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Month: June 2014

The walled pity of it all

As I drive work I note yet another school where a fence has been put up – one of those things with little venomous spikes on top. It’s high enough to keep people out (and, I suppose, to keep them in!).

At a time when there is an increasing emphasis on partnerships this seems anachronistic.

Years ago when I was a Principal there was a problem with all sorts of people using the grounds, with graffiti and the occasional bit of vandalism. The cry went up – “build a fence!”, ‘repel the invader!”. But we found a much greater and more powerful approach – we invited people in.

Through an agreement with the local authority, the then Manukau City Council, we saw our grounds become part of the city network of public spaces and sports fields. People could book the grounds through the City Council who would agree to undertake all the annual maintenance on the grounds while the school continued with the weekly and daily chores.

It was an excellent arrangement for both parties. The City Council got additional sports fields while the school got organized use of its grounds by people who by and large were greatly more responsible than those who would wander in because they were at a loose end. Vandalism dropped, graffiti lowered and it was in every sense more orderly – park rangers would regularly visit the “school / park.” The Council came to consider it as one of their most successful “parks” having in excess of 80,000 planned and authorised users each year in those early days.

In Auckland there are current plans to slice land of the only public golf course because of a shortage of sports fields. It would be a safe bet to put money on the fact that there is a huge acreage of school grounds that lie idle – many behind spiky fences. How absurd!

I frequently take a walk though a local school that is open to such activity and it is great to see the grounds and outdoor basketball courts getting some use. The school doesn’t appear to suffer as a result.

We all love a good cliché – the problem is that there is always a element of truth in them. So we often hear educators spouting the old African proverb popularized by Hilary Clinton – “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Too often this is used to excuse poor achievement or performance in a weak attempt to shift blame. But how can such claims have credibility when spiky fences ensure that the village is kept at arms length? How can the village feel welcomed when the physical messages say otherwise?

I know that child safety is paramount. I know that there are sad and pathetic people out there who do not share our concerns for safety. But this is not the US where school lock downs are practised and sadly activated quite often. But there are other ways in which schools can be kept safe. Invite the village in to help with creating and maintaining a safe environment.

I cannot understand why New Zealand has been so slow to consider and to use community-sourced assistance that would allow teachers to get on with practicing their craft. It is great in the UK to see the role that dinner workers and lollipop workers help out. Many stay-at-home parents would be thrilled to have an opportunity to help and if this was sweetened with a little remuneration, in some communities that would make all the difference. It also makes the management of “volunteer” workers that much easier.

Now I need to be clear, I work in a fenced institution but there is managed public usage thanks in large part to a professional security unit that manages the use of the marae (over 200 nights a year, opens the gates for people to get to the market each Saturday morning (and to the ATM machine), and so on.

The proliferation of a Checkpoint Charlie mentality (without the Charlies!) has no place in education.



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Communities clean up after the storm

Such were the headlines in the newspapers over the past few days. But I was safely tucked away from it all in Dunedin which was relatively untouched. I was helping out at a Community Forum related to youth and the issues of employment and education. So in a way it was a case of a community cleaning up after a different kind of storm

There is a mood for change emerging in New Zealand. Communities of different kinds are getting together to work through the key community issue as they see it – the needless destruction of a proportion of a generation of young people through unsatisfactory educational outcomes and the subsequent disruption to the traditional pathway in New Zealand that saw young people succeed in education to various levels that at various points led to an exit to a fulfilling future – jobs, higher qualifications, wages that were low but with a prospect of getting higher, and so on.

The generations of my parents and grandparents were born into and lived through times of great pressures and troubles – depression (financial not personal), world wars, Spanish ‘flu, and so on. Our generation (the baby boomers) was born into a time of plenty, of opportunity and of peace. And the gloomy thought occurs that the next generation will not benefit – quite simply the growing numbers of NEETs, of disengaging younger people, of youth who are unemployed and the large numbers who exhibit mental health issues at an age when we would barely have known that such conditions existed, is such that if that growth is not arrested quite quickly the negative elements of society will outweigh the positive gains.

Have the Baby Boomers bombed on this one?

Has the best opportunity to fulfill the great Kiwi Dream, a universal education that offers an appropriate pathway for all to the fullest extent of each and everyone’s potential, been squandered?

Communities are meeting and showing a great willingness to combine expertise and effort across the community to get the young people moving. It is a pleasure for me that I get to go to such gatherings and to lend a hand. An amazing array of people who have the tools and the desire to change the future for the young ones seriously and openly share their hopes, their capabilities to contribute and their commitment to doing what they can.

Somewhat AWOL from these gatherings is the education community. Not entirely absent but to a noticeable extent. It is as if there is still to develop among the education community an awareness that poor educational outcomes are central to the issues that are troubling their communities and into which communities are committing resources and people both of which could be used for things other than attending to the failures of the education system. True, there are some who for reasons beyond the institution that is a school are stalled in their lives but the inescapable fact is that too many would not be where they are today making these demands on the community had their performance and achievement at school been better.

In a nutshell the issues are clustered around the fact that too many young people get themselves into a dark place seemingly without drawing the attention of education institutions. Disengagement is not an event, it is not something that students do to themselves, it is not simply a fact of life. It is a system failure in which a student progressively disconnects from the process of being at school to move into darkening places in which motivation start to decrease, habits change, traditional authority (with a small “a”) chains lose their strength both at home and in school and, perhaps the worst scenario, the engagement that we rely on so much to maintain education transfers to far less but seemingly seductive other activities – substance abuse, drugs, alcohol, youth gangs, petty crime and suchlike for some. For others doing nothing seems a better way to pass the days than continuing in education.

But are they doing nothing? I come across many such disengaged and NEET people and given a choice and below the bravado they would swap where they are for success quite quickly. They want to have a satisfying future which involves work, having money, sustaining a family and so on. But the thought of returning to the kind of institution in which they have so comprehensively failed fills them with dread and doing nothing gains in strength as a desired option. The big message that emerges from the community forums confirms my belief that each and every individual can learn and can succeed when opportunity and process match the individual’s needs and goals. So greater flexibility is called for – there has never been one way of doing things nor is one silver bullet likely to emerge.

There is great energy, skill and willingness out there in the communities – the challenge for education is to match it and work with it.

Weather’s improving as I head north again but blue skies will not in themselves make for a happy fulfilled lives for many. There are dark clouds every day for the dispirited and the disengaged.

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Getting the policy kettle on the hob!

There are rumours that there is an election on although the world of education would hardly know it.

But I guess the announcement that there has developed a coalition of the unwilling with regard to the Investing in Education Excellence (IES) – a troika of tantra.

This alliance between the NZ Principals Federation, the New Zealand Education Institute  and the Auckland Primary Principals Association beggars belief. Are these people simply against anything that the Governmdent suggests? Are these people blind to the opportunities presented by initiatives such as these. Are these people really caring about the achievement of young people?

There seems to be a high level of what the French call les déclinologistes about these organisations. What they are in favour of is being against whatever is happening. Their default position is simply “It’s a bad idea” or “It won’t work!” or “We should have been consulted!” We have no clear idea of what they are in favour of.  An idea can only be beaten by a better idea and their rejection of ideas is never supported with better ideas.

Not that they have this on their own. With an election about 100 days away we only have a sketchy idea of education policies from most of the parties.

Of course, as usual, the party in power has the inside running being able to point to what it has been doing over the past 6 years as evidence of its values and directions. So National Standards, Better Public Service Goals, Youth Guarantee and the IES are all major intiatives that those opposing them can only top by a better, or clearer policy. And they are not yet forthcoming.

Labour seems not to have an education policy – the leader tells us to be patient “We have a whole telephone book of policy!” he says on the television. Well, one hopes not. Just a couple of clear, targeted policies that are likely to lift achievement. And they need to be positive ones, new directions, better ideas.

So it was refreshing when the three most unlikely political mates stood on the stage together and Laila Harre, with arm held aloft by Kim Dotcom that the Internet Party would campaign on a policy of free tertiary tuition. Now there’s a big idea. If this policy is not seen to be touting for the votes of the moderately to well off, she will have to take account of the fact that increasingly tertiary education is free and is being gradually increased in a very targeted way.

First came the cluster in initiatives under the Youth Guarantee policy that started with Fees Free places in tertiary for those aged 16 – 19 years. This simply righted an iniquitous situation in which students aged 16 – 19 years could have access to free education but only if they remained in a school setting. The 20% who have dropped out of school and those who preferred to continue their education and training on a different setting were denied access to this right. So that gets a tick! Then there is the reality that now all Level 1 and 2 programmes in a tertiary setting are fees free. And the recently rolled out Maori and Pacific Trades Training policy offer fees free places to Maori and Pacific between the ages of 18 and 34 Years. So gradually, tertiary tuition is being made free for priority groups.

It being a proud boast of the university sector that their graduates get excellent and highly paid jobs – so the argument to extend it into that sub-sector seems relatively weak. Although, it must be acknowledged that again the universities are targeting priority learner groups in different ways with fees relief.

So the opposition parties are between the rock of what the Government is doing and the hard place where good ideas are scarce if the old default negativity is not to rule.

Each election for about twenty years now I have generously offered even-handedly to all parties a list of policy areas that they would be welcome to use. It has been a source of great disappointment that so few are taken up.

Stuart’s list of policy suggestions – free to a good home.

First-in-Family Guarantee

We know that when a family has someone complete a tertiary qualification and they are the first in that family to do so, the family is transformed to the extent that tertiary education becomes a goal for other family members from then on.

Sector Reform

The current sector arrangements were never designed to do the job they are now required to do. In fact, there is an element of truth in saying that they were never designed, full stop! The not-fit for-purpose sectors that we currently have create transitions that are dysfunctional for many. And reform needn’t be dramatic – combine ECE with Primary Years 1-6, combine Primary Years 7-8 with Secondary Years 9 – 10. Put secondary Years 11-13 into the tertiary sector.

Before we are overtaken by howls of outrage, this might all be simpler than we think, we’ll continue to see school plant in use appropriately and would have a dramatic impact on the negative elements of transitions in New Zealand.

(Further details available on request.)

Early Childhood Education

Establish two-year ECE unit / service established in every primary school. No land purchases required, governance already in place and smooth transition into primary schooling.

That is enough to get the policy ball rolling.


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