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Month: March 2014

Terve! Terve! Terve! What’s going on here?


There has been a great gathering of the good in Wellington last week – the International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

Like most international gatherings, the whole affair was choreographed in the interests of giving everyone a fair go at the air-time that was available. This doesn’t always allow for the real issues to emerge as there is an element of chance in the chosen country reports actually having something to say on the designated issue.

And this was the case with the plenary session on equity. Excellence and equity are the themes of the summit and why not.[1]  It is an OECD supported organization and their PISA activity is an instrument that makes explicit the relative performance of education systems in this regard. New Zealand does very poorly on the second of those measures – while high on excellence, it performs poorly on equity.

This is not to say that we don’t care about equity – we do but the path towards lifting performance on that measure is seemingly not becoming clear very quickly and the indicators are stubbornly slow to encourage us. So I looked forward to the afternoon that was to be devoted to a discussion of equity.

What did I learn? Well, that everyone seems to be struggling a little (and in some cases a lot) and the three or four high performers were annoyingly quiet on the issue. The warts are never going to be exposed in a setting of an international summit.

I learned a little more the next morning when walking from the hotel to the venue. I spotted a fellow with the right sort of conference satchel walking along Lambton Quay so I fell into step with him.

“Where are you from?” I enquired. “Finland” he replied. Ah, I thought, the holy mecca for those who seek the way, the truth and the light of equity.

We chatted and I shifted the topic away from the fact that the streets of Wellington appeared to be deserted (it was 8.00am on a Saturday!) and mentioned that I had read Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons, and felt that there were in that book some lessons for New Zealand.

“He was one of my teachers at High School,” my fellow Finnish walker replied exhibiting no relish at all for following up on that opening.

Change of tack. “Of course Finland took a bit of a slide down in the last PISA results,” I offered. We had stopped at a traffic light and he turned to face me. “That is because the students have got so slack.” “Is this perhaps the result of becoming famous for doing so well?” “I don’t know, I think that the parents care more about taking their kids to hockey practice and basketball games instead of seeing that they are doing their homework.”

The lights turned green and I wondered aloud why each of the Scandanavian countries had slid back a little. His instant analysis told me that Norway, it seems, is going to the dogs because it has so much money – he suggested that in a couple of years they would have so much money that they would be able to abolish income tax. There was a tinge of envy in his voice I thought.

By then there was a couple of people walking along the footpath towards us so I was able to comment on how busy Wellington was becoming. Perhaps first thing in the morning is not the right moment to get a conversation going about equity.

And so Day 2 started. First country up was Singapore addressing the question “How are learning environments created that address the needs of all children and young people?” A crisp, clear exposition of Core Values (Respect, Responsibility, Resilience, Integrity, Care, Harmony)  and a clear set of 21st Century Competencies free of the clutter that often surrounds such discussions.

I had the feeling that Singapore understood quite a lot about equity. No wonder they have a picture of a classroom on their $2 note.


[1] Actually, “inclusion and fairness” are also among the themes but I imagine that a non-inclusive and unfair education system is neither excellent nor equitable so I think that is covered!

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The middle as a worthy goal

It used to be the practice when starting a career that entry was at the bottom and you learnt the business by working your way up. This was thought to be good for young people and gave them the practical knowledge that infused real life into what it was that they had learnt in school and in postsecondary places such as universities.

This seems no longer to be as popular as the notion that a degree will take you, if not to the top, then certainly to the other side of those lesser tasks that keep the business actually running. This ambition has further fed the growing view that a worthy goal is to see everyone with a degree level qualification.  And the middle classes hanging on to preserve what status they have insist on nothing less for the next generation while those clamouring to join them see it as a ticket to ride.

It doesn’t stop there either. Governments in the western world have made an art form out of generating goals for the proportions of the population that should be degree qualified. The USA gamely wants everyone to have a degree, the UK and Australia link arms at the 40% mark. All three might be better devoting energy to seeing that all young people successfully complete secondary school!

The real issue is that such “stop only at the summit” approaches ignore the realities of how business and enterprise is organised. There are people working at the top of every organisation but there is also a larger group working at different levels below that. There will in some businesses even be a place for the unskilled provided that they are at least employable.

But the real gap is in the middle. If education systems are focussed on turning our degree level students in two groups (those who succeed and those who don’t) and with the encouragement of governments have persuaded the community that this is the favoured route to the top, fewer young people see the middle qualifications and skill levels as being worthy of the effort and attention. This leads to a shortage of the technically skilled and western economies turn to immigration to address the shortage.

Not only is such a situation bad for business, it doesn’t serve the needs of young people well at all. Giving to young people the opportunity to engage in applied and technical education earlier is emerging as a key strategy in retaining them in education and training and in developing those literacy, numeracy and digital skills that underpin all employment now. Evidence is that when engaging in technical and applied programmes at around 14-16 years, young people can not only discover a confidence in themselves as learners but also are inspired by a line of sight to a future job. In turn that job could turn into a career. Instead too many are being lured into a degree/university track and become the failure fodder for those that succeed.

Why, it should be asked, are western countries all madly addressing the issue of skills shortages and at the same time pumping increasing numbers into educational tracks that can never address those same shortages? The long term damage could be considerable to both economies and to individuals. We need to seriously address the image of the middle – no longer is it a middle earth populated by grease-covered grunting types who are “good with their hands” and answer to the orders of others. The modern middle requires a wide skill set, has a wide range of work situations many of which show the impact of technology on activity now. Leadership skills, team skills, and all that bundle of attributes that are sometimes called the “soft skills” are of the highest order in the middle. These are also the markers of the educational programmes that lead to CTE certificates and diplomas and associate degrees. By the age of 18 or 19 years those who have been taught well will have started on their journey.

The good news is that if they really have been taught well then they will be back because the middle is a good place at which to start a career. Not just good for them but also good for us.


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Ploughing the fields on a weekend


Weekend newspapers are meant to be a relaxing read but this weekend has raised some education issues that exercise us quite a bit. The Herald on Sunday made a bit of a meal of school funding while the Sunday Star Times had a few stern words for some.

The Herald started an editorial on school funding with the strange statement that:

“Up to half of the funding available to New Zealand’s 2500 school principals is allocated according to the 2006 Census…”  This is of course highly misleading as it suggests that somehow the decile rating of a school has an impact on half of the funding going to schools. The reality is that very little money goes to schools on the basis of its decile rating.

There seems to me to have been very little movement in the obvious rates paid for the Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement, the Special Education Grant and the Career Information Grant over the past decade. Perhaps someone can tell me where the “up to half” chatter comes from. It might well be embedded in the folklore of some in education but the hard cold reality is that perhaps at most a couple of percent is decile related.

And whatever is targeted for low decile schools in no way compensates for the disadvantaged faced by them in contrast to their rich high decile colleagues’ capacity to access cash from the community.

Another funny bit of thinking in the editorial is a paragraph that hides an implicit belief that low decile schools are “struggling” and “straggling” and that they need to “catch up” to high decile schools. This might not be seen to be the case if a “value added” approach is taken to funding. The schools that add the most value would receive more favourable funding. This could well be the low decile schools which start from a very different place and bring children through to a point where they can continue the education journey with some confidence. Compare that to a school full of Decile 10 students who arrive at the school as Decile 10 students. It would be much harder to show the value added in such cases.

Of course we would join the Herald in not wanting a repeat of the well-intentioned but misguided No Child Left Behind campaign initiated by George W. Bush in the US.

The editorial finished on a plea that we do not “drop needs-based funding.” Gandhi was once asked what he thought of British civilisation and he replied that he thought it would be a good idea! What do I think of needs-based funding? I think it would be a good idea.

The decile rating scheme was well-intentioned, hasn’t worked and it is time now for it to go.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The Sunday Star Times appropriates a Lyndon B. Johnson quote about J. Edgar Hoover in its headline that “Teacher unions need to get inside the tent.” This is a comment not only about where they should be, inside the discussion rather than standing aside but also about what they are doing. I have known no Minister of Education that has worked harder to be inclusive of the teacher unions than Hon Hekia Parata and I can understand why the Sunday Star Times side-bars a comment that “It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Hekia Parata.” But this is not a Minister that looks for sympathy rather it is a Minister that looks for results, raw clear achievement for students.

The Sunday Star Times editorial characterises the unions as being inclined to adopt a default position of opposition. It notes that the Principals Federation is looking set to oppose the lead principals proposals put forward by the Prime Minister. One hopes that the Acting President is misquoted in saying that there is “no evidence” it will work and that the newspaper is being mischievous in noting her issue with the term “Executive Principal” because it “reeks of the word “boss”. Dear me.

But the editorial hits a big nail right on the head when it notes that all this opposition might have some point to it as there are hesitations about some of the proposals but that “it is a better idea than anything the teachers themselves have come up with”.  I have long said that if national standards are not the way to move forward then come up with something better. If the re-organisation of schooling is wrong then simply weeping and asserting the right not to change is no argument at all.

It is not hard to agree with the editorial’s conclusion that this lack of participation in change can only be the result of a clear attachment to the status quo. I for one do not accept that this is so – teachers in schools are being done a great disservice by those who speak on their behaviour and would claim to lead.

The voice of the student might well be saying…

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!


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Suffer little child to come unto school


I was more than a little shocked to learn the other day that an experiment has started by which little ones at the age of five years are starting school at designated times rather than on their fifth birthday as has been the custom for well over a hundred years. 

This is crazy! The custom and practice of starting school on your fifth birthday has served the country well and, as Voltaire might have commented: “When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.”

No argument to change has been put forward other than the convenience of the adults that work in the school system.

Development psychology has no strong argument that would promote the need for a cohort start rather than the staggered start of the birthday custom.

There is no evidence that starting on your fifth birthday is detrimental to progress.

All in all it is one of those things that simply catch on because in the absence of other ideas doing something about student achievement in the early school years seems better than doing nothing.

Whether a five year old is “ready” for school is largely the result of the experiences the child has in the environment in which they are raised. The uncritical acceptance of any pre-school experience rather than none as being enough cannot be sustained. Students are stretching out in their development right from birth. And research has shown over the years that young children have five universal needs:


  •          the benefits of sound nutrition, good clothing and shelter, economic security preventative physical and mental health services and appropriate education experiences;
  •          strong nurturing relationships among family, community and each other;
  •          opportunities to develop skills and talents and alongside this early identification of and response to specific and individual learning needs;
  •          a safe environment free of violence and discrimination;
  •          a community that heals our little ones when they are damaged through omission or harmed through neglect or violence.


Now this takes a huge community effort – it can’t be achieved by people working on their own, cope with varying degrees of pressure and disadvantage and it starts when little ones are born and doesn’t stop for many years. But still we continue to surround the 0-5 and early schooling with claims that are largely myths. Learning happens only in school – myth. There is within each child a condition of “readiness”[1] – myth. Whatever “readiness” is, it can be measured and be measured easily – myth. Give students a little more time and they will come right – myth. Children are ready for school when they can sit quietly at a desk and listen – myth. 

The real danger that lies in the shift to a five-year-old cohort starting at two designated dates in a school year is simply to load the burden of a feature that thwarts student progress through schooling – the lock-step age related cohort that underpins the organization of schools. The fact that five year olds reflect a wide range of development, of skills and or preparedness is not something peculiar to five year olds. It is true also of most students.

But still the machine grinds on. Students present themselves on the parade ground on a specific day to be marshalled into little pedagogic platoons to be marched off to do whatever daily orders demand. “Today we have the naming of parts…”

The challenge to schools is to introduce increased flexibility so that students can move at a pace that reflects their needs and progress. Teachers have to cope with up to thirty students each at their own particular spot in the educational journey. To think otherwise is simply a little self-delusion practiced in order to maintain current structures.

To now introduce that one size fits all over the top of a group of five year olds beggars belief. When a five year old started school on or near their birthday they were special, welcomed into school by excellent teachers who eased the experience into something that was generally exciting and smooth. Where there was upset it was handled with sensitivity. Imagine a teacher coping with a room full of such little lambs bleating, nervous, disoriented.

It seems cruel to me! Is this yet another change that will catch on for no obvious reason?

[1]A useful discussion of readiness to start school can be found in Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, High, Pamela C. (2008)

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The classrooms are alive with the sound of music!


I forget who said in a rather cautionary tone “When you consider the power of TV to educate aren’t you pleased that it doesn’t!”

I thought about that the other day when into my possession came a Schools Music Bulletin from the 1960s and I got quite nostalgic. I recall, all those years ago, when I was in the primers and the standards looking forward to those programmes. They were broadcast to us from that speaker up on the wall above the teacher’s blackboard, the same one that would bring messages from the Headmaster, an event once described by a friend as “old men doing their knitting over the air!”

The Schools Music Programme would seem pretty dull now but I was reminded that we tackled quite a range of songs which were, of course, sung clearly and beautifully by the unseen choir and rather less accurately by us. But it was fun and it gave us exposure to music regardless of the extent to which our teacher was tone-deaf.

And the pupils in Gore got the same programme that we got – it was in a sense using technology to bring quality experiences into each classroom.

There were other uses of radio too and I recall the weekly “Assembly” of the correspondence school, National Radio on a Friday around the middle of the day.  Ormond Tate delivered particularly sound homilies but he had an advantage over other principals who knew how many they were speaking to but never how many were hearing them who knew neither.

Then let’s not forget the National Film Library, that rich treasure house of fun, information, and enlightenment through the magic of 16mm film. I wonder if television has ever achieved the impact of that service – leather pizza boxes strapped securely arriving weekly and replenishing young peoples’ appetite to learn.

And yes, teacher skill was certainly required. When I trained to be a teacher I dutifully undertook instruction in how to operate a film projector and having passed the course and been duly certified, marched forth to show films to students.

I was a little surprised to hear the CE of Xero, that high flying tech company, recently say that getting skilled people in New Zealand was difficult. He questioned the schooling students were getting – “Don’t give them iPads, teach them to think and solve problems” he said or something along those lines.

The beauty of radio has always been that it requires effort from the listener. What comes out of the radio is half the story, the understanding and embellishment of the pictures, the sounds and the words is in the hands of the listeners. I grew up listening to the Goon Show – mad disjointed crazy stuff that was gifted to a listener to make of it whatever they might.

On the other hand, radio now is full of either celebrity chitchat or hosts inanely laughing at their own jokes seemingly unaware of how unfunny they are. You couldn’t play that sort of material to young people.

So do National Radio and the Concert Programme fit the bill for exciting young people? The best of it might but it falls away too quickly. I personally have long felt that the best of national radio is to be found in the rural broadcasting programmes – middle of the day to catch the farmers when they are inside having lunch. You get a flavor of real people doing important work through those broadcasts.

But the concert programme is as much articulate chatter as it is concert these days. Don’t you just love those stations committed to classical music that you can now access over the internet? Now that’s a funny thing, using the internet to get something we used to get from old radios with glowing valves!

And all that from an old journal for the Music to Schools Programme. I must get back to chortling my way through The Ash Grove.



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