Hattie makes his move in on early childhood: Key set to act in tandem

It was something Hattie says early on in the Listener article that delivered a sharp stab of déjà vu. I recognised with a shudder his old dodge, as leading government ideologist, of delivering with wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing oleaginous concern, a threat that could be interpreted as – accept what is on offer now or something worse will be imposed.  I understand, he is recorded as saying, that pre-school educators are wary of a trickle down from the school curriculum, given that early childhood children in England and New York City are made to sit compulsory tests, but that, he tries to assure us, is not the sort of thing I want to happen. In Hattie language he is saying actually I wouldn’t care, but in the meantime you had better accept what is on offer now.

He then goes on to say, drawing on the new-entrants test SEA, that it is just things like concepts about print that he wants to see pushed in early childhood education.

The déjà vu referred to, combined with a call to my ministry source (see below), suggests that the Listener article is part of a plan by Hattie also involving Cognition and John Key to impose his and the government’s formalism and measurement ideology on early childhood education.

Hattie, I suggest, is going to use the same modus operandi in early childhood education he has used in primary education. National, with Hattie’s help, is setting up a panic to destabilise early childhood education, demeaning teachers and their spokespeople in the process, and providing an open field and an excuse for the government to impose its managerialist and ideological ‘solutions’.

 A paradox in the Listener article is that all the answers to any questions that may be raised about education of children at early childhood institutions, and especially from poverty-effected backgrounds, are all in the article but they come out in strangulated way because they are overwhelmed by the emotive hype of Hattie talking of ‘scandal’ and ‘massive holes’, and the other protagonist, Ken Blaiklock, talking of a ‘perfect storm’. More paradoxically, for me, given my antipathy to the ministry, the strongest argument in defence of early childhood education comes from the ministry spokesperson. This leads me to think that the government’s plans for early childhood education come from the prime minister’s office and the Treasury which were then detoured to avoid the ministry to connect with Hattie and Cognition.

But now to test my hypothesis arising from that moment of déjà vu.

I contacted my source in the ministry. My question was: ‘Is John Key about to go to an early childhood centre to announce policy.’

Two days later my source rang back. ‘How did you know?’

‘He’s due to do so in the next few weeks, in a low decile area, but I don’t know where exactly.’


There have recently been two articles in the New Zealand Listener (February 22-28 and April 19-25). I intend to write postings on both these articles, but it is the second one on early childhood education that has the most urgent policy implications. This is the tenth posting I have done on John Hattie who I consider one the most destructive education influences in New Zealand’s history.

The article is structured to be a platform for Hattie’s argument (and Blaiklock’s) that early childhood education was not preparing children satisfactorily for school – and from there for other academics also officials to express their counter arguments. To help in this Hattie brings in in another phonics-obsessive and curriculum formalist, Ken Blaiklock, to support this figment and to help prepare the ground for early childhood education to become subject to the ideology of fragmentation and measurement. Primary teachers will immediately recognise that this is a replay of the Bill Tunmer/Tom Nicholson phonics battle that was reasonably well repelled by New Zealand’s strong-minded junior class leaders.

A good number of luminaries from pre-school education are referred to in the article but their arguments don’t seem, for whatever reasons, to connect to the ‘arguments’ Hattie and Blaiklock raise.

In destructiveness to primary education, compared with John Hattie, Merv Wellington is akin to Clarence Beeby.

His meta-analysis research is near rubbish in intake, structure, and interpretation – his big education idea of feedback is, for instance drawn from using music as education reinforcement for children with severe learning difficulties. I could go on, indeed I have for dozens of pages, but I don’t want to here – I want to move as quickly as possible to Hattie’s move to dominate early childhood education in New Zealand.

His modus operandi, no matter what the school area, is to be the ideological wingman for right-wing or naïve governments, feign anger on the basis that he knows what to do and so should everyone else if they had an ounce of sense – after all, he says, look at these research results of mine which he tosses in the air like confetti. Research, however, that doesn’t favour his arguments he studiedly ignores. He then goes on to make aspersions about holistic education and dog whistles a much narrower and formal education; from there he sets out to create learning panic (research says this and that, and it is the end of children’s chances in learning if they don’t know how to do this or that by such-and-such an age, and so on) delivered resignedly in a tone of people don’t understand me, but such has been the fate of great men throughout history – nevertheless, I will remain constant to the truth and selflessly and courageously deliver. Sob!

Hattie is an ideologist for national standards, which defines his philosophy, his research, his curriculum, his career, and his appeal to governments and right-wing elements – but not to teachers when they finally twigged. He was driven out of the country when both national standards and his Visible Learning Laboratories – intended to show teachers how to make national standards work – collapsed in a heap.  The NZ Herald called me his nemesis and he complained of me hounding him, but in this he considerably underestimates his own genius for being wrong. Hattie is now back big time with the government and Cognition (the cluster policy which he is all for) and now his entry into early childhood (which he dismisses as on the wrong track).

As well as being in favour of privatisation of education (in the Cognition sense), performance pay (in the cluster sense), he is also in favour of a formal and clinical kind of curriculum (while obvious, this has to be inferred), bigger classes, and imposition of policy if all else fails. Unsurprisingly in the light of the things he favours, he is against teacher organisations (in the sense of them having any real power).

Then there are his tics regarding research: he gives a low percentage to the education effects of poverty (the figure like my cash at the races is always low and downward trending); he puts teachers on a column of Duke of Wellington proportions but vulnerably attached to the plinth; he virtually dismisses the Hawthorne effect (which in his case particularly wreaks havoc with results); he uses meta loads of data as a cover for the rubbish or inconsequence contained; he uses clinic-based research in a very slippery way; and he applies what is mostly rubbish in the first place to rubbishy arguments in the second.


Hattie begins his move to be the government’s early childhood theorist by spreading confetti-style research findings generated from his Melbourne base – mainly rubbish, of course, research holes you could drive an articulated truck through. Deep murmurings of detailed analysis, and so on.

He then says ‘there is a “massive hole” in our much lauded curriculum [Te Whariki].’ This is Hattie dealing to the holistic: he does this because while the holistic curriculum can be evaluated not all of it can be measured – which threatens him. He gains his power from the clinical and the measurable; teachers from the complex and  the immeasurable – and it his job to deliver to governments, teachers less able to resist.

An implication in his trashing of the holistic is that he has the answer to what should replace it. He doesn’t have and never has had. He doesn’t care; he is creating a problem defined away from teachers and their spokespeople to one that only he and the government can address but, of course, they can’t – no worry to them, they can then move on to address the problem arising from the problem previously addressed. Life is good if you are a government-aligned academic.

Te Whariki is a taonga but, you see, it is holistic, and Hattie detests that – he likes to fragment the curriculum for measurement purposes and control.

Then he feigns anger: ‘I think it is a scandal …’ that becomes an entrée to a move to generate education panic.

‘Not nailing those language skills can compromise the rest of a child’s schooling.’

John – not doing a lot of things can compromise the rest of a child’s schooling – including your perverse education philosophy.

Hattie as part of his building of panic says ‘children whose results put them in the lowest third when they arrived at school stayed there for five years.’ No mention by him of the devastating effects of the labelling effects of national standards and the over-use of ability grouping because of national standards.

And there is a complete silence on children whose learning is disadvantaged by their home environment, or migrant children, or special needs children.

Then the ‘nobody understands me’ and being a ‘martyr’ to his selfless cause.

‘Hattie says his views are controversial and put him in a minority.’ Oh diddum’s! Ever thought they might be a load of self-serving bollocks? I wouldn’t call your views so much controversial as pitched at a level prejudice and good sense as to make rational discussion impossible.

He then refers to some research from the University of Auckland that really doesn’t support his argument, but he says it does.

Hattie’s offsider for the occasion, Ken Blaiklock, pipes up. He has aired his views in many peer-reviewed papers he wants to tell us. Peer reviewed – wow! What next? We all know about peer reviewing, so spare us that one, it is about as dodgy as NCEA internal marking. What we don’t know is the value of those many peer reviewed papers. In this one he declares the present situation with Te Whariki is ‘a perfect storm’ and calls for outcomes based assessment. So the chances are they are narrow, repetitive rubbish.

This call, though, for outcomes based assessment is the one the National government will respond to, tentatively at first, but far more fiercely and insistently later on. Having set primary education on its heels, it is setting out after early childhood. There could eventually be some kind of payment by results using, say, SEA when children attend primary school.

What a Hattie set up!

I looked in vain for the seminal research by Anne Smith so transcendentally contrary to Hattie’s and Blaiklock’s desiccated thinking; and where was Margaret Carr’s research on Te Whariki and how it was being implemented?

Strewn throughout the article were the oh so wise comments of Karl Le Quesne (by the way he is not my ministry source – there was a time when John Faire was working in the ministry and I praised a document he put out, severely blighting his bureaucratic career).

Some other academics and spokespeople are referred to, particularly the revered Helen May, but her arguments for a fully qualified teaching workforce, amongst other points she makes, are skewed by the article being so thoroughly directed towards the claim that Te Whariki is at the centre of ‘a perfect storm’.

The Listener writer draws attention to an education review office report on early childhood that seems rather downbeat, Le Quesne puts it into perspective saying: ‘our reading of that review is most services were doing a good job and that the ministry is generally satisfied most services are implementing the curriculum as required.’  Further on he says: ‘We’re comfortable with the evidence we’re seeing, that it indicates we’re on the right track and that we are making a difference.’ (Karl – as you know but couldn’t possibly say, the education review office does the government’s bidding in matters like this; I would be on the alert.)

Le Quesne makes the best education statement of the article when he speaks of the importance that ‘children become excited about learning, curious about the world and persistent, and can work with others to solve problems.’

Nailing it with, ‘We haven’t seen any really robust evidence to bear out Hattie’s concerns.’

And, for me, even more important, there is no evidence that if a problem is found, or a means for improvement agreed upon, that the necessary change can’t be generated within early childhood, guided by the wonderful Te Whariki.

Hattie and Blaiklock keep your deadening and heavy hands off children’s learning in early childhood education.  If academic direction is needed, let it be from early childhood academics not dry old husks having emigrated from school education, most of whom I point out are men.

But I fear that once you have children allocated identifying numbers by ideologically-driven politicians and academics, the opportunity to join the dots is there to act to the disadvantage of children’s individuality and richness of learning

Will all be revealed at an early childhood education centre in a low decile area somewhere in New Zealand in the next few weeks? No – because, education today is about hidden agendas – however, something will be. While this posting appears to have been pointed to the short term, it is really about the long one. Keep watching this space.

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11 Responses to Hattie makes his move in on early childhood: Key set to act in tandem

  1. Well said Kelvin.
    The last thing we need arriving at school is 5 year olds who have been ‘prepared for school’ with a lot of rigid measuring and narrow experience.
    They need to have broad experience, social experience, interactive experience with all manner of people, children, toys, activities, games, animals etc. so they can join into a rich school learning environment. They desperately need to have their PRESCHOOL needs met – not heavy handedly ‘prepared’ for school.
    Let them be kids, that’s the best way to prepare them for school.

  2. Chris bayes says:

    Kelvin, this response is fantastic. You have hit the nail on the head. I was so shocked that someone supposedly as smart as Hattie actually believed research that showed that 1 in 5 children of 5 years old, arrive in primary school, not knowing the right way up to hold a book when reading it. He obviously hasn’t been around many 3, 4 and 5 year olds in his life. So shocked at this suggestion, I asked teachers in four EC centres to conduct a very unscientific research project. To offer children of different ages ( we have to date asked over 110 children aged 2, 3 and 4) a book upside down and back to front… And surprise, surprise every child (yep that’s 100%) turned the book the right side up before opening it to read it. We have more centre collecting data. So if he’s got this point so badly wrong, what else is he writing about that he knows absolutely nothing about? It’s a HUGE worry. Thanks kelvin. Please don’t give up on this really, really important matter.

  3. Mike Friend says:

    The real issue is ideologues of all persuasions messing about with education in a political way. It is always possible to rake up evidence for a position when a government initiative to promote something else is really the agenda. And we all know that the real agenda of the National government is to introduce charter schools and performance pay. John Hattie is really just an irrelevant smoke screen on the National crusade to wreck collegiality and free education for all.

  4. Jim Turrell says:

    Thanks for this Kelvin.
    First we were told to fear the enemy. Some people got richer.
    Then we were told to fear climate change. Some people got richer.
    Then we were told to fear the global financial melt down. And still some people got richer.
    Is the education of our children our next great fear? Will some people get richer?

  5. Kia ora Kelvin,
    I applaud your passion and your comments. I too have been concerned about the misinformation shared. Thank you for speaking up.

  6. Kathryn Livingstone says:

    Thankyou for your veiws, I do ask though what happens for the children who have special needs that can never meet the bench mark? This is criminal in the sense that it literally tears apart the self esteem and resilience that has and is being built and developed. These children will need to be part of their world around them and to make a valued contribution and to do this they need to have a sense of acheivment and National Standards and tick boxes do not reflect this.It seems to reflect the prestige and finanacial position that our Governement wants and to acheive this they are manipulating the vulnerable by pretending that it is all in the best interest of the individual, when it is actually the best interest of the Governements financial position in the long term.

  7. Emma says:

    I argued about the effects of standards in my doctoral research, I argued against the idea that everyone can achieve the same academic level at the same time or it is teachers/students faults, I have no issue with assessments or tests but how they are used is a different matter. Both the NZ school and ECE curriculums were amazing to me after teaching in Europe, where much is prescribed and the teachable moment mainly lost forever. Standards are at times given primacy over the curriculum in schools now to the detriment of students… good article, thanks

  8. joceje says:

    Kia ora colleagues,
    Here is a link to the Aussie pages on curriculum. Suggest that you have a look at these with an NZ lens. They have a history of curriculum as state determined content, rather than child centred, and so the inclusion of “concepts around print” is an attempt in some ways to loosen up their curriculum. Foundation= preschool. The Queensland models were the first real attempt to put the student/learner at the centre of the curriculum decision asking.

  9. The scary thing is that ECE is largely about money with a few exceptions and that most children would be fine in the care of their families and perhaps a couple of weekly visits to a playgroup. children need to learn language, self identity and social skills. Easily learnt at home with a loving family, much more problematic in a large ECE centre and minimum staffing ratios. Also a pack of money is spent on “education” resources which stifle the imagination and are very teacher directed. What young children neeed to do is to play and to develop their imaginations. Trouble is there is not much money to made from this as an old cardboard box and some sticks and leaves would work just fine hence all the marketing aimed at parents and teachers of what is often jsut plastic junk.

  10. Kelvin says:

    There is a lot in what you say Dawn but, as you know, to reverse the trend of both parents working isn’t going to happen. But what you say about the things a rich family life can provide should be a guide for ECE, how they are organised, and how they function. For this reason Te Whariki and the philosophy it is based on should be fiercely defended and carefully developed.

  11. Agree Kelvin that the horse has bolted re working parents. a couple of points. Te Whaariki is a great document and it aspires to a great childcentred family type environment, if it is fully implemented and understood. However centres which are focussed on profit pay lip service to it and persist in regimenting and institutionalising children in ways which are centered on efficiancy and adult needs, filling out paperwork for the benefit of ERO etc to show they meet Te Whaariki. Of course what really matters i.e relationships can’t be measured so these things get taken for granted and ignored. The problem with Te Whaariki is that it isn’t properly implemented by the cost cutters and this is what Hattie et al should be focussed on. Lets not pretend that all centres meet children’s needs and lets not force beneficiary children to go to them pretneding that they are better for them than their parents

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