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Talk-ED: The voice of the vulnerable young


What do the following three events have in common – the re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch, the epic-length Novopay school salaries saga and the re-enrolment of a troubled young man in a Paeroa school?

Teachers?  Schools?  Boards of Trustees?  Issues?  Consultation?  Ministry of Education?  Yes, all of those things but I wasn’t thinking of those in particular.  Each of these three issues has seen the involvement of young school students in quasi-political protest and campaigning.  Many of them have been clutching banners which appear to have been made as class projects, many have wept at issues that were probably beyond their ken and most of them have appeared in front of television cameras.

I seriously question the ethics of all this.  The issues have generally been between the grown-ups and ought to have been played out between the teachers, the Boards, the Ministry of Education and whoever else had a hand in them.  The young pupils (and this does seem to be markedly a primary school response rather than a secondary school one) could quite properly have been left out of the street marches, the protests, and the hate messages (mostly directed at the Minister).  All of this was demeaning to the profession.

Questions should be raised as to the level of informed consent that surrounds a group of young students being mobilised into protest action. Who consulted the parents and caregivers? What was the explanation and information given, what were the opportunities for permission to take part offered to both the students and their parents and caregivers?  What protections were in place?  What assistance and guidance offered when students became distraught?  And could a pupil decline to tag along if they felt uncomfortable?

Then there is the appearance of young people in television news broadcasts.  Were full ethical procedures followed?  Or did the television simply tag along believing that they had no requirements to see that the photographing of young people was within guidelines and in accord with ethical standards?

I have previously quoted John Dewey who back in 1909 in his important book Moral Principals in Education succinctly stated the following:

There cannot be two sets of ethical principles, one for life in the schools, and the other for life outside the schools.

Are the principles and values demonstrated by the actions of the schools in the cases we are discussing genuinely those held by the communities they serve.  I don’t mean simply did the schools and the communities agree on the issue.  What matters are questions such as whether the ethical standards implicit in the use of young people in protest match up with what the community expects, believes in and supports?  And to what extent was the emotion of the moment driving these events?  The issue is not the same thing as the response to it.

Ethics is the study of ideal behaviour.  Researchers when they start out on a research project are subjected to intense ethical scrutiny quite properly and if that research is on or about young people the intensity of the process increases.  Is the research going to be conducted in an ideal way?  Above all there is a key concept with the involvement of young people that they are not being “used” in ways that place pressure on them or increase stress and such like.

Schools carry these ethical standards day by day, and minute by minute and they involve everyone who is involved in the enterprise.  That is why we are so shocked when high ethical standards are breached – especially when it involves students.

Our society goes to some lengths to protect its young and there is currently a huge concern that we are falling below an acceptable standard. Concerns are gravest when those institutions that should conserve the highest moral standards let everyone down.  Examples include child abuse in a religious environment, sex criminals who one way or another inveigle their way into the employ of a school, the inappropriate relationship of a teacher with a student – they all make us feel abhorrence  and the profession is diminished just a little each sad and sorry instance.

Therefore we need to practice a concern for young people in everything that we do in the name of education and schooling.

I wonder if in these three issues we did just that through our involvement of young vulnerable people.



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Talk-ED: That was the year that was… what?


Another academic year, another school year, another calendar year draws to a close. Down south we are blessed by the double impact of alignment between the academic year and the calendar year. The pressures and heightened activities of both conspire to produce a feeling that it is all a bit too hectic and we resolve that next year we will manage all this differently. But we never do.

It is the conventional response to be tired at this time of the year. Everyone is “looking forward to a break” and holiday plans are chatted about with enthusiasm even those that entail staying at home and rejoicing in a city emptied of the crowds who have now gone elsewhere to be crowds. 

This year has, in New Zealand anyway, been a rather irritable one for education.

The school system was stirred by a number of issues that arose just as last year’s issue – the introduction of national standards into primary schools – was settling. It had been a long battle between schools who felt that the standards (NZ’s answer to NAPLAN) were damaging and constricting, unnecessary and misleading. On the other hand the Government felt that they gave valuable information to parents and caregivers that was necessary and informative in a manner that should not impact negatively on the school. It was a long discussion but schools by and large grumpily got on with the job. 

Then along came the issue of student / teacher ratios – the formula used to calculate the number of teachers in a school. This turned overnight into an autumnal storm of impressive proportions. There were winners and losers in this – the senior secondary school being the winners – but this was quickly lost in the discussion, especially when it was realised that an allowance that delivered a considerable number of teachers to intermediate schools had also gone.

The Government blew the whistle and called the whole thing off. Claims of victory and defeat masked the fact that once again current practice had prevailed and things would carry on the same. But not for long. 

The Minister of Education announced the establishment of a Minister’s Cross Sector Forum for Improving Achievement – a gathering of about 20 people who reflected the whole system, its component parts, its sectors, its major community groups and so on.

The discussion had gone indoors rather than being played out in the media. Here was an opportunity for vigorous discussion across the system to address the issues of why so many young people were failing and why so many were disengaging when so many were succeeding and doing well in our bipolar education system. In middle earth can the conundrum of western education systems be unscrambled? Watch this space. 

At last early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary educators were starting to address some of the key topics. The urgency of this was increased by the commitment of the Government to a set of Better Public Service Targets which included three overtly aimed at education: access to quality early childhood education, the levels of graduation from high school and the numbers obtaining a post secondary qualification at about a diploma level. These are each a serious challenge to the education system and it is clear that there is work to do.

So it wasn’t helpful that when a new teacher payroll system was introduced it contained quite a few blips. This is a huge payroll with over 90,000 being paid each fortnight. So inevitably there would be slips and errors. This was neither desirable nor a surprise. What did surprise was the feeding frenzy from the media about the whole business. Teachers in New Zealand are not employed by the Ministry of Education but by their local school Board of Trustees. The employer / employee relationship is between the individual and his or her Board. But you could get no sense of that as the Ministry of Education in its role as salary servicing agent was the target for the raised voices. 

Years ago I recall a similar situation and then the school Board as employer simply paid the teacher who had missed out by cheque and sorted it out. But the opportunity for yet another public stoush was not to be lost. And that was a distraction somewhat for at the same time things were happening at the post-secondary level.

The Tertiary Education Commission had decided that in the next round of funding, increased proportions of the lower level entry programmes in tertiary institutions were to be withdrawn and reallocated to the private sector and to the Wananga. The consequences of this are profound not only for the impact on institutions losing significant amounts of funding, but also for the impact on the nature of those entry areas in tertiary institutions. The polytechnics in New Zealand have the role of being the open access institutions that can take those who wish to work towards a serious qualification from wherever they are to that goal. The Community Colleges, TAFE institutions and further education provision, all play a similar role in other countries. This provision of a seamless progression through those early years and into “real qualifications’ is central to lifting achievement. But this could not attract the attention of the mainstream media. 

That was partly because they were still thumping the drum on the restructuring of schooling in post-quake Christchurch. It is clear that the kinds of changes – mergers, clusters, reshaped institutions – are the sorts of changes that will have to become more common throughout New Zealand as the system repositions itself for the changing demographics. Christchurch is an early starter in this because of the damage brought about by two major earthquakes. The thousand of after-shocks have left people feeling that they need respite from all this.

It must be time for the Christmas break




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Talk-ED: Getting the balance right

Stuart Middleton
25 June 2012


It’s a disconcerting thing, reading the newspapers these days. Often during the week it is a quick scan of the morning paper, a quick go at the crossword and then off to work. The morning paper is given its serious attention in the evening.

At the weekend I look for instantaneous relaxation a more leisurely stroll though the papers.

Well, on Saturday I open the paper to be confronted by a large advertisement from the Auckland Primary Principals Association advising the public at large and readers in particular that they were against league tables in education! Some reasons were given and readers were exhorted to email the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education and their local MP all of whom would obviously be astounded by this spontaneous outburst of opinion from the community.

Most people in the community simply add this to the list that they have of the things that teachers and Principals do not believe in: national standards, performance pay, league tables and this is just the recent list. Oh yes, the teaching profession makes it very clear to the community of what it is they do not believe in.

But I wonder if members of the wider community have any idea of what educators in this country actually do believe in? And do they understand the arguments behind those things.

All they have to go on are the results that stare them in the face and they don’t need the media to tell them about these in specifically schooling terms, they know that as a result of the failure of education to win the hearts and minds of young people, they see unprecedented juvenile crime, they see escalating youth suicide rates, they see escalating issues of mental health among younger and younger people.

They know with some precision how well we are doing in education and while half of the community celebrates success, the other half despairs at what seems to be gloomy futures for their young ones.

I was put off my stride to relaxation when I came across an article that cast doubt (perhaps even aspersions) on the B4 Schooling screening test in the Sunday paper.

The Ministry of Health describes the B4 School Check as a valuable check on development and the picture of the child’s development is gained through some simple health checks and a conversation between the health professional, the ECE teacher and the parents/caregivers. All this sounds all very well, sensible and useful. But the article goes much further and gets into the speculation that the check was more sinister in its potential to get into areas of mental health and start diagnosing mental health issues in the young. This is much more problematic than simply identifying issues of hearing and sight, and nutrition and general physical development as the old Plunket checks once tried to do.

More interesting was the introduction of what seem to me to be unexceptional child behaviours as symptoms of mental health issues – shyness, sleeping with the light on, clinging on to parents’ legs, being nervous in new situations. If these are symptoms then we have all been in that space!

And this raises the issue of over-diagnosis. There is a view that this is happening. It was staggering to be told in the article that “Pharmac figures show a 140% increase in anti-depressant prescriptions for 0 – 4 year olds” within the space of one year and an increase in “mood-stabilising drug prescriptions for children aged five and over”. Can this be true? And if it is, is it the 4 year olds who need examining or should the older generations be taking a good long look at themselves.

To some extent there is as much danger in glamorising or normalising issues such as depression as there is in ignoring it. But the free and easy manner with which we see diagnoses of serious issues such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD and so on bandied about helps no-one. Young people grow up in many different ways and the strength they have to develop into “normal” youth is one of the miracles of life.

And it might be a good thing if young people grew up a little more along the lines that we grew up. We did not expect to be happy all the time and were loved when we were not. We had no idea whether or not we were normal or not and perhaps at my age still do not know!

I grew up being afraid of violence and fighting to the extent that I would hide behind the seats in the movie theatre while the cowboys were fighting (to be hauled up when it stopped by my brother who knew no such fear). I was nervous about being left alone. No-one offered me a pill! Is it normal to get tense in an airport? Or to worry about an unfamiliar sound outside at night? I do, but no-one thinks I need a pill?

Major issues such as youth suicide reflect the serious decline in the security of youth, their exposure to drugs and alcohol, the instability of so many homes (often no fault of the parents), the pressures placed on young people to compete and now things like cyber-bullying

These are real issues. It would be a good thing if people knew what teachers do believe in and had faith that this would make the world a better place, especially for their young ones.


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Pathways-ED: Blood and fire or beating the retreat?

Stuart Middleton
8 June 2012 


Now that the “alliance of education sector groups” formed to fight “government cut-backs in school staffing” appears to be out of a job, I suggest that they stay together and tackle some of the other big issues. This “unprecedented meeting of six school unions” as it was described would bring together a strength usually only seen in New Zealand when such “coalitions of convenience” are formed – and that is not very often.

Given that the issues of the number of teachers in our schools can galvanise all these groups to cooperate and to seek a common goal, it is exciting that that these key education groups are finally sitting around the table when there are even greater issues to be tackled and perhaps this togetherness is the start of something good. The factionalising of education at the school level has been in no-one’s interests for a long time.

Here are some suggestions for concerns that such a group might focus on.

Educational Failure

Why in an education system that has teachers capable of producing students educated as well as any in the world, do the statistics of education failure continue to resist improvement?

Teacher Professional Development

Why in an occupation which is dedicated to learning do we have so few opportunities for teachers to refresh and expand their own learning? Especially in light of the agreement that central to improving learning is the quality of the work of each and every teacher.


Why do we continue to have such clear demarcations between early childhood education and primary, primary and secondary, secondary and tertiary? Do sectors any longer serve young peoples’ learning? Should early childhood education be merged with the primary sector? Should a middle sector be created (Years 7-10)? Should the senior secondary school be merged into the tertiary sector?


Why in a state education system should schools operate with disparate levels of funding as government funding is distorted by community contributions, fees and donations? Is too much funding locked into inflexible provision of staffing? What are the true costs of a sound educational provision?


Do we really have a national strategy for the use of learning technologies in schools? Will the use of devices in schools be left to the whims of parental wealth and availability of funding? Will schools be in a position to respond to the roll-out of high-speed broadband?


Is it timely to initiate a review of the curriculum in order to clarify gaols and objectives at key transition points, to remove from the curriculum the clutter that has developed and to give priority to key skill areas that are necessary to see all students succeed? Is it time we got serious about teaching community languages?


Why do transition points cause disruption for many students? Are transitions in the right place? Why is it so difficult for us to manage students as they move across transition points?

Skills / Employment

Have we taken our eye off the ball? Is there a developed diminishing focus on skills required for employment or a disconnect between schooling and employment? What is the role of schooling in creating job ready young people? At what ages should the vocational purpose of education and training become explicit. Why do we have skill shortages and yet so many young people doing nothing with their lives?

School Location

Do we have the right number of schools and in the right places? Has the location of schools changed in response to the demise of the horse and unsealed roads in rural areas and changed urban behaviours?


There is agreement that disengagement from education is becoming (has become?) a systemic feature of education in this country. Teachers and school leaders tell me that they see it unfolding over many years in the schools. Do we understand this phenomenon? Do we know what interventions might work and when to apply them?

Any or all of these topics would benefit from a response as intense as that given to the teacher / student ratio issue. Each of these issues can only be addressed by a non-partisan and system-wide response. Each of these issues will continue to dampen educational success among our young people until they are addressed.

Actually, put together they might well make a good agenda for a Royal Commission on Education. Just imagine if we agreed to this in this the Diamond Jubilee Year – it could be referred to in years to come as the Diamond Jubilee Royal Commission on Education – that has a ring to it.

Or will each group return beat a retreat back to their camps to continue the battles another day and in their own way? One skirmish might be over but the war continues against ignorance, a future of doing nothing, educational failure and poverty.


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Think-Ed: Wanting the best for the Senior School Cohort of 2011

Stuart Middleton
31 January 2011

I opened the Sunday paper just the day before a new school year was to begin to read the exciting statement:

“Back to their future and to the only chance they’ll get at being 16. The first week back at school. It’s an exciting time for senior students. It’s a time when the world starts to appear larger and closer… a time of recognizing what is possible… a time to start seizing opportunities…. If you lose them at 16, you risk losing them forever.”[1]

This excited me because it is the bald statement of a truth that so many in New Zealand have backed off for too long. The senior years of school education is critical, that is why the fact that 20% of students never get to go into the senior secondary school – they are already out of the education system by the age of 16 years – demands urgent attention. It is also worrying that during the three years of secondary schooling a further 20% will fail to achieve to a level that will enable them to securely move on to whatever is to follow.

So the stark reality faced by those who recognize the value of successful senior schooling is that 20% of students have disengaged from schooling by the age of 16 years and that 25% of those who are left are not likely to complete a coherent set of achievements that provide the foundation of a post-secondary qualification.

This is not a reflection of the quality of teachers in New Zealand because the major English-speaking systems all face this same issue. The issue is systemic and structural – twenty years of insisting that universal secondary education means five years of general academic education has shown one thing – that the senior secondary school needs restructuring to allow students to chose a far greater variety of pathways through it. We know from the PISA results that when everything goes well, New Zealand teachers can bring students through to a level of achievement that is as good as anywhere else and better than most. We know also from those results that by age of 16 years the tale of those who are not achieving is long and troubling.

The good news is that we can with some certainty say that about 75% of the student cohort which is starting their senior secondary schooling this week will finish with a set of achievements that will take them on to something positive.

The APASS Study in the United States is a major study across 50 states of the United States of America into the academic pathways that take students through high school and on to college.

Recently published findings are:

First and most importantly, it concludes that a single pathway cannot meet the needs of students in secondary schools who wish to continue on to further study at higher levels. This seems common sense and supports the view that multiple pathways will emerge as the only way in which we can meet the needs of more students.

Secondly, the study urges us to develop much closer links between secondary schools and providers of post-secondary education – collaborative partnerships will be crucial.

Thirdly, such partnerships must be expressed in action rather than simply being talked about with all levels of the education system working together to plan curricular pathways and organizational structures that allow for flexibility.

Fourthly, we need better data about which pathways work with more students, which keep the students in the programme and moving forward smoothly across transition points.

Fifthly, attention must be paid not only to those programmes that we conventionally call “academic” but also to those areas we think of as “vocational” or “technical”, i.e. the career and trades training areas.

Finally, this will only be achieved through close co-operation and discussions between different sectors.

Much of this is self-evident and in some instances already taking place. But it needs to be consistent and focused on results and action. Getting results for the 16-year olds in our system who are moving through into the senior school this week needs to happen quickly if we are not to repeat the patterns of the past – i.e. up to 25% of senior students not getting the opportunity to “seize opportunities” simply because they fail to achieve useful levels of coherent knowledge and skills during the time they spend in the senior school.

Sentiments such as those I found in the statement in the newspaper are all very well and good but actions would be much more useful. Who would disagree with the sentiments of the italicized quotation above? Who would not want students to get success from their time spent in the senior school? Who would believe that we can get different results from doing the same thing?

Voltaire urged that “if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” The facts pertaining to the achievement of students in the senior school in New Zealand surely call for change. The numbers who never make it to the senior school scream for change.

1. NZPPTA Advertisement, Sunday Star Times, 30 January 2011, p.A13

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It’s time for a commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What might the Education Commission consider?

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

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

Equitable universal access to early childhood

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

Community contributions to schools

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

Governance of tertiary institutions

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

Sectors and their role in students’ learning

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

Curriculum sprawl

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

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

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

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