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Tag: students

Dealing with scraps in the playground

I think it was John Dewey who stated that the measure of an excellent education system was the extent to which it met the needs of its most vulnerable student.

The court action this week seeking a judicial review of a decision to exclude a student suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome illustrated superbly the inefficacy of using such processes for such complex issues.

I have little doubt that in this case everyone has acted with good intentions. The school has acted to support the teacher and to ensure a safe environment for staff and students. The parents of the lad have acted with loving advocacy for a child who deserves a shot at the kind of education that others take for granted. The legal advocacy service that is taking the case sees injustice that should be righted. The Ministry of Education believes that it is applying a set of rules based on legislation and developed over time by custom and practice.

Missing in the early reports of the case is the voice of the student. He is a secondary school student, no doubt he has a point of view but is it so fragile that a number of adults must express it for him?

New Zealand pioneered the Ombudsman system in 1962 following the pattern established by Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Initially it was just to investigate complaints against central government institutions and agencies but over the years the office and the process generally has been extended to cover all manner of things – official information act, inhumane treatment, whistle blowers, banking and so on.

It is time for an Education Ombudsman Office to be established in New Zealand. The Courts are a clunky and inappropriate way to address disputes in education. The courts also work to a time frame that is unacceptable. An Education Ombudsman Office would bring commonsense, a respect for the law and regulation, a humane approach and one that is focused on best outcomes for learners. It would also reduce the combative approach which sees sides lined up and wanting victory when really the only victory is one for commonsense and for equitable outcomes for learners. That will involve also equitable outcomes for schools and teachers.

No school Board, Principal or administrator sets out to act in defiance of the principles of justice or, I am sure, without the interests of learners at heart. But a more neutral and expert eye cast over issues can often see solutions that are simple and just in that they do not produce long delays.

And while the Education Ombudsman Office is being set up, why not also establish an Education Commission along the lines of the Law Commission – an ongoing small group with expertise to explore issues, report of important aspects and make recommendations when guidance is sought from it? It is akin to a rolling Royal Commission without the panoply.

Such a group (and indeed an Education Ombudsman) might well have been useful in the current dispute up North about the provision of some subjects to Partnership School students by State schools. The teachers’ organisation is opposed to it and so it doesn’t happen. This is simply a turf war conducted by outsiders when the Board seemed quite happy to go ahead. The state school clearly had both the capacity and at various levels a willingness to help in this way. To play out an ideological dispute at the classroom door seems not right.

Wise heads should prevail in such circumstances and when they seem not able to, they need to be sought elsewhere. A Commission or an Ombudsman might well be able to see a quick resolution to such an issue without the delays that will now inevitably impact on some young people. Impartial outside advice would almost certainly have most regard for what is best for the students, in this case apparently, a group of young Maori who in all likelihood will find the success that has eluded them in conventional state education in the setting of a Partnership School.

The education System needs to be brought back to basics – it exists to bring success to young people, to set them up for the future and to see them on a seamless pathway to employment. Too often the hubris and vested interest of those who have already had the benefit of just such kinds of success gets in the way.

An impartial and authoritative voice of an Education Ombudsman and the careful, informed work of an Education Commission would bring increased calmness and purpose to a sector too often fraught with issues that miss the point.


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Talk-ED: PB4L joins R2-D2 and CPO-3 in the Classroom Star Wars


The 2013 Budget announcements raise some issues. $63 million is to go to a programme called Positive Behaviour for Learning (or PB4L as it seems to be called).

Have we lost the plot seriously when such a programme is necessary and in fact become a priority?  The Ministry of Education website gives useful information about the programme and I learn that 10,000 parents will be involved benefitting 30,000 children and that 8,260 teachers will receive something called  the Incredible Years – Teacher Programme which will benefit over 180,000 children.  628 schools, 328,873 (a very precise figure) students – the numbers are impressive.  There is apparently an Intensive Behaviour Service which will be available for 100 of the “most challenging children”.

Add to this the number of RTLB positions around the country and the additional PDL programme that seem to be out there and a picture starts to emerge of a system in which the teaching force is being very seriously challenged on a daily basis and in classrooms.

Is it time for someone to climb to the top of the tree and call out “Wait a minute, we are headed in the wrong direction!” as the team below continues to hack through the jungle with enthusiasm and a semblance of effectiveness (to use the Stephen Covey image).

Is it time for us to consider a return to some basics and ask whether we need to develop a Positive Learning for Behaviour programme?  In such a programme there would be an unrelenting push to see that all students have a quality early childhood experience which focuses on preparing the little students for school and this includes developing the acceptable behaviours that allow for adequate functioning in a school.  Do we even have a description of these behaviours or a programme to develop such behaviours or advice for parents about these behaviours?  Is this what PB4L is going to do?

Drive around Auckland and see the palatial ECE centres that private money is building and ask whether state resources in these areas are being used well and are targeted in any kind of defensible manner?  The cowboys know that there is “gold in them thar hills”.

Is it time for us to seriously simplify the curriculum.  Narrow it down to the skills and habits that constitute a useful basis for educational progress.  Success does wonderful things to learners.  Being able to cope enhances learners.  Getting help strengthens learners.  Are teachers supported in this?  Are the extraordinary resources being gathered to help teachers actually targeted at activity and assistance that works?

The Finnish approach of having multiple teachers in a classroom seems to get results.  Are we seriously considering this?

Finally we need to seriously ask why student behaviour at the beginning of the 21st Century has become a central issue in educational discussions.  I would hazard a guess that the answer is a complex collection of things which in themselves are easily understood.

Poor physical health – we ought to be able to knock that off.

Hunger – the best approach to hungry children is to give them a feed.  Most systems feed their school children, some through targeted and means-tested approaches while others (dare I mention Finland again?) feed every student because it is easier than trying to target such a programme and much less discriminatory.

Pressure on families through poor housing is an issue that is flying under the radar which swings wildly with excitement about how the middle classes can or cannot buy houses and how the middle classes are buying more than one house and how…. anything but the sad and tragic truth of those who are poorly housed.

Too many students are continuing to “progress” through the system but are making little progress in the system.  Failure sticks to and accumulates on students like mud to a blanket.  A student who fails to learn at one level is highly unlikely to learn at another and yet we send them on.  The failure trajectory for students starts early and lasts for a very long time.  The sorts of figures tossed around for PL4B do not inspire a confidence that this is a targeted programme.

It is certainly my view that teacher competence is not as big an issue as competent teachers doing the wrong thing.  If we are to have positive behaviour for learning we probably can only achieve such a state through learning.  It is a vicious circle that with support teachers can turn into a virtuous circle.  Good behaviour in schools is a consequence of learning not a pre-requisite for it.



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Pathways-ED: Charting new directions in the fight against failure


Last night I chaired an evening with visiting US founder of the KIPP[1] Network of Charter Schools – 14 charter schools from Pre-K through to Grade 12. The visit to NZ by Dr Mike Feinberg was sponsored by the University of Auckland, Partnership Schools, The New Zealand Initiative and the Aotearoa Foundation.

A group of a little over 100 heard a presentation full of enthusiasm and much that everyone could relate to. The US faces a situation that is about the same as we do in New Zealand – disengagement, high drop-out rates and middling achievement at tertiary levels. (The Minister released data on Maori and Pacific Island student achievement yesterday and this morning the Principals Federation described the information as unhelpful!)  Fienberg posed the question: Do we accept that this is simply destiny or do we accept that we can do something about it?

That is the question that is being asked constantly here in New Zealand right now. The Minister’s Cross-Sector Forum is focussed on just that issue and on the Better Public Service Goal of 85% of a­ll 18 year olds having NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent by 2017).

The audience was asked to accept that we, the professionals had to have the mindset and a belief that such targets were possible – and I for one had no issue with that. In fact I still find it puzzling that this is not easily accepted by some professionals who still cling to all the excuses of factors outside of the school.

Interestingly, Feinberg’s “five pillars” for his charter schools were simple and closely connected to some of the reforms currently being considered in New Zealand:

  •          have students work a longer school day, school week and school year;
  •          have unwavering high expectations;
  •          provide choice for students but along with that demand commitment;
  •          give to students the power to lead;
  •          focus on results.

All this is sound. Much of it underpins the approach of the Tertiary High School which is achieving wonderful levels of success for a wide range of students (e,g. easy completion of NCEA targets well within 2 years, enrolled in a University of Auckland degree in Year 3, on track to MIT degrees and completing MIT diplomas in 3 years to go alongside NCEA completions and so on – good results are clearly possible.)

Feinberg had a lot of other material that was engaging:

  •          emphasise the “J Factor” – joy in learning;
  •          give school leaders the freedom to lead, choice as to resource use;
  •          demand results from leaders;
  •          allow students not simply to survive but also to thrive;
  •          make all schools “choice schools”;
  •          giving choice to students and parents is the “game changer”

So where was the controversy in all this business of charter schools? It was question time that brought out the concerns of some in the audience – use of unregistered teachers (response: Feinberg generally uses registered but also gives students exposure to a wider range of people), attrition rates from KIPP schools (questioner: there is research that says its poor, response: there is research that says it isn’t – duelling with statistic left the audience unclear) and the whole question of choice.

Interestingly, the questioning resulting in several statements from people that action was needed urgently, that Pasifika were sick of waiting for effective education for their children and so on (Disclosure: I also chipped in with this.)

Feinberg used some good quotes from Dr Seuss and it was clear that the classrooms in his Charter Schools were pretty lively places. But then again, so are most classrooms in New Zealand. Clearly, he felt his teachers were excellent, so too are teachers in New Zealand schools. The charter school regulatory environment in the US gives freedoms to schools, well you don’t get a more permissive national framework than we have in New Zealand.

So what are the points at which our system seems to be sticking? Is it focus? is it time spent? Is it the basis of employment of teachers?

I think it might be more in an almost throw-away comment that Feinberg made. Having established middle schools, he saw that he needed to establish elementary schools and secondary schools so that students could have a flow in the schooling that they were getting. Perhaps a key message is that the current organisation of schooling into pre-school, primary, intermediate and secondary bits works against student progress.

It was good to have an evening at which ideas about education were tossed around – it doesn’t happen very often these days and it really isn’t scary.

Oh, and Dr Seuss.  What about this?

You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

And will you succeed?
Yes!  You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So… get on your way!

(Oh the Places You’ll Go)


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Talk-ED: “Please be standing …”

Stuart Middleton
17 October 2011

The use of choirs brought together and trained by the New Zealand Choral Federation has been one of the best features of the Rugby World Cup. It has brought a touch of class to that part of the introductions to a test match that are usually without class, musically less than primitive and nothing short of a disgrace.

National Anthems and Songs are not any old tunes. They have a history, they carry huge symbolism and are used generally in a formal manner. They are solemn events that formally recognise the sovereign nature of a country.

To roll out minor pop figures to sing an approximation of these wonder tunes and to gargle their way through what they would claim to be an a cappella version of them is to inflict insult on the country in addition to the embarrassment felt by many listeners. And to support these anthems and songs with the full richness of the NZ Symphony Orchestra is just so much better than what we have had before.

What a joy some of those anthems and songs were – first prize to the Argentineans for an anthem that had an instrumental opening that was of symphonic proportions.

During the period of the Rugby World Cup I attended another event that was also a choral feast. But first the story.

Aorere College in Southern Auckland has a long history of excellence on choral music largely under the direction of Terence Maskell. The choirs were, through the 1990s, arguably and consistently right up in the top echelon of school choirs in New Zealand. And frequently inarguably at the top.

But there were few opportunities for students to continue their signing once they had left school. There had been talk about this but nothing eventuated. Students who had toured widely, sung before all kinds of audiences and many prestigious community and political leaders and developed exceptional skill in choral music were left with few options for continuing.

The Graduate Choir NZ was established to provide just that avenue. It was intended for young singers who had graduated from their school or community choir and could not continue their journey toward choral excellence.

The event was the 10th Anniversary Concert of the Graduate Choir NZ which was a concert of the highest quality music that we have come to expect and get from this choir. A feature of the concert was the premiere of a new Christopher Marshall composition based on capturing a sequence of aural snapshots of Samoan life and culture written for  a double 5-part choir and sung entirely in Samoan. Christopher Marshall has been a pioneer in bringing together the traditions of choral music and those of Samoan culture. This was another wonderful addition to that oeuvre.

Schools are launching-pads for so much that is good – cultural skills, high level music ability, sporting excellence. The grounding that young people get in school is often the trigger for a career or at least a lifetime of enjoyment. Starting young people’s contacts with serious music, with organised sport with other cultural activity is at least as long-lasting and influential in a young person’s life as reading, writing and all that stuff. It is no substitute for those basic skills and indeed real excellence in anything will require those skills to be firmly in place.  

But to inspire young people we have to put the best in front of them. That is why I got excited at the choirs and the world cup. Wonderful renditions rather than the mangling of theses national anthems and songs by pop “wannabes”.  I think it something of a pity that the organisers didn’t quite have enough courage to have continued to use only the choirs right up to the end but at least the soloists who eclipsed the choirs in the last stages were generally worthy.

But excellence it most surely has been.            



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