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Tag: disadvantage

The Core Curriculum: What Happened to the Apples?

Well, the old food in school debate was about as long as a meal at MacDonalds and repeated itself about as much!

Having agreed with the Treasury that the evidence that saw an improvement in achievement result from food in schools efforts was about as robust as filo pastry, John Key left the kitchen while the “never mind the quality feel the warmth” brigade marched on.

But the interesting development was the emergence of support for Treasury / John Key from an interesting group – Principals of low decile schools in the North.  This was interesting – the meals in schools push was supported very much by Hone Harawera and it raised the issue of whether he had talked with the school leaders in the rohe.  Also because some of the Principals didn’t really have a track record of supporting strongly, perhaps even at all, the current Government.

Their argument was built around the fact that disadvantage can and does take many different forms in their schools. They did not want resources to be tied to one kind of support (food) but rather be available for supporting students in many different ways – a pair of shoes, a jersey, a raincoat – and so on. Their argument made good sense to those of us who are working or have worked at that end of the system.

Not only were the Principals of the North not prepared to make any connection between a meal and school achievement, they were also not prepared to turn the argument into a tirade against anyone. Their cool reflection and sound reasoning was impressive

But the Labour spokeperson on education, Chris Hipkins, was not going to miss this party and he waded in with strong support for food and meals in schools etc etc. Again he missed the point – the argument was not about the goodness of food or even the value of eating but about the lack of or any clear evidence that providing food in schools led to a raise in achievement.

What had been missed in the Treasury advice was a clear and reasoned statement that there was no measurable or causal link between the provision of school meals and that of improvement in school achievement. They were not writing a book on good dietary habits, or the value of eating, or the overall health of the child. It was a simple statement presented without distraction on student achievement, what helps and what appears to have little effect.

One of the I-know-food-improves learning group wished that “John Key would drop his ideological stance but failed to notice the quasi-ideological fervor with which she put forward her view.

An anecdote. 

I frequently exercise the limbs with a serious walk around the many walking tracks in the city area in which I live. One of these walks takes me through the grounds of a high-decile primary school that is very well regarded by the community, has something of a special interest in the environment and seems to take part in the apples-in-schools scheme. They have little gardens planted with a great variety of veges and a worm farm.

This vermicultural activity is of some interest to me as indeed I have a little worm farm at home. This team helps me to save the planet and keep the waste disposal unit idle. They don’t do it by themselves, a couple of compost bins are also part of the green army.

Well, one day, on one of my walks I thought I would take a peek into the school’s worm farm and what did I see? The bin was half full of beautiful apples. Now that is taking the core curriculum a bit far I thought! Well perhaps not if you were a worm.

At last, a food in schools effort which would lead to an improvement. What would Treasury say about that?


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Talk-ED: An ode to semantics

Stuart Middleton
23 February 2012

One of my favourite cartoons is a Jules Feiffer (NY Times) in which an old man sits in his chair and reflects.

“I used to think to think I was poor.

Then they told me I wasn’t poor, I was needy.

Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived.

Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged.

Then they told me underprivileged was over-used. I was disadvantaged.

I still don’t have a dime.

But I have a great vocabulary!”

I thought of this on several recent occasions when I have got involved in discussions about words to use when describing the groups of students who enjoy little success in education systems. It’s an international issue – what you refer to them as. So too is the fact that such groups exist!

We have a range of words at our disposal that includes underserved, underrepresented, disadvantaged, special needs, and so on. Each captures something of the essence of the groups we are talking about but each also carries with it, like all words, certain linguistic baggage.

Special Needs

Often this is used to refer to students who require different or enhanced approaches. In New Zealand it seems largely to have been applied to students with disabilities of some kind or another and there is a reluctance, appropriate I think, to apply it to students who are largely without disability but who are not making progress.

This has some difficulties. For instance, if a student enters a system with a language background that is different from the lingua franca of the system then clearly they have “a special need”. If a student is gifted in mathematics, they have “a special need.”  There might even be a case to be made that each and every student has a special need but…


This word usefully describes a phenomenon – disadvantage – and is less precise about its target. Disadvantage can be the result of a number of things which do not produce a positive outcome and leave an individual not able to enjoy benefits that others can. Being hard of hearing in a meeting in a noisy setting produces disadvantage. So disadvantage is a useful word but has limitations when applied to a student. The disadvantage is usually a set of factors that are outside the student or wrapped up in the inability of the education system to work effectively with students from a diverse range of backgrounds or social settings. It is not a useful description because it blurs the sources of disadvantage.


Now this is a factual description. In the US there is no doubt about who is being referred to when the term “traditionally underrepresented” is used. Take the winners in examinations – who is not there in the numbers they should be? Take the NCEA results – why is there discrepant figures for different groups? I like “underrepresented” as a word that draws attention to flaws in statements and results and analyses. Take the PISA results – yes we do brilliantly but which groups are underrepresented in sharing that brilliant performance. Conversely, take the NEETs group and which groups are “overrepresented”?


This is a trickier word. Does it imply blame? Does it picture the relationships between teachers and students, schools and communities, education systems and groups within the population as ones in which one party are responsible for “serving” the other? Well yes it does and so it should. But one can “serve” without any hint of “subservience”.

If in the queue for breakfast the kitchen runs out of food before everyone has their food, some will not be served. If this repeatedly happens to the same group, they are most certainly “underserved” by the kitchen and, frankly, only the kitchen can solve it.

So “underserved” means something different from the others, it is based on a pattern and in education systems that pattern is pretty clear for some groups. So too is it in health systems, housing provision, the employment stakes and so on. It is not peculiar to education. Where there are systems there are generally individuals and groups that are underserved.

All this is a difficult issue because people bring meaning to words that might differ from the intended meaning of those who write or speak them. Do we call those we teach “students” or “pupils” – they are not exactly synonymous but both are better than the ubiquitously used “kids”, this makes us seem like goats!

There are discussions often about teaching and learning – that’s an easy one.

Of course we could simply refer accurately to the groups who generally do not benefit from education systems to the same extent as other groups. These are clear across different countries – Maori and Pasifika in New Zealand, Aboriginal communities in Australia, First Nations groups in Canada, Hispanic and African American in the USA and in the UK, children from immigrant groups. Across all these countries those who bring English as an additional language to the system will have some uphill paths to tread, it doesn’t pay to be of low socio-economic status (i.e. poor) and students with special needs will require strong advocacy to get the help they need and are entitled to.

We know all this, we know that we are not getting the results we should and must. Doing something about it requires us not to talk about it but to act on it. It is the results students get not the way they are described that will make a difference. It is what we do not what we say that will lead to more equitable outcomes.

“Priority learners” is gaining ground in New Zealand lately. I worry about how that word attracts “high” and “low” so easily.


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