Archive for Education

The Power of Purpose

When Trades Academies were established in 2011, the target group of students were not those headed to university or tertiary programmes which are both appropriate and attainable. If a student has the skills and aptitude for the heavily academic setting of a university programme and can be assured of making the cut, they should do just that. They have a pathway.

But there is a significantly large group of students who run the risk of being left behind because pathways have not opened up. There is therefore a significant group who are starting at about Year 9 to show weaknesses in the academic journey and to start the process of disengagement. This exhibits itself in haphazard attendance patterns, and when they are at school there are signs of a niggly relationship between them and their teachers accompanied by wilful gaps in their work. They are the ones that will be left behind as teachers maintain a momentum for those who cooperate with their effort and who do the mahi!

These Year 9 and 10 disengagers are on the way to being incipient dropouts. The statistics on this are a woeful indication of the simple truth that a diet of conventional schooling does not suit all learners. The disengagers that are well down the track to full disengagement have few choices. They can end up being destined for the NEETs group which is a difficult situation to get into and a worse one to get out of. The conventional solution is to get them back into school. But school is where they dropped out of and which subsequently holds little attraction for them. A very small numberhave been able to access the Tertiary High School model in the 10 years it has been operating with success in terms of pathway outcomes for a high proportion of them.

But all is not lost. It is becoming apparent that the Trades Academies, a programme in which school students undertake either one full school day (Level 2) or two school days (Level 3) in a tertiary programme delivered by an Institute of technology / polytechnic institution at the tertiary institution. The evidence suggests that the programmes are encouraging secondary students to develop a frame of mind where pathway in the technical and vocational areas, especially the trades careers. It is a bonus that these programmes also encourage students to maintain better attendance patterns and more willing interest in the rest of their school programme resulting in.

Remember that the Trades Academy students are unlikely to pursue heavily academic pathways. The performance of the Trades Academy students in 2019 continuing improvement in gaining the relevant NCEA credits. Manukau Institute of Technology, a large provider of Trades academies recorded an 83.9% of students successfully completing Level 2 and this was even across student groups – Maori 78.2%, Pacific 81.4% and Pakeha 93.1%.

There is an explanation for this. These students have in those proportions found purpose in learning. Research shows that the applied nature of learning when hand help heads and vice versa is a powerful attraction for adolescent learners. Pathways to employment are a real possibility when learners discover the meaning of learning and accept their role and responsibility responding positive in the more mandated engagement environment of trades academies. A key element in this is played by the NCEA qualification which in the trades academies is playing the role intended – it must not be tampered with, but more of that later!

(Dr Stuart Middleton is Specialist Advisor to the Chief Executive, Manukau Institute of Technology)

Who are the fruit cakes in all this?

If fruit cake caused serious mental health issues in in young people and especially boys there would be a call to have it banned.

If skateboarding were to cause mental health issues to adolescent boys and some girls, it surely would be side-lined by authorities.

If travel on an international flight was to cause a set of boys, about 10% of adolescent boys and fewer girls then there would be calls to recommend that flying was a serious health issue.

Why then do seemingly intelligent and reasonable adults wish to rush to cause levels of harm to a percentage of adolescent boys and girls by voting to make cannabis legal. Scientists are agreeing that should an adolescent be exposed to cannabis before the age of 15 they risk having a serious psychotic episode around the age of 18 years – well, 10% of those who indulge in smoking dope will.

That might seem a smallish risk but the tough side of these findings is that it cannot be predicted who among those who partake will fall victim to serious psychosis until they are melting down, irrational and about to cause pain and hardship not only to themselves but also to their families.

Believe the science on this. The highly respected Dunedin longitudinal research on development has seen this exact phenomenon in their youthful subjects. And it is not just New Zealand: “Cannabis is strongly associated with psychotic symptoms and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia” concludes a major researcher in Ireland (NZ Herald, 3 August 2020). Furthermore, early heavy use dulls the brain with irreversible brain damage. So go ahead and vote for the legalisation of cannabis but do so in the knowledge that if sourcing it and using it becomes a habit for young people, they will enter into a game of cannabis Russian Roulette and 10% will lose with disastrous results for themselves and their families.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us…..

Baby Boomers(1946 to 1964); Generation Jones (1955 to 1965); Generation X (1965 to 1980); Xennials (1977 to 1983); Millennials (1981 to 1996); Generation Z (1997 and after); Generation Alpha (2010 and after).

We know all these various appellations used to describe successive generations from time to time. As a generalisation they work but of course they do not reflect the scale of difference within each generation.

I must declare at once that I am classed as a “Baby Boomer”. We grew up under the shadow of World War II. The six years of the war were still forefront in my parents’ minds and the stories were abundant. Quite regularly when looking through photo albums and asking where were the relatives we had never met, the answer was often “the didn’t come back from in the war.” There was no rushing to the western front to see them – just a telegram delivered by the local postman.

The mood of the Baby Boomers over the years has been one of sorrow for the deceased tempered with thankfulness for being alive. And younger generations might not even know that bacon, butter, sugar, meat, and petrol were rationed from the end of the war up to 1954. There were no mad panics about buying toilet paper nor storming of the grocery shop as happened recently in New Zealand. You had your coupon book and that was what you could have.

It is the pattern of human behaviour in an epidemic that contrasts so dramatically with the patterns of behaviour in a conflagration that astound me. Are Baby Boomers fundamentally wired in a different way to Millennials? They must be otherwise how can the contrast in reaction and behaviour of the two groups be so different. And just what are those differences?

The demands of those who wish to avoid quarantine, the strident demands from non-essential retail shops, the exuberant lining up for salary and expense top-ups for Decile 10 schools, the events in Victoria, Australia – all paint a picture of a generation or two that have a highly elevated sense of entitlement.

Contrast, on the one hand, the treatment handed out to farmers throughout New Zealand over the years in times of drought and floods and cyclones and stock disease outbreaks. There seemed to be a view in governments (on both sides) that those events were normal risks of doing business that you had to simply manage. On the other hand, the treatment of coffee shops, bars and pretty well all business seemed to be uncritically in favour of instant recompense for risk.

The point of raising these concerns is to ask how much the education system has contributed to the traits of the community. Education earned some praise for getting materials and devices out to students, developing TV initiative which was novel and, in the tertiary sector, development of a huge online capability was impressive. But I note that students at the universities in Auckland and Wellington are complaining about the in-line tuition. Once again entitlement trumps gratitude. They claim they are being shortchanged, that they want face-to-face tuition. I only hope that these cries are coming only from a small minority who capture the attention of a rapacious media thirsty for doom and despair. Their complaints don’t wash when they immediately flee into Facebook for their social life.

It is at this point that the argument fails – generalisations based on the all-too-easy names for generations inadequately characterise groups born in various decades. It is more the truth there are only good people and some others.

Don’t trust illusions

The arbitrary assigning of specific ethnicities to a couple of politicians recently has reminded us that some care is needed, training required and probably a bit a pause for thinking about it all. The perpetrators, both excellent people forced into quick thinking on the fly, made assumptions first about their own knowledge and secondly were caught into a no-win situation getting into a discussion about diversity.

Early in my time as a secondary school principal I learnt a little about my own knowledge. Having arriving at a school directly from teaching (in a teachers college) courses about Multicultural Education, Sylvia Ashton-Warner and suchlike I thought I knew quite bit about cultural difference etc. But this turned out to be to an embarrassing trap.

One day a distraught Pasifika mother arrived at the school upset about examination fees. I was out and about the school just then and was summoned to the office. Yes, she was greatly irritated and with justification. There was a group standing with her in the foyer and I invited them all into my office to talk it through. I knew how to handle the situation, I was experienced with Pasifika situations, I knew that the basic tenant was to first seek to understand and then be understood. And over perhaps 20 minutes we had sorted it all out.

I then thanked the group that was with the Mum, assured them that I valued the support they had given and invited them to speak. I sat back with some satisfaction that I had done well. But I was not prepared for the response. In a gentle voice one of the group said “We do not know her, we were standing by the office and you made us all come into your office!” I later was told, which rubbed a little into my wounds, that the group did not share the same ethnicity as the troubled Mum

A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing.

I have a feeling that “diversity” is not quite as helpful as a concept as perhaps “cultural inclusion” might be. Targeted cultural inclusion programmes that first address issues of personal knowledge and skills in a diverse setting are then able to move to issues of implementation, and strategy, and performance and outcomes based on the specific needs of whatever the area of desired impact is – the market, a business, a school, a community, a church and so on.

Diversity is not in the eyes of a beholder but exists in the minds and feelings of real and different people who will not be undifferentiated in their views and needs and who will require different things if their growth, wealth and happiness is to be nourished.

So getting back to the politicians, the issue is not a head count because that will not in itself guarantee outcomes. But if the issues, policies and outcomes are built in an equitable and collegial fashion by a group that can bring different perceptions, different aspirations and sound responses that reflect the communities they come from, we can expect their impact to be visible and life enhancing.

But we need to watch our own role and the quality of the knowledge and skills we personally bring to the task.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Alexander Pope

A fair share in an unfair world – The Demise of Deciles

Stuart Middleton


3 August 2017


At last the decile system has gone! Announced in the early 1990s. it was intended to be a mechanism to take account of the socio-economic status of schools in assigning resources to all schools or, to put it more crudely, it was meant to deliver increased funding to schools who taught students who were at risk of failing.

The formula was built around five factors related to the socio-economic standing of parents and caregivers and their level of education, their occupations, the number of people living in the house, and the degree of benefit dependency.

Through a complex process of ranking across the five areas, the numbers were crunched and a “decile rating” tattooed firmly across the forehead of each school. This was to become a badge of honour for those in Deciles 8-10 or a mark of shame for those in Deciles 1-3. Schools in the Decile 4-7 range were in something of a state of suspended judgement in which the reputation of the school depended on other things.

At a time when it was launched there was a developing maniacal level of the worst sort of competition between schools. There was no show at all of the decile rating system being used as a neutral means of assigning resources more fairly. At that time, I was a Principal of a low-decile school. Rather than hugely increased resources which the high-decile schools alleged was being delivered to low-decile schools, I was instead the beneficiary of commiserations and voices lowered as a sign of deep sympathy by others when they discussed the school. That scheme could hardly have been launched at a worse time.

So, let’s be clear – when it came to reputation, high deciles were the winners and low deciles were the losers regardless of school quality. The shocking history of the way low-decile schools were regarded over many years was certain evidence that our national system was broken and that New Zealand could harbour no false impression that it was a united country at least in terms of schooling, This was a situation that flowed from the perceptions of groups of people about other groups of people; it flowed from the “secret courts of the hearts and heads of men and women”; it flowed from a media with a voracious appetite for slinging the dirt at those who were down; it flowed from real estate agents whose views on schools were based only on decile-ratings and “what that told you” about one area or another.

But those going to the low-decile schools saw themselves in this way. Of course, those who went to high decile schools knew they were better than others, those who went to low decile schools often enjoyed going to school, were taught by many excellent and a fair proportion of superb teachers. Teachers who knew that education was about helping people to grow and making changes were attracted to low decile areas. Never make the mistake of thinking that ‘high decile’ and ‘low decile’ are or ever have been an automatic proxy for ‘high quality’ and ‘low quality’.

But that has all changed with the announcement that deciles are out as a risk assessment of the student body in each school replaces it, perhaps 2019 students is in. While not a lot of detail has yet been revealed, some clear distinctions emerge between the old and the new.

  • The money will be follow the students assessed as carrying a risk into their schooling rather than being apportioned on the basis of a statistical generalisation based on a set of untested assumptions about a demographic group in a geographic area.
  • Schools who have disproportionate numbers of students with considerable risk will receive their fair share of the funding that reflects the actual proportion of their student numbers who meet the criteria and not be limited because they have been assigned to a category based on a relatively crudely decile or some part of a decile.
  • The early information suggests that the assessment will be on risk factors known to have a close association with low achievement, be based on actual families and young people who go to the school. The assessment will be based on data which reflect the actual issues faced by a student which impact negatively on their school progress.

The actual categories are a comprehensive list of factors that are known to directly impact on a young persons school performance:

  • Proportion of time spent supported by benefits since birth
  • Child has a Child, Youth and Family notification
  • Mother’s age at child’s birth
  • Father’s offending and sentence history
  • Ethnicity
  • Youth Justice referral
  • Benefit mother unqualified
  • Proportion of time spent overseas since birth
  • Most recent benefit male caregiver is not the birth father
  • Mother’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • School transience
  • Country of birth
  • Father’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • Migrant /New Zealand born
  • Number of children (mother)
  • Mother received third tier benefits (payments directed to alleviating hardship)

Clearly the calculations will achieve a far higher level of granularity than previously and, most importantly will not be made public – schools will receive their funding as part of the annual process – bulk funding, however unpopular with teachers, would be the ultimate protection of this anonymity.

The biggest challenge will be to the professionalism of all in education to resist attempts to undermine this new approach and to “leak” or to become partners in dirty tricks with the media that might wish to deconstruct the funding package – were this to happen it would simply perpetrate the dubious behaviours of the past. I have faith in the integrity of the our profession which I hope will in turn  have faith in this unique and bold approach to finding a level of social equity between schools.



Trying to keep the baby in the bathwater having thrown out the bath!

A friend was cleaning out the cupboard the other day and came across a little publication from the Department of Education in Auckland dated 1967.  It was a school by school listing of the courses that they offered.  Apparently in those old days it was considered to be in the interests of parents and their children to have this information impartial and undiluted by the “marketing madness” that would get its grip on such a publication now.

It highlighted several things.

By and large secondary school back then offered far more choice to students than they do now (albeit that this is changing in some schools).  A reason for this was that students could chose from Year 11 to focus their schooling and they could even match this with a selection of options that got them onto the pathway.

Now, before people take to twitter to point out to me that this was in the BAD old days when students were STREAMED!  Well, let’s use the more neutral term “tracked”, no, let’s get right up to date and call them pathways, for that is what they were.  Students could see a pathway to skills, to employment (for there were jobs for all), to a family sustaining wage and if the schooling system was to do its work it should have been able to do so in the 10 years students spend up to the age of 15 (then) or 16 years.

We then faced the death of choice as the system became more and more devoted to the notion of the comprehensive high school.  This was a bizarre way of coping with difference by having all students do the same programme.  Another Department of Education publication puts it like this:

“The secondary schools, no longer selective, must now cater for students of widely differing skills, abilities and interests. The range is little narrower than in the adolescent population as a whole.  Much remains to be done before it can be said that the schools have completely adjusted their curricula and methods to the facts of this situation.”

This extract is from the Thomas Report, the work of the Committee established by the Minister of Education in 1942.  The style changes but not the basic issues.  The Thomas Report went on to reshape School Certificate that, in tune with the time internationally, was believed would be the school leaving qualification for most.

What strikes me is that the approved list of optional subjects for School Certificate included such subjects as:

Animal Husbandry

Applied Mechanics


Commercial Practice


Engineering shop work

Field Husbandry

Heat engines


Shorthand Typewriting

Technical Drawing

Technical Electricity


In short there was then, and it persisted into the late sixties and early seventies, a wide selection of what can be described as “vocational education and training.” 

The committee actually noted that it was “not exalting ‘general’ education at the expense of ‘vocational’ education and that it is now recognized that the antithesis is largely a false one.” 63 years ago they saw it but still the split between “academic” and “vocational” persists.

Percy Nunn got it right when he said….

To train someone in the tradition of these ancient occupations is to ensure … that they will throw themselves into their work with spirit, and with a zeal for mastery that teachers usually look for in the elect….a student’s whole intellectual vitality may be heightened, their sense of spiritual values quickened. In short, the vocational training may become in the strictest sense liberal.

He goes on to say….

To ignore this truth, to overlook the desire of the healthy adolescent to get to grips with reality, would be fatal. Indeed, the ‘general’ education of many students would have much greater significance to them if it was brought into a closer relationship with their strictly “vocational” studies.

The liberalisation of the school curriculum through multiple pathways, trades academies, options for vocational education and training at age 16 years and suchlike activity has a long history. The tragedy has been that it has taken close to seventy years for us to substantiate it.

All students are special, but some students have special needs

I think the 21st Century will be characterised by a phenomenon that might be called “condition creep.” This is where a condition starts to be redefined to such an extent that the clearly understood condition becomes obfuscated and the search for a “new” condition begins.

This occurred to me when listening to several speakers on the radio who were talking about the Dyslexia Awareness Week. In the course of this I learned that 45,000 New Zealanders suffer from dyslexia. This seemed rather high to me. But then it became increasingly apparent that the condition was now not simply the impact on reading of some neurological process that sees people confusing letters. It now seemed to apply to a lack of co-ordination, a series of learning difficulties and being a little bit off track in terms of teacher expectation.

I was reminded of the trouble that a UK academic got into a few years ago when he argued that dyslexia was often no more than a description by middle class white that sought to explain why Sally or Charles were having trouble getting the hang of reading or perhaps even being a little slow to pick up maths.

Of course he was wrong and his comments were a disservice to the young and old people who really do have dyslexia – there is no doubt that it exists. But in my time as a teacher of English and all my time working in education, I have to say that the clearly and genuinely dyslexic (in terms of the original definition) seemed to me to be quite small in number.

There is also the puzzling feature that white middle class communities have higher levels of reporting of dyslexia than the poorer areas where there is a significantly increased number of people with literacy issues. One wonders about this!

Some years ago I felt that the same condition creep was occurring with “ADHD” and right now I have to wonder about the spread of “depression”. What is it that makes us want to blur definitions? It can’t be a simple attempt at inclusiveness. Rather it seems to me that it might be a symptom of a community that has a number of people who are asking for help and of people who are seeking explanations by way of labels. In short, what is described as a condition might well in fact be a symptom for something else.

Another strange fact is that high decile schools access special assistance for students with issues when it comes to external assessments more than low decile schools and by quite a margin. The radio report I was referring to earlier noted that 17% of candidates from high decile schools compared to 1.0% of low decile school candidates were recipients of NZQA funded support at assessment time. It takes my mind back to the days when “equity funding” was dished out to institutions on the basis of the total EFTS. How’s that for targeted resource?

No-one sets out to rort the system on the one hand nor to deny a student that to which they are rightfully entitled on the other – but it happens. The swirl around the whole business of “special needs” and the support of students suggests a situation where we might have got something somewhat wrong.

Perhaps we should seek guidance from countries where they get it right?


Starting with the end in mind

The central most important question used be called the $64 question – it was the last question in the 1950s show Take It or Leave It. It was  the largest prize. Of course the term has inflated due to the ignorance of folk top its origin and now the most important question is typically said to be the $64,000 question.

Today we might well be asking one question and it really is attached to the number 64,000.

This year 64,000 students will start school and the question is “Where will they be in 13 years time – in 2028?” It is the finishing point rather than the starting point that is important.

We know that unless there are changes to the system, 13,440 of these starters will have dropped out of the race before they are sixteen years old, forget reaching Year 13. Perhaps 10-15% of those left are unlikely to have a platform from which they can head securely towards a great future. That’s another 5k – 7.5k. And so the story continues.

If the little ones joining the system today face an unchanged system that keeps on delivering the same then they will simply get the same results.

And they are not the only ones starting – many are starting secondary school for the first time –   that is a challenge. Many others are looking at NCEA results and wondering about whether they are going well, doing the right subjects, heading on a career path that they understand and want?

Where each single student ends up ought to be a consideration from the beginning of each and every year. Doing well at each end point is simply a sound basis for doing better at the next.

What better inspiration at the start of the year than to recall T S Eliot’s lines:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

A good school education is the largest prize!


Party at Hekia’s Place – BYOE Bring Your Own Excellence along

It looks as if 2014 is shaping up to be somewhat unusual for education in New Zealand – three key developments are happening.

In March a set of Education Festivals will be held in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Developed by Cognition Education and with the four key themes of COLLABORATION, INNOVATION, COHESION and CELEBRATION.   The festivals are co-ordinated by Cognition Education with the support of the Ministry of Education and will coincide with the 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession, jointly hosted by the OECD, Education International and New Zealand through the MOE.

The festivals focused on two key dimensions, the performance of students, teachers, schools and institutions in our community and the proud record New Zealand has inspired improved educational achievement in other countries by sharing our expertise and systems.

The press education receives is generally at best miserable and at times plain negative. I have frequently pointed out that the profession too often contributes to this. Here is a golden opportunity for education to put on its best clothes and strut its stuff in public and rather then spout clichés  about a “world class education system” , to allow the outcomes of the work of schools and other education providers be seen and enjoyed by a wider community. Let the work and skills of our students be the push for the excellent brew that comes out in most schools.

An added opportunity is to be able to do this while an international community of educators is here as our guest – a chance not only to show and teach but also to listen and to learn. The participating countries at the 4th International Summit are the top 20 education systems as measured by the PISA  results and the five fastest improvers.

This is a unique opportunity for New Zealand to learn and to gain insights into how we can match achievement data with greatly improved equity measures.  Both the festival and the summit will allow us to share insights with others and to learn from the insights of others. This is not a bragging contest but potentially could be a fine week for education n New Zealand.

The Minister of Education Hon Hekia Parata is behind both of these initiatives and her leadership deserves strong support from the sector and from all levels within the sector.

The third element that could lift the image of education in New Zealand is the announcement, also from Minister Parata, of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards to be introduced for 2014. The tertiary education sector has had just such a set of awards for about 10 years and they have been markedly successful under the astute leadership of Ako Aotearoa.

This new set of awards will focus on early childhood education, primary and secondary schooling and collaboration between secondary schools, tertiary providers and employers. This last award – collaboration – is particularly pleasing coming at a time when it is emerging that pathways between sectors will be a critical feature of the new environment that will allow us to address equity.

Ands that brings us back to the festival and the summit. We need to see these three developments as a set of tools that the education system can use to create a better education sector, one characterised by collaboration, by clear evidence of excellence and by a commitment to improved equity of outcomes. We will do this in part by seeing collaboration (bringing the fragmented sector together for the festival) and celebrating (excellence in teaching through the awards) as necessary to lifting our game. Necessary but not in themselves sufficient – long term change will require us to make a habit of collaboration and celebration.

In summary:

  •          Festivals of Education  – Auckland (21-23 March 2014), Wellington (29 March 2014) and Christchurch (23 March 2014)
  •          The 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession – March 2014 
  •          Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards – entries close 31 March 2014

Roll on March I say.



Pathways-ED: Let’s elevate the talk


Written by Terry Bates – CEO, Cognition Education Ltd


Over the past weekend we watched the Labour Party elect a new leader.  Foremost in the minds of Labour Party members, we are told, was Mr Cunliffe’s sharp intellect and his perceived ability to “take the fight” to the government.  On the face of it, this augurs well for the health of our democracy and will give the “political junkies” in this readership the prospect of a much enlivened year leading into the General Election. 

The popular wisdom in New Zealand is that elections are won or lost in the mid-range of voter preferences.  For that reason it has often been difficult to distinguish the policy platforms of our two major political parties and for around 25 years there has been a significant public policy consensus between National and Labour in a number of areas.   Both parties have been resolutely committed to the management of a low-inflation economy.  In the Education area, the administrative blueprint originally called “Tomorrow’s Schools” has remained largely unchallenged since its inception. 

In 2006, Labour’s  Education Minister,  Steve Maharey seemed to flirt briefly with the idea of a wider system review with a particular focus on the performance and role of boards of trustees. The idea was quickly trounced by the then Opposition spokesman Bill English who pungently characterized the proposal as threatening, “all-intrusive centralized control of the education system”.

Anti-bureaucrat rhetoric has long played well in the New Zealand electorate.  With the memory of Trevor Mallard’s unpopular programme of school closures still haunting them, Mr Maharey’s Cabinet colleagues seemed to persuade him to quickly drop the idea. This was a shame.  If there was ever an area of political consensus that seems worthy of close examination, it is the proposition that value in our public education spend is most likely to be extracted by distributing the control of that spend and in particular responsibility for the performance of the teaching work-force across more than 2,500 community boards. 

Currently neither of the major political parties would appear to have much appetite for reviewing the locus of school control or critically examining the impact on system performance.  Mr Cunliffe’s success has been backed by promises to take the Labour Party to the left – an appeal to reinvigorating traditional Labour voters has also been central to the stump rhetoric for the top job.  Within the party that bias will tend to reinforce locally elected school boards as an important expression of participatory democracy – they are after all the smallest unit of representation in our polity.

On the government benches we can hardly expect a Prime Minister committed to lowering the numbers employed in government administration to have much enthusiasm for any move that appears to offer the prospect of diminishing school autonomy in favour of strengthened central bureaucratic control.  For different reasons the ideological biases drive to the same place.  There is little motivation for either Mr Key or Mr Cunliffe to disturb the administrative status quo. 

Yet that status quo is a fundamental impediment to creating the sense of national mission and unified purpose that is required to systematically address the embedded patterns of Maori and Pasifika underachievement that have exercised Education Ministers both in the current National-led government and the previous Labour-led administration.  System fragmentation inevitably mitigates against system responsiveness.

As examples,  Ministers Parata and Mallard (despite political differences) are and have been articulate and worthy champions of the educationally marginalized.  However,  they have both been up against a lack of system coherence exacerbated by conflictual mind-sets that so often characterize sector-government relationships.  As illustration, look no further than the tensions over the implementation of National Assessment Standards and the puzzlingly negative reaction in some quarters of the profession to the recent prospect of a nationally applicable moderation tool (PACT) to improve the consistency of teacher judgements in assessing those standards. Professional trust of government intentions (and vice-versa) often seems in unnecessarily short supply for a nation of our size.

Both Mr Key and Mr Cunliffe are possessed of formidable intellects and motivations.  They are very well educated.  They  have both enjoyed conspicuous personal success.  Both men come from relatively modest family backgrounds and they both appear (albeit by different means) genuinely determined to create and foster the economic and social conditions that will maximize the life chances of New Zealanders.  Given their backgrounds and as our two leading politicians they are well-placed to elevate the public policy debate in education. 

In the contest for the Treasury benches, it would be optimistic to expect Messrs Key and Cunliffe not to be embroiled in election-year pamphleteering and associated polemic.  After all that’s their job. But polemic has its limits.  It would be good to hear both leaders commit to the need to forge a new educational policy consensus focused on building high trust relationships with the profession and creating  a genuine sense of shared educational mission for the nation expressed in a durable accord between government agencies, school boards, teacher professional groups and the unions. 

A good place to start would be cross-party endorsement of the proposed reforms to teacher professional credentialling being sponsored by the current Minister.  The ideas are worthy.  They deserve considered debate.  For teachers the reforms appear to offer a genuine opportunity to control and enforce professional standards and develop a stronger professional voice. They seem likely to contribute to improved system intelligence and responsiveness.   In the search for a new consensus, that seems a handy departure point.