Tag Archive for NZ Treasury

The Core Curriculum: What Happened to the Apples?

Well, the old food in school debate was about as long as a meal at MacDonalds and repeated itself about as much!

Having agreed with the Treasury that the evidence that saw an improvement in achievement result from food in schools efforts was about as robust as filo pastry, John Key left the kitchen while the “never mind the quality feel the warmth” brigade marched on.

But the interesting development was the emergence of support for Treasury / John Key from an interesting group – Principals of low decile schools in the North.  This was interesting – the meals in schools push was supported very much by Hone Harawera and it raised the issue of whether he had talked with the school leaders in the rohe.  Also because some of the Principals didn’t really have a track record of supporting strongly, perhaps even at all, the current Government.

Their argument was built around the fact that disadvantage can and does take many different forms in their schools. They did not want resources to be tied to one kind of support (food) but rather be available for supporting students in many different ways – a pair of shoes, a jersey, a raincoat – and so on. Their argument made good sense to those of us who are working or have worked at that end of the system.

Not only were the Principals of the North not prepared to make any connection between a meal and school achievement, they were also not prepared to turn the argument into a tirade against anyone. Their cool reflection and sound reasoning was impressive

But the Labour spokeperson on education, Chris Hipkins, was not going to miss this party and he waded in with strong support for food and meals in schools etc etc. Again he missed the point – the argument was not about the goodness of food or even the value of eating but about the lack of or any clear evidence that providing food in schools led to a raise in achievement.

What had been missed in the Treasury advice was a clear and reasoned statement that there was no measurable or causal link between the provision of school meals and that of improvement in school achievement. They were not writing a book on good dietary habits, or the value of eating, or the overall health of the child. It was a simple statement presented without distraction on student achievement, what helps and what appears to have little effect.

One of the I-know-food-improves learning group wished that “John Key would drop his ideological stance but failed to notice the quasi-ideological fervor with which she put forward her view.

An anecdote. 

I frequently exercise the limbs with a serious walk around the many walking tracks in the city area in which I live. One of these walks takes me through the grounds of a high-decile primary school that is very well regarded by the community, has something of a special interest in the environment and seems to take part in the apples-in-schools scheme. They have little gardens planted with a great variety of veges and a worm farm.

This vermicultural activity is of some interest to me as indeed I have a little worm farm at home. This team helps me to save the planet and keep the waste disposal unit idle. They don’t do it by themselves, a couple of compost bins are also part of the green army.

Well, one day, on one of my walks I thought I would take a peek into the school’s worm farm and what did I see? The bin was half full of beautiful apples. Now that is taking the core curriculum a bit far I thought! Well perhaps not if you were a worm.

At last, a food in schools effort which would lead to an improvement. What would Treasury say about that?

 

Just a Spoonful of Sugar makes the lessons go down.

Goodness me, the Treasury caused something of a fluttering of feathers in the dovecote when they questioned the benefits attributed to programmes that provide breakfast or other food in schools. The key statement summed up their view:

Evaluations of school food programmes do not indicate that food in schools programmes are necessarily effective at achieving their intended outcomes. For example, a 2012 Auckland University study found a New Zealand breakfast programme had no statistically significant effect on attendance and no effect on academic achievement or student conduct. These findings on academic achievement and student conduct are consistent with the findings of well-designed international studies on school breakfasts in first world countries. Internationally the majority of studies found that even where breakfast was offered at school, there was no increase in the probability of a child actually eating breakfast

The responses to this were reported under headlines such as “Treasury officials should try working without food!” which shed a lot of light on the issues. I have long said in previous blogs that there is no evidence that hunger impedes learning. Sickness, unsafe environments, deep unhappiness will all impact on the engagement of a student but hunger on its own? No!

Otherwise you exclude a huge number of the world’s young people from learning.

Of course the people who work to take food into school are well intentioned and motivated by a genuine belief that what they are doing is helping. Certainly it might be helping students to feel welcomed at school, the social gains coming from shared consumption of food might well be worthwhile. But, Treasury reminds us, there is as yet no evidence that the students will learn better.

The real danger of adamantly asserting that young people will learn better when they are well-fed opens up an easy position for the apologists of failure who run the argument that these students do not learn because they are hungry. If they do learn better when fed then it has to show in some way and this ought to be capable of measurement.

Then there is the convenience of forgetting that many middle class young people do not have breakfast and this is a lifestyle choice they make. At best many students in many well-off homes have an at best desultory attitude toward the power of Kornies or yoghurt to unleash the brain.

Learning is far too complex to be simply fixed up by a sausage roll or a plate of breakfast food and that is what attention should be paid to. Why after 137 years of providing for universal education do we still have a school system that certainly allows all young people to enter but in no way provides for equitable and successful outcomes. Why do the stubborn statistics of failure still stalk us as they have done for so many decades?

Mary Poppins could get away with promoting a spoonful of sugar but that’s not going to work.

Children fail because of a collocation of factors which together probably are what equates to poverty and if not poverty than certainly to a state of being empoverished. The factors of this conspire to bring poor housing conditions, poor employment opportunities, poor health and access to healthcare, low access to quality early childcare education – the list could go on – all of which on their own could be pushed back but which in consort are a formidable set of hurdles for some families to overcome.

Of course this manifests itself in the classrooms of the country – sometimes in an isolated way and sometimes in a widespread manner. In the latter situation learning is difficult and the spiral of intergeneration failure continues to gather momentum.

So the job is not done simply through the provision of a bit of tucker.