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Talk-ED: Quality matters!

Stuart Middleton
22 March 2012


It looks as if the stars are coming into alignment in education. First there was the Prime Minister with clear statements about education and training and some inarguable goals followed by a minor distraction from what has turned out to be a falling star, Nick Smith.

Now we have the Secretary to the Treasury, Gabriel Makhlouf, in a speech on the kind of economic leadership needed in these somewhat unusual times, providing an evidence-based commentary on the importance of education and the role of schools in lifting the levels of New Zealand’s skills.

The importance of education as is made clear.  “A skilled workforce is crucial to raising growth and productivity… better skills make us more adaptable… and education is like a factory for opportunity and ideas.”  Acknowledging that improvement in education is a necessity right across all forms and levels, like so many other commentators he focuses on the school system.

The response to the Treasury Briefing to the Incoming Minister noted that class size was a mechanism for freeing resources that might be used for improvement and Mahlouf rightly brings some perspective into this – the issue is not the number of students in a classroom, it is the achievement that comes out of 13 years, 38-40 weeks each year, 25 hours each week, of schooling that is the real issue.

This is not the first time that Treasury briefing papers to an incoming Minister have been the starting point for education reform. In 1987 a very substantial briefing led to the reforms of educational administration and wide-reaching tertiary reforms. Is this the trigger for another period of reform?

He does pick his targets carefully. Despite the use of a rather flattering and kind measure for achievement of NCEA Level 2 (a global figure of 70% rather than the much more challenging Maori and Pasifika outcomes) he questions whether three out of ten students are “simply too hard to teach or are incapable of learning basic skills” and concludes that “the system is failing some students.”

I recall a Treasury official walking into my office some years ago and getting straight to the point by asking me to tell him who in the country is accountable for educational failure.  I replied, without hesitation, “no-one!”. And this has remained the case.

The speech develops a theme around two points. First, the critical factor in student performance is the quality of teaching and, secondly, education like all of us will have to seek improvement within the existing resources that it has.

Jacques Barzun many years ago asserted that it was not the competence of teachers that was the problem; rather it was the fact that too many good teachers were doing the wrong thing. That probably still applies and the remedy is clear – find out what is happening in classrooms, establish what curriculum and practices would affect improvements in student outcomes and put into place professional development that addresses it. This raises issues that we shy away from in education.

We find it hard to accept that there are differences between teachers that result in variable student outcomes. We find it hard to accept assessment of teacher performance that would guide us towards helping those teachers who are off the mark in leading students to positive outcomes. We find it hard to believe that the curriculum needs scrutiny and continue to treat it as if it were a holy document when clearly it is playing a part in driving us towards those variable outcomes.

And we love discussions that distract rather than enlighten. The reactions to Treasury’s earlier suggestion that class size might be a mechanism for generating the resources to achieve the remediation of the performance of the schooling system unleashed the tired old responses. Every Mum in the country knows that to make ends meet she must either find extra money or shift what money she has around when a new household expense comes around. When one option is not open, the other is the only way. Mum has to decide priorities.

Makhlouf tidily sums up just such a priority: “Class size matters but the quality of teaching matters more.”  

I hope that this speech and the material accompanying it is a starting point on an urgent and serious discussion of the central issue in economic recovery, growth and development, the level of education outcomes for young New Zealanders.


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A Treasury of advice

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.6, 20 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The briefing papers prepared for incoming governments by the various ministries in Wellington are a triennial ritual that attempts to strike a tone somewhere between the welcome home of the prodigal child and the stern lecture from Grandpapa delivered to the child about to leave for university in Dunedin.

Those from Treasury are an interesting collection.

Education was centre stage in the Treasury briefing papers of 1987 when an entire bound book was devoted to it. This was the occasion to develop at length the notions that postsecondary education was a private gain and that the rot that had set in to the leaky system was the result of provider capture. Snook (1994) described the Treasury briefing to the incoming government in 1984 as “an amazing document from a department of state, which is supposed to give financial advice to the government. It is a work, not of economics, but of social philosophy.”

Teachers colleges received a going over, state intervention compromised equity and the administration of education was something between inept and serpentine, We all know what happened as a result. A frenzy of reform was unleashed that was unprecedented in the history of education in this country. But did things change really? The papers of 1993 stated that the experience of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms demonstrated just how difficult it can be to make substantial changes in the education sector.

Looking at the Treasury briefing papers between then and now encourages one to believe that there is some truth in this. Recurring themes are clear and repeated every three years. A key one is that the education system is not making the contribution it might to improving New Zealanders’ skills and adaptability (1990). This is expressed variously over time. A responsive and efficient education sector is necessary to improve the skills of the future workforce (1993). There is evidence that many young New Zealanders are leaving school somewhat less skilled than their international counterparts (1999). In 2001 there was the wish that the government should fund courses that that lift the skills of those participating in them. This was a goal greatly to be aspired to but seemingly difficult to achieve.

Another recurring theme was the juxtaposition against this were various expressions of pleasure at increasing participation. The irony of this seemingly passed by the writers of the papers. We now have a clearer view that increasing participation per se is necessary but not in itself sufficient to bring about increased educational outputs (that’s a good Treasury word!). The increases in participation noted in the 1993, 1999 and 2002 are finally put into context as the papers over time start to show a realisation that  those who were disadvantaged continue to be so in spite of what looks like progress in terms of numbers.

The 1996 papers somewhat awkwardly note that socio-economic background, along with innate ability, is a significant influence on educational outcomes for young people.

The papers are not without amusement. In 1993, in a list of “significant risks” they included implementing “Education in the 21st Century”. It was not made clear whether the risk was in implementing it or in not implementing it. This was the report that spelt out the notion of seamlessness and attempted to set up an education system without barriers. We opted for shapeless rather than seamless. Had we really tried to understand the notion of seamlessness we would now have been 15 years into the journey of developing personal pathways, of increasing pathways for students, of getting many more students through to successful outcomes in terms of qualifications and employment.

The papers of 2001 introduced the concern for the 18 to 24 school leaver cohort and noted that participation in this group is not growing. Since then we have come to understand better the phenomenon of disengagement and the growing issues of NEET’s – those not in education, employment or training. In that same year Treasury also noted the importance of early childhood education was critical and that a wise use of resources would be to concentrate on funding children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Current facts would suggest that this advice has not been acted on.

And so we move on to the recently released latest papers, 2008. Old Polonius Treasury adopts the second person giving them a more dramatic tone. The old Treasury themes are there – improving quality of expenditure, increased numbers of degree graduates and looking at the benefit system. When they get into a more derailed policy driven discussion the advice is clear.

In summary, schooling improvement should be achieved by increasing completion rates through a wider variety of options and pathways for senior secondary students who are more actively engaged. More controversial is the promotion of the idea of increased funding for independent schools and removing capacity restraints where schools are popular. Like chickens that eat eggs, once they start doing it is hard to stop them. Treasury officials have had egg on their beaks for a long time on this one.

The papers are stronger when they discuss the Youth Guarantee and the Trades in Schools policies. The need for more responsive and flexible secondary schooling and on identifying and supporting those at risk of disengaging (the word finally appears) is seen as a necessity. It is acknowledged that alternatives to school may be suitable to some students but the outcomes of such alternatives need to be robust.

Treasury is spot on in noting that changes to school funding rules and regulations could encourage partnerships with polytechnics to provide a wider range of vocational training courses. The recommendations in this area are sensible – expanding options for students, retaining schools’ accountability for under-18 year olds, increasing schools’ ability to use other providers while retaining students on their books and getting a greater focus on foundation skills for those students not currently succeeding.

It seems that much of the advice on education over the years contained in Treasury briefing papers, is not acted on. There are some key pointers in this latest set that deserve to be noted and the direction they suggest could, if acted on, save them having to continue to make the same points in 2011, 2014, and 2017.

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