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Month: February 2014

Stripped Naked for the Meeting

I felt completely naked as I walked into the meeting at an undisclosed building in an undisclosed city. The reception area had stripped me of the electronic gadgets that I usually carry with me. Philosophic about this I thought no more of it confident that as promised they would be returned as    I left the building. It didn’t seem to matter, well not until the meeting started.

I had no meeting papers. Usually they are sitting there waiting in a meeting filing system that is fool -proof as indeed they had been when I carefully read them the previous evening.  All of my meetings are sitting on a virtual bookshelf in nice order thanks to a piece of software developed at Waikato University called Stellar Library. It is a lifesaver in a life punctuated with meetings.

But, no gadget, no papers. They printed off another set.

Then we reached a part of the meeting where I was asked for some detail about the project. No problem, I have a complete set of project papers with me. No! Wait a minute, they are in the same gadget as the meeting papers – different software but efficient nevertheless. But forget efficiency when you don’t have the gadget. I suggested that I phone the office for a set to be sent through to someone who was allowed a gadget. But of course I didn’t have the phone to send either a voice message or a text message.

They decided that it would be too much bother and take too much time and anyway the question didn’t matter all that much. This could have been a real problem but nothing could be done about it and we simply had to move on to the next topic.

It could be that we could set up another meeting. Well, that was more easily said than done – I didn’t have my phone therefore I didn’t have my diary, therefore I couldn’t ………

There is small amount of exaggeration in a quest to be apocryphal but not much – the basic facts are correct. What it underlined for me was the fact that we have become much more gadget dependent than we might imagine. There I was, by a simple request to hand over my iPad and my iPhone at the reception area, stripped of …………

  • my meeting notes;
  • my project files;
  • my diary;
  • my phone;
  • my access to text messaging.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because I didn’t have my phone, my watch no longer notified me of all those things that digital gadgets like to notify us of. All it could do was tell the time and state the date!  I often take notes on the iPad which can then be quickly shared with others. A quick snap with the camera on the phone can capture a diagram on the whiteboard or the screen and again save a lot of time.  These things are no longer gadgets, they are the tools we use.

You see the convergence of connectivity and our reliance on these things has changed the way we work, despite perhaps trying not to we have become very reliant on them. I remember a staff member saying to me once when we experienced a power cut that closed down the networks (actually it didn’t – just shut off the screens and the CPUs) that “We may as well go home, we can’t do any work!” That was quite wrong because at that time filing was still a physical process and there was plenty of that. There were people to see, and so on.

We live in this changed world in which we are greatly assisted to do our work in ways that we never imagined. We rejoice in this connectivity when it works for us but curse when it doesn’t.

Was the meeting a waste of time as a result of my confiscated gadgets? Not al all. I haven’t gone over to the other side completely. I pulled out my notebook (the old kind, lined pages between covers) and my fountain pen and all was well. Ah yes, belt plus braces.



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Dealing with scraps in the playground

I think it was John Dewey who stated that the measure of an excellent education system was the extent to which it met the needs of its most vulnerable student.

The court action this week seeking a judicial review of a decision to exclude a student suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome illustrated superbly the inefficacy of using such processes for such complex issues.

I have little doubt that in this case everyone has acted with good intentions. The school has acted to support the teacher and to ensure a safe environment for staff and students. The parents of the lad have acted with loving advocacy for a child who deserves a shot at the kind of education that others take for granted. The legal advocacy service that is taking the case sees injustice that should be righted. The Ministry of Education believes that it is applying a set of rules based on legislation and developed over time by custom and practice.

Missing in the early reports of the case is the voice of the student. He is a secondary school student, no doubt he has a point of view but is it so fragile that a number of adults must express it for him?

New Zealand pioneered the Ombudsman system in 1962 following the pattern established by Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Initially it was just to investigate complaints against central government institutions and agencies but over the years the office and the process generally has been extended to cover all manner of things – official information act, inhumane treatment, whistle blowers, banking and so on.

It is time for an Education Ombudsman Office to be established in New Zealand. The Courts are a clunky and inappropriate way to address disputes in education. The courts also work to a time frame that is unacceptable. An Education Ombudsman Office would bring commonsense, a respect for the law and regulation, a humane approach and one that is focused on best outcomes for learners. It would also reduce the combative approach which sees sides lined up and wanting victory when really the only victory is one for commonsense and for equitable outcomes for learners. That will involve also equitable outcomes for schools and teachers.

No school Board, Principal or administrator sets out to act in defiance of the principles of justice or, I am sure, without the interests of learners at heart. But a more neutral and expert eye cast over issues can often see solutions that are simple and just in that they do not produce long delays.

And while the Education Ombudsman Office is being set up, why not also establish an Education Commission along the lines of the Law Commission – an ongoing small group with expertise to explore issues, report of important aspects and make recommendations when guidance is sought from it? It is akin to a rolling Royal Commission without the panoply.

Such a group (and indeed an Education Ombudsman) might well have been useful in the current dispute up North about the provision of some subjects to Partnership School students by State schools. The teachers’ organisation is opposed to it and so it doesn’t happen. This is simply a turf war conducted by outsiders when the Board seemed quite happy to go ahead. The state school clearly had both the capacity and at various levels a willingness to help in this way. To play out an ideological dispute at the classroom door seems not right.

Wise heads should prevail in such circumstances and when they seem not able to, they need to be sought elsewhere. A Commission or an Ombudsman might well be able to see a quick resolution to such an issue without the delays that will now inevitably impact on some young people. Impartial outside advice would almost certainly have most regard for what is best for the students, in this case apparently, a group of young Maori who in all likelihood will find the success that has eluded them in conventional state education in the setting of a Partnership School.

The education System needs to be brought back to basics – it exists to bring success to young people, to set them up for the future and to see them on a seamless pathway to employment. Too often the hubris and vested interest of those who have already had the benefit of just such kinds of success gets in the way.

An impartial and authoritative voice of an Education Ombudsman and the careful, informed work of an Education Commission would bring increased calmness and purpose to a sector too often fraught with issues that miss the point.


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When editorial licence become rant


Every now and then the NZ Herald[1] simply gets it wrong and they waste a lot of their ammunition in blasting away this morning at Charter Schools (known in New Zealand as Partnership Schools and in other places variously as Academy Schools, Free Schools and so on).

Take for instance the confident assertion early into their piece – “State schools would not use their state funding for commercial advertising…” Not much they wouldn’t! For some schools image is everything and the costs of this come out of their funding. The Herald might be employing a cute logic that says that funding sourced from elsewhere is not “state funding” but that argument is spurious. Decisions about spending are simply decisions about what is important and all money is capable of being used differently. But spending to promote itself is well established in the education system.

Then there is the fuss about the “establishment grant”. When a new school is developed in the state system the establishment grant is simply huge – principals are appointed up to two years previous to the opening of the school and their senior team a year before. Much money goes into the establishment board and so on.

Then there is the matter of charter schools requesting that students be able to access some subjects at state schools. One of the excellent developments over the past decade has been some increased fluidity in students accessing programmes in a more flexible manner. Some of this is across the secondary / tertiary line but some of it is also between secondary schools. It is a very good use of resources.

The Herald acknowledges that size matters in these arrangements and that issues of subject availability challenge small schools, state or charter. And it is not a question of inflexibility that suggests this course of action to charter schools – quite the reverse. Because they can act more flexibly (both with regard to use of time and use of money) they can present options to students that are tailored to individuals just as some state secondary schools seek to achieve but with some frustration in an inflexible funding system.

Then there is the claim that the funding levels of the charter school is almost three times that of a state school on a per student basis. I would be very surprised if it was and suggest that Chris Hipkins is comparing two very different figures. The true comparison should be taken with all variables being equalized – establishment costs and all. It is again silly beyond words to dismiss the establishment costs simply because the schools weren’t needed.

This is followed by a suggestion that the partnership school development simply adds “needless capacity”. This might be true if only student numbers are taken into account but is grossly inaccurate if student achievement is taken account of. The partnership school development is aimed at adding to the capacity of our system to bring more success to more students and to turn around some of the disappointing performance of various groups. This is far from “needless” – it is essential.

Finally there emerges in the Herald piece the standard hysteria about public-private partnerships. They have served education well – integrated schools are public-private partnerships and New Zealand has managed these with success for 40 years. And the snide reference to the “clipper of the ticket” is getting into tricky territory.

Who is clipping the ticket in an education system that serves many students well but fails to serve too many others? Who is clipping the ticket when state schools demand money from parents to have their children in a school fully funded by the state? Who is clipping the ticket when the funding made available to a student to be in school fails to result in a positive outcome?


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Money makes the world go round, is education making it go flat?

(with acknowledgement to George Bernard Shaw who had an opinion about us)

I work with a colleague who is fond of saying that “when money walks through the door, love flies out the window.”  So too, it seems do a few other things such as professional principles, concern for equity, decent behavior and a sense of modesty.

Well that is what it looks like with the various issues that money raises in education at the moment.

First there is the one related to school fees, compulsory donations, call them what you will. Such requests (and let’s be clear, in many cases these are demands) range from a modest $30 per family up to sums in excess of $1,000 per student. Private schools can and do charge whatever they like so that is not an issue. But state schools cannot. These requests are not allowed and this is confirmed year after year when the full flush of summer brings this issue to the attention of the community. Every year it is the same old story.

But this year there has been a new twist. One school hands out a badge that in essence identify a student as coming from a compliant home which has paid the fees demand. Another has isolated students until the “matter” is resolved. These are the instances that make it into the media. I would imagine that there is a further range of pressures applied that are less draconian and more gentle.

Will next year see the debt collectors actively engaged in following up the defaulters?

This issue needs tidying up. As for the bleating from high decile schools that they are struggling for funds – my estimation that equalizing the funding coming into secondary schools for size and factoring decile ratings and all that goes with that, high decile schools are at least 20% ahead of low decile schools in terms of actual funding. A school of 2,000 students charging $1,000 is collecting $2.0 million – to suggest that this compensates for the funding going to low decile schools but not to them is simply laughable.

Secondly there is the matter of partnership schools (charter schools some insist on calling them) and the employment of teachers. It is reported that a partnership school has recruited teachers from a high decile school and is paying them more. Teachers are paid more to shift schools all the time – it is called promotion. The practice of attaching MUs to certain positions in order to be more effective in attracting applicants is a standard practice.

The money mentioned is that up to five teachers were recruited and paid up to $16K more. Let’s assume that the five teachers were all paid that amount extra – that is a total of $80k spread among the five. That could be done in any school if they had the capability of managing their own destiny with regard to the deployment of teachers. Appointing five teachers and using the funding available for six would achieve this result.

Perhaps many teachers would be prepared to negotiate a contract that allowed this to happen.

And this brings us to a third money issue. Despite the notions of “self-managing schools”, now entering its fourth decade as an organizing principle for education in New Zealand, schools actually have very little capacity to manage themselves. Funding continues to be delivered in pre-spent bundles of cash attached to categories of expenditure which are predominantly fixed in a formulaic manner.

This is not much different from my dear Mum who would take the monthly pay that my father brought home and assign it to a series of tobacco tins each labeled with a category of expenditure – power, the milkman, school uniforms, food, etc. Despite the rhetoric, schools have about as much flexibility as my Mum had, including knowing at the end of the month just how much “cash” she had for other things.

This lack of flexibility on school funding acts as a brake on schools being comfortable in encouraging students who would be best to pursue a pathway other than in a school (such as the many pathways that are opening up now for students to do this). This is because there is some weight in the argument that as a student marches off to find success elsewhere, they see a little bundle of resources marching off with them, resources that have probably already been committed.

A self-managing school needs greater ability to manage money rather than simply do with it what they are told they can do.

Money is a real issue in education. It is time that issues such as the delivery of resources to schools were examined. And it is certainly about time that the demeaning issues of school fees in state schools was dealt to decisively.

New Zealand spends about as much money on education as do the very successful (in both achievement and equity) systems. Let’s now set off to get a similar bang for our buck.



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New Directions: Let’s not flag in our efforts


It is time to put national back into our national day – Waitangi Day.

It is anachronistic that the focus has swung so resolutely to the North of the country when the facts don’t support such a development.

Yes, the talking that led to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi started in the North and a significant set of signings were completed there. But the treaty is a Treaty for the whole of Aotearoa New Zealand and signings took place in many other places. And yet there is little sense of this in the activities and media coverage of 6 February each year. On 4 July in the USA Philadelphia does not reign supreme in the activities.

Here are some suggestions:

  •          Give status to a number of Treaty celebrations on that day, certainly one in each major iwi rohe and city. And this means genuine commitment of government involvement at all of these.
  •          Privilege the day by making it a National Holiday – a genuine national Holiday up there with Christmas Day and Good Friday – that means all shops shut and a holiday for all! Make the organizing principle one of whanau / family. Have a great emphasis on sport, cultural activity (orchestras, music, performance), on street parties and picnics, of fireworks.
  •          Let’s get rid of that stupid Guy Fawkes Day and make 6 February our big fireworks occasion.
  •          Issues and discussion and korero could still be associated with the day but perhaps be formalised into a wider set of discussions that have as a standing agenda such key elements of effective race relations as educational outcomes, health standards, quality of housing, income equity and so on. The political issues of the moment could also get an airing. This forum could be run up North or even be spread through significant marae in Aotearoa New Zealand on a topic basis – education to Ngai Tahu, housing to Ngapuhi, health to Tainui, political issues to Ngati Poneke – and they could shift around each year. Above all they would rise above the stunts of the past few years which typify the actions of those who style themselves as protesters and the media that indulges itself in a feeding frenzy on them.

It could be that such hui are clustered around 6 February and need not necessarily happen only or even on that day.

  •          Schools would have a valuable part to play – a programme could be developed for say junior, middle and senior schools to focus as that day approaches on Aotearoa New Zealand on appropriate aspects of national identity, bicultural responsibility and New Zealand values (starting with Maori values and considering the implications of these for all Aotearoans/New Zealanders. The environment and our relationship with it could also be a focus. Famous New Zealanders might also have a role (and this would go beyond rugby types).
  •          That brings us to the flag. Yes, let’s get a different flag that is about us. But the silver fern on a black background has been so bastardised by its use in sporting arenas, and whenever and wherever flag waving is deemed necessary, it can never assume a status that rises above that or being mere bunting, much like that strung around second hand car salesyards. Let’s take time and care to get this right and then we treat it with dignity – no flying it all night, letting it touch the ground and so on.

Schools would teach students to respect it and we would behave in a mature manner about it rather than the foolish response that greeted Minister of Education Merv Wellington in the early 1980s when he asked for no more than this.

No doubt there will be mixed reactions to some of this but we need to realize that the symbolism of a National Day and the way we go about celebrating it and the things we do to emphasise its importance are the very things that bind us as a nation.  New Zealand has a chance to get something right here. Working on a solid but still developing base of biculturalism we could give expression to what true pluralism might be in the 21st Century.

In 1940, Allen Curnow writing in celebration of 100 years (sometimes called the “first hundred years”!) since the Treaty was signed. He wrote a very lovely couplet in a poem “Landfall in Unknown Seas”:

Simply by sailing in a new direction

You could enlarge the world.

The facts of history and the impact of legends tell us that this is how Aotearoa New Zealand was populated from the very first arrivals up to those new citizens who were signed in on 6 February. And it is a process that we can continue – it is a simple matter to change direction and our world can be enlarged in so many different ways.

Our Waitangi Day (Norman Kirk in 1973 changed it to New Zealand Day but that only lasted a year or so) can be our special day, a day of joyous celebration, of reflection and challenge, about us as a complex group of people sharing this most blessed spot in the Pacific.


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Let the games begin!

Happy New Year! Well it is has been for the first four weeks and then all the political parties decided to tell us about their policies for education in this Year of the Horse.

And what did we hear?

First there were the Greens – poverty, poverty, poverty was the cry. This was a replay of the 1980’s when educators seemed unable to get past the fact that some students were hungry, in fact they were so obsessed by this that they forgot to teach the students how to read and write. Later in the weekend Labour was to get on this band wagon and opt for school lunches for the hungry.

There are many systems that provide food to students – the US and the UK both use eligibility for a free school lunch as a key measure of poor learners who learn poorly. The good news is that I am certain the students enjoy the lunches (although Jamie Oliver has a view about how good or nutritious they might be). But there is not a shred of evidence that there is a connection between the provision of free school meals and improvements in achievement on a scale that would suggest that it is other than a social gesture.

Labour made a grander entrance on the Early Childhood Education stage. Full marks to them for noting that ECE is important – it is more that important, it is central to sound achievement and equitable outcomes. But Labour didn’t wish to be too complex about all this.

Rather they preferred to bask in the glory of their (what seems to me to the failed) 20 Free Hours policy and, no doubt ignoring all the complexities of a schooling system that is not delivering equitable outcomes, decided to simply expand it – “20 Free Hours – no wait, there’s more – 25 Free hours.”

When the 20 Free Hours was originally introduced there was no discernable increase in access to ECE services. Similarly when the scheme was freed from any targeting there was again no discernable increase in access to ECE. Those who were using the resource were simply increasing the amount of ECE they accessed thereby consuming more resource with a disappointing and continuing lack of access for those who are unable to go to a quality ECE provider.

Most of these students who are denied the ECE benefits are Maori and Pasifika and they live in communities where there are simply not enough places. Take the Tamaki area in Auckland as an example: there are 7,000 little ones under the age of five who are trying to get into the 2,000 places available. You improve access to ECE services through providing more places. Labour tossed off a quick promise to “build more ECE Centres in high-need areas” but this was something of faint hope and perhaps an afterthought overshadowed by and of lesser priority than the popular promise to spend on seeing that existing services will get higher subsidies so as to have “100 percent qualified staff” – the barons of the sandpits rubbed their hands with glee – higher costs mean higher subsidies and higher fees, excellent for the balance sheet for the large centres that offer ECE services as a business rather than a service to the community.

You only have to look at where the new multi-million dollar ECE places (I almost wrote palaces) are being built – they are on the commuter roads where those in work are able to drop their little ones off at our expense while they go off and earn quite good money in a job.

The ECE 20 Free Hours is simply a badly targeted resource that has not worked. Of course it appeals to the middle class who have jobs and money and this is clearly a key target group for Labour. Otherwise how can you describe a baby bonus for the 95% of babies in families with incomes up to $150,000 as anything but a universal benefit? Again, those without a job, or ECE, continue to swirl in the poverty trap that generation will perpetrate.

That leaves National’s “let’s do something about leadership in schools” cluster of activities, policy initiatives that identify the school leaders who perform and give them a role in which they have a license to change the quality of leadership in schools beyond their own. This policy is a bit of a body blow for the educational leadership industry found in the universities which put on a brave face about the years of first principals, aspiring principals and the raft of qualifications in educational leadership which appear neither to have cut the mustard nor to improve achievement.

This is the policy that seems most likely to succeed. Educational Leadership is at the heart of lifting educational achievement and there have been grumblings about the quality of school leadership in New Zealand for some time. The additional allowances are generous so there is no excuse for involving only those who have proven to be capable in leading teachers.

It is interesting to note that in Finland, every pre-schooler gets to go to an ECE programme, every student gets a free school lunch and nobody gets to be a principal without the additional qualifications and the experiences that the position requires rather than being selected by the educational equivalent of the local bowling club committee.

At last we seem to be taking heed of those systems that are successful rather than claiming as our birthright the right to replicate the failed policies and doomed practices of the Anglo-Saxon systems.

 I await with bated breath the announcement of policies that will lift the performance of the school system:

  • policies that have a zero tolerance for the failure to gain basic skills at primary school;
  • initiatives that will stem the flow of disengaging students;
  • challenges to the sectors that have become walled cities that destroy the seamless pathways that are so central to success;
  • engagement of business, industry and commerce in the business of schooling, especially at the secondary and postsecondary levels;
  • cross-ministerial initiatives to address the back-log of educational failure – the NEETs of which New Zealand continues to accrue amazing numbers of young people not in employment, education or training.

And that’s just for starters.


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