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Tag: equity

Two out of three just isn’t good enough!


Universal, secular and free were the concepts that underpinned the establishment of the New Zealand education system in the 1877 Education Act. It was considered to be forward looking in world terms at that time.

The same sentiment was captured in the Beeby / Fraser statement in 1939 which tried to restate the 1877 commitment in a system that was growing quickly and admitting to a greater diversity.

“The Government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their ability, rich or poor, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers. So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system.”

This greater diversity spawned the Thomas Report (1942) which fiddled with the secondary curriculum with regard to School Certificate and later The Currie Commission of 1962, undoubtedly at that time, the most comprehensive review of education since 1877, reinforced the qualities of inclusiveness. Since then a succession of governments have interpreted through policy their own particular bent on what it all meant.

Universal? Well if you put to one side the students who are denied early childhood education and those who drop out of the school system, the system can lay some claim to being universal. So we will give that a pass mark.

Secular? By and large you could say that our schools are secular. Except for the state integrated schools that have permission to be non-secular and a range of schools with special character that reflect different sets of beliefs. It is unclear in the 1877 Act whether ‘secular’ meant ‘free from all religious observance’ or simply ‘non-sectarian’ but that might simply be a construction put on the Act to allow for the use of prayer and the singing of hymns that characterized school assemblies when I went to school. But certainly the system could be said to be secular in as much as the bog-standard school (not private, not state integrated, and not special character) is considered to be not based around or promoting religious practices.

Free? Well this one is the joke. Of course education is not free! Huge amounts of government funding in early childhood education ends up in the hands of business who charge huge amounts to parents for early childhood education. Yes, some get it for free but a large number do not. And the 20 Free Hours give parents some relief in accessing  ECE services but often as a supplement to the other 20 hours that they pay in order to work a 40 hour week.

The school system? Free? Now this issue has really surpassed itself in its annual outing which came later this year then previously. It has become apparent that the differences between compulsory fees (never, of course, called that) in high decile schools runs hugely above that able to be sought as community contributions in low decile schools. Not only that, the attempt of some high decile principals to describe the demands made of parents of primary students as “compensating for the advantageous funding that low decile schools get” should be treated as the joke that it is. Or perhaps it is simply delusion.

Of course, they righteously claim on the one hand that such fees are for activities and not tuition and on the other speak about the importance of a wide curriculum that involves the very same activities. The funding advantage of high decile schools over low decile schools is a very serious attack on the principles of equity and in these practices lie some explanations for the continued stubbornness of some of the statistics of disengagement and student achievement.

If it is appropriate for communities to fund education through direct contributions (school fees / contributions etc) as well as through indirect contribution (income tax) then some level of equitable funding across all schools should be achieved even if it calls for a lowering of the level of funding for high decile schools.

We spend as a country quite enough on education. The issue is not the quantum of funding but rather the use to which it is put.

And have we achieved an education system that is “free”? Not on your life and that is without mentioning post-secondary education – I shall take that up on Thursday!


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Terve! Terve! Terve! What’s going on here?


There has been a great gathering of the good in Wellington last week – the International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

Like most international gatherings, the whole affair was choreographed in the interests of giving everyone a fair go at the air-time that was available. This doesn’t always allow for the real issues to emerge as there is an element of chance in the chosen country reports actually having something to say on the designated issue.

And this was the case with the plenary session on equity. Excellence and equity are the themes of the summit and why not.[1]  It is an OECD supported organization and their PISA activity is an instrument that makes explicit the relative performance of education systems in this regard. New Zealand does very poorly on the second of those measures – while high on excellence, it performs poorly on equity.

This is not to say that we don’t care about equity – we do but the path towards lifting performance on that measure is seemingly not becoming clear very quickly and the indicators are stubbornly slow to encourage us. So I looked forward to the afternoon that was to be devoted to a discussion of equity.

What did I learn? Well, that everyone seems to be struggling a little (and in some cases a lot) and the three or four high performers were annoyingly quiet on the issue. The warts are never going to be exposed in a setting of an international summit.

I learned a little more the next morning when walking from the hotel to the venue. I spotted a fellow with the right sort of conference satchel walking along Lambton Quay so I fell into step with him.

“Where are you from?” I enquired. “Finland” he replied. Ah, I thought, the holy mecca for those who seek the way, the truth and the light of equity.

We chatted and I shifted the topic away from the fact that the streets of Wellington appeared to be deserted (it was 8.00am on a Saturday!) and mentioned that I had read Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons, and felt that there were in that book some lessons for New Zealand.

“He was one of my teachers at High School,” my fellow Finnish walker replied exhibiting no relish at all for following up on that opening.

Change of tack. “Of course Finland took a bit of a slide down in the last PISA results,” I offered. We had stopped at a traffic light and he turned to face me. “That is because the students have got so slack.” “Is this perhaps the result of becoming famous for doing so well?” “I don’t know, I think that the parents care more about taking their kids to hockey practice and basketball games instead of seeing that they are doing their homework.”

The lights turned green and I wondered aloud why each of the Scandanavian countries had slid back a little. His instant analysis told me that Norway, it seems, is going to the dogs because it has so much money – he suggested that in a couple of years they would have so much money that they would be able to abolish income tax. There was a tinge of envy in his voice I thought.

By then there was a couple of people walking along the footpath towards us so I was able to comment on how busy Wellington was becoming. Perhaps first thing in the morning is not the right moment to get a conversation going about equity.

And so Day 2 started. First country up was Singapore addressing the question “How are learning environments created that address the needs of all children and young people?” A crisp, clear exposition of Core Values (Respect, Responsibility, Resilience, Integrity, Care, Harmony)  and a clear set of 21st Century Competencies free of the clutter that often surrounds such discussions.

I had the feeling that Singapore understood quite a lot about equity. No wonder they have a picture of a classroom on their $2 note.


[1] Actually, “inclusion and fairness” are also among the themes but I imagine that a non-inclusive and unfair education system is neither excellent nor equitable so I think that is covered!

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Talk-ED: Never mind the warmth, feel the quality


They say that if a hen starts eating eggs then there really is no future for the bird.  It is a behaviour that will never go away.

I feel much the same with newspapers and NCEA.

The weekend paper from Fairfax set out to explore NCEA.  I had been involved in several discussions with them.  This attempt was to be different.  A web site would accompany the story that gave good information and enabled parents to see just where they stood in school performance.  It sounded promising.

I have long felt positive towards the Australia site ( which sets out to do much the same thing.  Using the NAPLAN (National Assessment Plan for Literacy and Numeracy – their equivalent tool to the National Standards here), the site offers plenty of information about school performance with comparisons between groups of schools.  Parents and caregivers are able to look at their child’s assessments and relate it to others.  There are in some places in Australia some rules around the use of such information.  Invidious comparisons are frowned on and attempts to create league tables discouraged.  Australia supplies a lot of information to its communities.

But still there are best schools and worse schools. In fact the Australian experience tells us that there is a danger in discrediting a group of schools (in their case the public system) with the result that parent opinion swings heavily against them.  I have many times been told by parents in Australia that “Of course the public schools are rubbish!”

Well that is quite clearly not the case.  There are many excellent public schools in Australia just as there are in New Zealand.  The students in our state schools have the opportunity, by and large, to succeed and many do.  The view that decile ratings relate to school performance is misguided and unhelpful.  A significant number of students who constitute to the long tail of disadvantage that contributes to New Zealand’s low ranking in social equity measures are actually in schools where the decile rating is not low and where the schools have something of a look of success about them.

What causes the angst in all this is really a view of what kind of group you would like to children to mix with.  Many parents simply demonstrate confidence in the local school and that is where the family goes.  Bravo to them, I say.  What a refreshing little story in the midst of the series about poaching among Auckland schools for the best young sportspeople.  Keven Mealamu showed talent early and the moneyed schools started hovering around.  He turned them all down and stayed put at his local school.  Keiran Read returned to his suburban high school to complete his secondary schooling after a year in another school that had offered him a deal.

We need more stories like this.  We need champions for the local school where a sense of belonging to a community can provide a supportive environment within which young people grow up, and play and make friends.  Instead we have battalions of urban tanks taking young people to distant schools and at the weekends to commercial premises where playgrounds have been set up to cater for those who have the entrance fee.  How bizarre!

It really all comes down to wanting children to mix with the right sort of people. That is what drives the housing frenzy based around school zones. That is what drives the obsession with this school rather than that school.  It whips up the need not to know how an individual is progressing but rather how the school compares.  People are usually not too open about this and cloak the issue with arguments about quality of education, learning opportunities etc.  We are seeing in this a shift from the kind of egalitarianism that used to be a hallmark of our communities.  Yes, there has always been difference among people but this was matched by higher levels of tolerance and mixing than we see now.

I fear that we are becoming intolerant of others, suspicious of difference, and losing sight of key values.  It has not had nor will it have a positive effect on the education system.



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Talk-ED: Being better at Rugby just won't cut it!


The headline read “Maori in Oz: Living the Good life”.  The article[1] detailed a Maori family who had shifted to Australia for the “good life” – well, at least a better life.  And that is what a University of Waikato study found and is reported in this article.

There are about 130,000 Maori living in Australia with about a third of them having been born there.  In 2011 there were more Maori in Queensland than in Northland apparently.  Not only that, the study claims that they are also likely to be better educated than those who stay in New Zealand.  Now, of course, there are many issues in comparing a sample of 130k in another country with the larger group who remain in New Zealand and in illustrating it with the story of one family, the study with just a little more evidence should be questioning what we are doing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This blog has often dwelt on the issues of equity in New Zealand education and as with equity in the US and the UK and Australia (let’s not forget that!) the issue seems to stubbornly resist efforts to do something about it.

I would be reluctant to think that there is in New Zealand still a solid block of disbelievers who construct a view of New Zealand as the land of equal opportunity and a blessed country where we are all New Zealanders first and the accident of our heritage simply that.  But perhaps there is.  There certainly are those who while not staunchly believing the rosy glow of Shangri La view are something that approaches being apologists for the situation.  Explanations are offered, excuses are made, when-you-take-into-account- following-factors arguments constructed but still the indicators remain unchanged.

There is a process involved in addressing such issues.  First comes acceptance that there is an issue and then comes an understanding of it.  This is followed by an honest attempt to consider responses and solutions and the application of these to that little part of the education world that is within our orbit and influence.  Now comes the crunch – we have to really want changes to occur and accept that it is not necessary that in a country of a large number of “winners” there need not be “losers”.

Worse is the inactivity and failure to respond to the challenges in light of the fact that we know what to do.  There are in New Zealand many examples of programmes and approaches that are successful in providing more equitable opportunities.  We know a lot about the positive impact of bilingualism, the benefits of culturally inclusive teaching, the development of programmes that produce equitable academic results and so on.  Perhaps there is required a Royal Commission to bring all this together and to give it a status as the basis for action.

It galls me when Australia is described as “The Lucky Country” which implies that New Zealand is not.  We have so much going for us not the least of which is that of scale.  We could pretty well draw up a list of the names of the students who need that bit of extra help, the additional resource and the concerted help of the appropriate agencies.  And acting on this is the key to making New Zealand great and “the luckier country”.

Andreas Schleicher (Deputy Director OECD) who featured prominently in this blog recently has now returned to his home in Paris.  He has reflected on his experiences in New Zealand and especially on visiting three schools where the kind of education that brings equity was being practiced in schools that reflected best practice internationally.  He concludes…

For as long as I have been working with New Zealand there has been talk about equity.  But the results from PISA show that the school system is still far from delivering equity, in terms of moderating the impact of social background on learning outcomes.  Disparities are, if anything, on the rise.  The challenge for New Zealand lies in moving towards a culture of improvement, framed around not where schools are today but how they are advancing.  This is about attracting the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms and getting the best principals into the toughest schools, it is about developing diverse and differentiated careers for teachers and principals that recognize and reward improved pedagogical practice and the kind of professional autonomy in a collaborative culture that makes school systems cohesive.  It is about making sure that every child benefits from excellent teaching.[2]

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Talk-ED: Being fluent about equity is not the same as actually wanting it


Equity” and “access” are difficult concepts in educational discussions and I think that it is “access” that causes most of the problems.

There is a feeling that access is there then equity can be assumed. Everyone gets the chance to go to school (let’s put ECE to one side for a moment). If the chance is there then the system is equitable.  But that is a very limited view of access.  The point of an education is in the first instance and in the immediate future for most people something else.  Being in education is necessary but is not in itself sufficient to make claims about equity.

It is what education gives you access to that is the marker of an equitable education system. It could be that for many it can provide a set of successive opportunities to continue in education and training at the next level and to be successful at each level. For others it might more quickly provide that opportunity to enter the workforce. That is of course not the end of education and training because a well-positioned education system has opportunities for re-entry and new opportunities.  And good employers want to be part of this process.

But an education system that gives you access to little or nothing because it has failed to provide you with skills and knowledge to a level where the journey can continue is not an education system that can be said to have acceptable levels of equity.

So in measuring the equity of the different levels, access becomes an important tool. Early childhood education, primary education and secondary education all have the task of preparing the student for higher levels of learning and training or to put it another way, providing students with the tools, knowledge and skills to have access to further education and learning. From about Year 10 the kinds of access that will emerge place more complexity on the role of the educator. It could be that access to a range of further education and training sits alongside the skills and knowledge required for employment – being both college ready and career ready as the Americans would put it.

In short, an education system that has high levels of equity is one that will have continue to provide high levels of access to people as they journey through it.

So that requires citizens who aspire to have a highly educated community that values equitable access in its widest sense. This is in itself means that education has responsibilities to attend to the ethical and civic dimensions of development. If education in a systemic way and over time is successful, the community as a whole would aspire to have the highest levels of access and equity for all its people. “Equity” is a direct outcome of educational quality and therefore, as former US Secretary of Education Richard Riley asserts, a quality education for all is the “new civil right”.

So it is not enough to simply work towards an education system that can lift achievement. Such a goal can only have meaning in the wider social context where equitable outcomes across the whole community are sine qua non. The reason for listing performance and achievement is so that we can have that equitable society.

That then raises the question – do we want an equitable society in New Zealand? If the results we are getting (pretty good for many) continue to produce the levels of access and equity that it does (very low for some), and we know this and continue not to act to improve our performance for all students, you would have to say that we do not.

That seems a little harsh. But two things do encourage us to discourage us to continue as we do – the segregation between schools and community’s in terms of access and equity outcomes and our focus only on what happens within the school gates.

The focus on a wider challenge might encourage us to do better and to do it differently. G K Chesterton put it like this: “The main fact about education is that there is no such thing. Education is a word like “transmission” or “inheritance”; it is not an object but a method.”  Education is not a self-serving end in itself.

It seems appropriate on Bastille Day to remind you that many in the past have fought for access and equity. Is it time for us to storm the barricades of educational failure and disengagement once and for all?

Marchons professeurs, formez vos batailonsMon Dieu! Quelle rime abominable!

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Talk-ED: Sailing in a new direction or being all at sea


It might have been appropriate that in the week that the Americas Cup is all tied up in international juries, data and rules that New Zealand has hosted the visit of Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director at the OECD and a specialist in evidence and data about student performance and system improvement in education.

Yesterday NZ Herald journalist Nicholas Jones had a full is page spread on his visit and it was a great pleasure to have this rare contribution to knowledge about education to consume with my breakfast.

Jones starts his piece……

“New Zealand’s education system has been treading water and its students will lose out in the global race for the best jobs unless change is embraced, a visiting expert warns.”

The appropriate nautical imagery in the context of a race has appeal in a  coastline hugging nation. And as we are asked to be interested in the Americas Cup even more so. That spring event is governed by some rules, that’s what the arguments seem to be about. Education is also governed by rules and that is what the argument is about!

Schleicher is reported as being in favour of National Standards and that is simply a rule. The arguments are not about evidence or even the light accountability that National Standards imply, it is about the rules. But change is imperative. Jones again….

“His [Schleicher,] reasoning for change  is that while New Zealand has a by good education system, if compared internationally its performance over the past 10 years has plateaued.”

We aren’t going to win the Americas Cup is that is also the case with any element of the effort to produce and sail a world class boat. In a country where we defend pretty well all that we do on the grounds that “we have a world class system” it all starts to look increasing hypocritical in the face of the evidence. If the boat won’t go any faster and the educational system can’t perform any better we will end up in the doldrums.

Spend more money on education! That is the clarion call from many. But Jones / Schleicher assure us that this is not necessary……

“Analysis shows poor kids in Finland, Canada and Shanghai do far better relative to their more privileged peers than poor kids in New Zealand and other countries.”

It is not the syndicate with the most money that necessarily wins the Cup! And yet we hear social class and parenting and markers of social class such as nutrition are unfurled as defences of a system in ways working that toss too many students overboard.

The article nicely lists actions that different groups can take. Parents can daily show interest in “what happened at school today”. This we are told has greater impact than “hours of homework”.

Teachers must deploy its best teachers to the most challenging classrooms.”  This is offered as a way of “prioritising and targeting the quality of teaching.” This it appears is better than to uncritically spray professional development over all the crew. Making the teaching profession a “high status profession”. Note that in Finland the profession was designed to be a high status profession – it doesn’t happen by chance. A ten foot tinny won’t become a high speed hatch simply by tying it up at the wharf and taking the odd fishing trip. Making the career for a teacher “more diverse and challenging for teachers.”

When it comes to schools the warning that has rung out throughout the week was repeated….

75% of students who are reflected in our low equity results are in schools where  there are not apparent issues with manifestly low achievement. This is not solely a low decile school issue but one for all schools. If New Zealand is to lift its achievement it can only do this through lifting its equity outcomes. Equity and equitable outcomes are a responsibility for everyone in the system.

The kinds of commentary inevitably produces a level of unease and even discomfort. But data is data and is of no account if it is ignored. The OECD data is based on over 70 countries  and  28 million students.

Nicholas Jones concludes his excellent article with a wonderful quote from Schleicher: 

I can see the challenges……But in the dark all schools look the same, and all students look the same. Unless you have some light to illuminate the difference, there is very little you can do about it.”

It is as if the Americas Cup is sailed at night – that would be very scary. But it is also scary to carry on in the darkness that the lack of data can impede the progress of students and the improvement of both equity and quality in the education system.


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Pathways-ED: To see ourselves as others see us


A research report had just been released and after the presentation I turned to a colleague and asked:

“Do you mean to say that education cannot do much about social class and socio-economic factors?”

“Almost nothing,” he said in a resigned kind of way.

I walked back to the hotel with heavy feet. This was in contrast to the spring I felt in my step the next morning as I left the breakfast presentation from Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD Secretary General. The theme of his speech was predominantly that it is possible to improve the quality and equity of education in a very short space of time.

In fact, if New Zealand raised the performance of its low equity schools, it would be No.1 in the world. But the challenge is not only in schools identified in this way. The majority of low performing students are in schools not identified in themselves as low performing – the task and the challenge was there for all teachers in all schools.

This was not new to us but having it said with the authority of such a figure gave it added meaning and force. Schleicher identified six key areas on which to focus. And at the top was the necessary belief that all students can achieve.  How often in New Zealand do we hear the apologists for failure blame the home and other factors in depicting a scenario without hope?  The message all children need is “you can succeed”.

He went on to emphasise the importance of a well-developed delivery chain.  This has notions of linkage and of strength.  It also echoes the notions of pathways and managed transitions and seamlessness that are mentioned so often in EDTalkNZ.  New Zealand is well placed with its attention to meta-cognitive skills but how strong are we in providing the democratic learning environment that was also part of this package?

Schleicher underlined the importance of having the capacity at the point of delivery – a profession that attracts the best teachers and leaders, retains them and sees them committed to system-wide development.  This also requires effective PD that goes beyond mere participation, not just doing a course, but involves reflective activity, collaborative action with colleagues and suchlike.  It seemed to me that a good bit of this PD activity is in fact about teachers working in new ways with each other.

The importance of balancing autonomy with accountability was another strong point made by Scheilcher. It was pointless to seek the one without accepting the other he made clear, the collaborative environment would ensure this achieved in a manner that added value to the system.  I have thought often that New Zealand has an obsession with autonomy but a loathing for accountability.  That is why the question – “Who’s accountable for educational failure in New Zealand?” – has long been able to be answered simply with “No-one!”  But that might be about to change with the new responsibilities for Boards of trustees in the most recent amendment to the Education Act.  But ascribed accountability is only part of it, real accountability is a deeply seated part of professionalism.

Then came a deeply challenging idea from Schleicher – put resources where they have the most impact.  I didn’t think it appropriate to ask whether in light of this, the failure of decile ratings to achieve this is one of our dark and dirty secrets.

Finally coherence and who can argue with this. We can choose, he concluded, to have an education system that moderates inequality or reinforces it.

Question time.  I got to ask a question.  It was the question that nags at me every day, it drives my argument for new and different ways of working.  But I gave it a go…..”Does anyone have to fail?” I asked.  He spoke of the complexities, the issues, the combination of factors.  Then Schleicher said “It is hard to change income inequality but changing levels of education inequality will bring change.”  I think I had answer to the question I had asked the day before – education can do something to minimise the impact of socio-economic factors.

It used to be a joke that we asked visitors as they stepped off the plane “What do you think of New Zealand?”  This time we got the answer from someone who knew us well.



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Talk-ED: Success should be compulsory


The 2013 OECD Yearbook is a good read and it was interesting to note the piece by Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor to the Secretary General. In it he makes a simple point:

Countries that are unable to mitigate the impact of socio-economic background on student performance during compulsory education are unlikely to solve that problem in Higher Education.

Schleicher is visiting New Zealand this week and it would be good to see if he expands on this comment because it is an issue that has high relevance in New Zealand. The OECD is high in its praise for the top of the New Zealand education system and generous in attributing this to the quality of the work done by teachers. But it is equally clear in its picture of New Zealand’s long tail of low achievement. It is clear also in its analysis of the ethnicities of that tail.

There are some good points to come out of this. His comment supports the structure of the Better Public Service Goals with its focus on Early Childhood Education, on the achievement of the “School Leaving Diploma” (NCEA Level 2) and finally engagement with Level 4+ qualifications. Each goal is necessary but not in itself sufficient for students to be successful.

And without success in compulsory education little will happen. (Why can’t we wrap ECE into the compulsory sector and be done with it!)

The significant number who disengage from learning before completion of compulsory education are destined to join the tail. We need therefore to stem that flow, to turn performance of the lower ends of the school student group around. Every other way of approaching the issues is harder and more expensive.

There is a view that everyone we know about second chance education tells us that the first chance would have been better. Dropping out of compulsory schooling, joining the NEETs and then trying to make a come- back as a student is the hardest route in education. Second chance is hard to start, difficult to maintain and a very big ask to complete.

If we can stem the flow (and it will take more than STEM) we can then turn our attention to re-engagement of the NEETs. How many are out there? It is hard to get an accurate picture of this – the categories of “NEET” and “Beneficiary” and “Unemployed” and so on overlap and make opaque the picture of what is really happening but if we accept that, with the exception of some beneficiaries, most of those included in these categories would benefit from a process that re-engages them into education and training, the numbers could be startlingly high.

And I think that we would be surprised at the proportion that would want to be re-engaged.  It is little more than bourgeois to make the claim that most of them don’t want to work – there is no hard evidence that this is so. The feedback I receive from those working in the field is that there is interest when the options are put to people who have been sidelined but that access to programmes is not immediately possible, is not relevant, is not at the appropriate level, is not presented as a clear pathway to an understandable future and is not clearly a pathway where they can start immediately on crafting a new future.

That is a challenge for providers. Yes, we will argue that “first they have to ……” and that “they do not have the skills to enter this programme…” and “we can’t just start programmes when it suits them” and……

Having not succeeded with this group once does really put the onus on us to succeed the second time around. But like everything else in education, different results will require different ways of working. Time, course organisation, assessment and other structures will have to be re-thought as we meet these challenges.

Unlike love, education and training might not automatically be lovelier the second time around. Most strategic planning days start with the big picture. We have got some of the elements right – the BPS Goals, a workable qualifications framework, a curriculum that is flexible and a growing awareness that the situation demands our attention.

This last point is crucial. Denial is not a good basis for positive action.


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Talk-ED: Continuing to believe in Santa Claus in your late teens


It’s bad enough driving to work on a wet morning on a wet Monday on a wet motorway without having to flick on the radio and listen to an educational leader complaining about  how wrong it is of Ministry of Education CEO, Lesley Longstone, to draw attention to the fact that the New Zealand education system has flaws which challenge its claim to be a world class system.

In the Foreword to the MOE Annual Report, Lesley Longstone paints a picture that is thoughtful and based on analysis of the facts. Unpalatable that might be to some, but until the problem is articulated the solution is unlikely to follow. The willingness of the MOE CEO to put it clearly is to be applauded.

Essentially, her argument is this. New Zealand achieves high results with a significant proportion of its student population and these students are predominantly Pakeha and Asian. In this respect the system is world class. This generalisation masks the fact that there are in our system Pakeha and Asian students who are not getting good results. That’s how generalisations work.

Now the other generalisation is that with Maori and Pasifika students, our system is not getting good outcomes and in this respect our education system is not world class. It is clear in the Foreword that her time in the New Zealand system has led her to believe that the issues that this raises are of such a proportion that we can simply lay no claim to being a world class system overall.

I have pointed out that our system is bipolar for a long time and was once rapped across the knuckles for doing so. But the facts have been there for a long time and PISA among other surveys continues on further analysis to show just that.

In a different analysis delivered to a West Auckland gathering convened recently she is reported By COMET Auckland to have described it in these terms:

“Lesley Longstone’s boldest remarks were about the overall quality of our education system. Before she arrived in New Zealand, she understood our education system to be excellent, with a tail of underachievers. After looking at the data, has revised her view and believes our system is fair with pockets of excellence.  When we disaggregate the data, international results for Pakeha are among the very best in the world. But for Maori and Pasifika we are on par with the worst in the OECD.  Our education system is at bottom in the OECD in its ability to mitigate against poverty and poor education outcomes.  It matters for all of us because it has both social and economic implications.  Data from the USA says the impact of the tail of underachievement in our education system is equivalent to a permanent recession.”

There is a consistency in this and I am quite clear in my mind that she is right. How can a world class education system continue to produce the following outcomes:

  •          21% of students leave the system prior to their 16th birthday;
  •          Truancy runs at high levels (10%, 30,000 a day – there are a lot of figures tossed around for this);
  •          50% of people who start a tertiary qualification fail to complete it;
  •          Educational outcomes for Maori and Pasifika students (groups that are rapidly increasing proportionately in our school system) are clearly and dramatically behind those for Pakeha (a diminishing group) and Asian (a growing group).

The fellow complaining about Longstone’s analysis of course adopted the Finnish Default argument saying that a recent visitor from Finland had noted a number of features in our system that he was impressed with and wanted to consider their place in the Finnish way of working. This is absolutely how it should be. But one, two or even a dozen swallows do not a summer make. I have studied the Finnish system closely and it is unlike ours in a large number of very fundamental ways. We could do well to take note.

Finland has the smallest gap between schools of any system – perhaps it is us that should be asking them how to it is so. None of the other higher ranking systems other than the Anglophone ones have the rather negative outcomes listed above. A world class education system delivers sound educational outcomes for all its citizens.

Intellectual honesty and a willingness to face the reality of the situation is the only sane way in which we might get improvement in our education. To continue to do the same thing and expect different results is simply a clinical diagnosis of madness.


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Talk-ED: When yesterday was tomorrow and what do we do today?

Stuart Middleton
23 July 2012


I wonder if “tomorrow’s Schools” has become “Yesterday’s Schools”?

Back in 1989 when there was that big shake-up in the administration of the education system in the schooling sector, the government of the day was driven by some imperatives that were clear.

Treasury had led the thinking that education (like health) had become dominated by those working within it – “provider capture” was the way it was put – and that the system had become excessively bureaucratic. The report of a review group led by businessman Brian Picot confirmed this.

On to the scene came Caldwell and Spinks with their theories of the “self-managing school” and New Zealand implemented a system for the administration of education that was radical and unique. Well, almost implemented it. Several components never survived for one reason or another not made very clear at the time.

At the heart of this approach lay the Board of Trustees in each and every school that had a direct connection to central government. In effect, each and every school in New Zealand became the equivalent of a school district in the USA. Visitors from the US are still a little awestruck that such a bold step could have been taken and they wonder why!

The two components that never survived were the Community Education Forum and the Education Service Centre. These were intended to give a community a voice about education in that district and to have a little broader view of its administration than simply the single unit of the school.

It is now timely for a review of the organisation of school administration?

At a time when it seems as if District Health Boards are being asked to work closely together if not consider amalgamation, at a time when polytechnics are being directed to work together and amalgamate, at a time when polytechnic councils have been downsized to be slimmer and smaller, can we justify a system that requires over 2,500 boards involving nearly 19,000 trustees to run our school system?

Do they really “run” our schools? Or have we put in place a system that removes real power from schools and their communities?

Certainly the local board of each school can strut their stuff with the trappings of uniforms, web sites and physical facilities. Certainly the local boards can take on the appearance of keeping provider capture at bay. But do they really have an impact on learning? The evidence would suggest that the education system is performing at much the same level as it was in 1988 prior to the reforms. The shake-up in education administration has not led to a system that performs at a higher level.

And can we say that we still have a national system of education that delivers with equality to all students? This was the once proud boast for New Zealand.

The reforms led to more competition between schools and contributed to the real estate agents’ fervour about what constitutes a “good school”. This is not dampened in any way by school boards that are complicit in both arguing against “league tables” and boasting about their position on them (but only if it seems high enough). The guarantee that every primary school in New Zealand is good for young ones and that a parent can send their little one to any school with confidence is seemingly challenged. And that is tragically sad.

The emasculation of the community voice through the reform of education administration needs serious attention because it will be communities that will bring about improvements in school performance not bits of communities or artificial communities based on who can get to and into which school.

Perhaps we need to consider that there is a happy medium position somewhere between the individual school and the centre of government that reflects a district and enables that district to work together to lift educational performance, to ensure equity of provision in the schools and to provide a mechanism for governments to fund education on the basis of equitable outcomes and not by formulaic inputs.

The education districts could be based on the local/community boards of large regional councils (such as Auckland) where they exist, or on geographical cohesive units (in the case of a regional city), or on what seems a sensible arrangement in rural areas (I think of the cluster of schools in the Reporoa Valley for instance).

These districts need not become cumbersome from an administrative point of view but could work to produce solutions for the district rather than have the fragmentation of districts that results from focus of the school boards on one school and the focus of the central government on all schools – the two lens of micro-micro and macro-macro lack a granularity that keeps the greater good both in focus and in perspective.

Back in 1999 I wrote a paper that argued that the advent of Tomorrow’s Schools had not increased inequities in our system but had rather made them more explicit. I am not now sure that I was right.

What harm can come out of a review?


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