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.