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Tag: ECE

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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After the game-breakers comes the show-stoppers


Last time I made contact with you I noted a few “game-changers” and promised to follow this up with some “show -stoppers”. These are things that cannot be put aside – they have the capacity to make or break and the choices are ours to make.

Show-Stopper #1             Access to early childhood education

Not surprisingly I have placed the first game-changer at the top of my list of show stoppers. If we don’t solve the issue of access to early childhood education places urgently we will get onto the greasy slide downwards where the backlog of educational failure starts to swamp the system.

Parts of the US are already there with some communities in California spending huge amounts to get students through the system so that they can go on to community colleges where they focus on remediation course because they have learned so little at school and then leave community colleges after 15 years of schooling still unprepared for employment and/or further education and training.

I had water a leak that investigation showed was down near my gate where the pipe entered the property. It was no good trying to fix the leak inside the house where we were cosy and warm. Nor was there any point is tackling it at the outside tap where the light was good. It was only solved when the leak was fixed at the gate. Our education pipeline will continue to leak badly until we address the leak near the gateway to education.

Show-Stopper #2             Teaching of Basic Skills

When I visit the US there are three New Zealanders that people have heard of – Sir Edmund Hillary, Dame Marie Clay and Sylvia Ashton-Warner . Two of these are teachers and both focused on reading and language as the foundation of all learning and indeed in the case of Ashton-Warner, the development of identity. New Zealand was seen as a leader in teaching reading. We were better at teaching reading to monolingual youngsters than to the rest but nevertheless, we knew how to do it.

Why then do so many students fail to get a basic grounding in the real foundation skills? Have we lost focus? Do we now lack the skills? Have we become too clever for our own good in turning our backs on basic skills taught with pretty rudimentary materials, School Journals and Janet and John . Schools are better equipped, libraries are better stocked and new helping technologies are available to an extent that has never before been the case. Why then does anyone fail?

One key area of failure is the continuing inability to grapple with the issues of students who bring another language into the classroom. It goes well beyond mere words. A colleague in London concluded a paper he had written on this topic with the sentence – “At the end of the day, Sharma walks home to India.” As Russell Bishop says – Culture Counts.

Show-Stopper #3             Re-discovering a sense of a national system

I have before said that what is colloquially described as Tomorrow’s Schools should be looked at closely. But the lens that we use when doing this needs to be one that enables us to see a national system of education in which the sum is greater than the parts. Currently, the sum is somewhat less than the parts as overall performance continues to disappoint. The Minister was right to signal that it is time to look at the decile ratings applied to schools – they have become a damaging dog of a thing. Worse than failing to bring about the improvements in performance and were that were claimed for the ratings, they might well have contributed to the frustrations.

And we must recapture the notion of a national system of education, not just schooling. It will require parity of esteem between all parts of the one system, each making a critical but distinctive contribution. I do love the feel of Finland’s approach – similar qualifications for all levels, one teachers organisation (ECE to tertiary) and a national commitment to a national system.

And that might be the solution to the next show-stopper.

Show-Stopper #4             Increasing the public esteem of education and those who work in it.

In Finland teaching is the most highly esteemed profession. Can we achieve that in New Zealand? Of course we can simply by….

  •          exhibiting increased characteristics of a profession – teachers council that leads the profession, an education commission to lead thinking and development, effective professional standards, greater quality controls over entry to the profession, and a requirement for ongoing professional improvement;
  •          matching promise with delivery of positive outcomes;
  •          developing  closer relationships with communities, with parents and families, with business and industry, with other levels within education, with the professions and so on;
  •          and I am sure you can think of others.

But first we must want to be a professional and want to be one profession.

Goodness me, I have run out of space and I haven’t mentioned a couple of other huge show-stoppers. They will keep for another day.


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Pathways-ED: We will reap what we sow!


There is a certain safety in numbers. They comfort us because of the fact that they are impersonal and can often hide things. Take for example the access to early childhood education – a critically important feature of any education system that has aspirations to provide a top quality education to its young people.

The current claimed level of participation is 95% and the government goal (in the Better Public Service goals) is 98%. All this sounds quite favourable but access is not evenly available across the community with some ethnicities (especially Maori and Pasifika) accessing early childhood services at a lower rate and some communities lagging far behind.

I was told the other day that in the Tamaki area the gap in access is alarming. This area is the subject of a focused redevelopment with government agencies and private enterprise looking to lift the entire area in every respect – housing, education, health, and employment. Central to this is access to early childhood education which is critically important to the development of young people and their brains and which in turn leads to a sound education, employment and all the benefits that flow from it. Employment means a family sustaining wage, better housing and health, less reliance on the social welfare system and less contact with the social justice system.

There are in the area of Tamaki being re-developed about 7,000 children aged between 0 and 4 years of age.  There are about 2,000 places in early childhood services.

Access to early childhood services in Tamaki is running at around 30%.  What hope therefore does redevelopment stand when the fundamentals are missing?  Great store is being placed on the use of technology to lift young students’ performance and it well might.  But it cannot provide that critical brain development that happens in years 0-3 and which is helped along so much by additional stimulation.

How can this happen in New Zealand?

It happens because we are fooled by national statistics.  When we talk of the current level of access to ECE as being 95% we ignore the nuances of difference.  It is probably 100% in many communities while in other communities – often hidden in amongst a larger sub-region – it is very much lower.  This is true of parts of the southern area of Auckland, rural communities and so on.

There has been over the past couple of decades a marked increase in children accessing ECE services for full days rather than the sessional (i.e. part of a day) that was once common. These youngsters are almost certainly the children of those in employment.  They will probably be accessing the 20 hours free ECE that makes the full-time extended access possible for this group rather than have any real impact of increased access for additional young ones.  In other words, fewer children are using larger amounts of the resource.

It could be argued that parents pay at private centres for much of this and that is true.  But you only have to see the growth in numbers of the palatial Palais des Jeunes being put up around Auckland to see that there is a very considerable amount of money to be made in the provision of services to the pre-schoolers whose parents can afford it.  Government funding flows without fear or favour to these centres in the interests of the young people there and that in theory is excellent but it has also led to the ECE resource being very poorly targeted.

It is so hard for local communities to do much about this.  I have had the experience of helping a community-based Pacific trust which had been running an early childhood centre for its youngsters for many years and now wished to build a new centre.  It was a monumental task to align the resources, the officials, and the trust and to get progress.  The centre will soon open and they can take their little ones into a purpose-built centre after having made do with very difficult conditions for many years.  It ought to be easier for community based organisations to make progress in this area.

Finally, a solution is staring us in the face while we gaze at the rosy glow of Shangri La of long term goals.  ECE services could be placed into each primary school right now.  All the issues related to land, to governance, to security and to professional supervision would be solved and additional places created.  As is being done in Auckland with a small scale trial, pre-built, purpose-built ECE facilities could be placed onto sites as quickly as they can be supplied.  It ought to be possible to get hundreds of more places made available where they are needed and quickly.

Or we can continue to report progress at a snail’s pace as we inch towards numbers that comfort us.  Getting access to ECE right is urgent.


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Pathways-ED: Relationships up against a wall

Stuart Middleton
1 August 2012


It was not done lightly when they named the parts of Berlin after the Second World War that had come to be considered as exclusive property of this super power or that super power, “sectors”. The Americans had the American Sector and the Russians theirs. Movement between the two was restricted by that ghastly wall and Checkpoint Charlie became synonymous with freedom of access.

They had, after all, the lessons to be learnt from education where sectors had similarly become territory won and territory to be defended. The No-man’s Land was territory to dispute and little consideration was given to what is best for the citizen / students.

I was astounded that recently a one-day seminar on relationships between sectors with top presenters was offered by a reputable Australian organisation, ATEM, but was able to attract only 7 registrations from throughout Australia – well, it might have been six because I had registered.

Issues related to educational sectors and to relationships between them in Australia seemed to me to be an issue that demands attention. Especially in the tertiary area where chickens hatched in the late 1980s have all the appearance of coming home to roost. In New Zealand they also demand attention.

Relationships between higher education, further education, vocational education, academic education are simply beyond resolution by considering them each to belong to a “tertiary sector”. And just as the spoils of war are commemorated and held to be holy long after the fighting stops, much of the sector debate in education is based on the spoils of past wars and the now somewhat jingoist slogans of the factions – We are academic, protect the standard!  We are vocational , they need us to dig for victory! We are primary, we teach people! We are secondary, we teach subjects to people!

It is all nostalgia for a past age when education systems had the appearance of working. Let’s face the realities of peacetime.

The transitions between sectors has become dysfunctional with too many students successfully navigating through the checkpoints which have become chokepoints. The old academic / vocation distinction no longer applies. Education systems in Anglophone countries are characterised by unprecedented rates of failure and dropouts – casualties of this war. These countries all share the dilemma of skill shortages and increasing youth unemployment.

Lets calmly look at these sectors. Early childhood education is critical to later success in education and while we boast of pretty good national levels of access, the disparity of access between certain groups in the community is a less happy picture. A solution would be to subsume the ECE sector into the primary sector thus increasing the ease of access without increasing the need to escalate governance and capital works costs. Australia in ahead of New Zealand in halving the K Level entry group but this seems to be more of a Level 0 for primary than a dedicated pre-school effort. And one year is too short.

All systems know the importance of the primary, elementary part of the education system. The issue with this sector is that it is not encouraged other than through mechanisms of name and shame to have a successful but more narrow focus on the teaching of basic skills. I am not suggesting that we return to the old inspection when an Inspector of Schools would arrive at a school to hear the students read to ascertain whether Standard 4 or 5 or 6 had been achieved. But clear statements about exit levels would help with the critical platform that is primary education.

Where the primary sector has identity issues is at the upper end when it seems to grapple with the dilemma of being like a primary school but wanting to be like a secondary school. The solution is clear, create a new sector, Years 7-10, and let them get on with the job of making a successful transition from primary into the discipline-based secondary style programme. Introductory work on real pathways would replace the current work that is reduced to dabbling by the lack of clear pathways with continuity into post-primary education and training.

This would mean taking the senior secondary school out of the “school” sector and placing it in the “tertiary” sector. Having reached Year 11 students would have multiple pathways for further education and training which would be both, and simultaneously, academic and vocational. The different institutions of the senior secondary school, the university, the ITPs, Wanānga, PTEs ITOs and so on would then have a distinctive contribution to make to providing appropriate pathways, rich in their diversity, rewarding in their outcomes and  connected to the real world of family sustaining incomes, of employment and of continued learning.

A brief flypast over the battlefield cannot do justice to a complex issue but the general point is clear. Our current sectors have developed by accident not design, they have resulted in the development of distinctive features (unions, qualifications, sites etc) that are more intended to distinguish territory than they are based on what we know about learning and young people.

I would love to have got together with those six people who shared my enthusiasm for starting the conversation about sectors and the relationships between them. Who knows, it might have led to change somewhere ahead of us. One day the public will want to push the walls over. How much better it would be if we could do it before contempt for institutionalised education reaches that level?