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Tag: commission

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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It’s time for a commission

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.30, 7 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The recent report from the Law Commission on booze, boozing habits and the impacts of booze was a sobering read commended to all who work with young people. But it was less the report itself than the manner of its preparation that has a lesson in it for education.

The Law Commission plays an interesting role in the legal fabric in New Zealand. Five Commissioners appointed by the Minister of Justice are supported by a relatively small team of researchers and some administrative support. The Commission works with independence both on issues it identifies with the law and the legal system and on specific areas on which the government seeks guidance and advice. Given this working environment, their reports have weight, are substantial contributions to discussion and are seen to be unbiased and informed views.

This is exactly what we need in education, an Education Commission modelled on the Law Commission. It would provide the government with learned, informed and substantial reports on issues in education which require attention but seem unable to free themselves from the tangled mass of vested interest and position to be defended. In education when it seems as if the mass of such issues has become critical we call for a Royal Commission.

The Currie Commission (1962) was the last full blown affair of this kind and it did address a number of issues: the recruitment and training of teachers; improvements in teachers’ conditions of service; the involvement of members of the community in the control and management of schools by restructuring administration at the district level; Maori education; a regular system of national assessment in the basic subjects along with a system of checks at certain points in children’s progress throughout the system and a range of issues related to the place and role of independent schools.

The problem with this approach is that they become a shopping spree for everyone to get their bit in and attempts to implement such a report inevitably results in distortions and different emphases from those intended. And public discussion that follows such reports usually take the form of once more through the chorus of the songs sung at submission time.

An Education Commission would be able to bring measured, researched consideration forward into the professional and public domain and perhaps enable us to work through some of the issues that percolate to the surface from time to time. Who might the commissioners be? If they are to have a role such as the Law Commissioners then the Education Commissioners would be experienced, highly qualified, comfortable in both the professional and public arenas of education and able to lead discussion nationally through major conference presentations, papers and publications.

Cost? Well less than a Royal Commission and perhaps even less than a team of consultants. The positions, if they are to be modelled on the Law Commission, would not be full time other than for the ongoing administrative team and the small research team. The Commissioners continue their daily work in whatever capacities they have – or so it seems.

What might the Education Commission consider?

The kinds of topic that the Education Commission might consider are ones where conventional advocacy groups are constrained by the requirements of the groups they represent, where solutions to issues might require changes to the law, to regulations, to accepted and conventional ways of working. They could constitute a series (as in the Law Commission’s series on the Courts) or one-off studies such as the alcohol report.

Now for some topics that the Education Commission might address or usefully might have addressed in the past.

Equitable universal access to early childhood

This is a vexed issue and the current collocation of policies and provision does not seem to be keeping pace with the changes in the demographics or in the social behaviour patterns of the community. Issues of bilingualism, of coping with sudden changes in demand, the location of early childhood centres in primary schools and home-based care are all dimensions that might be included.

Community contributions to schools

It would be good to have an authoritative look at the issue of community contributions to a school that sees hugely disparate levels of contribution being made in different communities. Does the state have a role, in the interests of an equitable system in regulating this? Should schools in communities with less capacity to contribute be funded to higher levels (oh dear, here come a few emails!). Who is responsible for the black education economy?

Governance of tertiary institutions

I wonder if the recent report on the governance of the ITP sector would have provoked a different reaction had it been produced by a body that could combine research and commentary rather than simply appearing out of the blue so to speak.?

Sectors and their role in students’ learning

Sometime the Education Commission could comment on larger issues and point to a future that might or might not be different. Sectors, for instance reflect in their current configuration the development of the education system rather than any body of knowledge about teaching and learning. What might the Education Commission think?

Curriculum sprawl

As the education systems have grown larger over the past century so too has trhe extent of the curriculum. To the three “R’s” has been added the two “E’s” (ecological sustainability, economic literacy) and a whole lot more. Little was taken out of the curriculum. Where did folk dancing go? An Education Commission might take a look at this – the curriculum not folk dancing!

The beauty of an Education Commission is that it could, like the Law Commission, act with independence relying on the experience and wisdom of its Commissioners tempered with the collective experience and wisdom and evidence of research.

Now, who is going to be a Commissioner? Well one would have to represent each of the sectors, state, integrated and independent – that’s 12. There would have to be one from each of the tertiary provider groups – that’s another 5. Then there are….. Commission, it could be more like a Conference unless we can bring ourselves to trust experience and wisdom.

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