Tag Archive for politics

Talk-ED: Education Advice to the Incoming Opposition

Stuart Middleton
5 Dec 2011


Anyone can give advice to the incoming government, indeed scores of public servants are, as you read this, putting the finishing touches to their analysis and advice. Here, for the first time in New Zealand’s political history we publish Advice to the Incoming Opposition: Education (to be shared among however many political parties end up in opposition).

National Standards

Get over it. Move on. The public sees opposition to them only as a fuzzy attitude towards standards in basic skill areas such as reading, writing and sums and wonders why the teachers, principals and opposition parties don’t share their enthusiasm for high standards. The message on this one was lost a long time ago.


Embrace it. NCEA is admired as a flexible assessment framework within which students can find pathways to a meaningful future. Get behind the stroking of the iron sands (ref. Form 4 Science a long time ago) that are Vocational Pathways, seek connections between NCEA and postsecondary programmes.

Early Childhood Education

Admit it, the 20 free hours was a very badly targeted piece of assistance that ended up being counter-productive as it was hi-jacked by everyone other than the target group. Keep it simple – two days a week of quality early childhood education for every pre-school nipper in New Zealand. Be flexible – put ECE centres onto primary sites, train a couple of people from each community-based childcare centre, stop subsidising to such an extent the multi-million dollar private centres which provide parking spaces for rich kids.


We have the best teachers in the world but too many of them are doing the wrong thing. Allow teachers to have manageable groups that focus on the critical skills of learning. Allow teachers to achieve more by doing less. Support teachers by supporting families. When you have done rebuilding Christchurch start re-building schools – too many of our schools (especially low –decile schools) need attention. Be flexible about qualifications for teaching – don’t be distracted by arguments about who should teach students in secondary tertiary interface programmes – that will sort itself out as the students respond and are hugely successful.

Decile Ratings

Call for a Royal Commission into Decile Ratings – this device has outlived what little usefulness it had, promising much and delivering very little. It has simply become either a badge of honour or a mark of shame. Until you do persuade the government to abolish it, make it illegal for it to be used to compare education institutions – that will take some of the heat out of it.


Look at a copy of David Shearer’s Labour Party Tertiary Policy and his Skills Policy – they were pretty good and didn’t get much use during the election which was more a kind of game show (Personality Squares?) than a meeting of ideas. Learn the basic vocabulary of the skills debate – NEET, disengagement, etc – and remember that jobs do not create employment, education does.


A mate got it in one today – re-create the University of New Zealand and put the savings into educating more young ones to higher levels while at the same time taking us a little closer to having a world class university education widely available.

Student Loans and Allowances

The Royal Commission (see above) could get on to this after it has disposed of the decile rating system. Now some innovation is called for here. What about only asking for the money to be repaid if the student is successful and gets employment? What about a consumer guarantee attached to the payment of fees? What about payment to the institution of half the fees on enrolment and the other half on successful completion? What about putting “To avoid paying student loans” on the departure card, it was easy to put Rugby World Cup” on the arrival cards.  There is little wisdom in cycling investment through students so that it comes out as wasteful debt or money squandered by failure. Glue funding measures inseparably to accountability measures.

Finally, there is one further piece of advice. Allan Peachey was a teacher and on his watch as Chair of the Education Select Committee it gained a reputation for addressing issues in a bipartisan matter. That needs to continue. The opposition that makes a positive contribution to the education debate will be one characterised by thinking and ideas, by constructive proposals and by support for all those even when they come out of the government side of the house.

Nothing is more political than education. But it doesn’t deserve the petty politics that too often pass as debate and discussion in parliament.


Talk-ED: "The party's over… (sung lustily with varying meanings!)"

Stuart Middleton
28 November 2011

“Here we go again…” is sung lustily at one post-election event while at another “The party’s over…” draws towards the mournful exhortation to “send in the clowns…” The election designed to bring New Zealand down from the euphoric Rugby World Cup to the realities of living in the early 21st century has done its job.

Once upon a time we would be offered the chance to vote for “continuation”, “state control” or “prohibition” but that related to alcohol. The election seems to offer us the same choices but now they apply to everything.

And continuation received resounding support with the National Government led by John Key returned with a clear mandate. That is very much what it means for education – a continuation of the key policies that started to get traction for the Government during its first term in office.

The government will continue to seek ways to bring greater focus into the early childhood education area with the intention of increasing access to ECE for some of the communities that currently miss out. This will require a greater emphasis on ECE and a shift of resources that while ostensibly for ECE, are in fact consumed by childcare for those who work. I do not argue that this is not important, simply that it is less important than getting that essential access to two years of quality early childhood education for all students.

At the primary level, teacher unions, principals’ associations and some Boards of Trustees need to seriously question whether they want to continue the battle against National Standards or is it time to get on with meeting the intention of improving reporting on progress in schools and in turn lifting student achievement in primary school education. Goodness knows, we just have to ensure that all students leave primary school with a sound foundation of literacy and numeracy skills. Schools can achieve this for some students, why not for all?

On the way to vote in the election I walked through a primary school area in which there was a row of school gardens. We stopped to look at them. There was a wide range of quality in them. Along came a person who introduced herself as “the garden teacher”. We chatted and I commented that the students might be encouraged to weed the gardens. This led immediately to a too-many-students-only-so-much-time-we-do-our-best response. Same old, same old. Meanwhile the weeds take over some of the gardens and the nourishing plants wilt. Was this a metaphor?

Secondary schools can look forward to a new focus on a secondary version of national standards as part of an emphasis on greater accountability in the secondary school sub-sector. This will not be easy as old arguments will be played out against new ideas. What matters most are the patterns of success and failure, of engagement and disengagement which appear to be so stubborn and concreted in. Time ticks on and change in these patterns is now urgent and sometime soon will shift to crisis. Discussions about raising the age of eligibility for the pension will seem irrelevant in the face of the falls in the standard of living that will be a consequence if we cannot turn the patterns of educational success and engagement around.

It could be that in line with the last couple of EdTalkNZ blogs, some attention will be paid in the next three years to the relationship between the senior secondary school and the postsecondary sector. A clear way forward in addressing the leakage from education is to allow for more flexible and multiple pathways between the conventional curriculum of the school and the opportunities afforded through the postsecondary sector. To more easily achieve this there will need to be some synchronisation of funding approaches between the senior secondary school and the tertiary sector.

New Zealand has the legislative framework in place to allow this to happen. Students in school study postsecondary courses, there can be flexibility in funding, there is a softening of transition points, gradually there develops a little less ownership of young people based on age, more exploitation of the flexibilities of NCEA  but we need to work harder on the application of the qualifications framework across transitions and between senior secondary and tertiary. So much of all this is within our grasp if we could develop an appetite to tackle the issues.

The tertiary sector will be expected to get on with whatever it does but within a fairly constrained budget envelope. Universities and Polytechnics will be expected to lead the innovation charge in complementary ways, research in one supported by technology transfer in the other.

Something could well be done about students fees and allowances. While the current system seems to have support from the ideologues, it is essentially a silly system which creates bad debt on the tertiary education balance sheet of a scale that would not for one minute be tolerated in business. There has to be a better way of getting the money directly to the institution and tying that up with performance measures without cycling the cash through the students.

I expect that the two minister approach – one for schools and another for tertiary – will continue for pragmatic reasons and to avoid conflicts of interest.

Meanwhile the students turn up at school this morning, for tertiary examinations and the NCEA exams continue, schools wind down a bit and it all seems quite remote from the events of the weekend.



Talk-ED: Electing a better option

Stuart Middleton
22 November 2011

Six days out from the election and the National party unveils its education policy. Labour was out of the blocks a couple of weeks ago. What is remarkable is the focus of both is on skills training. It is clear that both major parties recognise that this is where action must be concentrated. Levels of 15-24 year olds who are not in education or training is, quite simply, unsustainable.

Of course the party in power, National, starts the race with something of an advantage as the policy is very much based on work in progress, plans that have been previously explained and actions of which a first hint has already been given.

The Youth Guarantee policy has developed over the past two years to have multiple prongs to its attack. The extension of the fees-free places for 16 and 17 year olds will reach 12,000 places over the next few years. And while the reduction of qualifications (which had reached a promiscuous 6,000) has continued, within the NCEA  (the national school leaving qualification) the development of vocational pathways in five industry sectors starts the process of bringing more shape into that qualification.

And shape and direction is what both major parties are seeking in their respective policies. For too long we have continued to allow young people to drift through school either failing to collect credits for the NCEA or collecting a set of credits that lack cohesion and integrity.

Other countries, Australia among them, envy the fact that New Zealand has one qualifications framework that should allow different parts of the education system to work together to provide pathways through the different levels and to relate qualifications to each other, to credit work done within one programme into a qualification being pursued in another. But have we exploited that flexibility? No.

Similarly, the achievement-based approach to assessment not only should enable new programmes and different ways of teaching in a variety of settings to meet the needs of increased numbers of students but also actually for the first time give credit where credit is due.  At long last we have the framework of a qualification that ought to mean something, if you have the credit you have been able to demonstrate the learning. But has it? Not really.

Over all of the policies is a gloom of anxiety from the political parties that there is insufficient accountability than there should be. Both seem to feel that there is starting to be some accountability in tertiary programmes but the schooling sector has them all flummoxed. That it is because it is genuinely difficult to come up with a system that is both rigorous and yet at the same time fair. Value added? Raw differentials in performance? Take account of prior experiences and learning? Ignore the differences students bring with them into the school? What sanctions are available when accountability measures identify shortcomings? Very few.

Meanwhile the teacher organisations simply seem to react to every suggestion of increased accountability with the old slogans of the 1970s give us the resources and we will do the job. 30 years later we are still seeking evidence for such claims.

But there may be things that can be done. The focus on the narrow but critically important skills of literacy and numeracy in the primary school seems justified and if schools struggle with this then they will simply have to focus through narrowing the curriculum or learning how to better embed literacy and numeracy in a rigorous manner into a wider range of activity across the curriculum.

Attendance at school might be a simple measure. Is it too outrageous to suggest that schools should be paid a bonus for reaching targets of school attendance? Of course it is. But being there is a necessary first step to learning. At a secondary level there are real issues when the student body arrives at that level with such a huge range of achievement or lack of it. The result is that in the school sector no-one is accountable for failure.

There is a hint of a suggestion in the National policy that in order to facilitate the development of better pathways for students requires greater alignment between the secondary and the tertiary sector especially between the senior secondary and tertiary.

Good people work in education, they can’t possibly be held totally responsible for the levels of failure and disengagement that all political parties struggle to address. The issues are not because of people – they are structural. The structure of education needs a good shake-up.

Here is an idea. make the primary sector start at Year 1 and end at Year 6. Have a “Junior High School” from Year 7 to Year 10. Then re-position the senior secondary school (Years 11+) as a Senior College within the tertiary sector. This would allow the funding formula for all students from Year 11 on to be synchronised regardless of whether they are in Senior College or a tertiary provider. In fact, the Senior College could well be the tertiary sector (these ideas will be expanded in Thursdays EdTalkNZ).

You see, a structural solution to a structural problem!

We don’t yet have a political party happy to tackle that. Nor probably an electorate that is open to these ideas for that matter. We can change governments, keep the same governments. But only radical solutions will address the issues they earnestly seek to address in Education.

I vote for change, structural change in Education!            

A solid first innings

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.43, November 6, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

When it was said that journalism is merely history’s first rough draft, the commentator was suggesting that we should stand by for at least correction and some revision. Which is just as well when you read some of the stuff that passes for commentary on Education in the weekend newspapers.

Take for example recent articles on the achievements of the government in its first year in office. Let’s ignore all the overall comment and focus just on education. One writer awarded Minister Hon Anne Tolley 3 out of 10 on the basis that the National Standards were causing a bit of a fuss.

There were also comparisons made between the UK’s Prime Minister Thatcher and New Zealand’s Minister of Education Tolley suggesting that her relationship to the education unions as something akin to that between Thatcher and the National Union of Miners in the 1980’s?  That reporter put forward the proposition that just as Thatcher couldn’t finish off the miners in 1981 and had to wait until 1984 to do the business, Tolley could not deal to the PPTA and the NZEI at this time but was stockpiling coal in order to get them in about 2011.

The reporter should be reminded that there is more to history than Billy Elliot and that the education union leadership in New Zealand is a little different from Arthur Scargill and his hoons.

A good report card should emphasis what the student has done so let’s do just that.

National in opposition and leading up to the election had some clear policies which included the development and introduction of National Standards, Youth Guarantee, and Trades Academies. This trio of initiatives was to address the clear focus in the policy on 15 to 19 year olds where considerable concerns had arisen. Interestingly, Labour was also putting an emphasis in this area through its Schools Plus set of initiatives.

Words are one thing and actions another. The National Standards were developed and have been written and are now being promulgated. There has been opposition to them, hardly of Scargillian proportions, but opposition nevertheless from the education unions. This appears not to be shared by the community in general. Getting my first glimpse of the National Standards last week I was impressed by the extent to which they should not distort the curriculum and if their implementation is done with flair they will be a useful addition to the tools that teachers have in assisting dialogue with parents.

So, National Standards promised and on track after 12 months.
Youth Guarantee was intended to address the barmy situation where in order to continue education outside of the secondary school, students had to forfeit their right to a free education. Extending the entitlement to free education and training to settings other than schools should provide for more flexible pathways for some students.

Intended to be introduced in 2011 the provision of 2,000 places for 2010 is a good effort and allows tertiary providers to position themselves to offer productive programmes for this group of school leavers.

So, Youth Guarantee promised and on track after 12 months.

Trades Academies were pretty much only a germ of an idea as the election loomed so where has that got to? A call was put out for ideas, a little over a hundred came from providers, shortlists were developed and it looks as if five proposals are under more intensive development with a further six being worked on in some way. These programmes will place schools and post-secondary trades training providers into a closer relationship and allow students to access industry recognized trades qualifications earlier.

So Trades Academies promised and on track after 12 months.

(Interest declared here.) In 2008 Manukau Institute of Technology proposed to and was encouraged by the previous government to establish a Tertiary High School – a programme that allowed a group of students to continue their senior secondary schooling in a different setting, dual enrolment, dual qualifications and so on. The new Government has also supported that initiative.

Now it all hasn’t been progress that has been received with unrelieved happiness. The cuts made to Adult and Community Education hurt some and their severity surprised many. This all had something of a look of unfinished business that seamlessly flowed from the relentless attacks on low level courses made by the then National Spokesperson on Education in the couple of years leading up to the 2005 election. The then National Spokesperson on Education was now the Minister of Finance and even the rhetoric was much the same – Moroccan Cooking has replaced Twilight Golf. Someone should take fingerprints!

And the Education (Polytechnics) Amendment Bill that set out a programme of radical surgery on the Polytechnic Councils produced a series of submissions to the Select Committee that made pleas for the large and representative councils to be allowed to continue. But while the submissions were heard they seem likely to have fallen on deaf ears. Governance in the polytechnic sector has been identified as an issue to be dealt with.

In amongst all the other bits and pieces that have surfaced there has been increased funding for Early Childhood Centres ( must try harder here), increases in the Youth Opportunities provisions (pleasing) and a positive reaction to the job summit discussions with support for the university programme of Summer Scholarships and increased place in polytechnics (well done).

This incomplete survey of the first twelve months of the new Government in education gives enough for us to conclude that there has been a clear commitment to policy – and voters that don’t like the actions that flow from policy can hardly retrospectively replay the election. Students and young people have been a focus in developments (that’s why I haven’t mentioned school property) and that is pleasing.

So where do we end up with the scorecard for the Minister? Well, the scores are fatuous so none of those. In summary, a strong year with substantial policy targeted in the right areas and brought to life in a time of austerity (now there’s a Thatcher word!).