Do you pass the test for a leader under Labour?

Where did the leaders go wrong in their responses (though they were pretty good as far as they went) as reported in a provincial newspaper on 20 October; responses that if asked of education leaders generally, would, I think, be characteristic throughout the system and explain to quite a degree why New Zealand is near or at the bottom of the Western world in international performance? In what ways did the responses of the leaders characterise the previous era and contrast markedly, we hope, with the coming one?

And to you directly – if I am right, how ready are you for the times ahead?

I report without (much) added tone.

This posting is setting up the test – my reply will be sent out midday on Tuesday.

Will you pass it?

The reporter starts off metaphorically: ‘A digital dawn is fast approaching the nation’s classrooms, but teachers remain in the dark, [provincial place-name] educators warn.’

She goes on to say: ‘Next year schools can begin teaching a new digital curriculum from years one to 10, but it must be in use by the start of 2020. Education Minister Nikki Kaye announced in June.’

Liam Rutherford [who had a fair bit to do with the better than average Labour Party manifesto] comments that ‘educators knew little about the content and breadth of the curriculum, and what extra support and paid release time would be provided …’

‘… the new curriculum,’ he adds, ‘isn’t just another strand, it’s not something that should be seen as isolated, and this isn’t just a tweak.’

So that was NZEI.

How do you think things are going?

Now to the Principals Federation ‘In June [it] told Stuff they believed only 4000 of New Zealand’s 100,000 teachers had the skills to put the curriculum in place.’

Because this came from the Stuff files we have no way determining if that was the main idea they wanted to get across.

Back to the ministry.

‘Ministry of education deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement Ellen MacGregor- Reid said [from Treasury and prime minister’s department with absolutely no classroom experience but, I want to say, clearly significantly able] after “extensive consultation” the new curriculum would be published in December, ready for term, 2018.’

She went on to say, ‘We’re confident this programme will give all teachers the opportunity to be ready for the new curriculum.’

Now the school sector:

The first principal said money was already targeted to the digital but for this there was a need for ‘direct resourcing to schools to support this curriculum’, and ‘He was planning to do a formal “needs analysis” of what the school needed to do to respond, once more was known about the curriculum.’

The second principal ‘was also concerned about the lack of information about the rollout and professional development.’

‘There are always private providers, but these are expensive and don’t guarantee consistence of messages and practices across schools.’

Not bad responses, but why do they fail the test in a way that, in my view, largely explains the plummeting of performance in our primary schools.

Will you pass the test to be ready for Labour: anything else you would have wanted to say, recommend, or make general comment about?

My reply around midday Tuesday.

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The morning after and personal reflections on resistance (if you will forgive me)

The main instrument governments have used to dismantle public education is the education review office; it is the organisational apotheosis of the coercive neoliberal education ends. If public education is to be freed, given renewed health to pursue democratic and holistic ends – more than anything else, more than the removal of national standards, more than increased funding, the supervisory function of schools must be radically restructured.

The review office is pure dread: the relationship of school to review office is one of unpredictability and lack of accountability leading to an overall relationship based on fear that is often sublimated by schools furiously conforming to, even going beyond, review office expectations. But in the complex, value-laden environment of education, there is always more a school can do, so there is always pervasive that dread of being guilty of grievous error, of something else that needs to be done, of who knows what. Unpredictability of review office behaviour can derive from the personality or mood of the review officer, a principal being prominent in the newspaper, a principal being associated with a different philosophy of education, or even just showing hints of it, a letter about the school residing in the review office’s secret file – there are multitudinous ways for the review office to put a school on the rack – and there is no accountability. But the most dangerous part of the review office’s way of functioning is its anti-democratic way of deciding, without consultation with parents, teachers, or any representative consultation group, what curriculum areas should be emphasised, how teaching should be organised to minute detail, and how schools should be administered. The official curriculum in New Zealand primary education is now a document interpreted for meaning by an unaccountable centralised grouping (review office, ministry, and Treasury) with the latest word often being spread through review office school visits. This centralised group invariably taking out of the official curriculum those parts making the curriculum easier to measure as a means of extending bureaucratic control.

Through the time of Tomorrow’s Schools from 1990 to today, I have resisted the philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools, leaving my position as a senior inspector of schools to expose the deceptiveness of the way that philosophy was introduced and the consummate idiocy of it being a Labour government doing the introducing. My main instrument of resistance then, as now, was the advocacy of the holistic as against the neoliberal fragmented control curriculum.

An education system should be built from the curriculum up, not the system down – meaning, in the present situation, the holistic is a weapon.

In 2010, I spoke to the South Island Intermediate and Middle Schools Annual Principals Conference (‘How corrupted is our education system?’).

And what I said in conclusion to that address is a summation of my philosophy of what characterises resistance in a democracy – no matter how hard the going, the prerogative of that democratic context was understood by me, and always appreciated. Perhaps, though, resistance requires some madness, I could often feel it rising but I subverted, and to some extent controlled it, into my writing.

I said, ‘There won’t be decisive change for the better until, sometime in the future, New Zealand faces a crisis, probably a combination of the economic, social, and moral. In that circumstance, we should be ready with some ideas, carefully considered ideas, for a better way of going about things. In the meantime, especially in education, power structures being the way they are, we must expect that education will be increasingly unsatisfying for children and disappointing for society (both economically and spiritually). This will be especially so in New Zealand which doesn’t receive the lavish funding, say, UK, Australian, or American schools receive; and poverty increases with its flow-on education ill-effects. All we can do, I believe, is slow down the decline by opposing the characteristics of scientific management, by exposing the myth of the academic expert, proposing alternative ways, and campaigning for a fairer society.’

I can remember sitting at my computer in the course of writing that paragraph and contemplating the questions: How is all this going to end? When is the next fundamental education change going to occur, why, and of what nature. I turned off the computer and pondered those questions for some days, and my response was that fundamental change was unlikely to occur from calm rationality, more likely when New Zealand ‘faces a crisis, probably a combination of economic, social, and moral.’ While such a combination of circumstances could lead to a lurch to something even more harsh and anti-democratic, it could also provide an opportunity, and this is what resisters dream about and do their best to prepare their world for, something enlightened and progressive. The point is that no particular fundamental change is inevitable and no particular circumstances the inevitable forerunner. The answer is just to maintain hope and keep battling.

History is not a story of what was inevitable; it is a story of what didn’t have to be. David Lange didn’t have to impose an education system to go with the economic system his minister of finance imposed (and Labour, in doing this, removing the natural opposition to it when National would have introduced it anyway); the members of the caucus might have had the courage and insight to oppose it; the teacher organisations could have opposed it and while they might have failed at first, could have set things up to succeed sooner; a strong leader could have headed one of the teacher organisations; we could have had one example of the media who listened (RNZ thinks it is listening but it hasn’t listened and doesn’t listen, and no newspaper listened – really listened); Labour eventually might have recognised the grievous error of its education ways and undertaken a thoroughgoing democratic restructuring ; and what if Brian Donnelly had held his nerve against Labour and National and appointed a different group of people to consider the future of the review office? (Attack! 126)

Someone in an official position or a teacher organisation could have come through and played the long game, which is the key to the philosophy of resistance, but none did, any resistance was issue-based (usually raised by the government) keeping the organisations distracted, busy, and feeling useful. In effect, the organisations became reliant on pleading with the government and being habitually acquiescent in the hope of the government occasionally dispensing a favour, while all the time the government was steadily dismantling public education.

Any of these would have changed history. I obstructed, ridiculed, and proselytised, waiting for a change to history; that was my game, one I never thought I would win in my time, but one for my own reasons, I felt impelled to engage in. (In respect to the reference to Brian Donnelly, I agitated for that through the magazine, a protest on the steps of parliament, addressing meetings, printing bumper stickers, running a petition, but Brian Donnelly capitulated and guess who was on the committee? Hekia Parata’s sister, and Margaret Austin for Labour, amongst other neoliberal education devotees.)

My resistance was not because I thought I would win, but because what I was resisting was wrong. And, at the risk of self-indulgence, there is that universal yearning for your life to mean something, I always proceeded in the belief that in the fight for right we are not alone, we are with all those people in the past who have fought for right, in particular the multitudes of lesser people, lesser people like me, whose example we don’t know, long forgotten if ever remembered, but who endure as a general cultural memory.

The foundation for my resistance was curriculum knowledge (largely gained by observing and listening to you), informed by a willingness to imagine. It has been both an elevating experience and disturbing. To know what is going to happen and not being able to decisively change events is sometimes knowledge you would rather be without.

In 1999, I spoke to a group of principals. My main message was that given the morally and ethically complex times ahead, principals, in doing what they had to do, needed to do that, but on the understanding that they retained, as part of their thinking, the idea that much of what they had to do was not in the best interests of children. They needed to make that distinction for their own integrity, and to be able to challenge that which was not in the best interests of children when opportunities arose.

That was the message of resistance I delivered to principals but increasingly their eyes showed incomprehension or dismissal (more the former); reactions seeming to be in pace with principals moving from the holistic curriculum to the national standards one. I could gauge the movement away from the holistic from the decline in interest in my courses for setting up holistic classrooms. One of the intriguing characteristics about schools is that amongst the much revered school values, independence is often omitted, and courage nearly always. Many principals know what they are doing is not in the best interests of the children but from my observation become determinedly non-imagining, allowing themselves to operate at the practical level and in the short term. The pressure from the education review office and the ministry based on fear is intense, and like all autocratic organisations sought more than conformity and loyalty, they sought love – and in all kinds of subtle ways principals found ways to communicate that.

Education in a democracy should serve democracy but, at the moment, it doesn’t, it serves, through neoliberalism, the corporate culture. Education should serve the values of democracy, the developing of the holistic talents of the individual, and employment prospects in an authentic and integrated way, but it doesn’t. These three aims are not by nature exclusive of each other but they are increasingly made to be. The New Zealand school education system is a microcosm of the developing corporate state: the use of the big lie, propaganda, false statistics, and the most efficient and effective means of control – fear. The effect in schools is narrowing the curriculum, divesting the arts and critical thinking, and creating citizens unable to think their way out of a paper bag, conformist, fearful, and with a belief that following commands from the top is the only way. Another effect is to undermine public education both because it is public and because of its potential as a source of competing ideas and values. The corporate powers that be, and governmental systems expressing those, use their control of the present to use predictions of the future to bolster their control of the present. Those in control emphasise a digital, corporate dominated future with an intolerant refusal to accept any other. They do not contemplate other futures, for instance, a breakdown in civilisation from climate change, a breakdown that could well strike in the lifetimes of school children today. Public education, on the other hand, should be about values, democratic values to prepare children for any number of futures, including one in which economic development is subordinate to environmental and humanistic imperatives and the attention is to a fairer sharing of less.

Posted in Education Policy, Education Review Office | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

The greatest teacher organisation leader of our times

Whetu’s conference speech

I want to extend a very warm welcome to our special guest.  To our Minister of Education, the Hon Nikki Kaye.  Welcome Minister. And thank you for taking time out of the most exciting election campaign – possibly ever – to speak to us today.  We really do appreciate it.

Irrespective of the election result on Saturday, I wish you all the best.

I want to start today, by looking back.  First, I look back and thank the people who enable me to stand here today.

My Dad John was born and bred just up the road from here on the Lindis Pass, where his Dad Martin used to work for the Rabbit Board. So this area is very much the turangawaewae of my Pākehā family.  I thank my Dad for bringing his Scottish values of fairness, hard work and generosity to my own upbringing and for helping to shape who I am today.  I also acknowledge my Mum (of Tainui descent) who began her nursing career up the road at Dunstan Hospital, for passing on her studious and caring attributes. He wairua Maori taku.

I also thank my son Arana Whetu and daughter Tira for their love and for challenging me to be real and to think beyond my own views and beliefs and embrace the world that they live in as young adults.  I thank them for teaching me why – keeping open dialogue, sharing and connecting with each other, are such powerful actions – especially if we want to maintain strong relationships.

I thank my partner Barry Macdonald for his unconditional love and absolute unwavering support which allows me to fully focus my heart and mind on the job of leading the Federation.  He is the one who soaks up my doubts and disappointments and is also the one who shares the joys when things go well. He is also my greatest critic, especially when it comes to speeches and media – so this year he’s had plenty of practice!

I also want to acknowledge my School Board of Trustees at BGP, my senior team Katrina Robertson and Lauren Latimer, the OPPA executive and the NZPF executive and National Office staff for believing in me and giving me the confidence to take on this position as your national president.

None of us acts alone and none of us succeeds alone. We constantly draw on the experiences of others, the advice and wisdom of others and we draw our confidence from the love and support of others. I acknowledge all of you – and all of those people who so generously contribute to my work every day.

I came into teaching in the 1990s taking on my first job in the bilingual unit at Rotorua Intermediate. Like everyone who ever enters our profession, I wanted to make a difference for the lives of our young people, irrespective of their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, their sexual orientation, or their religious beliefs or whether they came from advantaged or disadvantaged homes.  I would make a difference whatever their special abilities or disabilities and I would make a difference especially for our young Māori people who were not succeeding in line with their capabilities.  I wanted to change that. I wanted schooling to be relevant and exciting for every young person so that every single person would leave school as a success. To me, a rich broad curriculum delivered in a school where young people could feel safe to be themselves, was the key.

In NZ we are so lucky to have a great curriculum.  We are the envy of the world because we can teach within authentic contexts and use the flexibility of our curriculum to offer multiple learning options.  We have mastered the art of Inquiry which excites and ignites the imaginations of our young people who quickly become agents of their own learning.

Through our model of self-managing schools and with community input through our Boards of Trustees, we are able to engage our young people in ways that fit with the values and aspirations of the communities they live in.  It is a model that over time, we have built up to be one of the most successful education systems in the OECD.

So why is it that we are so stressed??  Why is it that we are holding a conference here in Queenstown with the theme of ‘Hauora’ or wellbeing? Why is it that every day I am hearing from principals that they are thinking about retiring prematurely, that they can’t employ suitable teachers or that they cannot get appropriate support for their high end behaviourally challenged students?  I will come back to these questions later in my speech.

I now want to return to the last time we assembled here in Queenstown for the NZPF conference.  It was the year 2010. The Minister of Education at the time was the Honourable Anne Tolley.  The government was in the process of implementing national standards and the mood from principals was of anger and frustration.  No one wanted them.  No one believed in them.  No one thought they would do anything to lift the success rate of a single student. Worse, everyone was sceptical and fast losing trust in the Minister and the Ministry and in anyone who suggested that national standards could possibly have any educational value whatsoever. No one in government was listening.

I was one of those principals and it was feeling the passion of the profession at that 2010 conference that fired me up; It led me to persuade my school Board to join the Boards Taking Action Coalition (BTAC) the Governance group opposing national standards; It is what persuaded me to stand for election to NZPF so that I could be part of the on-going action opposing national standards which I viewed as toxic.

National standards would never be the mechanism by which any school would raise its academic, ethical or quality standards of teaching and learning. They would never equate to a measure of teacher or school performance or means by which schools could be compared and they would never satisfy parents that they were a definitive measure of their child’s cognitive development.  Yet in no time at all, they were being used for all of these things, only cognitive development had been reduced to reading, writing and maths.

Fast forward to now and we can clearly see the broader agenda which began with national standards. The agenda has acquired many more parts over the past decade, including the Investing in Education Success policy, the Communities of Schools, changes to the Education Act and more recently the Update of the Education Act.  The Update of the Education Act brings changes that threaten the very essence of what is great about self-managing schools – the relationships that our schools have with their communities.  Central to everything is still the measure we call national standards data.

Nine years of conflict has resulted in a profession that is battle weary. We have those in our profession who now just want a quieter life and say, look we can’t change anything so let’s just accept and move on.  Stop fighting these things because we will never win.  The Government will never listen and nothing will change.  This is a global movement and we are just one little country in it.

At the other extreme are those like me who say we will continue to fight to the end. We know national standards and all the reforms that go with them are bad for our young people.  Our young people don’t get a voice so it’s up to us to protect their futures by continuing to fight for the best education we can give them.

Amidst all of this the one weapon the profession has used to good effect is to stay positive for our young people. Whilst we have had to implement the Government’s reform agenda we do not give it credibility, and we have continued the search for better innovative ways to support the learning of our young people.

NZPF and other professional groups have led the way in these endeavours.  Take our own Māori Achievement Collaborations (the MACs) for example.  A partnership between Te Akatea and NZPF resulted in the development of a professional learning programme that has now been operating for four years.  As a result we are seeing principals change the culture of their schools so that our young Māori people feel a sense of belonging to their school; they at last feel that school is their place. They are engaging and the results are now showing. I thank our new Minister Kaye for her support of the MACs, which have until now been funded by the Ministry. We are currently working with the Ministry and Education Council to make sure we can secure the necessary funding to continue the MACs.  We are grateful, Minister, that you recognise why the MAC is so successful and that we want to see more and more Māori learners become engaged and achieve success.

Just last Saturday we saw the launch of the first Māori History in Schools – ‘Te Takanga o Te Wa’ programme, which has been championed by Pem Bird, a former school principal and political leader. This is an initiative that NZPF supports and I know many more colleagues have been promoting the teaching of colonial history in schools for years because it is a powerful means to curb racism and discrimination. And now it is here! So congratulations to Pem Bird and all of those who have been advocating for Māori History in Schools.

NZPF has its part to play and principals everywhere are also playing their part by continuing to embrace new ideas and teaching practices that give more and better learning options to the youngsters in your schools so that Aotearoa can be a better place for everyone. I have seen what you are doing as I travel the country visiting you in your schools.  I am constantly amazed at the new ways you are using collaboration and Inquiry for learning; how you are adopting flexible learning spaces and making them exciting spaces for our young people that reflect the collective vision of your community and your school;  making your students agents of their own learning; continuing to work hard at keeping your curriculum options broad and rich;  managing difficult behaviour through school wide approaches that again encourage student agency and ownership.  We have schools operating on the principles of democracy.  We have Eco-schools operating on environmental principles.  Our young people are being excited and stimulated every day by what we are offering them through our schools and you deserve the highest accolades for your leadership which enables these practices.

What I also know is that so much more of this could be happening if only we could reduce the stress and unnecessary workload that are not adding value to our young people, their learning and our country!

Minister, I am now talking about paper work that most of us find pointless. I am talking about the compliance activities that are choking us.  I am talking about over-assessment and collecting and recording data till we are strangled in it.  I am talking about the Global Education Reforms that have undermined our ability and that of our communities to work together and OWN our decision making so that schools and communities together can share their aspirations for a prosperous future.

The Global Reforms are falling out of favour now in many countries of the world.  Asian countries especially are now realising that assessment regimes have killed questioning and creativity; they have stifled innovation and critical thinking. Educational Leaders in Asia now realise that the obsession they have had with data and league tables has been a mistake and has been detrimental to developing future thinkers for the modern world. They are in some cases now banning testing and assessment as a result.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we have an aging population of school principals and are starting to see early retirements and middle leaders are reluctant to step up to become principals.  Young people are avoiding Teacher Training in droves and now we have teacher shortages across the country. In Auckland, we have shortages that are reaching crisis levels. We also have insufficient support to implement inclusiveness and accommodate all young people irrespective of their learning or behavioural needs. Our teachers are leaving because they are not being adequately supported especially with our children presenting with high end behaviour challenges and mental health issues.   We do not have the expertise to call on and our teachers are not as trained psychiatrists, or behavioural specialists.

Let’s wait no longer to get our young people on the road to success. Let’s put up a big ‘STOP’ sign on National Standards;  On the Global Education Reforms;  on Data Obsession  and properly support the teaching profession to get on with what they know is right and good for the young people of New Zealand and our country’s future.

It’s time now, Minister, to break with the practices of the past decade which have made little difference for priority students or any other students.

I challenge you to throw out the Global Reforms Agenda, ramp up the support for the profession and engage with us.  In partnership, we can collaborate with you; share our ideas and together find solutions that will make a positive difference for all young people.

In partnership we can improve principal and teacher wellbeing and work with you to raise the status of the profession.

In partnership we can improve learning outcomes for all young people.

Minister I challenge you to deliver, not for the adults of our beautiful country but first and foremost for our young people.


Delivering for New Zealanders?

Let’s do this!

No reira, Tena koutou.


Please join with me and welcoming the Hon Nikki Kay, Minister of Education.

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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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