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Category: Leadership

Dealing with scraps in the playground

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.


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Let the games begin!

Happy New Year! Well it is has been for the first four weeks and then all the political parties decided to tell us about their policies for education in this Year of the Horse.

And what did we hear?

First there were the Greens – poverty, poverty, poverty was the cry. This was a replay of the 1980’s when educators seemed unable to get past the fact that some students were hungry, in fact they were so obsessed by this that they forgot to teach the students how to read and write. Later in the weekend Labour was to get on this band wagon and opt for school lunches for the hungry.

There are many systems that provide food to students – the US and the UK both use eligibility for a free school lunch as a key measure of poor learners who learn poorly. The good news is that I am certain the students enjoy the lunches (although Jamie Oliver has a view about how good or nutritious they might be). But there is not a shred of evidence that there is a connection between the provision of free school meals and improvements in achievement on a scale that would suggest that it is other than a social gesture.

Labour made a grander entrance on the Early Childhood Education stage. Full marks to them for noting that ECE is important – it is more that important, it is central to sound achievement and equitable outcomes. But Labour didn’t wish to be too complex about all this.

Rather they preferred to bask in the glory of their (what seems to me to the failed) 20 Free Hours policy and, no doubt ignoring all the complexities of a schooling system that is not delivering equitable outcomes, decided to simply expand it – “20 Free Hours – no wait, there’s more – 25 Free hours.”

When the 20 Free Hours was originally introduced there was no discernable increase in access to ECE services. Similarly when the scheme was freed from any targeting there was again no discernable increase in access to ECE. Those who were using the resource were simply increasing the amount of ECE they accessed thereby consuming more resource with a disappointing and continuing lack of access for those who are unable to go to a quality ECE provider.

Most of these students who are denied the ECE benefits are Maori and Pasifika and they live in communities where there are simply not enough places. Take the Tamaki area in Auckland as an example: there are 7,000 little ones under the age of five who are trying to get into the 2,000 places available. You improve access to ECE services through providing more places. Labour tossed off a quick promise to “build more ECE Centres in high-need areas” but this was something of faint hope and perhaps an afterthought overshadowed by and of lesser priority than the popular promise to spend on seeing that existing services will get higher subsidies so as to have “100 percent qualified staff” – the barons of the sandpits rubbed their hands with glee – higher costs mean higher subsidies and higher fees, excellent for the balance sheet for the large centres that offer ECE services as a business rather than a service to the community.

You only have to look at where the new multi-million dollar ECE places (I almost wrote palaces) are being built – they are on the commuter roads where those in work are able to drop their little ones off at our expense while they go off and earn quite good money in a job.

The ECE 20 Free Hours is simply a badly targeted resource that has not worked. Of course it appeals to the middle class who have jobs and money and this is clearly a key target group for Labour. Otherwise how can you describe a baby bonus for the 95% of babies in families with incomes up to $150,000 as anything but a universal benefit? Again, those without a job, or ECE, continue to swirl in the poverty trap that generation will perpetrate.

That leaves National’s “let’s do something about leadership in schools” cluster of activities, policy initiatives that identify the school leaders who perform and give them a role in which they have a license to change the quality of leadership in schools beyond their own. This policy is a bit of a body blow for the educational leadership industry found in the universities which put on a brave face about the years of first principals, aspiring principals and the raft of qualifications in educational leadership which appear neither to have cut the mustard nor to improve achievement.

This is the policy that seems most likely to succeed. Educational Leadership is at the heart of lifting educational achievement and there have been grumblings about the quality of school leadership in New Zealand for some time. The additional allowances are generous so there is no excuse for involving only those who have proven to be capable in leading teachers.

It is interesting to note that in Finland, every pre-schooler gets to go to an ECE programme, every student gets a free school lunch and nobody gets to be a principal without the additional qualifications and the experiences that the position requires rather than being selected by the educational equivalent of the local bowling club committee.

At last we seem to be taking heed of those systems that are successful rather than claiming as our birthright the right to replicate the failed policies and doomed practices of the Anglo-Saxon systems.

 I await with bated breath the announcement of policies that will lift the performance of the school system:

  • policies that have a zero tolerance for the failure to gain basic skills at primary school;
  • initiatives that will stem the flow of disengaging students;
  • challenges to the sectors that have become walled cities that destroy the seamless pathways that are so central to success;
  • engagement of business, industry and commerce in the business of schooling, especially at the secondary and postsecondary levels;
  • cross-ministerial initiatives to address the back-log of educational failure – the NEETs of which New Zealand continues to accrue amazing numbers of young people not in employment, education or training.

And that’s just for starters.


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