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 (www.myschool.edu.au) 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.