The holistic, digitalists, and democracy

The holistic philosophy is about the interaction of the cognitive and the affective; the combination of knowledges – teacher and academic (also other); teaching and learning being organised by dynamic broad aims (assisted by criteria that can be seen as converted objectives); dynamic broad aims being an expression of the essence of curriculum areas; learning being meaningful, exploratory, and challenging (hence the attention to discovery learning and problem solving); learning experiences having shape extending from an introduction, to gaining information, to using that information flexibly, to a conclusion; learning being coherent and organic not fragmented and desultory; children having significant control over their learning; observational evaluation being central; and that philosophy being fundamental to school education in a democracy.

The aspect selected for attention: ‘and that philosophy being fundamental to school education in a democracy’.

The holistic main aim for school education in a democracy is that school education should prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it. This main aim points to its basis in humanism which affirms the dignity of the individual and advocates democracy as a way of establishing and furthering that. It rejects authoritarian beliefs, emphasising individual freedom, responsibility, compassion, and the need for tolerance and co-operation. And it affirms that we must take responsibility for our own lives and the world in which we live.

The implications inherent in the holistic and humanism make clear the kind of curriculum schools should act on and the kind of experiences children should be provided with. The main characteristics of that kind of curriculum are listed in the opening paragraph above and in the opening page of the File, and what follows in the File is an explanation of the holistic in practice.

The File also sought, sometimes vehemently, to support and protect school education in a democratic context.

It is not my intention to go through the curriculum justifying, for instance, the arts or history as important to preparing children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it. If it is not apparent to a teacher or inherent in his or her education philosophy then that teacher would not be reading this in the first place and unwilling and unable to act on it in the second. The argument I make takes a different tack, one designed to provide impetus to teachers who are already on the way.

Many parts of school education should have no immediately recognisable use except within the values of that curriculum area, for instance in art, writing, mathematics, science, drama, poetry, reading, music, history, geography, and so on. The key impulse should be creativity and exploration rather than utility. True learning needs no justification other than its own development. No greater compliment could be paid to a curriculum area than being able to trust it as authentically structured to deliver, if well taught, a manifold bounty. But many curriculum areas are not authentically structured, they have been corrupted, or officially undervalued as not sufficiently vocational or utilitarian. Consider how art has been neglected because of its allocated lack of utility; writing damaged because of children being forced to write proto university-type essays; mathematics distorted because of an unwillingness to slow down to get children to explore problems; science caricatured by being reduced to projects under the scourge of inquiry learning, leading to the cry from science educators – where is the science?; drama and poetry dismissed as far out and how could it be handled?; music and dance seen as the responsibility of the home; reading burdened by comprehension exercises and other paper or digital demands; and history and geography destroyed by a trendy (neoliberal inspired) devaluing of knowledge to become soggy exercises in skills.

And about Maori language, it should speedily be introduced into schools, even if done with a degree of gradualism. It should not be described or discussed as ‘compulsory’, we don’t hear English or social studies being described in that way; it should simply be described as part of the curriculum. I find it hard to think of any part of the curriculum that would help prepare children better for democratic life in New Zealand and to support and protect it. Maori language learning is the most authentic way into a world view vital to democratic living in New Zealand with all the culturally compelling components that it encompasses but, even more, it is a democratic right for a people who live in a country where one world view dominates to have their world view as a powerfully inherent part of the overall culture.

In behind all these pedagogical faults and omissions lies the obsession with narrow vocational utilitarian outcomes leading to distortion and neglect.

As I was putting together the File, I wondered how it might be considered by a reader a few decades ahead (fond hope I know). Would a hypothetical reader because of the dominance of the digital in that reader’s age dismiss what is written as hopelessly old-fashioned? Responding to that has been much in my mind as I’ve written, especially in later File postings. The opening paragraph to this writing provides the basis to that response.

The question now, as in the future, is not can the digital be used, but is its use in a particular teaching and learning circumstance, the best for children’s learning, also their preparation for life in a democracy? The involvement of the teacher and children together has abundant learning and humanising advantages. The active role of the teacher in teaching for democracy is crucial: in motivating the children, asking open ended questions, developing the affective based on children knowing things (knowing particular things not random knowledge), giving twists and insight to learning that only the teacher can adjudge and provide, and involvement at key stages of the learning process.

The digital, especially when hyperreality is commonplace, is vulnerable, especially if used by corporates or governments to introduce values the antithesis to those needed to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and protect it. I ask that hypothetical reader to consider, irrespective of the age or technology, the universality and timelessness of values fundamental to democracy.

Preparing children for the future vocationally, and nowadays that mainly means digitally, is not commensurate, indeed, woefully inadequate, for preparing children for life in a democracy and to supporting and protecting it. A child’s vocational future does not exist in a social vacuum; it exists in a social context. Those advocating a rush to digitalism need to be mindful of the kind of social context the digital is constructing, and the human effects it is having. As well, how many of the digital experts urging rapid digitalisation of classrooms have the foggiest idea about the curriculum, therefore where digitalisation fits in productively, or doesn’t, or even where it does fit in productively, there being an even more productive way available? Given the considerable number of dystopian films and books that catch our attention and those of children, it is both aberrant and telling that the social context has been largely omitted from the discussion of preparing children for a digital future.

The digital futurists by dwelling on the digital future are taking ownership of more than the future; they are also taking control of the present. All claims for the future are also claims on the present, but consider the hopelessly narrow claim implicit in the digital one. And one should look at who is pushing the digital future devoid of reference to the social context: the digital corporates and their emissaries. In fact, the corporates do have a social context in mind, but a very narrow one, and in association with the neoliberal elite. A key point about school education and preparing children for life in a democracy, is that while prospects for the future affect considerations of the present, preparing children in school education for life in a democracy is not primarily or most effectively about the future, it is about the present.

For those who support school education involving preparing children for life in a democracy, the exact opposite to that is the neoliberal philosophy, with its central tenet being that those directly involved in implementing a policy, because of their inherent self-interestedness, are excluded from participation in any decision making to do with it. In other words, neoliberalism is a continual movement of power upwards to groups that are, illogically, weirdly, and beyond my comprehension, apparently devoid of self-interest.

For schools to function on the basis of democratic values, the education system needs to be based on those same values. The following is my perception of an education system based on democratic values:

  • For a democratic, participatory education system, the production and validation of knowledge should be shared amongst a number of groups. One of the reasons why New Zealand primary schools functioned as well as they did through to the 80s was because of the checks and balances inherent in the system. Those checks and balances derived from the relative co-operativeness in the way groups related to one another. No group could carry out its functions without the support of a number of others, and no group could force its will on another. Ultimately, though, it must be acknowledged that what the government wants, the government gets, but what the government wants could be modified by educating the public to influence the government – success in doing this being the measure of teacher organisations. But that basic consideration aside, university lecturers, official education personnel, those delivering advisory support, publishers, school boards, research organisations, service organisations, and teacher organisations – all those groups were to some extent dependent on other groups for carrying out their functions. In the absence of the inevitable conflict and control behaviours generated by a strict hierarchical system, those groups were able to remain mindful of the need to negotiate in a spirit of goodwill to be able to proceed.
  • Teachers are unsettled by the possibility of curriculum and administrative ideas being able to be passed quickly down the hierarchical chain without those ideas requiring teacher involvement at all stages of development. The best ideas for education come from teachers and those close to them. The part of the education system that is important to teachers is the part close to them. The part further away has the capacity to do much harm, but little capacity to do much good. The nature of the education system should protect teachers from hastily conceived ideas – no matter their potential benefits. Good ideas are only good if the process for their development has been good. The last thing teachers want is the kind of efficiency that has someone in the hierarchy having an idea and then using the chain of command to force it on them.

The challenge in school education whether digital or not, whether a mixture or not, is the following:

In whatever the curriculum activity, the aim should be to provide an education experience of the sort that transforms (or is intended eventually to transform) children intellectually, aesthetically, ethically, and reflectively. Such experience takes children back to two fundamental cultural breakthroughs – the way things are, are not necessarily the way things are or should be; and an individual’s place in it is not predetermined: and from that the realisation of ‘I am’ and the capacity to think, imagine, appreciate, and appraise. In a sense, the individual becomes of the world he or she lives in and a step beyond it. Leading to three questions continually to be asked, wrestled with, and answered but never concluded, they are: Who am I? Why are we living this way? How can we make things better? It is this process that puts all curriculum areas, and the digital, into context, a democratic one – transforming the main purposes of everything that occurs to prepare children for life in a democracy and to support and to protect it. My additional comment about the process is that it requires the committed, regular, and insightful involvement of the teacher.

The moment I am waiting for is something like the following headline: ‘Change must come to education, and quickly, or we’ll be left behind’ and the advocacy that follows not the usual digital panic by a digitalist with a vested interest, but a call for more drama (as part of daily activities); the arts (exploring, expressing and commenting on life in the South Pacific); history (based on history is a current event also exploring, expressing, and commenting on life in the South Pacific, and knowledge leading to the affective); poetry (what a neglected but powerful expression of human experience); voracious independent reading of books (from I can read to I am a reader); children writing with sincerity and joy (I am an author); problem-solving in mathematics (huge expert agreement on this); science using the science process; open-ended questioning; and general creativity, along with children knowing how to use the digital judiciously and confidently.

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I never saw much future in the Key Competencies

I never saw much future in the Key Competencies: I predicted they would be considerably talked about and showily displayed but wretchedly acted on. The problem being that the system they are supposed to function in is incompatible with them.

Education Gazette: another good news story

Using the key competencies in Sunnygully School has been a huge success says principal Marie Hill. She does admit to a slightly unfavourable response when, at their regular much-looked-forward-to Monday staff meeting, she announced to her teachers that she had volunteered the school to trial the new key competencies. Eventually, however, the teachers were encouraged to return to the meeting to participate in the discussion. It was, then, most unfortunate that a number of the teachers had to leave early, which led to some confusion especially since their departure was prolonged and noisy. She has since reorganised the staffroom and leads meetings from the other end of the room so in the case of simultaneous home emergencies occurring again, teachers can leave without the hullabaloo resulting from the previous seating arrangement.

Since the meeting, the view has firmed that there was sufficient support for the trial to proceed.  Marie said she was able to confirm this degree of support by consulting with the caretaker who had heard every word while tending the dahlias at thirty metres away. Marie said she rang the ministry next day to relay the good news. The promise of three teaching-free, professional-development days staying at the Chateau has only served to increase teacher interest in the project. Indeed, the group of teachers initially opposed had now formed themselves into a group that sat at the far end of the staffroom for their cup of tea where they discussed the competencies with considerable animation. The rest of the staff, said Marie, namely her and the d-p, have not been privy to the nature of the discussion, but the amount of laughter augured well. Marie said she was sympathetic to the initial concerns of the teachers because the ideas listed in the competencies were not ones teachers could be expected to be acquainted with. Such alien ideas as ‘managing self’, ‘relating to others’, ‘participating and contributing’, and ‘thinking’ were challenges enough withoutlanguage, symbols and texts’, an apparently new twist on reading and maths, being thrown into the mix.

The teachers themselves, said Marie, came up with the idea of wearing T-shirts displaying the competencies. To encourage their initiative, I allowed the teachers to decide which competency the children would wear. To be honest, said Marie, they were a bit unlucky with their allocations. However, ‘Self-Motivation’ seemed to wear his T-shirt with considerable pride when brought into school by the local constable for stuffing his pockets at the local Two Dollar Shop. Anyway, it meant he had his first day at school in three weeks. And the teachers showed their resilience by not being at all put out when ‘Relating to Others’ was dragged into my office following another punch-up with ‘Interacting Effectively’.

I was particularly pleased, said Marie, with the teachers’ response when I read a prepared statement from the ministry. ‘The key competencies’, stated the document, ‘was not merely a list of key competencies, it was a way of viewing the world, of being in the world, not just of the world. It was more than merely a state of mind, it was a state of being.’ This brought a ‘halleluiah’ from a teacher and a spontaneous burst of clapping.

The next day this teacher said he’d had an epiphany on the way to the dairy about how to include some of the competencies in the curriculum. We do not want the competencies to be pedagogical waifs, he said, they should be adopted into the programme. His enthusiasm was such, said Marie, that I asked him to lead the Monday staff meeting. The insight he delivered, and one we willingly share with other schools, is that language competency should be taught in the context of reading and writing, and mathematical competency in the context of mathematics, and so on. The teachers were clearly impressed with this, and immediately suggested incorporating it into school policy.

But what to do with ‘managing self’, ‘relating to others’, ‘participating and contributing’, and the big one, ‘thinking’. The teachers, said Marie, all agreed that these were tough ones. How about, someone suggested, incorporating those into our everyday programmes as well? The near festive atmosphere changed to bewilderment, she said. Never thought of that; can’t remember anything on that at college; is there any literature on the matter? Wouldn’t it interfere with learning? What has thinking to do with education? The questions and doubts came thick and fast. We’ll leave that in the too hard basket for the moment, Marie suggested.

The next day, said Marie, I rang the ministry for guidance. They assured me that all these competencies were indeed part of learning and could, with a little ingenuity, be incorporated in the regular curriculum. What’s more, the ministry analyst said, the children, after they have practised a competency should undertake meta-thinking. To Marie’s inquiry she said meta-thinking was when a child, having carried out a competency like thinking creatively, is asked to explain how that strategy helped the process. When I relayed this information to the staff at their next Monday staff meeting, the response was excellent. One teacher summed up the positive response. Yes, of course, said the teacher, such is the tranquil nature of classrooms, and the attentiveness of present-day children, they will quickly become engrossed in discussing how using their critical processes helped them to think about thinking. This brought much clapping and laughing, which was particularly heartening because the greatest applause came from the one or two teachers I suspected of still having residual reservations about the competencies.

That, however, was the high point of the meeting, said Marie. But it was no fault of the teachers, or a reflection of their view of the educational worth of the competencies, that things took a turn for the worse. I mentioned the idea of taking photographs of the children for concrete evidence of their mastery of a competency, for instance, showing a child with a beatific expression at a moment of creativity; or tracking children with a ticks and crosses chart when they, for instance, interact effectively with a diverse range of people. Quite co-incidentally there was suddenly a flurry of text messages signalling a series of home emergencies. I am pleased to report, said Marie, that the new seating arrangement worked a treat – the teachers exited in a flash.

As I said to the d-p when left on our own, it is about time we got in touch with the Education Gazette, they love good news stories like this.

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Is the Maori Party bonkers?

The article is headed ‘Can we trust the teachers?’

For some reason, Simon Collins, the Herald education reporter, decided to put trust in teachers under scrutiny not politicians and bureaucrats.

Why not ‘Can we trust the politicians and bureaucrats?’

Poor show Simon.

About six months ago an independent publication came out in association with the Herald analysing education outcomes with refreshing directness. I was tearful with joy and drew Simon Collin’s attention to them. They equated exactly with mine. But when I was in touch with Simon a few weeks ago, he was vague about their existence. It is this document that Simon should have gone to, not the ones he did.

I invite you to go to that document Simon. It was brilliant, objective, and precise.

In Australia, they have national tests and over the years virtually no improvement; here we have national standards, and (except for this year), gradual improvement, but a decline in international tests, putting us at or near the bottom of other Western countries. What does that suggest to you?

Simon euphemistically puts it this way: ‘Surveys show that our 15-year-olds outperform the global median, although we have been slipping from near the top towards the middle of the pack.’

In other words, we are in decline and in the company of countries we wouldn’t normally associate with.

He then details a terrible story (but you need to get below the anodyne expression) of underachievement for all children, but especially for Maori, Pasifika children.

This underachievement has, of course, a lot to do with schools becoming national standards focussed and certain children being publically and regularly reminded they are behind.

Marama Fox, co-leader of the Maori Party, says schools have lifted their game since they had to achieve national standards.

Is she bonkers?

In presenting themselves to the world perhaps but not in achievement.

She teacher-slags on.

‘Until we had national standards, schools got away with saying how can we teach our Maori kids at the same rate as our non-Maori kids, even though they came to school with no shoes and no books at home. That was often the excuse.’

‘Now that reason has been debunked and it’s definitely had an effect. Schools have lifted their game.’

This is monstrous.

Well, of course, silly me, having no books at home is a mere home circumstance peccadillo.

Is she another Hekia Parata all privilege and no heart?

Would Marama Fox point me to the research that shows that has been debunked? Yes, I know, that lots of arguments can swirl around the matter, but it has not been debunked. The local and international research has the education effect of poverty around seventy-percent. Even Hekia Parata stopped using twenty-percent. Marama Fox should stop slagging teachers (yes – teachers dragged down by useless professional development, lack of in-class support, and near overwhelming circumstances can develop less than positive attitudes – but she shouldn’t exaggerate that to the monstrous level she has done).

A below par effort by Simon Collins and a heartless, undiscerning disgrace by the education spokesperson for the Maori Party.

The Maori children of New Zealand deserve more than this neo-liberal rubbish.

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A majority of one

Tomorrow (Friday 1 April) I will be standing on the corner …

Tomorrow at 10am, with my nine-year-old granddaughter, I will be standing on the corner of Portage Road and Kinross Street, opposite Titirangi Golf Course, to honour my aunty Sister Rene Shadbolt. We will be standing in Shadbolt Park taking part in a ceremony organised by the Auckland Council. There will be an unveiling of a plaque and a tree planting.

The plaque will describe her as a brave and remarkable woman – she one of three nurses sent by the trade unions to support the republican cause in Spain. She went against the wishes of the Labour Government, having to face a police interview before she left. Aunty Sis was interviewed for alleged Communist connections which was ridiculous because she was deeply suspicious of all organisations, especially Communist ones, and because Shadbolts have always been moderate in politics, though not in behaviour.

She was born in Duvauchelle in Akaroa Harbour in 1903, the eldest of ten children. Her father had settled there from Australia in 1859, arriving penniless – a year later owning a good part of Banks Peninsula, using money from a source never identified (my guess was a poker game). Very quickly he owned pubs, sawmills, shops, and farms – also a lot of racehorses. From a fairly disreputable background in Australia he became a well-known Christchurch squire.

Aunty Sis like all Shadbolts was fantastically argumentative and possessed a lifelong suspicion of her fellow human beings – surprise me by not being self-centred and seriously shallow her expression communicated. She was tall, angular, and acerbic. Her life was a continual escape from boredom, and people who were boring (God help them in her presence). She had favourite nephews and nieces, two of them you won’t be surprised to know were Tim and Maurice (the novelist). I don’t think she regarded me as promising material. Given the size of the family she came from there is no surprise in learning she gave dire warnings about having children. She had the Shadbolt mannerism of looking at children generically, not as individuals – she gave us all the same unfocused gaze – we were boy or girl. Grow up and if you are interesting, and above all not bogged down in domesticity, then perhaps I’ll take some notice of you, she seemed to indicate.

When she returned from Spain she became, for many decades, matron of Rawene Hospital, working with Dr Smith, who laid out in the Hokianga the model for the Labour Government health system. She ran the hospital brilliantly for her community, that is in a relaxed way. On the first occasion I went up to stay with her, I said: ‘Aunty Sis, Aunty Sis, look at all those people getting out cars and buses. What are they doing?’ The scene was amazing: an atmosphere of considerable vivacity; people in pyjamas and dressing gowns getting out of cars, pickups, taxis, and buses; quite a few people on crutches.

‘What people, what cars and buses? Can’t see a thing.’

It was six-o’clock closing.

One of the last conversations I had with her was to discuss why Shadbolts always seemed to be in a minority of one.

‘Not a minority of one: A majority of one.’

I’m thinking of my Uncle Dardy. During the German sweep through Greece he became isolated from the other New Zealanders. He proceeded for a time to have a fairly good war with a Greek widow and ample bottles of retsina. When the German patrols started to sweep the hills he decided it was time to sail to Africa. He stole a dinghy and with no compass or skerrick of seamanship set off. There was a storm, he was lost, and there was no food, then out of the morning mist came a large vessel.

‘It’s German’, he thought, ‘Oh well too bad and pulled out his pistol and started firing.’

‘I say, lay off a bit’, came an upper class British voice

(I’m just selecting a couple of incidents from a considerable regime of involvement in scrapes, arguments, and issues by Shadbolts over the years,)

I remember my famously litigious grandfather who John A. Lee said had parliamentarians scuttling into their offices whenever he ventured into the corridors of power.

In the 1920s my grandfather took it into his head to stand for parliament. He asked Frank (Maurice’s father) to carry a cow bell and a box to the main street in Matamata. Frank rang the bell, and my grandfather stood on the box, and with powerful eloquence (he was a noted orator) berated a bemused assembly of locals for their misguided thinking, voting like cattle, and being idiots of the first water.

‘How did you think that went?’ he asked Frank.

‘I don’t think you won many votes.’

‘There isn’t even an election is there?’

Then my grandparents ended up on thirty or forty acres in Portage Road.

I gained some gaze focus from my grandfather for being the one who took his bets to the bookie in New Lynn.

But what I remember most about my grandfather was a large pile of paper with a title page on top called ‘Shadbolts by Land and Sea’. With no publisher interested, my grandfather rented empty shops and used their windows to display the saga – a chapter at a time for the enlightenment of passers-by. Each day he changed the chapter. With his further literary efforts, he carried on this practice for years. They were subversive in nature, calling for most institutions to be levelled, and for everybody to try again – according, though, to how my grandfather saw fit.

Heavens above! Just imagine if he’d been alive in the digital age.

Maurice in his book of the family called him ‘an insurrection of one’.

‘A majority of one,’ said my Aunty.

I’ve brought my eldest granddaughter with me Aunty.



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I’ve got something to say by Gail Loane with Sally Muir

This book review encompasses just about everything that needs to be known about children’s writing and makes a mockery of the grotesque Wow! national standards-Hattie culture of today. As I go through the review, readers will come across small matters of difference between me and the authors; my preference being slightly less structure and even more emphasis on expressive writing. But if you based your writing programme on the tenets set out you would be doing famously.

This book by Gail Loane with Sally Muir, and design and layout by Pennie Brownlee, is a work of love.

It is a beautifully crafted book, spaciously set out, replete with lyrical photographs, and altogether pleasing to the eye. Here we have the three friends, also a huge supporting cast of teachers, inspired by Gail and Sally’s message over the years, contributing to what has been produced here.

A work of love by all concerned and then, of course, there are the children.

Any teacher worth his or her salt knows the feeling: a child says something beautiful, and your eyes water as you see beyond the child to an expression of the marvellous potential of the human spirit. The book is full of children being lifted to moments like this.

Laura Ranger (7 years) concludes a wonderful poem about Kapiti with: ‘The wind is writing/ what it knows/ in lines along the water.”

Then there are the children whose writing provokes a slightly different response – a deep inward breath of surprise: Margo Baars (y. 12) describes a teacher’s manner in class, the subtleties and changes of tone in Margo’s writing are immaculate – a student picks up the courage to pose a challenging question; Margo describes the tension as the teacher struggles for a reply – the account concludes with her writing:

‘But the pause has taken the edge off Mr Ashford’s statement. In a way he has been beaten. He coughs and then resumes his stream of words and numbers. One by one students relax again; they pick up pens and re-check watches. I proceed to retrace the lines and curves of the inscription: “Mr Ashford sux”.’

The children are the quiet heroes of this book. Having written, they have moved away from us, just out of reach, but their words stay to echo in our minds – we thank them, and wish them well.

Yes – a work of love, reaching back to the years of the education golden weather, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Elwyn Richardson, Clarence Beeby, and that generation of majestic stjcs.

The book is a work of love – a gift – to teachers who believe in the possibility of the transformational, in other words, in children being taken somewhere to see the world in a different way.

This book should by your bedside and hanging around every staff room, even every classroom.

Stan Boyle, that eternally mischievous and questioning former principal of Hillcrest Normal, storyteller par excellence, and someone who knew Elwyn, writes in the Foreword:  ‘ “I’ve got something to say” is more than just another book on the teaching of writing and reading. It embodies a vibrant philosophy of education.’

Exactly – and for that reason, on a down note, the message in this book is in for a hard passage. The compounding problem in propagating the message is not its reception and acceptance by teachers, but the generally hostile forces to deep learning that prevails in today’s education climate, manifested more particularly in the case of writing in the unavailability of sufficient time for true thoughtfulness and creativity to occur. Without that thoughtfulness, the message, and the philosophy from which it is drawn, when enacted in classrooms, will be just another recipe, a decidedly superior one admittedly, but a recipe nevertheless.

This book is Gail’s testament to her life as a teacher and, as Stan Boyle says, not just about reading and writing but education as a whole.

I visited Gail in 1993 for an article for Developmental Network Magazine when she was a teaching principal of a three teacher school near Thames.

Her reputation had, of course, preceded her, which is why I was there. It was instantly evident that her performance was up to the high reputation she gained. She had an assured grasp of the central idea of expressive writing – that of getting children to write with particularity, with an eye for detail, whether describing objects, or their own or others’ feelings. And the way she did this was to come at the children from various directions, providing them with new sources of stimulus, and new ways to reflect on experience.

And here we are two decades later with a book that spells that out in engaging detail.

There follows commentary on matters in the book that particularly interested me, with some of the comments based on my predilections.

My key predilection as an ideal for the teaching of writing has a slightly different emphasis from that set out in the book – Gail, probably influenced by the American part of her inspiration, and by the current concerns of teachers and the system, sets a fair degree of structure in the way children are stimulated and the way examples and teaching points are put forward. My predilection (as an ideal) is, yes, for the inspiring literature to be discussed with children and the children’s ideas and models to be shared, but done with a shade lighter touch. I favour giving children more time to work things out for themselves, to pick things up from the rich environment made available, to discover and come across things, and the teacher being hesitant, even nervous about decisions to be made to do with the timing and the nature of individual  interventions. Will it be a discovery opportunity taken from the child?

The important matter, though, is that teachers absorb the outstanding message in this book then to express it in a way that seems natural to them – with some of those ways certain to encompass many of the practical ways set out in the book. There’s no great issue.

If the book’s message and philosophy is thought of as a circle of modelling, sharing of ideas, of expressing, self-correcting, and intervening, my thought goes immediately to the intervening, the individual intervening (what sort, and whether or not to?).  I still follow the circle, but it’s where my interest immediately takes me, and that is to individual interventions. A point about this book I acknowledge, however, is that any teacher who reads it will be wonderfully well set up to make expert, well-judged individual interventions. So the point of difference being discussed is fine. With all that in mind, the following are ideas in the book that especially took my interest.

Gail writes: ‘I can recall my own memories from secondary school; if we are to write about the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, we must be guided to the position where we care about these characters.’

I like this idea because it is saying that the key to writing is to establish a strong affective connection with the topic, whatever the topic. And I like the example because Shakespeare can be challenging, but if the affective is aroused the example is telling us – that challenge can be easily overcome, as can other challenging topics.

‘It is generally well-meaning teachers who counter the dilemma by providing a starting point: a story starter … but this usually leads to unsatisfactory results …’

Yes – establish the affective interest, and then leave a fair amount of space for the children to discover a starting point for themselves.

Then there is exemplified the array of ideas that makes writing vivid and effective:

‘We are learning to show rather than tell.’

‘Strong verbs’ which reduce the need for continually searching for adverbs to say what you want to say.

‘Specific nouns’ which reduce the need for continually searching for adjectives to say what you want to say.

‘Selective use of adjectives.’

Gail quite correctly emphasises the importance of variety in sentence structure. I, of course, completely agree, but I prefer to emphasise the idea of children discovering the way to this through their striving to express their ideas and observations with sincerity and nuanced subtlety. The book emphasises the importance of oral language to writing, and I agree because if children are lead into complexity and subtlety in oral discussion, the intent to express that satisfactorily in writing will lead them naturally into sentence-structure variety which, when it occurs, can be used as a cause of class celebration. It’s a glorious circle.

In writing personal memoirs, Gail comments how these can be rather ‘dreary’. I like the way she advises on memoir conclusions: ‘In personal memoir, the writer is able to end a piece with some resolution or evaluative comment that assures the reader the moment or events described have been reflected upon, and the significance understood.’

And, of course, if there is something to be reflected on and significance to be understood in the conclusion, those elements will need to have been present preceding.

She includes in the book the powerful situation, which was reported in Developmental Magazine of children being asked to go outside then come back in with observations showing it was autumn. On their return, one girl reported on the leaves fluttering to the ground. Gail asked, ‘Did you actually see any leaves fluttering to the ground?’

‘Well, go back outside and this time report on what you actually see.’

Personal writing in a nutshell.

Then there is M. Applegate’s poem, ‘Be Specific’, both powerful and didactic which begins, ‘Don’t say you saw a bird; you saw a swallow …’

While frameworks for teaching can sometimes take away discovery opportunities and originality, I particularly liked the three-part one for character portraits: Physical description (show, don’t tell and be specific); behaviour – how this character speaks and acts; how the character affects other people (show don’t tell).

Gail then says that once clear on the ‘rules’ of the genre, these writers may go on to break the rules, combine, or invent forms and still come up with a piece of writing to suit their purpose.

Fair enough. Point taken Gail.

There is a most interesting paragraph commenting on writing on behaviour in character portraits: ‘Describing what someone looks like is an important part of the process of forming our observations into words, but we reveal more when we try to describe the way they behave. In an extended narrative, we have a need to get to know the sort of character this person is in order to predict the way they will respond to the situations as they arise.’
This is a sophisticated idea, being the equivalent of the sincerity called for in expressive writing being applied to narrative writing.

A particularly admirable characteristic of the book is the easy transition made from literacy techniques in expressive writing to transactional writing. Gail’s American influences (that country characteristically giving strong attention to transactional writing) are evident in the convincing transactional sections.

In a key paragraph she writes, ‘Expressive writing, leading to transactional or expository writing, can provide scope for self-discovery through exploration of the world around us, in  just the same way as expressive writing can lead to poetic forms, such as memoirs and descriptions.’

Chapter Eleven serves brilliantly as a summing up chapter.

‘We, as teachers, are striving to help our students find that personal voice that gives written text its sincerity and impact.’

The idea of personal voice is implicit and explicit throughout the book, but with all the advice and explanations out of the way – its expression here comes through starkly.

A list of indicators of a good piece of writing is provided, one we are told that should ‘apply to all writing regardless of the age and stage of the writer – from new entrant to published authors – and regardless of the type of writing’


The list is:

It is legible

It ‘hooks’ the reader in, making them want to read on

It conveys a message that can be understood

The form suits the purpose

There is sincerity of voice

It is constructed to read fluently

The vocabulary chosen is appropriate

(With the more mature writers) there is evidence of deliberate attempts to include specific language features which enhance the telling, a sense of audience.

As word processors becoming more common, I suppose the legibility one could be dropped off the list. I would have liked the idea of the writing evoking an affective response (as against the use of the hooking in expression).  My major quibble is with the idea of ‘convey[ing] a message that can be understood’. I would have preferred the idea of a message that is ‘communicated’, leaving open that it might have been felt one, a sub-conscious one, an affectively received one. The idea of the writing being ‘constructed to read fluently’ is a wonderfully encompassing, referring to the choice and order of words and the many technical matters to do with sentence and paragraph structure and punctuation. An aspect of writing, though, that could have merited more attention in the book is the matter of rhythm within a sentence. In the final indicator, I would leave room for the idea of specific language features being intuitively used, making it more applicable to younger writers (in other words, allowing the parenthetical reference to ‘more mature writers’ to be omitted).

There is a snappy review of adjectival and adverbial phrases, use of strong verbs and nouns, and the use of contrast within a sentence and personification. In respect to adjectival and adverbial phrases I would have emphasised throughout the book, as is done here, the use of commas as a way to add extra information: a far more naturalistic and accessible way in.

Much is made of semi-colons in the book. I do use them in my writing, but I am drawn, often irresistibly, perhaps incorrectly, to the much less disjunctive looking dash. The current emphasis in convention is to use semi-colons sparingly.

But I do like the attention given to the hyphenated adjective, for instance, ‘pyramid-shaped’ blocks. Yes, it can be tighter than a simile and more suited to the purpose.

And in an Elwyn-style point for a powerful individual intervention, Gail asks the student how an account of how to ride a bike can replace the ‘you’. The student replies, ‘The biker’. ‘Or?’ Gail persists. ‘The rider,’ the student replies again.

Immediately sharpening the account. I love this sort of thing.

Then another reference to the basics:

A simple sentence can be powerful, when a strong verb is used.

A strong verb has more impact than adding adverbs.

Specific nouns in a sentence add more impact than a list of adjectives.

A variety of sentence length, sentence structure and sentence beginnings will make for more effective writing.

But to reiterate my predilection, let the children do a lot of working their way toward these as a result of caring more for their writing, getting a better feel for writing, wanting to express subtlety and complexity more completely – complemented, of course, by some direct teaching, especially when the class is considering the writing of others.

There it is, a book to go into deeply, browse, or consult. Everything a teacher might want, at whatever level of complexity: planning for writing; how authors work; getting children to think like authors; sharing writing with others; how quality literature links reading and writing; the teacher as a model; ways to approach the various genres; encouraging children to write with sincerity; close observation; a host of strategies to get children discussing writing; and ways to tap children into universal experiences. It’s all there.

This book is our book, a book of the best our heritage made relevant for the present. The writers had something to say, something important to say, and they have said it beautifully and persuasively. We must read the book, absorb the message and the detail, then make it our own. What I hope doesn’t happen, but I fear will, is that the book will be widely read and admired, but not acted on in the spirit intended – becoming more an artefact of our once wonderful education philosophy, not a generous, vibrant means for lifting and inspiring present and future generations of children.



Posted in Curriculum | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

On the steps of parliament: protest against ERO

Timed for the opening of parliament 1996: New Zealand First in coalition with National

On Wednesday, 11 December, I pointed my car down my driveway in Cambridge, turned right, and right again, and headed south.

It was my appreciation that the present represented a defining moment in primary education – either education was going to be controlled by ERO through bureaucratic managerialism, or by all major participants in the spirit of democracy. As a result, it was not so much the present I was fighting against, but the future I was fighting for.

The flux caused by the MMP elections and the coalition talks; the feistiness of the present Principals Federation executive; the concern about education directions in academic circles; the indications by the news media they were starting to understand the situation; the greater willingness of schools to take a stand; and the general alarm caused by ERO’s continued efforts to increase its powers – all combined to make this, from my perspective, a decisive moment. I had decided to give two months to the anti-bureaucratic campaign (ABC). The petition had been launched, and the returns were coming in strongly. I had hoped schools would, in their deliberations, rise above matters relating to whether they had just received a good ERO report or not, and see the role of the review office in the overall education culture; see the review office as at the centre of promoting and imposing the bureaucratic demands so widely complained about. The evidence, gratifyingly, was that schools were, indeed, seeing the wider picture.

After launching the petition, my task, as I saw it, was to keep the issue, to the forefront, and to keep in touch with key people in education. My tactic each week was to develop a news release then sit in front of my fax, and fax for hours. In a way it was like fly fishing, you cast your line out a large number of times, and, every now and then, you have a strike. I can assure you, though, no matter how small the catch, I never threw one back. So I’d start with the big fish of the TV and metropolitan newspapers, then radio, the magazines, then moved on to the provincial newspapers and, time permitting local and suburban newspapers. I learnt a lot about the news media in the process.

As in any campaign, the purpose is to get the message right, and then to find different ways of saying the same thing. Whether I got the message right, I don’t know, but I certainly found a lot of different ways to say the same thing. The message I tried to communicate was of a crisis in education – a structural crisis deriving from Tomorrow’s Schools allocation of increased powers to layers of bureaucracy at the expense of teachers’ sense of control over things important to them. And that a structural crisis could only be resolved through a structural response – tinkering would not do. For this reason, in respect to school reviewing, I favoured the idea of schools having a range of accredited reviewers to choose from. Such a change would free up education in all sorts of ways.

Anyway, as I pressed on to Wellington, that was all behind me.

About four weeks before I had received a call from Derek Gordon of Dunedin whose professional name as a storyteller to schools is Derek Bringwonder. He expressed his alarm, derived from his experience of visiting schools throughout New Zealand, at the harm ERO was inflicting on New Zealand schools. In other words, he had developed the same point of view as me from a different perspective. Derek also expressed wider concerns about the relations between the governed and those who govern – ERO’s behaviours simply being a prime example of those concerns.

‘I’ve heard about your petition,’ he said, ‘is there anything I could do to help?’

‘Thanks for the offer, I’ll think about it.’

Two days later it came to me: those pages at the beginning of Hard Times in which the character Gradgrind insisted on reducing human behaviour to numbers, that would be just the ticket. I contemplated the matter for a few days – the idea had the capacity to be the most appalling flop, and would I have the energy? What appealed to me and tipped me in favour of ringing Derek was the opportunity to make a public statement about my concerns. For better or worse, whether the ABC petition was a success or not, I wanted to have the feeling that I had given it a lash – the best I could.

So I rang Derek. We delegated responsibilities: he would brush up on Hard Times, do the banner, arrange for a Dickensian costume; I would try to entice along a small audience, gain the attendance of some parliamentary spokespeople, try and interest the news media, get permission from the clerk of the house for a protest on the steps of parliament, and organise material to hand out to those present.

The following was part of the invitation to the members of parliament and others.

Kelvin Smythe

Developmental Publications Ltd

PO Box 4082, Hamilton

An invitation

On Thursday, I2 December, at 12.20 p.m., a small meeting will be held in front of parliament allowing Derek Bringwonder, storyteller, to make a personal statement about the need to nurture the human spirit, and about his concern, developed as a result of working in schools throughout New Zealand, at the harmful effects on schools and teachers of review office practices and philosophy. (He will, as part of this, be dressed as Charles Dickens’ Gradgrind, and orate the philosophy of that character from Hard Times.) 

I am delighted, as the organiser of the education anti-bureaucratic campaign (ABC) and petition, to support Derek Bringwonder in these purposes.

If you could be there as an expression of your own support, it would be greatly appreciated. It will go ahead rain, hail, hurricane or shine. If you do think you can attend, please let me know.

Best wishes

Kelvin Smythe

One of the difficulties was to find a day and a time when the members of parliament would be able to attend. We chose Thursday, 12 December, as a tentative date. But would that conflict with the swearing in of the new parliament? The swearing in date moved around, and sure enough, after all those weeks of coalition talks, the swearing in was Thursday, 12 December. I suggested to Liz Gordon, the newly elected Alliance member, that that might be for the best as it meant that at least they’d all be there, and that would be good; she said no, there’d be lots of other things going on, and that would be bad. However, Brian Donnelly said the swearing in would be over by 12 p.m. – as a result we adjusted the time to 12.20. When I visited National’s Tony Steel in his Hamilton electorate office he said he’d do his best to be there, and Trevor Mallard’s secretary said Trevor had noted it in his diary. Liz Gordon said there was no need for another fax, she’d be there if she could.

So here I was heading to Wellington rather fearfully. Would my 20 or so invitees be there? Would the spokespeople be there? Would the idea be a good one in concept, irrespective of how everything else went? What would the weather be like? Though, on this, I was ambivalent. I rather liked, what was to me, the romantic notion of a howling gale, Charles Dickens and me and, of course, a back-turned Richard John Seddon, and no-one else, standing out there in howling wind and rain. We would proclaim to the elements.

I booked in at a hotel near parliament, then walked down to it for a reconnoitre. As most people know, traffic goes round parliament in a frenzied circle. I had fears that tomorrow, in transporting the sound system in my car, of getting on this merry-go-round and not being able to get off. But there was the entrance near the cenotaph and a road looping gently to the paved area in front of the main steps with Richard John Seddon facing away. So it was back to the hotel for a sleep – of sorts.

The coalition talks had come and gone. Information I was receiving indicated the review office was, indeed, a coalition issue, but there had not been, and there still wasn’t, any confirmation of this. I feared the worst – that in the rush to complete the talks, the matter would drop off the negotiating table.

I went to the door to get the Dominion. On page 3 was an article about the coalition and what had been agreed. I ran my eye down the list, hoping, but not expecting, to see the review of the review office listed.

But there it was, linked in with another review, and with the briefest possible reference. Now, how do they express this in the media? I was visibly moved.

After years of plugging away, on the morning of a protest to be made on the steps of parliament – there it was in black and white. Wow! This was only a first step, the review office would fight a wily fight, but this was a moment to relish.

I drove round to the hotel to pick up Derek and his wife Pamela. When he opened the door, top hat, red vest, black formal pants, and all – I felt immediately at ease. Hey! This had the makings of a memorable day.

In picking up the sound system I found there wasn’t room in my car for an office chair I’d brought down for Derek to stand on if he needed some height to perform better. No – he didn’t need it. What to do with the chair? To this day I like to think of it still sitting in the entrance way of the shop I dumped it in.

We made our way through the iron gates and parked on the parliamentary forefront. The day was fine (though breezy), so no Lear on the heath heroics. The parliamentary officials checked our permission papers; pointed us to our assigned place; assured us the sound system would be fine as long as we didn’t point it directly towards parliament; and, were generally very helpful. We set up the banner, the sound system, composed ourselves, and waited.

The parliamentary scene to the north of us on the steps was one of remarkable vibrancy. The first time mps clearly identifiable by their cheerful, expectant expressions, the old hands by their here-we-go-again demeanour. Especially notable were the new Maori mps with their families and elders, hugging, laughing and singing. TV and radio reporters were everywhere. The chief justice and entourage swept past us in full regalia.

Then all was quiet.

12 0’clock.

Was our timing going to be awry?

Invitees started to arrive. At 12.10 there was a small gathering at the doors of parliament, a gathering that grew in size, then pushed pseudopodia-like down the steps. I saw Brian Donnelly detach himself from the group, then Tony Steel appeared, and so did Liz Gordon, finally there was Trevor Mallard, looking very heroic, propped up as he was on this occasion by a walking stick. Also there were some teachers and principals who had absented themselves from school to be there and some office workers from nearby government offices.

Donald Matheson from the Education Review Magazine was there, as was Penny Deans from TV1 though minus a camera which might or might not turn up. (It didn’t.)

I stood on the steps of parliament, welcomed the group, and began my address.

The life of a campaigner for progressive education campaigner in regressive education times is that good news never comes. Well, this morning, for me, the good news did come. It came in the way of a two-line statement in the Dominion that the review office will be reviewed, I know this is only a step along the way, that the head offices of many varieties will conspire to protect another head office, as will stubborn Labour mps and anti-teacher National ones, but today is a day for quiet satisfaction.

There is a crisis in school education, a crisis that goes well beyond vulnerable schools in vulnerable parts of our society – it is a crisis affecting all schools, everywhere. It is a crisis of quality, confidence, and future direction.

This is a defining moment in school education – schools are either going to be run in a partnership between teachers and their community on the basis of professionalism and democratic participation; or by bureaucrats on the basis of managerialism and regulatory enforcement. Is the locus of control going to be in our communities or in the bureaucracies?

The bureaucratic iron chain must be broken.

Whoever controls evaluation, controls education. The review office in evaluating schools, is controlling them.

And on I went, with many of you having read what I would have thundered.

I then introduced Derek Bringwonder:

 However enough of all this, why try to tell the story when we have one of New Zealand’s best storytellers to tell it for us. I introduce Derek Bringwonder to present Gradgrind from Hard Times.

Derek Bringwonder came forward and made his personal statement through Charles Dickens. The relevance of what he had to say being quite remarkable. Looking at the faces of the people listening you could see connections were being made.

You are to be in all things regulated and governed, said the gentleman, “By fact’’.’

‘We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.’

‘You must discard the word Fancy altogether.’

‘You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls.’

‘You must see,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’

And so Derek Bringwonder continued. As Derek performed I was able to sit down and savour the occasion. People were drifting over with their lunches, the sun was shining, our group was fully engaged, there was laughter and interest. Hey! This was rather fun.

Derek received a great ovation.

Liz Gordon indicated she would, in what would be her first speech as a sworn-in member of parliament, like to say something. As you can see from the photograph, she was in wonderful form.

As I moved forward to wind things up, who should appear on the high steps, but Lockwood Smith? I could see him trying to work things out; then it clicked. He turned and shot off.

I thanked everyone for coming along, there was a clap, and it was all over. We were reluctant to go, standing around in small groups discussing this and that.

After lunch with Derek and Pamela, I shook hands with them, and we said our farewells. Then, in a mixture of relief and satisfaction, the long drive back home.

Postscript: Brian Donnelly, of the New Zealand First Party, and minister in charge of the review office when New Zealand First was in coalition with National, promised much but, in the end, was outmanoeuvred by the bureaucracy. The review of the review office was stacked with Labour and National conservative politicians and hangers-on, including Hekia Parata’s sister, Apryll. When giving my submission, I looked at her and wondered: Who is that? Well, now we know.

Posted in Education Review Office, Political | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

An evening with Lockwood

One of the marvels of contemporary political and education life is that Lockwood Smith was such a hopeless minister of education and such a good speaker of the house. (Probably rules and thinking in straight lines are his forte.)

Lockwood’s insistence on zoning being entirely a local matter was a characteristic of the very early years of Tomorrow’s Schools when the ministry and the education review office insisted on keeping away from the details of school functioning on the principle they were only interested in outcomes. Tomorrow’s Schools, it was believed, was set up in a state of near perfect balance, on the odd occasion when it had clearly slipped from that, no doubt ascribed to local fumbling, there was confidence an in-built natural mechanism for something close to self-correction, aided a little by locals coming to their senses, would soon right things.

The year was 1993

Network was going to be in Auckland, so when he heard Lockwood Smith was making a special trip from Wellington to talk to a group of parents about a controversial issue, Network thought he would go along to.

Most readers will be aware that when Network has written about Lockwood in the past, he has nearly always done so tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, to be frank, Network went along with the idea of writing such a tongue-in-cheek item.

As he drove along the leafy streets of this affluent Auckland suburb, he felt himself sharpening what he likes to call his satirical knives. Hold on, though, as regular readers might already have observed, if there was going to be a satirical article, the signal for this would already have been sent, but it hasn’t been.

Network would have dropped in some trifle like: ‘He hasn’t had a good laugh for a while so …’ or ‘Having nothing better to do (which is some indication of the present lack of stimulation in his life), Network thought he …’ or ‘Feeling somewhat stronger in constitution than usual, Network felt …’ Regular readers will know the drill.

But no trifle has been dropped in. As a result, those regular readers are entitled to ask: What’s going on here? Has Network gone soft? Having experienced Lockwood directly for the first time, has Network been won over by sheer persuasiveness of argument and power of oratory? Has he come to an acceptance that he has calumniated and libelled him on the basis of information false and rumour foul? Was Network going to recant? Instead of tongue-in-cheek was it going to be respectful obeisance? Was Network going to write an analytical discourse on the thoughts of Lockwood Smith so that people would see a flowering of genius where only intellectual weeds had been thought to grow before?

Whatever – the question remains, why no satirical signal where one could reasonably have been expected?

As indicated above, this was the first time Network had seen Lockwood in action ‘live’. Would the reality match with his view of Lockwood’s general incompetence, immaturity, and unsureness of educational grasp?

Dear readers, Network wants to say to you as clearly and as early as possible that, to his alarm, nothing he had heard about Lockwood before in any way prepared him for what he was to experience that evening.

Lockwood’s performance that evening put paid to Network’s tongue-in-cheek intentions, destroyed his confidence as an aspiring satirist. What he discovered was that Lockwood was beyond satire; what Network had thought were caricatures of Lockwood’s qualities were, in fact, pallid imitations. Indeed, as attempts at satire

Network could be sued for product misrepresentation.

Dear readers, that a person of this miniscule sensitivity, imagination, wit, and understanding could be a minister of the crown is incomprehensible. He is beyond Gilbertian, which was an initial image. This was not life imitating art, this was art desperately trying to find something to imitate in life and failing.

Lockwood Smith is beyond satire. He has outflanked satire so comprehensively his description demands a new literary genre. A kind of literary surrealism comes to mind as a possible recourse. Lockwood is so quirky he makes Dan Quayle look like Abraham Lincoln in comparison.

The horrible truth about Lockwood is that everything you have heard about him is horribly true, only worse, much, much worse.

That there hasn’t been straight talking about the fatuity of this minister is a testament to what David Lange has bequeathed to New Zealand schools – the high politicisation of education, the direct control ministers and ministry of education have over day-to-day affairs. The minister now has so much immediate power that various groups have become more intent on shoring up their position, rather than speaking out in the interest of education as a whole.

Well – back to the meeting in the leafy Auckland suburb. Network is not going to give special attention to the issue concerned and the agonies it is putting a school through, suffice to say, it is a zoning issue; the sort that wouldn’t have occurred under the previous system or, if it had, would have been resolved in a twinkle.

Into the hall were crammed over 300 people, they overflowed outside. Also outside was a cluster of police – a phenomenon which has become Lockwood’s only original contribution to education administration. It would be easy to slight the motives of the parents inside, yes it was about avoiding going to schools with a greater smattering of brown faces, yes property values might be affected if the exclusions stood, but these were good Kiwi parents trying to get the best for their children as they saw it, and the system allowed.

The meeting had already begun by the time Network found a place in the crowded hall entrance. On the stage to the audience’s left, sat Christine Fletcher, member of parliament for Eden, and a principal instigator for the meeting. Further along was the independent chairwoman, then Lockwood, and further along still a ministry representative (Network was told later).

In the early part of the meeting a succession of neighbouring principals went to the microphone to describe their zoning policies, their roll situation, and to give support to the idea of a demographic survey. The problem with a demographic survey, as it became clear, was that there was no-one immediately obvious to do it. Tomorrow’s Schools, as a system, is ad hoc at the local level, pure schlock at the national, with nothing in between except a mass of fluctuating interests. (Mind you, in the end, the ministry will come to the demographic survey party and, in doing that, have its ideological purity sullied. From there will occur the same kind of negotiations that characterised the education board way of doing things.)

Frank Dodd, former president of NZEI and principal of a neighbouring school, turned to the minister during his address and said, ‘I hope minister, it’s not your expectation that we compete as a natural state of affairs, and only co-operate to save the government when things go wrong?’ Frank Dodd was, of course, wrong in this, and with his experience should have known better. He was wrong because he had made the cardinal error of over-estimating the minister’s lucidity – of thinking the minister’s head could ever be sufficiently clear for such a thought to occur.

The parents listened attentively and, given the tension that gripped the hall, with relatively good humour. On the platform sat Lockwood, loopy expression and all, in permanent communication with a set of papers that came in and out of his breast pocket. From time-to-time, amidst this restless interaction, there could be noticed another expression competing with the loopy one – it had the appearance of someone who had experienced a moment of illumination, one that needed to be recorded immediately for fear that it be lost to posterity. (It was later revealed that Lockwood was noting down roll numbers principals were giving because they were at odds with the ones given to him by the ministry.)

Lockwood was introduced … all the way from Wellington … our minister of education … greatly appreciated … listen with considerable interest … There was an encouraging round of applause. Then, with that cringe inducing manner he essays so effortlessly, Lockwood came down from the platform to floor level. What’s wrong with that the reader might ask? Nothing really, except the unctuous way he presented it. ‘I’ll come down to where you are and speak from there,’ he mealy-mouthed. ‘I won’t speak from up there where the principals did.’ In his action there was provided an inkling of the attitude that was to lead Lockwood into such foolishness that evening and, indeed, of the attitude that underpins his actions as minister of education. You see, Lockwood, as it was to become clear, saw himself as the parents’ champion. They were his people.

Lockwood Smith lacks a conceptual grasp of how education in New Zealand works. Under the previous system he would have been both better advised and better protected. The minister of education now acts more like an emperor than an executive officer of a democratic government, and those around him more like fawning courtiers – made so by the vulnerability of their employment, their need for dispensation of personal favour.

No longer do education officials, Janus-like, have to look both ways. They no longer have to be equally alert to both minister and schools and, in the course of doing this, serve both the minister and schools better.

The result of this, especially for shallow ministers like Lockwood, is that they have no protection, no opportunity to grow into something resembling competence. Lockwood is condemned to be a minister adrift, unable to put anchor down or sail up, unable to get a fix on where he is, or in what direction he should be heading.

Lockwood is living in a fantasy world of his own construction. He has this perception of public dissatisfaction with schools and himself as a kind of white knight.

What this minister doesn’t seem able to grasp is that he is far from being viewed as a white knight, more a cross between Stan Laurel and Frank Spencer as Don Quixote.

When Lockwood stepped down from the platform that night and made his remarks, he was merely acting out his white knight fantasy. He was standing with the parents, their white knight, someone parents could look to for protection from those misguided teachers, their principals, and their wicked unions.

A reminder of the setting: an overflow hall, anxious parents, concerned teachers, fretful local member of parliament, and a police presence outside. And here was a minister of the crown, the minister of education, flown all the way from Wellington.

Lockwood stood before them, the loopy grin never more in evidence, and he began to talk. And he fronted up to the issue straight away.

‘The issue’, said Lockwood, ‘is a local one, so it has to be solved locally.’

And that, for him, was it.

With the issue dealt with, Lockwood now felt free to unburden himself on those present with the thoughts of Lockwood.

He spoke about parents as first teachers, his curriculum initiatives, special education, and the merits of changing funding arrangements.

There was complete bewilderment amongst the parents.

As he warmed to his oratory his loopiness became even loopier. It was only erased for a moment when the irrepressible Frank Dodd challenged him in booming style over special education funding. That intrusion over, Lockwood settled back into the comfort of his fantasy world.

The chairwoman had asked Lockwood to talk for fifteen minutes. These were nearly up. Parent bewilderment had turned to restlessness, now to anger. On he looped.

‘They’re with me all the way,’ Lockwood’s demeanour seemed to indicate. ‘I can even hear some murmuring of support.’

‘They even laughed at something I said. This was really worth the trip.’

The parents had laughed all right, laughed derisively. Lockwood had said, ‘You might know there’s a review office.’ For goodness sake Lockwood, of course they know there’s a review office. They also know there’s an election next year, a thought which might well have contributed to Christine Fletcher’s increasingly aghast expression.

Parents looked at each other in their mixture of bewilderment and anger. Lockwood at the parents and thought he was going famously. The teachers and principals looked at each other and thought – well, at least they know what we have to put up with. And Network looked at Lockwood and thought, ‘You bloody nincompoop!’

You can imagine Lockwood’s shock then, given his evident self-satisfaction as to how he was performing, when the chairwoman rose, crossed to the microphone and stopped him in full flight … ‘The clear targets in the curriculum initiative will …’

‘Mr Smith, I’m sorry for interrupting you, but would you please speak to the point.’

Applause erupted.

Such was Lockwood’s astonishment there was a temporary loss of loopiness.

How would Lockwood respond? The answer: In character – in caricature.

‘I’ve come a long way to say this,’ he whined, ‘and I would like to finish it. It’ll only take a few more minutes.’

And on he went … ‘will allow parents an exact picture of where their child is.’

And on and on he went.

Then, the mist momentarily cleared, reality intruded, and he addressed the issue.

‘As I said at the beginning it is a local issue … but have you heard of the government’s Educational Development Initiative?’ The reference to the issue was so quick, and the return to his meanderings so immediate, that we blinked in incomprehension.

Here was a group of parents, many of whom were deeply agitated about a zoning issue, one affecting their children’s lives in the present as they saw it, and a minister of education who had flown all the way from Wellington ostensibly to talk about a zoning issue but talked, instead, about a whole lot of other stuff.

Lockwood’s behaviour was grotesque. By declaring the issue a local one, he sincerely appeared to believe he had provided a solution. Can you see what Network means when he says Lockwood is beyond satire, and why this recounting has had to be a straight record of events?

Christine Fletcher who would have hoped that Lockwood might pull the chestnuts out of the fire, could only hope those present would be supportive enough to see some value in them as burnt offerings.

Network is a bit vague about the details of what followed but somehow Lockwood became disputatious about roll numbers given by various principals.

‘My figures have come from the ministry,’ he announced with an air of finality.

Cynical laughter came from a section of the hall close to, or exactly where, the principals were sitting.

Meanwhile, like Brer Fox watching Brer Rabbit getting stuck to Tar-Baby, the man from the ministry said ‘nuthin’.

With that the Hon. Lockwood Smith, minister of education, minister of the crown, who had flown all the way from Wellington, walked back to his seat in silence.

The debate that proceeded from there ignored what Lockwood had to say, whatever that was. A minister of the crown had flown from Wellington to speak at a meeting; he had spoken words, but he that spoke them was soon forgotten.

Why had his advisers let him come? The well-established rule of thumb for attendance at such meetings is that ministers don’t attend unless there are votes to be gained – that was not the case here. And given that it was Lockwood who was coming, he should have been chained to his ministerial chair. (The way Christine Fletcher was looking, she probably wouldn’t have minded if it was an electric one.)

But north he’d come; the white knight to the rescue – the parents’ champion. His head full of fantasy. And his lance had stuck in a windmill and he’d been spun around and dumped. But on his way back to Wellington, Network has little doubt that in Lockwood’s clouded consciousness another dragon had been slain and he was champion to a misty-eyed Christine.

Returning home to Cambridge that night, Network felt like weeping.

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