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A Primary Education without Standards?

Stuart Middleton


13 December 2017

At this time of the year in days gone past students would carry home a school report and parents would read them with great interest in one key thing – was their child going “up” to the next standard. Would that pathway from Standard 1 to Standard 2 and so on up to Standard 6 continue? And great pleasure was expressed when this was the result – usually a grunted “Well done” rather than bestowing of presents which seems now to greet any perceived achievement!

But as we approach Christmas this year, something just doesn’t make sense!

In an act that might be one of bravado or perhaps one of inspiration, the Coalition Government has abolished National Standards for the primary sector without any idea of what can or will replace it.

This has apparently been based on a call from primary teachers and principals to be allowed to “stop all this testing and reporting” so as to be able to “get on with teaching” and on a view that parents didn’t want the information that was being given to them

Let’s look at these positions and remember that this is happening at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear that student achievement is declining as they progress through primary schooling and, without being churlish in mentioning it, when confirmation has been made that on average 76,000 students are not at school on any given day (of course secondary schooling also contributes to this statistic).

If primary in responding to National Standards have indeed been focusing on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other things, it just doesn’t seem to be working nor does it show. And this might be for a very obvious reason.

You cannot simply focus on literacy and numeracy as if they were subjects in their own write. In the panoply of “school subjects”, they do not exist. “Literacy” and “numeracy” are descriptions of the application of skill-sets to learning, to the growth of skills and knowledge, to the increase in social skills and so on. In other words, they are the descriptions of progress in just about everything that primary schools should be doing and would claim to be doing.

You cannot study literacy and numeracy for no obvious reason. You cannot become literate and numerate without demonstrating the application of the skills of literacy and numeracy to learning about other things and developing other skills. You cannot report on literacy and numeracy without having observed all this.

And there is a growing body of evidence to support this view.  At Manukau institute of Technology pathways are made available to students to study, in an applied manner, many different technical areas and, in the case of the MIT Tertiary High School, undertake all their schooling in such a setting.

Typically, many of these students, after 10 years of schooling, have struggled to get the credits they need in literacy and numeracy while in the school programme. But given settings where they are required to practise the skills of literacy and numeracy for real applications and uses, they have little difficulty at all reaching the standards that are sought.

The second issue, do parents want to know what National Standards deliver to them? The TVNZ vox pop. would have you believe that they really aren’t too fussed about it. But that was when asked about National Standards which was criticised and pilloried by the primary teaching community and its leadership from their very introduction until their demise. So, who blames parents for have such views? It could even be a sign that teachers are respected in a way that is not simply rational but more a passionate grasp of the importance to schooling to later life.

It would be tragic if schools and teachers were to abuse that trust. I have never met a parent or caregiver that did not believe in the value of schooling and who did not grasp the critical importance of the work of teachers. I have, however, also met parents who asked the question “What went wrong? We sent [son/daughter] to school and [he/she] has failed.” A recent leader in education was want to say “Parents send their best children to us.”

In abandoning National Standards, the government has made a commitment to parents that increases in student achievement will be follow. In greeting their demise with pleasure, the teaching profession has declared that they can deliver higher and more equitable outcomes with a curriculum free from distortion that will take students along a pathway upwards to great things.

What a Christmas Present to parents and caregivers it would be if both the Government and the teaching profession were able to deliver great improvements and benefits this a result of this announcement and all that it leads to.




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  1. Ian Douthwaite Ian Douthwaite

    At first I thought that when you write that literacy and numeracy aren’t subjects “in their own write” that you were being astutely ironic, as is your wont.

    Further on I realised you were probably just a victim of auto – correction.

    “In days gone past” children spent rather a lot of time practicing reading, writing, and arithmetic.

  2. Jim Doyle Jim Doyle

    It is interesting isn’t it, that we still struggle with the whole area of assessment? Forget the meaning of life for a moment, what is the meaning of assessment?

    Back in the old days assessment was all based on the bell curve. Where did we all sit on that bell curve? The whole purpose was to rank people basically from 1 to 100. Everybody understood that. Winners were above 50 and losers below. Then along came David Hood and Unit Standards. The old ranking system was bad and had to be replaced by something which said more about what individuals could do, know and understand than where they sat relative to their peers. In short, standards. Very worthy in theory and indeed very worthy in some areas of learning but problematic in others. Ranking was at the very heart of David Hood’s concerns and it had to be removed from the system.

    But the objections to the ‘standards’ approach never went away and there were the inevitable compromises which didn’t help. So we ended up with a system which the academics hated and the rest of the world didn’t understand.

    Where to now? The fact is that people want to know were their children stand relative to others. Ranking again?

    They also want to know what progress their child is making.

    Back in 1990 there was a revolutionary shift in thinking about assessment in NZ. Some of that thinking got translated into action but not all of it. Between then and now numerous ‘adjustments’ were made which served to confuse the matter rather than resolve anything.

    Surely now is the time to have a fundamental think about assessment and what it is exactly we are trying to achieve. More fiddling around the edges will not make things better.

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