Tag Archive for New Zealand

New Directions: Let’s not flag in our efforts

 

It is time to put national back into our national day – Waitangi Day.

It is anachronistic that the focus has swung so resolutely to the North of the country when the facts don’t support such a development.

Yes, the talking that led to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi started in the North and a significant set of signings were completed there. But the treaty is a Treaty for the whole of Aotearoa New Zealand and signings took place in many other places. And yet there is little sense of this in the activities and media coverage of 6 February each year. On 4 July in the USA Philadelphia does not reign supreme in the activities.

Here are some suggestions:

  •          Give status to a number of Treaty celebrations on that day, certainly one in each major iwi rohe and city. And this means genuine commitment of government involvement at all of these.
  •          Privilege the day by making it a National Holiday – a genuine national Holiday up there with Christmas Day and Good Friday – that means all shops shut and a holiday for all! Make the organizing principle one of whanau / family. Have a great emphasis on sport, cultural activity (orchestras, music, performance), on street parties and picnics, of fireworks.
  •          Let’s get rid of that stupid Guy Fawkes Day and make 6 February our big fireworks occasion.
  •          Issues and discussion and korero could still be associated with the day but perhaps be formalised into a wider set of discussions that have as a standing agenda such key elements of effective race relations as educational outcomes, health standards, quality of housing, income equity and so on. The political issues of the moment could also get an airing. This forum could be run up North or even be spread through significant marae in Aotearoa New Zealand on a topic basis – education to Ngai Tahu, housing to Ngapuhi, health to Tainui, political issues to Ngati Poneke – and they could shift around each year. Above all they would rise above the stunts of the past few years which typify the actions of those who style themselves as protesters and the media that indulges itself in a feeding frenzy on them.

It could be that such hui are clustered around 6 February and need not necessarily happen only or even on that day.

  •          Schools would have a valuable part to play – a programme could be developed for say junior, middle and senior schools to focus as that day approaches on Aotearoa New Zealand on appropriate aspects of national identity, bicultural responsibility and New Zealand values (starting with Maori values and considering the implications of these for all Aotearoans/New Zealanders. The environment and our relationship with it could also be a focus. Famous New Zealanders might also have a role (and this would go beyond rugby types).
  •          That brings us to the flag. Yes, let’s get a different flag that is about us. But the silver fern on a black background has been so bastardised by its use in sporting arenas, and whenever and wherever flag waving is deemed necessary, it can never assume a status that rises above that or being mere bunting, much like that strung around second hand car salesyards. Let’s take time and care to get this right and then we treat it with dignity – no flying it all night, letting it touch the ground and so on.

Schools would teach students to respect it and we would behave in a mature manner about it rather than the foolish response that greeted Minister of Education Merv Wellington in the early 1980s when he asked for no more than this.

No doubt there will be mixed reactions to some of this but we need to realize that the symbolism of a National Day and the way we go about celebrating it and the things we do to emphasise its importance are the very things that bind us as a nation.  New Zealand has a chance to get something right here. Working on a solid but still developing base of biculturalism we could give expression to what true pluralism might be in the 21st Century.

In 1940, Allen Curnow writing in celebration of 100 years (sometimes called the “first hundred years”!) since the Treaty was signed. He wrote a very lovely couplet in a poem “Landfall in Unknown Seas”:

Simply by sailing in a new direction

You could enlarge the world.

The facts of history and the impact of legends tell us that this is how Aotearoa New Zealand was populated from the very first arrivals up to those new citizens who were signed in on 6 February. And it is a process that we can continue – it is a simple matter to change direction and our world can be enlarged in so many different ways.

Our Waitangi Day (Norman Kirk in 1973 changed it to New Zealand Day but that only lasted a year or so) can be our special day, a day of joyous celebration, of reflection and challenge, about us as a complex group of people sharing this most blessed spot in the Pacific.

 

Let the games begin!

Happy New Year! Well it is has been for the first four weeks and then all the political parties decided to tell us about their policies for education in this Year of the Horse.

And what did we hear?

First there were the Greens – poverty, poverty, poverty was the cry. This was a replay of the 1980’s when educators seemed unable to get past the fact that some students were hungry, in fact they were so obsessed by this that they forgot to teach the students how to read and write. Later in the weekend Labour was to get on this band wagon and opt for school lunches for the hungry.

There are many systems that provide food to students – the US and the UK both use eligibility for a free school lunch as a key measure of poor learners who learn poorly. The good news is that I am certain the students enjoy the lunches (although Jamie Oliver has a view about how good or nutritious they might be). But there is not a shred of evidence that there is a connection between the provision of free school meals and improvements in achievement on a scale that would suggest that it is other than a social gesture.

Labour made a grander entrance on the Early Childhood Education stage. Full marks to them for noting that ECE is important – it is more that important, it is central to sound achievement and equitable outcomes. But Labour didn’t wish to be too complex about all this.

Rather they preferred to bask in the glory of their (what seems to me to the failed) 20 Free Hours policy and, no doubt ignoring all the complexities of a schooling system that is not delivering equitable outcomes, decided to simply expand it – “20 Free Hours – no wait, there’s more – 25 Free hours.”

When the 20 Free Hours was originally introduced there was no discernable increase in access to ECE services. Similarly when the scheme was freed from any targeting there was again no discernable increase in access to ECE. Those who were using the resource were simply increasing the amount of ECE they accessed thereby consuming more resource with a disappointing and continuing lack of access for those who are unable to go to a quality ECE provider.

Most of these students who are denied the ECE benefits are Maori and Pasifika and they live in communities where there are simply not enough places. Take the Tamaki area in Auckland as an example: there are 7,000 little ones under the age of five who are trying to get into the 2,000 places available. You improve access to ECE services through providing more places. Labour tossed off a quick promise to “build more ECE Centres in high-need areas” but this was something of faint hope and perhaps an afterthought overshadowed by and of lesser priority than the popular promise to spend on seeing that existing services will get higher subsidies so as to have “100 percent qualified staff” – the barons of the sandpits rubbed their hands with glee – higher costs mean higher subsidies and higher fees, excellent for the balance sheet for the large centres that offer ECE services as a business rather than a service to the community.

You only have to look at where the new multi-million dollar ECE places (I almost wrote palaces) are being built – they are on the commuter roads where those in work are able to drop their little ones off at our expense while they go off and earn quite good money in a job.

The ECE 20 Free Hours is simply a badly targeted resource that has not worked. Of course it appeals to the middle class who have jobs and money and this is clearly a key target group for Labour. Otherwise how can you describe a baby bonus for the 95% of babies in families with incomes up to $150,000 as anything but a universal benefit? Again, those without a job, or ECE, continue to swirl in the poverty trap that generation will perpetrate.

That leaves National’s “let’s do something about leadership in schools” cluster of activities, policy initiatives that identify the school leaders who perform and give them a role in which they have a license to change the quality of leadership in schools beyond their own. This policy is a bit of a body blow for the educational leadership industry found in the universities which put on a brave face about the years of first principals, aspiring principals and the raft of qualifications in educational leadership which appear neither to have cut the mustard nor to improve achievement.

This is the policy that seems most likely to succeed. Educational Leadership is at the heart of lifting educational achievement and there have been grumblings about the quality of school leadership in New Zealand for some time. The additional allowances are generous so there is no excuse for involving only those who have proven to be capable in leading teachers.

It is interesting to note that in Finland, every pre-schooler gets to go to an ECE programme, every student gets a free school lunch and nobody gets to be a principal without the additional qualifications and the experiences that the position requires rather than being selected by the educational equivalent of the local bowling club committee.

At last we seem to be taking heed of those systems that are successful rather than claiming as our birthright the right to replicate the failed policies and doomed practices of the Anglo-Saxon systems.

 I await with bated breath the announcement of policies that will lift the performance of the school system:

  • policies that have a zero tolerance for the failure to gain basic skills at primary school;
  • initiatives that will stem the flow of disengaging students;
  • challenges to the sectors that have become walled cities that destroy the seamless pathways that are so central to success;
  • engagement of business, industry and commerce in the business of schooling, especially at the secondary and postsecondary levels;
  • cross-ministerial initiatives to address the back-log of educational failure – the NEETs of which New Zealand continues to accrue amazing numbers of young people not in employment, education or training.

And that’s just for starters.

 

Pathways-ED: The greatest little country in the world

 

 

Well the storm over whether New Zealand had a “world class education system or not” got eclipsed by the real thing in the US as the week went on. The NZ Herald waded in this morning and told “education commentators” what amounted to grow up and get over it.  I was a little saddened about their taking to all education commentators because I have diligently pointed out over many years that our enthusiasm for what we are doing in education needed to be tempered a little by the reality of achievement, especially when diced along certain lines.

Of course we do good work, that has never been the issue but to want to hide behind the world class claim is more than a little immature.

But chatting with a group yesterday we concluded that New Zealand rather liked to be able to make claims which engender enthusiasm for our view of ourselves but which become a little ragged when scrutinsed. The following were mentioned.

We have the best race relations in the world!

Certainly we work at them a little more than others and usually much more constructively. But to want to make the claim that we have the best race relations in the world is to enter a very dark place. What does it mean? What are the measures? Equity of educational outcomes? Demographic profiles of our corretional institutions and the clients of our justice system? Perhaps it can be measured in health, employment and housing statistics?

If it simply means that we do not often stand in the streets hurling abuse at each other then …. What about the incidents in the Jewish cemetry in Auckland recently?

Clean Green New Zealand / 100% Pure!

There are increasing calls for us to challenge this. Surveys show that our rivers are pretty dodgy, so are some of our swimming beaches. There is constant worry about mining, deep sea drilling, fracking and other such activity which suggests that for a variety of reasons there may be imperatives that are stronger than any commitment to Clean Green NZ or to 100% Pure.

This is a pity because primary schools often do good work in the areas of environment responsibility.

New Zealand is  great place to bring up children!

Well it ought to be, there is so much going for it. There is nowhere far from the sea, the grass grows green, the cities have open spaces, we commit to universal access to education and work hard to achieve universal equity in outcomes (but see above) and so on. But when I look back to when I was a child (cue in the violins and the soft focus cameras – black and white please) I note that we had a more comprehensive system for looking after babies – ante-natal and post-birth, that schools provided health checks and the free milk symbolised the commitment to feeding our young ones. Health camps were there for those who might benefit from a break from circumstances that were perhaps not helping and they varied widely – people bought postage stamps to help pay for them.

Family life was stronger as parents were free generally from work at weekends and could spend time with young ones.

And….. while there probably was hidden abuse of children, the scale seems to have gone well past the level that open-reporting could have produced. We never heard of youth suicide as a phenomenon, alcohol abuse by young teens. And there was no such thing as boy racers – it is hard to loose traction on a Raleigh bike!

So it is worth asking – is New Zealand still a great place to bring up children?

We are a great sporting nation!

I think we do possibly “punch above our weight” whatever that means. And recently the All Blacks were challenging for a record number of test wins, a record held by that famous rugby nation, Lithuania. But what if we measured our greatness as a sporting nation by sheer participation – how do we stack up then. Well, probably still pretty well. What if we measured it by the physical health of the nation? What if we measured it in terms of the big sports in world terms – football, basketball, golf and tennis? Still quite a good effort here. Olympic Games – OK?

We all need our cuddly blankets and New Zealand needs more than most perhaps given its isolation and its still difficult new orientation to Asia and the Pacific rather than the Old Country and Europe.

But as a friend of mine in London says – “You should be OK in New Zealand. After all, if you have an issue you can all get together at the weekend and sort it out!” That might turn out to be our real strength when we reach the point of recognising it. So I propose a new generalisation.

Small is beautiful!

Is that a trick or a treat?

 

 

Talk-ED: Learning, especially from others

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
12 September 2011

I have been wondering about the differences between education systems that seem to be successful and those that struggle with the issues that dog us at this end of the world. Those issues of disengagement and concerning levels of educational failure and persistently lacklustre levels of success at postsecondary levels just don’t seem to respond to efforts made to address them. While huge effort is made it is hard to escape the conclusion of the recent New Zealand Institute Report (More Ladders, Fewer Snakes) that the trends of improvement are not yet apparent.

We make it hard for ourselves by being unable to yet report on cohort success and continue to be able only to wind back the education success odometer as if it were a second-hand car to produce a percentage figure that doesn’t tell us what is happening. This habit can hide improvements just as easily as it can mask declines.

It can not be a coincidence that the set of countries that share these issues to a remarkable level of similarity – a level that defies chance – and which consists of New Zealand, Australia, Canada the United Kingdom and the United States of America all have a similar unitary education system in which comprehensive high schools provide programmes that are very much the same for all students and are premised on the conventional academic track to university. Developments over the past thirty years have cemented this in place very firmly.

This has led to a situation where the secondary school is now seen as the key site for change and where notions such as multiple pathways are called for.

By contrast, the dual systems of Europe and Scandinavia multiple pathways are available to students with flexible options in the senior secondary school which are well-connected to the tertiary sector. Students are able to move across pathways as aspirations and aptitudes become clearer.

The unitary systems are characterised by the focus on one general education offered to age 19 in comprehensive secondary schools which have continued the traditional focus of universal primary education and the elitist provision of higher education in a new combination of a general academic programme for all. Trades have disappeared from secondary schools with their being located very predominantly in the tertiary sector. This was the result of a range of factors but the experiment with the new subject of “Technology” must raise education eyebrows.

There has been a bifurcation of these unitary secondary school systems into one group that is favoured (high decile in New Zealand, private in Australia) and those viewed less positively (low decile in NZ and state in Australia). Across both systems disengagement has increased and effective connections with postsecondary education and training has decreased.  This has overshadowed the good work that is happening in schools.

Meanwhile in the dual systems there are clearer differentiated curriculum offerings in the senior secondary school with a clearer vocational focus in some. There is also a concerted attempt to maintain the growth of general education (language, mathematics, digital skills) to a higher level. Work experience is frequently built into school programmes in a connected manner. But most importantly, there are effective systems for tracking students and monitoring them. It is far less optional, attending and applying, than is the case in New Zealand.

Take Finland as an example. It set about reorienting its education system in the latter part of the last century after serious financial shocks from the collapse of Western Russia. About one third of students pursue vocational pathways, success in international measures of attainment is at the top and they have less than 5% (and diminishing) levels of disengagement.

If Finland can do it, surely New Zealand and Australia can.

Talk-ED: Big issues in the world of the little ones

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
13 June 2011

From San Francisco

I’m over in the USA catching up with colleagues working in the secondary / tertiary interface area. California is experiencing pretty tough times politically and economically with budgets under real pressure and education budgets taking a hit. It’s worse here than it is at home.

It always surprises me when we get chatting how much we share in common with our American colleagues. But it wasn’t in the area of secondary / tertiary interfaces that we found an item of shared interest that dropped out of a conversation. It was with regard to the little ones under five years of age. We concluded that both our systems were under some pressure due to much the same issue – confusion between day care and early childhood education.

Childcare is where a young little one is looked after with care and to a high standard by people qualified to provide such care. They attend to their creature needs and see that they are happy and relaxed and getting along well with their peers and with adults. Of course some learning takes place – no-one has yet discovered how to stop little ones learning thank goodness, but it is not the structured teaching and learning of an early childhood education programme. These childcare centres require people with the requisite skills and they need to be closely regulated and controlled. But that are not early childhood education centres.

Early childhood education is structured teaching in ways that are appropriate to 3 and 4 year olds in areas that are appropriate and methods that reflect the critical concern for non-cognitive behaviours. There is an element of school-readiness in this and it is in addition to the care of little ones who remain very much in need of a safe environment under the watch of highly trained teachers.

Our current 1-5 system is seriously confused about these distinctions and the boundaries are so blurred that “care” and “education” mean much the same thing.

Over the past 10 days in this blog we have dealt with the three dots of a successful start to lifelong learning – two years of quality early childhood education, graduating from high school and gaining a postsecondary qualification. Currently New Zealand is doing quite well with the first of these until the provisions of quality early childhood education (two years of 15 hours per week) is scrutinized in urban areas of high Maori and Pasifika populations. Access is unacceptably low in many of these areas and until we get all three and four year olds into quality early childhood education for 15 hours a week over two years, the resources for pre-school care and education should be directed to that end.

I applaud the scrapping of the twenty hours on non-means tested care/education and applaud the scrutiny that the resources are now going to be put under. Yes, I have sympathy for those who need the twenty free hours to work in order to supplement their incomes but that is another issue. The ECE resource must be used according to principles of access for little ones not the size of their parents mortgages and rationed according to rules around universal ECE access. All three and four year olds must be in an early childhood centre for two days a week for the two years prior to their starting school. When that is achieved and cemented in place a more liberal approach might be able to be taken.

Of course there is nothing to stop centres both private and state offering child care for those younger but this must not be at the expense of 3 and 4 year olds getting their early childhood education and therefore this becomes the priority for state funding. There is probably enough to go around.

I have had final responsibility for early childhood centres as a secondary principal, as a senior manager in a teachers college, at a polytechnic and most recently as Chairman of Directors of a company that ran among its many activities, five early childhood centres. I know how the funding levers work and how they act in a perverse manner to achieve objectives that are not those of offering quality early childhood education to all three and four year olds for the two years before school. I know what the levels of trained staff do to the income streams. It all needs looking at.

The early years have become the last bastion of funding by volume and the results have been no more acceptable than they ever proved to be at other levels.

Talk-ED: Episode 3 – The Destiny of Destination

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
7 June 2011

Folks, today we wrap up the continuing story of the three dots. Those critical markers in education. The milestones along the educational journey to a bright future in which there are jobs and income, and civic participation, and better health and housing and happiness. Not just for some, but for all.

 

Dot 3: Postsecondary Qualification

The first step achieved, two years of quality early childhood education, and then the second knocked off, NCEA Level 2 in the bag. There remains only one more step to ensure a life of relative success in education and all that flows from that – the gaining of a postsecondary qualification

Of course, in the long run, the level of qualification that is obtained will have a relative benefit in terms of money. Certificate, diploma, degree, postgraduate qualification and doctorate will all brings rewards but the highest has some relationship to the level of the qualification. But the biggest gap is between those who do not have a post secondary qualification and those who do.

And from the countries point of view, any postsecondary qualification will be of benefit to the country. Most importantly, getting one postsecondary qualification could lead to getting a higher qualification. A surprising fact is that if young school leavers have no gap between getting their school leaving qualification and success with a postsecondary qualification at any level they are very likely to go on to a high qualification.

Why is it beyond us to take note of these simple facts and make them our goals. This country has the best teachers in the world, something obscured a bit by the whingers and those frightened of change, but the fact remains – when New Zealand teachers get it right they get it better than anyone else.

So let’s go for it and make sure that each and every young person gets to the postsecondary qualification. Then it is over to the tertiary sector. But don’t underestimate the challenge that this would be. The most robust education statistic over the last sixty years is the fact that in English speaking countries a little under half of those who start a postsecondary qualification actually finish it. That is, remember, only half of those who start a qualification!

So we had better start acting in tertiary education thinking more about the student and more about how a co-ordinated network of provision could provide success for each and every student. This will require a step change in tertiary institutions – it is, folk, all about the students not about the institutions. We need concerted action to see that students are in the right course and flexibility to react professionally when they are not. Parity of esteem should be about not how we see each other but how we see each student.

Until New Zealand catches up, the greatest need will be for low level programmes and institutions that specialise at that level, being allowed to grow to cater for this. Over time – 15 to 20 years? – the growth should shift to those catering for higher levels as failure at school and at low levels of postsecondary programmes slowly disappear from our midst. Is this just a pipe dream?

The three dots connected would provide the basis for a targeted education system that sees a well-qualified community develop a skill-rich economy that puts New Zealand where it belongs. There is agreement that until the long tail of educational failure and disadvantage disappears, New Zealand will only fire on three cylinders. Wealth generated by the qualified and the skilled will, if there continues to be inaction on these matters, simply be soaked up in providing for those who take and do not generate that wealth.

This set of goals can do the job:

1.  Each and every New Zealand pre-school child will have access to two years of quality early childhood education.

2.  Each and every young person in New Zealand will graduate from secondary school with at least NCEA Level 2.

3.  Each and every young adult in New Zealand will complete a postsecondary qualification

Why are these goals appropriate and important?

Evidence supports the view that when a young child has access to quality early childhood education (i.e. 15 hours per week for two years with qualified teachers), he or she will not only be equipped to start the journey through school but also be advantaged throughout their entire education.

Finishing and graduating from secondary school with the recognised school leaving qualification (and this is NCEA Level 2 in New Zealand) makes a school leaver highly likely to proceed to a postsecondary qualification.

Finally, completing a postsecondary qualification is the marker of a potential lifelong learner. When that postsecondary qualification is gained without a break after completing secondary school the student will in all likelihood go on to a qualification at a higher level.

Can we do it?  Yes, we can.  Must we do it?  Yes, we must.  Will we do it? Well …

Just close your eyes and imagine a world in which each young person is unleashed on the future.  Dr Seuss in his wonderful book Oh, the Places you’ll Go!

You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.

Pathways-ED: Episode 2 – Crossing the Prairie

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
2 June 2011
 

Folks this is the continuing story of the three dots. Those critical markers in education. The milestones along the educational journey to a bright future in which there are jobs and income, and civic participation, and better health and housing and happiness. Not just for some, but for all.

 

Dot 2: Schooling

Having got off to good start in Early Childhood Education (and three cheers to the ECE Taskforce that has recommended the ending of the untargeted 20 free hours) it’s off to school. I do not know any young person who doesn’t want to go to school at the age of five – why does that not last for the 13 years we would like them to be in school? The second dot is the successful completion of at least NCEA Level 2. Students who complete the school leaving qualification are likely to go on to complete a postsecondary qualification.

Schooling is divided into Primary and Post-Primary for a good reason. Primary is what comes first and post-primary builds on that. The use of the term secondary is relatively modern (indeed the NZPPTA preserves this useful reminder of the connection between the two in its name).

What is the role of the primary system? Well. I don’t think that it is very complex. It is to put in place an array of basic skills that lay the foundation for further education and training. Becoming a lifelong learner starts at primary school and those who fail to put into place those skills have no chance of becoming a lifelong learner – it’s that important.

What are the skills? As Dame Edna would say : “Call me old-fashioned Possums, but……” Surely the essential skills of language have to be at the top of the list. Reading, writing, listening, speaking are central skills in anything. If you can read you can do anything, learn anything. If you can write you interface with the world in so many different ways. Listening and speaking are keystone skills in team activity, working with others, being engaged with others, taking an active role as a citizen. Lack of these skills is crippling and limiting.

We wouldn’t even consider all those strange concepts such as financial literacy, computer literacy, food literacy and so on if everyone had high level language skills which these days are wrapped up usefully in the term “literacy”.

Sums, maths, numbers, numeracy, call it whatever you like but students who are good at this are well-equipped to tackle so many other things. The skills are fundamental. If you have to learn the tables to do this then just get on with it. If you have to do 20 mental arithmetic questions each day to increase ease and facility with numbers then do it.

It would be good if students developed some sense and understanding of the country in which they lived but it would have to be authentic – the modern, diverse country they live in not the world of Julius Vogel. Slowly the history of our nation would come into play and then there would develop an understanding of other countries. Primary school is also the place at which an ease with Te Reo Maori could usefully be developed.

Probably there is a need for a much narrower curriculum focus than that currently pursued but that might seem to lose too many valuable things that primary schools do. It will boil down to priorities.

When it comes to post-primary education there is clearly continuation of the development of language and of numeracy with an increasing emphasis on the ways language is used for varying purposes. It was always a disappointment that the notion of language across the curriculum enjoyed such a short life-span in secondary schools. Its intent was good but its execution was never able to overcome the silos of subjects.

As students approach the end of Year 10, the knowledge that they need to have around careers, vocational pathways and suchlike becomes central to their formulating a plan for intelligent subject choice and emphases through their senior schooling. So we are probably looking to start this process as early as Year 8 and perhaps even earlier. The goal of the senior secondary school must be to equip each and every student with the skills, knowledge and competencies required to proceed seamlessly to post-secondary study.

As with primary schools, doing less with increased focus and greater integration is probably a useful catchcry in reforming the secondary school curriculum.

The school system is central to a well-performing education system. Alternative programme and interventions can only operate at the edges – the bulk of students will and indeed must succeed in the school system. Schools cannot do everything. They are not resourced to do everything. It is timely for the school system to decide what it does best (and there is some evidence that it is in international terms a pretty good best) and get on with that.

Tune in next Monday for the last instalment in this story of connecting the dots.

 Episode 3 on Thursday:      The Destiny of Destination

Talk-ED: Episode 1 – Starting the Journey

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
30 May 2011
 

If this was television then today we start a three episode mini-saga, a story of inevitable success and failure in which those in power and with power know what to do but find it difficult to get things right. It is a story of real human tragedy and real human joy; it leads to the best that our blessed country can achieve and to the very worst.

Folks this is the story of the three dots. Those critical markers in education. The milestones along the educational journey to a bright future in which there are jobs and income, and civic participation, and better health and housing and happiness. Not just for some, but for all.

                         Dot 1: Early Childhood Education                     

It is rather obvious that if you wish to reach your destination it is a good idea to get on the train. In education, the best start you can have is to have access to two years of quality early childhood education. This is defined as 15 hours per week with trained teachers in a well-equipped and safe environment.

We do not achieve this equitably in New Zealand currently. National levels of access look quite good and the trends are promising but there are too many pockets in our population where access is very low. This was emphasised by the Minister of Education in announcing the new funding being made available to address this.

Ironically at the same time there were complaints from responsible sources that there was a worrying trend of young people having too much access. It seems that some little ones are in early childhood centres for 40 hours a week over five years leading to a total of 10,000 hours before the age of five. The two years quality rule would lead to 1,500 hours. If a little one is spending over eight hours a day in a centre for five years, it can only mean that the imperatives of employment are placing parents into the situation where they either have little choice or they make that choice because they are able to. It is being questioned whether being a fulltime ECE student from age 0 = a few months until the age of five is desirable.

That might be true but a net result of this is that places are then not available for others.

And that is a major impact of the 20 free hours early childhood education policy that seemed so promising and forward-looking when it was introduced. It even seemed better when the restrictions on access to it were removed by taking away the means testing. But whereas once a young parent could afford X hours of care to return to work, they could now afford X + 20 hours. In this way the 20 hours free policy has not operated to allow an increased number of little ones access to ECE but has rather allowed the same number of little ones to have increased access. This loose policy needs review urgently and the resources targeted much more carefully.

But access is controlled to a large extent by where early childhood centres are. The best indicator of desirable location is where the large, flash, private centres are built. They are liberally dotted through the rich suburbs and avoid with a vengeance any presence in the poor suburbs. Private centres go where the money is and leave the state to cater for the little ones in other communities. It is in those other communities where the needs are greatest both economically and educationally.

At a recent education summit in Auckland, Dr Peter Gluckman emphasised the need for ECE as the mechanism for laying down the non-cognitive behaviours that were so critical to education and which were developed in those early years. In fact he was critical of the emphasis in early childhood education on cognitive skills at the expense of these non-cognitive areas. It is the non-cognitive skills that build the foundation for much of the success that people enjoy in their journey and certainly it is at the heart of educational success. Research associated with the Head Start programme in the USA seems consistently to point to the long-term benefits of participation in this programme aimed at increasing access to early childhood education for disadvantaged little ones and the development of non-cognitive skills is emphasised in many studies. It is not the teaching reading and writing that makes ECE important, it is the development of non-cognitive skills.

It ought to be possible in New Zealand for us to achieve full universal access to early childhood education. The equity gap between those who do get access and those who don’t simply has to be closed if we are serious about starting little ones on the journey to educational success.

A bizarre note on which to finish. This week it was reported that videoconferencing via Skype has been introduced at eight Universal Childcare centres around Australia. The aim is to give working parents and grandparents more face-to-face time with the children. Really?

So, dot one is that all New Zealand children will have access to two years of quality early childhood education.

Episode 2 on Thursday:      Crossing the Prairie