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Tag: economic crisis

Talk-ED: Our Canterbury Tales

Stuart Middleton
28 March 2011

Any parent with young children knows of that suspicion that all might not be well when the children go quiet and the sound of play, the squabble and just of general activity cannot be heard. It’s a bit like that in education in New Zealand at the moment.

I think it is very much to do with the post-earthquakes period where the successive and overwhelming tragedies of the shocks in Christchurch and the earthquake / tsunami double tragedy in Japan have been numbing to everyone to a degree relative to the personal impact. All this has happened relatively quickly on the heels of the Australian floods. It’s been a huge amount happening in a short span of time in our little slice of the world.

What happens is that for a time everything else, the old daily grizzles, the ongoing issues, the standard stand-offs, all seem rather unimportant. In fact, there is almost an element of bad taste when the media leave these tragedies behind and return to their same old themes – they all ring a little bit hollow.

Education was affected considerably. Some schools in Canterbury have been destroyed, many damaged and most disrupted. Rebuilding all of this is a huge task for government agencies and communities. In more normal circumstances a rebuild of this magnitude would have been an opportunity to have a think about the shape of compulsory education – are the schools in the right places, of the right configuration and articulating in the best way. Just as once the intermediate school emerged as a solution right for an issue of the day, so too might the junior high school, the senior / community college or some form of transfer institution and other innovations might have been appropriate. But the imperative will probably be to restore to each community that which was there before the events of September 2010 and February 2011.

It is reported in the media that the University of Canterbury has lost around 400 students who have not returned to the university and have not enrolled elsewhere. This is a serious disruption to the lives of those young people but they too have other things on their minds at this time. I wonder how many students from Christchurch have not returned but have enrolled elsewhere? Whatever the number the University of Canterbury has some remarkable issues to deal with as it gets back into business with some classes in marquees while buildings are checked and restored to a safe condition. Institutions take a real hit when something of this magnitude happens.

Other institutions are also coping with the huge return to something resembling normal activity. But in amongst it all some good responses have emerged. Primary students in some numbers have been absorbed into other schools that have capacity. For many this will be looked back on something of an adventure at a time when families were disrupted. The dual use of secondary school sites by different schools was new to this country – might this lead to something that could be used permanently as the senior secondary school becomes more flexible?

Acts of kindness have brought to the fore a generosity of spirit within education – institutions elsewhere hosting groups or programmes or even individual students. It is not as easy as it sounds to transplant an activity or a student into another setting and it requires great effort on both sides. It would be good if all this was being documented to remind us of what can be done and perhaps even without the impetus brought by tragic events.

But to return to where we started – the children do seem rather quiet.

Is this the longest period of time we have gone without an NCEA story, the usual tale of trivial importance treated by the media with an ersatz gravitas? Where were the annual start-of-year stories about the incredible pressure universities were under as enrolment numbers reached unprecedented levels?  Why no stories about the terrible cost of school uniforms, the outrageous demands for school donations and the increased traffic as schools and tertiary institutions got under way? Major pay settlements for secondary principals and secondary teachers passed us by with cursory treatment.

Why? Because those stories don’t matter. What matters is the fact that a majority of students in New Zealand go to school and other education institutions each day supported by their parents and caregivers, do what they are told and what they love doing and yet, due to the might of natural forces, they were unable to do so in unprecedented numbers. That was perhaps the education story of a hundred years.

But it didn’t take long before the media moved on or was it back? Page after page on school bullying and violence. It matters but somehow it seems to be simply bad taste when there must be stories about the recovery of schooling in Canterbury that deserve to be told.

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A role for education

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.10, 20 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

We have been left in no doubt that as far as economic crises go; this is a big one, overshadowed in terms of scale only by the Great Depression and in terms of government intervention, only by the Second World War.

Inevitably, just like all the men and women on the streets, education will be hit and will have a role to play.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s education spending was reduced through closing the Auckland and Dunedin teachers colleges. Dental clinics and kindergartens were also closed and the school starting age put up to 6 years old. Teacher numbers were reduced which resulted in larger classes. Public servants took a 10% wage cut.

Expenditure on education fell by about 30% between 1930 and 1934 – so it was pretty savage.

The latest economic crisis is not likely to see such a response from any sort of government in New Zealand these days since it would be counter-productive. But education can be expected to both take a hit of some kind and to be required to play a role.

In the 1930’s the response was to seek to find work of any kind for those out of work. Some had to travel to remote places to undertake useful work such as the Te Anau / Milford Road. Others stayed closer to home to engage in less obviously useful work such as the construction of stone walls such as those around Ellen Melville Park and Newmarket School in Auckland. Those left at home had simply to fill the gaps and get on with it.

Despite the disappearance of training from the 9-day fortnight at this early stage, it is clear that education and training will be the work camps of this crisis. Those who cannot be employed fully and especially those who cannot be employed at all should be given access to free education and training. We know with certainty that on the other side of any downturn is the swing back up. Placing those who take the negative impact of this downturn into a position where they can make the most of the upswing is the only decent thing to do.

But this will require tertiary education providers – Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics, Private Training Providers, Wananga and Universities – to think a little differently about how they work in terms of scheduling courses, how they accommodate more students around the margins at little cost, how they make ends meet without seeking a student contribution from those already struggling.

This is not a time for intra-sector squabbles (names are withheld to protect the guilty) – it is rather a time for unity and co-operation. Nor is this a time for esoteric arguments about the “cap” and other interesting issues of funding from either the government or the providers. It is a time for unity and for spending as much or as little as is required to lift the skills and the spirits of those bearing the impact of the financial pressure.

Schools will similarly feel some pressure. Tony Simpson’s wonderful chronicle of the great depression – The Sugarbag Years – notes various impacts of the times on schools. There was a clear decline in the rolls of private schools which placed pressure presumably on the state system. There were fewer resources but remember that this was a time when the schools relied heavily on teaching and student resources provided centrally. There were the cutbacks and closures mentioned at the start of this piece.

Perhaps the biggest contribution schools can make is to work on the pleasing increase in senior rolls reported this year to ensure high levels of students leaving to continue their education and training.

Schools might also have a capacity to entice back young people who are doing nothing. Boot camps might sound all very well to some people but boot-strap camps sound better! Increasing the use of facilities and offering teaching to groups of these young people out of conventional school hours and terms and in different ways, might have some attraction to the layabouts who think that the world owes them a living but now see that the world doesn’t even feel obligated to give a living to decent good people who are prepared to make an effort.

The first Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the then Nga Tapuwae College in Mangere was Brian Edwards, son of Jim Edwards, the famous workers’ leader through the depression years of the 1930’s. Brian had seen plenty of struggles in his younger days and he knew that education was critical if people were to avoid the worst and most brutal vulnerability brought about by economic deprivation. Skills and the ability not only to be employed but also to be employable were at the heart of his view of the school and all that it did.

He was perplexed by the seeming disengagement that was already then becoming apparent. I recall him saying to a group of young people “You have to work hard now so that you will be OK when things get tough.” He knew that those who filled the ranks of the low-skilled and the unskilled were the ones most at risk. He knew that inevitably tough times were always waiting up ahead.

While that is now a little simplistic, essentially it remains a truth. New Zealand is being presented with an opportunity through this crisis. It can reposition the skill sets of many who are already in the workforce. It can tackle the issues of the leaking educational pipeline. It can lift the levels of literacy skills, of technological skills, or managerial skills.

Perhaps the crisis will also teach us that simple lesson, the only lesson that will address issues of productivity: we will all have to work harder. And if we want to work shorter hours (as do the French) then more of us have to be ready and equipped to work.

If education hasn’t got a role to play in all this then I will eat several hats!

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Digging for a solution

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.7, 27 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Hi Ho Hi Ho , Its off to work we go!!

It wasn’t just Dopey, Grumpy Sleepy and their mates that sang this refrain – it was pretty well the chorus from everyone who once left school. From the late 1940’s through to the late 1960’s New Zealand achieved pretty well full employment and young people knew that ahead of them lay work.

That all changed when New Zealand decided that 6% unemployment would be something of an acceptable going rate and the dream that New Zealand kids had of slinging their metaphorical shovels over their shoulders and marching down into the mine with the Seven Dwarfs was over. Little wonder then that at a time of real crisis there should be a gathering to address the issue of employment – instead of going down to the coalface the wise ones head for the summit.

There is in our community a significant group of people for whom “economic crisis” is not an event but an environment in which they live every day of their lives.

The current focus on saving jobs for those already in work, on retraining those whose jobs are at risk and on finding positive activity for those with days on which there is no work is responsible and right. But they will be actions that address the here and now, a response to a crisis at one point in time.

Underlying this is an ongoing and more fundamental economic crisis that will not be addressed by these actions and which will one day prove to be the defining crisis – too many of our young people are not only unemployed they are also unemployable. Such young people are clustered into communities of disadvantage with all the issues that this brings – violence, poor housing, bad health and a lack of social cohesion that all have a cost associated with them.

Department of Labour figures show that the Auckland region is home to 35% of the young people in New Zealand. In Counties Manukau there is a concentration of young Maori and a third of all young Pacific people live in this region. With 17% youth employment in this region, the issue is not that the current crisis will take people out of work but that even when we are not in crisis we get too few people into work, especially young people.

The figures quoted above are from 2006, a time of robust levels of employment in New Zealand. With overall unemployment figures now expected to reach double figures, this issue will escalate quickly. Young people in Manukau, 48% of them, work in businesses that have over 100 employees. When such companies take a hit (such as that seen recently at Fisher and Paykel) the impact is serious.

There is in New Zealand up to 25,000 young people who are NEET – not in employment education or training. These people exit the education system without a pathway into further education and training and in most cases without the skills to enter employment. Not all stay out of work but the road into employment for those who need a second chance at preparing themselves is painful and expensive. The cost to the individual is significant and the cost to the country even greater.

A recent Ministry of Social Development report, Youth Transitions Series 2003,  points to “those who are inactive for prolonged periods of time have a heightened risk of poor outcomes including: lower earnings; greater reliance on social assistance; and higher rates of unemployment, criminal offending, substance abuse, teenage fertility, suicide, homelessness and mental or physical ill health.” If not a powder keg, inactivity is at least a potent and dangerous brew.

The seemingly worthy goal of preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist is something of a luxury when young people are not prepared for jobs that do exist! And the task is one that cannot solely be the responsibility of the formal education system. Those with inactive parents are likely themselves to be inactive. The social construct called “the disadvantaged community” is discouraging to those on the margins of engagement.

Employment is not a pair of socks that you put on when your toes get cold or something that you clip on your belt when the whim to work takes you. It is the result of a long process in which three dots must be connected.

The first of these is access to two years of quality early childhood education. Longitudinal studies show that the advantage of this remains with young people throughout their formal schooling. The second is the completion of secondary school – those who disengage at some point in their secondary schooling are immediately at risk. Completing secondary school makes it more likely that a young person will go on the complete a postsecondary qualification, the third dot. Connecting those dots creates the desire to work and the ethic required to sustain employment.

Long term, the solution to the economic crisis is tied up in these three key dots. We simply must minimise the supply of those who fuel economic crisis by their inability to contribute productively. Yes there will also be those who need a helping hand but we could also do this better if we have eliminated the waste of human resources that we currently see.

It would be tragic if in addressing the issues of an economic crisis for which global causes are blamed, we failed to see the home grown crisis steadily but not so quietly creeping up on us. Our ability to sustain an economy of the kind that has brought a sound standard of living and a life with prospects to most (but not all) New Zealanders relies both on our getting through the immediate crisis and our willingness to tackle the larger and more fundamental crisis of youth unemployment.

That family of countries I have written about so often – New Zealand, Australia, Canada. United States and Great Britain – share a grim statistic outside of education but not unrelated to it. Around the period 2025 – 2030, they will reach zero or even negative growth in the working age population. There will be fierce international competition for skilled young people. Will we be ready? Or should we carry on and just whistle while we work? 

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