and Year 11. The first two years of high school are years of finishing off the processes started in primary school and the preparation for discipline focussed study that is in a context of future employment. Years 11 and 13 in these overseas systems are clearly differentiated with the availability of clear vocational technical opportunities emerging to complement the university track (which is working well in New Zealand). In other words, young students have choices about their futures.

Another shared feature is that at that age students are credited with much greater maturity but also supported to a much greater degree. The style and organisation of schooling is more akin to a tertiary institution than to the primary schools from which the secondary schools evolved.

A stark statistic: By age 16 years 21% of 16 year olds have dropped out of New Zealand schooling system.

A quick but excellent fix:  Sorry folks, but there isn’t one. This area is where the most comprehensive reforms are needed. Put simply, apart from the track to university, the New Zealand senior secondary school is broken. That style of education no longer suits too many of our young people. Don’t despair – we share this with our sibling systems in Australia, the United States, the UK and most of Canada. WE need to look elsewhere for evidence of what works and then craft our own responses for our particular circumstances.

4 Cement the output of graduates from tertiary education to employment.

There needs to be a clear line of sight between tertiary programmes and employment. I know that the universities resist any such notion – I have been told by those who know that such a connection is not helpful – “We do not train people, we educate them.” Just think of it, all those untrained doctors, ophthalmologists, engineers, lawyers – what rubbish such a claim is.  And in light of the unrelenting marketing of universities as the place to secure a future, to get high earning powered positions it is simply not sense.

Tertiary education is expensive both for the taxpayer and for the students who are the sons and daughters of taxpayers. They have a right to know that their investment in education at a tertiary level be it at a university, an ITP, a PTE a Wananga or wherever will lead to a job. If a degree in business has prepared you to look after the valet parking desk at the airport (as was a case I came across recently) then it can only be concluded that the programme offered little in the way of access.

A stark statistic:  About one half of those who start a post-secondary qualification actually complete it.

A quick but excellent fix:  it seems as if we are drifting towards a situation where tertiary providers are to be held accountable for the progress into employment of their graduates. If this were applied to all levels and types of tertiary education it might well be a good thing. Of course it would have to be first accepted that a key purpose of post-secondary education and training is to get the appropriate job. This might also require a better connection between demand and supply in the labour market. Consideration of these a matters need to be sped up.

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