Ken Blaiklock and the Listener article: this is no game

‘Perfect storm’? Wow! Things must wild down there, and all the time those teachers are carrying on, blithely unaware of hurricane-level metaphorical winds and towering waves of bad practice raging around them.

In such a ways are teachers presented as sub-professional, insentient cyphers fumbling in the education dark of their own lack of awareness and incompetence.


In my time as editor of Network Magazine in the ‘90s and networkonnet since 2007 I have tangled with many formalistic academics. In a tragic way it was quite fun. They are, when it comes to mixing it, a pretty hopeless bunch, however, they don’t really care about that because their brief is to the government of the day. They usually don’t have to exert themselves much: they just let it be known that, in their evidence-based view, what teachers are doing is inaccurate and misdirected; that any evidence to the contrary is irrelevant or wrong; that they have the answers (the vehicle for these always being more structure); and that in the absence of teachers acting on their answers, they give a wink to politicians’ suggestions that they be imposed. The appearance of headlining quantitatives in the media seems almost by order of things a series of dog whistles to governments to say I’m here and ready to go on your behalf.

In the ‘90s I was involved, as part of the child-centred left, in an intense battle with the phoneme-obsessed right in the form of Tom Nicholson and Bill Tunmer and, hey, we (referring to junior teachers and their leaders) did pretty well – there were plenty of minor players for the Nicholson-Tunmer axis, Ken Blaiklock being one of them, though in a lowly fifteen. Blaiklock has in recent years, in shrill style, tried hard to move up a few grades. In a sense quantitatives like Blaiklock are not really addressing the education group they are talking about, they are addressing the government about the education group they hope the government is willing to talk about – talking about as a result of an academic constructed crisis. Blaiklock in the process has carried his bleak message into early childhood.

In the networkonnet years, John Hattie, the architect of national standards, was a particular target of mine. I’m not going all over that again but it is sufficient to say that he left New Zealand with his credibility amongst teachers in shreds, only to reappear recently, in association with Cognition, dog whistling with furious intent.

And lo and behold there are the two of them in the Listener article of 19-25 April –  the cover heading shouting  ‘Set up to fail’, followed by ‘How a “massive hole” in NZ’s early childhood learning harms life chances’ and ‘I think it is a scandal’ – Prof John Hattie. There were no question marks for the statements following the heading, so Blaiklock and Hattie would have been well satisfied with that. The crisis, a matter of fact before the article had even begun.

In this article, Blaiklock plays Panza to Hattie’s perverse Quixote (though a Panza entirely bereft of the flashes of grounded common sense invested in him by Cervantes) as he supportively ticks off the quantitative checklist for crisis construction – excuse the yawns:

Children are ‘slipping through the cracks’ (sound familiar?).

The ‘curriculum is very open and holistic, which is often seen as a strength, but can also be a weakness’ (damning with the faintest of praise).

Oh how quickly that one becomes subject to quantitative hyperbole.

In a lightning strike the ‘can … be’ is changed to ‘it’s’, turning it into something vastly more serious.

He says, ‘Combined with loose assessment, it’s a “perfect storm”. ’

‘Perfect storm’? Wow! Things must wild down there, and all the time those teachers are carrying on, blithely unaware of hurricane-level metaphorical winds and towering waves of bad practice raging around them.

In such a ways are teachers presented as sub-professional, insentient cyphers fumbling in the education dark of their own lack of awareness and incompetence.

‘Loose assessment’ you can guarantee will turn out to be teachers’ professional judgements (dismissed by quantitatives as ‘opinions’).

And then Blaiklock displays his compassionate side – quantitative-style: ‘I argue that in ECE the research shows we can make a difference to what children know at school entry …’

You need research to show that Ken?  But wait there is more – this fatuity serving as a platform for a statement of even greater fatuity.

‘… and that we have a responsibility to do that in terms of reducing educational disadvantage.’

You can read a philosophy in what Blaiklock has said: the mind-boggling obviousness dressed up as something deep; the finger-pointing blame; the implication he has the answers; and the absence of reference to other things that might help reduce educational disadvantage.

Blaiklock is warming to his crisis-construction purpose:

‘One of the curriculum’s five strands covers communication’, he says, ‘and it does outline an impressive range of skills. But the stumbling point … is that teaching those skills is not mandatory: there are no required learning outcomes.’

How sad, ignorant, and narrow this statement is – and with profoundly depressing implications for education and society.

If education can’t proceed on the basis of trust, of valuing variety, of sharing power, of recognising  knowledge development as a shared process, of allowing space for both measurable learning and holistic learning – then the implications for both education and society are deeply worrying.

Education is increasingly being held hostage to a group of academics of the psychological variety who see the child in terms of measurement and from a deficit point-of-view, most of whom have never taught in a classroom, or understood how to translate research into practice, or understood that children’s learning in a classroom is very different from clinical learning or office-based theorising.

I support Te Whariki; I trust in teachers to respond to respectful professional guidance; I am informed by teacher knowledge; and I respect the value of variety and democracy in education.

Ken Blaiklock – in the space of a few sentences (referred to above and following) you display your education shortcomings.

You say the communication strand in Te Whariki outlines an impressive range of skills. Wrong, wrong, wrong. My word how your lot dismays me. I find the endgame of your philosophy morally repugnant, not so much for being narrow, desiccated, and measurement laden, but for the way you allow your philosophy to be used by governments searching for an education philosophy to suit their ideological purposes; by international companies searching for profit; by neoliberals everywhere searching to turn education into a private good. But with the headlining quantitative academics noisily on hand, the search does not have to extend far.

How could you not see what is happening in Western countries around the world? I believe you do see but decide to proceed anyway. I believe you have been able to convince yourself of your own philosophical rightness to the point of obsession. In your writing you refer to the same research that has resulted in very young children being tested and taught with high formality in England. I believe you don’t believe in imposition as first resort but you are willing to go along with it if your government allies consider it necessary.

Look at what has happened in New Zealand. The government acted on your friend Hattie’s national standards idea, and now we have command and direction from the top, regulation down to classroom minutiae, bureaucrats swarming over schools, privatised operators, children being labelled oh so early, league tables, and an ever narrowing curriculum.

All that is the endgame of your philosophy.

You say of Te Whariki, as a way of setting it up for criticism, that the communication strand ‘does outline an impressive range of skills’. But again, ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’. The impressive range Te Whariki covers is values (with the skills being implicit) – but you as a measurement academic don’t want to recognise ‘values’ because they cannot be measured, they can, of course, be evaluated, which from your point-of-view is worse than useless, in fact, downright dangerous to your beliefs.  Yet values are the more important, encompassing as they do skills, providing a social, humanising, and meaningful context for them. That Ken Blaiklock is the holistic.

Skills from Blaiklock’s point-of-view are the bees’ knees: they can be put in hierarchies, fragmented beyond sense to be made measurable – becoming the point of learning and the instrument of choice for bureaucratic control. In this way children’s learning, curricula, school education, and education systems become hostage to bureaucrats, politicians, governments, and multi-nationals. For the want of the holistic, systems are lost.

Blaiklock goes on to say that ‘the stumbling point … is that teaching those skills is not mandatory, there are no required outcomes.’

How Blaiklock betrays at every turn his lack of understanding of the holistic. He uses the harsh and arid expression ‘teaching those skills – if he was a teacher, he would say ‘learning those skills’, that is the holistic way: children being involved in interesting, meaningful activities for the learning of skills (and crucially for much more), and those skills being expressed as criteria for evaluation purposes. Are you getting it Ken? This is teacher knowledge, so pay attention – and respect. Holistic teachers can live with complexity, a lack of certainty – it is called recognising and accepting the human condition.

I note the word ‘mandatory’ – puffed your chest out there did you Ken? Feel the big man? No more sand being kicked in your face. In mock surprise you say ‘There are no required learning outcomes.’ What is it with you with your ‘mandatory’ and your ‘required’? It is my thesis that the explanation for the quantitative drive for atomisation, control, imposition, and compulsion should first be looked at in terms of the psychology of those doing the driving than in their subsequent utterings.

Blaiklock must surely know that the inevitable outcome of using of words like ‘mandatory’ and ‘required’ is a heavy bureaucratisation of education, resulting in the people in control of early childhood having little or no understanding of that part of education, leading them to fragment the curriculum into measurable outcomes to bring it down to a level they can understand and teachers can’t. In early childhood education, management by measurable outcomes would make the curriculum understandable to those who don’t understand and nightmare for those who do.

In his final appearance in the article we have Blaiklock arguing that ‘almost all the evidence [about early childhood education in New Zealand] is compromised or irrelevant to New Zealand, so the big picture it paints is, too.’ (Out of the mouths of academics – pretty much my sceptical view irrespective.) The matter is not going to be decided by research of the quantitative variety Blaiklock favours but by qualitative research in association with the ideas of teachers and parents.

One of the amusing things to behold is little boy Blaiklock up against the formidable women leaders of early childhood. He gets shrill, petty, and silly as he sets out to provoke and undermine them but to little effect.

In a ministry of education presentation (23 October, 2013) he sets out to do this. He says there is ‘little evidence that ECE in NZ is effective’, adding parenthetically that ‘It may be – but we don’t know’.  Yet six months later he feels able to declare in the Listener article that ECE is suffering from a ‘perfect storm’ – how silly is that?

Blaiklock goes through all the research referred to by the women leaders making cheap political points as he does so. For instance, he dismisses the ‘Competent Children Study’ by saying the study began before Te Whariki began when he knows quite well that Te Whariki was used to carefully gather up all that was good about ECE to make the holistic philosophy more accessible.

He criticises an OECD ECE report for saying that Te Whariki focuses ‘largely on developmental process outcomes and little on actual child outcomes in terms precisely of what a child should know at a certain age.’ He says: Te Whariki has no [his emphasis] required learning outcomes.’ In other words, he is criticising the report for implying Te Whariki pays attention to outcomes at all. But he twists the argument by referring to required outcomes. Blaiklock is confusing ‘outcomes’ with ‘required outcomes’ – outcomes that are required, are required in relation to authority, and from there subject to sanctions if not met. He seems much caught up in education relations based on curriculum organisation for control, imposition, compulsion, and command – as against trust. I request that he examine himself to ask why this is. The last time I checked we were living in a democracy and teaching was a profession.

Blaiklock obviously feels psychologically and philosophically threatened by the holistic – leading him to grossly misunderstand it.

To be properly grounded the holistic requires children, in the sense of skills and knowledge, to know things, but they do not need to be, indeed, should not be, set out as mandatory, measurable outcomes because they are there properly to serve the learning of encompassing holistic values – the expression of which should be set out in terms appropriate to values. If those things to be known by children are set out in mandatory, measurable precise outcomes they inevitably become ends rather than means. They can, however, be set out as criteria and be planned for as a vital part of learning activities. Things to be known by children can be manifold – it is the values end that determines the selection and the use of the means in the form of knowledge and skills, provides the structure, and prevents the means running away with the ends. Blaiklock can’t see the structure in the holistic for the mist of his mandatory and measurable outcomes obsession.

To a statement ranking NZ sixth for quality of ECE, Blaiklock conveys sarcasm with a question mark: ‘Quality judgement based on opinion?’ To reply in kind: I would rather trust the judgement of people of integrity than the results of research from people I don’t.

Blaiklock gets to research he finds wonderful and the nit-picking stops. He refers approvingly to two sets of research from the UK (the most recent being the EPPE study) which support ‘a structured approach to curriculum and learning in pre-school …’ – and from which, I point out, has developed compulsory testing of children in England. Oh happy days!

Reading what follows has me fluctuating between the impulse to laugh and cry.

He says ‘Movement in the United States towards learning standards in pre-literacy and numeracy is defended on several grounds. Firstly – a point sometimes overlooked by critics of early literacy and numeracy – children are genuinely interested from an early age in reading and writing.’

There are the children genuinely interested in reading and writing, bless their little hearts – and for their joys? – being rewarded with learning standards.

So sad.

Determinedly unimaginative adults, of which Blaiklock seems set on membership, somehow linking those joys to an argument for children to be inflicted with cruel and destructive standardisation. And what compounds the horror; they do it in the guise of presenting themselves as education saviours of the poor.

And sure enough, in the next quote: It is ‘an issue of equal educational opportunity for children from low-income and immigrant backgrounds.’

Whether from ignorance or some other motive here we have another academic using the achievement gap to promote standardisation and the quantitative education ideology, to strengthen, from my point-of-view, their academic standing and appeal to politicians.

Enough of this individual.

I will though turn to Anne Smith’s reply (‘Does Te Whariki need evidence to show that it is effective?’) to Blaiklock’s paper. Anne Smith is one of the early childhood leaders referred to, and is an interesting contrast to Blaiklock because she comes from the same academic grouping as Blaiklock but has mixed that with the role of being a teacher educator (in other words listened to and gained the confidence of teachers).

She refers to a US longitudinal study (Schweinhart & Weikart) that randomly assigned children to one of three curriculum treatment conditions: High Scope – the one closest to Te Whariki; Nursery –ordinary pre-school; and DISTAR – highly instructed, regimented, academically oriented, and teacher directed. This study showed far more positive outcomes long-term associated with High Scope and Nursery.  For the DISTAR group 47% of the children were treated for emotional disturbance compared to 6% in the High Scope and Nursery groups.

But then we know this, just a pity some others in education don’t.

And there it is, the government picks up the academics’ dog whistling and feels the moment is now opportune to extend instrumentality to early childhood – announcing that research shows there is something of a crisis in early childhood; that children are falling through the gaps; and that if children’s reading and maths problems aren’t picked up early those children will experience continuing and increasing failure.

At this stage the education review office (as the education propaganda arm of the government) is despatched to early childhood centres to return with a severely downbeat assessment, repeating all of the above, but extending the case to the need to teach to mandatory measurable objectives and for the children to be assessed against standards (there is no discussion, though, about all teachers needing to be qualified, extra staffing to meet special needs, or staffing to build home-school relations).

Teachers are not listened to because, as the cause of the problem, they cannot be trusted. Anyway, quantitative academics can provide any in-school evidence as required.

In other words we will have DISTAR and something like the England experience which is already being declared a failure.

This is no game.


As it happens, I left the formal education system as senior inspector of schools in 1990 to promote and protect the holistic, publishing a magazine through the ’90s and continually travelling New Zealand promoting the red Developmental booklet; in the 2000s through networkonnet I have continued that journey in other ways. Recently, I published four booklets (Primary School Diaries) describing those experiences, with the two latest books Curriculum 4 and 5 being directly focused on why the holistic is the New Zealand way and most effective, efficient, and life sustaining way to proceed.  I stress, though, that because the holistic is about valuing variety, about democratic, participatory relationships – the holistic means the freedom to be holistic not the requirement to be so.

Blaiklock’s and Hattie’s dangerous, wrongheaded, and ultimately authoritarian education ideas are a very wrong direction for education and society. If those two are so committed they should stop dog whistling the government, step out from behind Hekia’s skirts, and get out there and do it with teachers – not to them. I cherish the holistic curriculum of early childhood and the values-structured work of teachers in response. Early childhood is a lantern of hope for school education. I do not want early childhood teachers to become, as primary school teachers have, bewildered participants in their own philosophical demise. Early childhood teachers do not have to reclaim their past, which for primary teachers has been made forgotten, they are living it in the present and, if they hold strong, well placed to carry it into the future.

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15 Responses to Ken Blaiklock and the Listener article: this is no game

  1. Bruce Hammonds says:

    Kelvin – thank you for facing up to the instrumental rubbish being put forward by such ivory tower academics as Blaiklock. He should put his money where his mouth is and take leave to teach in an early education centre – he needs a touch of realism. Why on earth does he put forward failing American and English systems as models . The trouble with his desire to teach to standardized targets that it is not the easy ones you hit but the more important ones you are distracted from seeing.. What we need is for a school system to develop all the creativity and talents of our students so they are able to contribute fully to ensure our country is able to thrive in an uncertain and challenging future.

    We are facing an important election – hope school leaders are fully aware of the situation.

    • Sophie alcock says:

      Okay, but Blaiklock isn’t even qualified as an ECE teacher. His background is rigidly primary teaching, but somehow he has this position at Unitec as a lecturer teaching ECE student teachers! Sophie

  2. Moira McKay says:

    “Walk a mile in my shoes,” comes to mind. We all know of adults who have cried “I’ll never let my child do that” before they have had their own. These guys can’t make comments about something they have only read about. As a 30+ years primary teacher now into my 4th year early childhood, only my study prepared me for the huge difference. I am continually amazed at what 3 and 4 year olds are capable of organising, saying, constructing. I wish I had the opportunity to take their ways of learning with such enthusiasm back into a classroom.

  3. Brian Poffley says:

    Isn’t what has made kiwi’s world leaders is the ability to think freely. To think outside the box, to create new idea’s . It seems there are plenty of people already that can copy and repeat the origial ideas by rote.

  4. Shirley Knuckey says:

    I think the tragedy is that those of us who read the specialist blogs such as yours Kelvin and Bruce are merely an ‘inner circle’ of like-mindedness; you guys need to bombard the media one way or another to get the ‘correcting’ message across. Think of Metro, of whose ‘education/schools’ annual issue has the widest circulation of their year. Simon Wilson is an intelligent and perceptive editor, and whether we get tired of the ra-ra- Auckland glossiness of the publication, there is thoughtfulness here and there, worth responding to. Sure, education is not sexy or perhaps even well-read in the Letters to Ed columns, but any time the Listener comes through with one of their once-over-lightly special pieces, I want to see you guys in there promptly with a terse, considered response!

    • Moira McKay says:

      I totally agree Shirley. I am often shocked that my friends still in primary classrooms have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. It wasn’t until I was a principal that I realised just how much information came through by email that we teachers never saw or heard of.

  5. Deborah Neilson says:

    As an early childhood teacher it never ceases to amaze me how on the one hand there is crticism of our curriculum and ability to teach children those essential values and with the other the government takes massive amounts of funding away from early childhood centres where all the teachers are registered and qualified. How can unqualified staff members understand and implement Te Whaariki effectively. The government dumbs down our profession by allowing centres to employ unqualified staff and then Blaiklock has the audacity to criticise! I agree with Moira, Blaiklock and his cronies should walk a mile in our shoes.

  6. Barrie Wickens says:

    Thank you Kelvin. You have got it so right. I am becoming more of a conspiracy theorist as each move by this current government unfolds. You have Hattie pegged and now another one in your sights. Brilliant work, brilliant insight.
    Our teachers are too busy to grasp the moves afoot by this government and their so called academic blowhards. Keep the watch and keep us informed please!.

    Other: The $359 million Key’s election year bribe,(to be cemented into the budget) is gaining support. NZSTA’s President Lorraine is no exception and her own propaganda (STA Magazine) machine is working overtime promoting the IES. She has no mandate here (sounds familiar?).
    Now I feel a bit better.
    Barrie Wickens

  7. Marlene Campbell says:

    Hi Buddy

    Brilliant!!!! Love this post!


  8. Kelvin says:

    Hi everyone!.Reading the comments after a posting is interesting and illuminating. I was going to write in the posting, but things were getting a bit lengthy, about how it felt as a classroom observer to look into young children’s eyes and see that blank look as he or she was trying to read while struggling with both the squiggles, but even more, the lack of the necessary social experience.

    And all the best Marlene we are all with you and your legal fight – a fortnight is it?

    And re the ‘Education today’ posting the Herald picked it up.

  9. Lesley Forrest says:

    Thank you once again Kelvin. Your work and passion for the children and their teachers of this country helps lift my thinking above despair. I have no ‘evidence’ but I suspect that ‘mandatory standardisation’ when related to values and thinking has been the catch phrase of dictators for centuries. If the Blaiklocks, Hatties, Keys, and Paratas continue along this line we really will see this country go backwards both educationally and socially. It appears to me there is a strong trend for people like those mentioned above to look at what has happened and failed in either or both Britain and the U.S., acknowledge that failure, and make the decision to take the same paths because ‘we will make it work – with less people and less money’! If there is such a lack of thinking (intelligence) at that level it is probably no surprise that the lowest common denominators appear to have gained the greatest influence. Again, thank you for having the energy to lead us in voicing our concerns.

  10. John Carrodus says:

    Having been retired for over a year now, I shudder to think how almost completely rotten from top to bottom, inside to out, the whole primary setup has become. But wait- there is a whole lot more worse yet to come!
    I said -almost- above, because there is always a glimmer of light in the deepest hole, if you look back to where you came from. In NZ primary education, it was a strong teaching service at all levels with a progressive deicated teacher force given the leadership, encouragement, recognition, plus the tools and freedom to get on with their profession – in a politically safe environment.
    Most of the above has withered and died – the only survivor in the game,
    the school staff ( Principals, management, teachers and support ) at the chalk face gasping for every breath.
    It seems only a miracle will save the day now.
    Circle the wagons, the storm is upon you.

  11. Ian says:

    Another ivory tower number gnome masquerading as an educator with no understanding, or experience, of classroom dynamics.

  12. Kelvin says:

    With that sort of language Ian are you trying to take over my job?

    • Ian says:

      Definately not. Wouldn’t know where to start, or have a fraction of the knowledge & contacts you possess.

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