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The first of several chats about policy



As promised folks, here are some thoughts on the Labour Party’s education policy.

It starts at an excellent place, reminding us of the Fraser / Beeby commitment to have an education system that offered choice, that offered equity and which respected all learners. This is a mighty aspiration for an education system to have and action is needed now if it is to fade away to become simply the rosy glow of Shangri La.

So with this in mind, what are the highlights as identified by the Labour Party and featured on the front page of what is a bulky document and will these key policy planks significantly contribute to those aspirations? Yes, A Little, Maybe, or No.

1.            Reduce class sizes


We have been over this before. They need to change the tune from “Kumbaya” to “When will they ever learn?” on this one. Let me repeat myself – more teachers doing the same thing will get the same results. It is not the number of teachers that will make the difference but what they do. It is not the number of children in the room but what the teachers do and how well they do it that will lift the quality of the outcomes. Class sizes as an argument has no credence any longer.

2.            All school children to have access to digital devices


This seems a big ask but do we have an accurate idea of the current levels of access across the different communities that goes beyond wild guesses and untested assumptions? It might be able to be achieved easily and quickly. On the other hand….. And again see above. The impact of this, which is inevitable somewhere ahead of us, will largely be the result of the use teachers make of the technology. Using new technology to replicate old practices will not work. But the excitement and possibilities of this policy are huge.

A key issue might turn out to be the provision of equipment using public funds that could well have even greater use outside of school and in that sense could be seen as public funding of private activity. But perhaps that would be an excellent thing as well.

3.            Funding schools that can’t get “voluntary” donations (aka School Fees)


I would have preferred to see this “inequity illness” being tackled directly rather than seeing the symptoms being treated. Yes, the schools that can’t get school fees out of parents will benefit a bit but this will not address the inequities created by the practice of flouting the rules and laughing all the way to the bank or the trust fund.

4.            25 hours quality ECE for all 3-5 year olds


There is no argument about it – quality ECE makes a difference. But Labour has done it before and could be about to do it again. A resource of this kind that is untargeted will increase inequities of access. Just observe the growth of palatial ECE centres being built

5.            Fund education to maintain it ahead of inflation and population growth 


There is a fairness about maintaining funding at levels that reflect inflation and population growth but this is simply prudent management of the system. Actually it is a little absurd to bring population growth into the equation when schools are funded substantially on the basis of roll numbers!

So those are the “highlights” identified by the Labour Party. But in the excitement of The Shopping Channel – “Wait! There’s more folks!

·         Cancelling the Investing In Education Success (IES).

The Labour Party perceives issues with this Government programme which will see top teachers and principals helping schools to lift their performance through best practice, proven management experience and demonstrated extra flair that such IES persons will be expected to display and indeed will have been chosen on that basis. The real trouble that the Labour Party has with it is that the teaching unions and some other teacher organisations don’t like it and when it comes to Labour Party policy they like to have things as they would wish them to be. And their wish is their command.

When IES is rolled out, wait for those who now are strong on their condemnation crying out “Pick me! Pick me!”

Ironically a Labour Policy is to establish a comprehensive school advisory service to share best practice and act as a mentor and advisor to teachers throughout New Zealand. And, what’s more they will “establish a College of School Leadership that will operate as part of the school advisory service, establish the minimum qualifications required of those applying for school leadership positions, ensure that quality professional development programmes are available for all new and existing school leaders, have the power to second up to 100 existing school leaders into the College for a period of up to 2 years to act as mentors and trainers.”

Finally, there is a commitment that will see it “RAISING THE STATUS OF THE TEACHING PROFESSION!” A great first step in achieving this worthy idea would be to ask the education organisations and especially those who work for them to stop lowering the status of the profession by their déclinologiste behavior (i.e. adopting a constant anti-everything-that-is-suggested stance and their concerted ad hominum (and ad feminum) attacks on people).



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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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Pathway-ED: Spotting trees through the woods

Stuart Middleton
31 March 2011

Increasingly there is a realisation that the profile of the teaching force at whatever level best meets the needs of students if it can to a degree reflect the profile of the student population. Consequently there is an increasing interest in appointing a diverse range of people to teaching positions in education institutions.

This includes increasing the numbers of Maori and Pacific Islands teachers especially in post-secondary institutions.

At one level the solution to this dilemma is simple:  “If you want them appoint them!”

But at a range of other levels the issue is quite complex and involves a very vicious circle. The progress of Maori and Pacific Islands students through the school system, through the entry requirements of tertiary education and through a first degree programme to graduation is still constrained by a whole range of issues that are well-known and need not be detailed right now and just here. The number who can then proceed to higher degrees is even more restricted by the processes that make attainment of qualifications at those higher levels a tough call for all students.

Competition is keen among those groups wanting to recruit graduates with degree and postgraduate qualifications. Teaching simply has to line up with everyone else to get these students into the profession.

So the pool of people potentially able to be teachers and who reflect the demographics, especially the groups of the under-represented and the under-served is neither wide nor deep. We could once use the word term “minority groups” to describe the groups from which we wanted to see increased representation in the teaching force but this makes little sense as the birth cohort in Auckland now has a majority of babies born into the Maori and Pacific Islands communities, a trend which will eventually be a national one.

As long as the population trends grow more steeply and more quickly that the increase in educational attainments we shall fail to achieve the teaching forces in schools and tertiary institutions that truly reflect the people of this nation.

These are international trends and no country has yet provided an effective response to the challenge.

But I also think that there needs to be a re-assessment of ethnicity as a quality that should be taken note of in the recruitment of teachers. If we were to see experience as a really important factor in the basket of skills, knowledge, aspirations and dispositions that people bring with them into a teaching position (and we would claim that we do) then the experience of being from this or that ethnic group is surely an important element in the things that qualify people for a position, or make them the strongest applicant, or adds that extra something that interview and appointment panels seek.

Similarly in a linguistically diverse community surely additional notice should be taken of the ability to bring more than one language into a position. The experience of being bilingual is not simulated through simply learning a foreign language for a few years and the authentic experience of the bilingual person must give them an edge in working with bilingual students.

And this is what all this is about – an edge. Many people will have the basic qualifications and qualities to be a teacher, but educational institutions seek to put before their students, people who have this and an edge. It could be a special empathy with students or an outstanding ability to pass on the excitement of a discipline. But it could also be an affinity with particular ethnic groups, a skill in the language of another group, a life experience that makes understanding the experience of others more acute.

This edge in fact becomes in itself something of a qualification to teach. Perhaps the teachers we need are out there but our search capability is using too narrow a telescope.


Think-ED: Teacher said…

Stuart Middleton
14 February 2011

“If you can read, thank a teacher” the bumper sticker says.

I have just got through all the magazine reading that accumulated during the summer including an excellent article in the New Zealand Listener (20 January 2011, pp12-16). It was a compilation of contributions from famous New Zealanders about the “best advice I ever got.” On the face of it one might expect a success of clichés and sentimental homilies. But in fact there was one major surprise – many of the contributors credited a teacher with having given them their best advice or perhaps or advice about education from someone else.

Roger Hall, the playwright, was urged by a girlfriend’s mother who, in his words, “sensed that I lack a direction. “’Why don’t you go to teachers college?” she said. I knew instantly that was what I would do, and it was the making of me.” A considerable number of our artists and writers got their start in a teachers college. Where else in tertiary education was there such a concerted emphasis on the development of the individual?

But schools had also been influential to writers. Margaret Mahy goes right to a single teacher. “The best personal advice I remember came from my high school English teacher Ian McLean. He used to gallantly read the many stories I wrote and poems I wrote outside the constrictions of the school programme.

‘Keep on writing,’ he told me rather sternly when I expressed doubt and disappointment regarding my writing ability. “Keep on writing and reading.”

 Not all advice was heeded but some advice given while on the surface well-meaning might not always hit the mark. “David Mayhew once told me at Otago Boys’ High School that I shouldn’t slouch so much. He is now the Commissioner for Financial Advisers and I’m still slumped over a microphone, I fear I should have listened to him.”

 Prime Minister John Key, speaking about his Mum and the resourcefulness with which she coped with the impact of events around the time of the Second World War, notes that “she started a new life, relying on her education, her determination and hope.” A good education might well be the best thing you can bank for tough times.

The fact that few stayed in secondary school for five years is noted by Bob Jones. “Nearly 60 years ago I was a foundation pupil at Naenae College. It was pretty rough and ready, and by the time we got to the sixth form, only 10 of the original 200-styrong year group remained, everyone else having shot off to work in factories as soon as they turned 15.”  Thois was very typical of secondary education back then with about 5% lasting the distance in typical suburban multicourse secondary schools. Jones then goes on to give a beautiful picture of and tribute to his history teacher, Guy Bliss.

“Our first lesson was devoted to a single message – namely, never be afraid to pipe up and ask if you don’t know or understand. He went on about it being a behavioural rarity and the hallmark of all successful people. The subsequent half-century has repeatedly taught me the truth and importance of that message.” A further piece of advice was apparently “flogged” to the class. That message was “that absolutely everything is interesting. He was a fabulous teacher and ripped through the syllabus in one term proving his everything-is-interesting theme by devoting the second term to medieval church architecture, a somewhat alien theme for us state-house lot.”

This is packed with points that teachers should note. Ordinary commonsense advice about asking questions still remembered after 60 years and the refusal to allow “relevance” to restrict the history class to a diet of simply what the syllabus dictated stand out.

Sometimes it is an incident and the impact of advice that makes a lasting impression on young minds. Chef Annabel White retells a yarn: “Many years ago at Hamilton Girls’ High School there was a streaker (it was quite fashionable at that time). Ms Knaggs, the deputy principal, saw the young man running through the school. Instead of screaming shock horror she yelled ‘Go get him, girls!’ and the poor bloke, in panic, ended up caught up in the fence.” Turning a negative situation into a positive and empowering one was a key lesson for White on that day.

Finally Phil Goff remembers his Form 5 history teacher who suggested that he should take his education further. Goff’s father was at that time urging the young Phil to do an apprenticeship in carpentry. “I took that advice and became the first member of my family to go to university.”

There were a couple of others as well. But the influence of teachers and education in the lives of prominent New Zealanders is the tip of a huge iceberg of impact on all New Zealanders. Teachers and school are an important influence on people and the nation in which they live.

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