Primary school principals, teachers, and boards of trustees should view the NZEI-ministry agreement as a victory – a victory achieved as a result of genuine collaboration between primary schools in the interests of their professionalism and children’s welfare. Yes – the government has backed off, preliminary to some backing down – the degree of that dependent on the unity and vigour of your response.
I know I must sound irascible and uncompromising at times, especially to the ministry, and in the IES case to the PPTA executive, but where we are now is exactly where I hoped we would be. My last posting begged you not to over-intellectualise but just to stay strong and together. And most of you did – well done – and the reward is the opportunity to drive IES in a better direction.
The success of NZEI and your sturdy efforts can be measured by the slowness of the ministry to acknowledge the agreement for a working party to develop a Better Plan (my suggested label) and to provide details.
What has been won is of sufficient import to be declared a victory, and in the circumstances to be declared a brilliant victory, but beyond the circumstances, as far as the real needs of schools and children are concerned, a modest victory. The questions being asked in the working party are not ones central to improving school education: the outcome of the working party agreement with its hang-ups about collaboration, pathways, transitions, governance structures and the like, will only be distantly helpful to improving school education – but at least they won’t be downright destructive. Suggesting collaboration, pathways and so on as being useful to improving school education presupposes that the curriculum knowledges are in place and only need the right bureaucratic procedures to set them alight – the curriculum knowledges aren’t in place and we don’t have the right professional context to get them right and from there to set up what we used to have, the opportunity for continuous sequences of insight and illumination resulting in creative action.
Hasn’t the announcement procedure been weird? First, NZEI Te Riu Roa then nothing. You can imagine busy principals reading it yesterday and wondering what on earth it all added up to. Was it good or bad news? My e-mails were full of: What does it mean? Has NZEI caved in? I wrote back and said it was a victory of sorts and NZEI definitely hasn’t caved in. It was the ministry who blinked. That’s why there has been no announcement from the ministry. It knew the supporters of IES would be confused and dismayed. The media, without a ministry hand-out, have been perplexed into a flummoxed silence. A few days ago the Herald editor trumpeted an auspicious beginning for IES and had hard words for NZEI. The editorial was headed ‘Uptake for government success plan encouraging’. Now he will be asking the minister for a please explain. Being a good neoliberal comrade following the Ayn Rand line can do that to you Mr Editor. When Judith Nowotarski was interviewed by Susie Ferguson on Morning Report she kept pushing Judith with the question: what does it mean? But Judith was too shrewd for that. This is no time for triumphalism both because it isn’t a triumph and even if was, tactically unhelpful to be described as that.
The point is this: because principals and teachers stood firm on ethical and professional values, and because NZEI has become a terrific organisation – an opportunity has been created – but what it means is unclear, currently inexplicable, because it is up to you, open for development, not there for the taking exactly, but there for the variation and improvement.
I want to give some credit to Hekia Parata and Peter Hughes, and who knows perhaps also to that group of academics on the advisory committee who may have contributed their two cents worth. Anne Tolley paused to consider changing course on national standards but shrugged it off and continued to pursue them. She failed to take the opportunity for lifting the school education discussion to a more constructive level. Hekia and Peter, on the other hand, have demonstrated some courage and wisdom in creating this opportunity for an open exchange of ideas. As for IES, no matter what happens it will never be the same. In a moment, with nothing but an announcement (of sorts), it was changed, there is no going back.
Having looked at the terms of reference for the working party, some quick points
Another name for IES should be selected. Primary teachers will never be comfortable with that label. Why not call it Better Plan? the label NZEI has been battling IES on. (And if the government won’t accept that label, just use it anyway.)
Some kind of governance structure has been agreed, in advance, as necessary by the working party – well OK, but the more flexible and informal the better; reward for being in the governance structure should more be satisfaction and status than financial – in the case of the principal, any financial rewards should be allocated to the school of the principal temporarily made available.
Transitions for children should concentrate on attitudes and qualities, such as: attitudes to work, independence, creativity, imagination, flexibility of thinking, ability to feel comfortable with complexity, ability to work with others (though something of an overemphasised quality in today’s schooling), feeling comfortable with cultural complexity. Such concentration would allow transition influences to flow both ways between school systems.
As for lead teachers (expert teachers should be dispensed with) their appointments should be made across all curriculum areas and fit sensibly into the appointment of structure of the existing lead teacher system – that is the senior teacher system.
A substantial increase in funding should be made available for teacher support hours to meet special needs (provided from savings in parts of the old IES structure – especially salaries and governance).
Because of serious faults in official curricula (for example, maths), or methods insisted on by ERO (for example, reading, reading, and social studies), or faults in national standards tests also methods insisted on by ERO (for example, writing) – the scope for improvement in many curriculum areas is limited.
The arts, dance, music, and drama, also Maori language (or other languages) and computer formatting, might be considered as the areas best suited to school group development and to improving children’s attitudes and qualities referred to above.
There are very few international models for school group development so the best course would seem to be to quickly move on from a consideration of those to implementing a light governance structure (encouraging groups to modify) and the application by groups for funds to pursue special projects, for instance, Maori language.
The working party as a result of the NZEI agreement is coming to your school or a school near you to ask you what you want of schools working together so be thinking about the working party matters of governance, lead appointments, collaboration, transitions, and pathways. But be cautious of this togetherness emphasis, don’t accept it as an unmitigated good. Though a school might be part of a group, it should be an accepted principle that it is the school that is the key unit of the education system not the group. Group control can become stultifying and bureaucratic also a considerable timewaster. Working together with other schools should not be seen as central to the education system but a useful resort in some matters and some circumstances.
Also be cautious of the words pathways and transitions as they can easily become the ties that bind to restrict and distort. It can end up with the destructive and limiting practice of a one-way traffic of secondary passing down its ways and values to primary and primary to early childhood. This would be unfortunate for all children, especially those who have learning difficulties or are affected by impoverished home circumstances. These are ideas bureaucrats come up with because they promise the opportunity to homogenise education, standardise it, to better control it. The big questions in education are not about pathways and transitions and so on, they are about the curriculum and the freedom for creative teaching. The working party is an opportunity to express our primary school values, an opportunity that comes rarely in our bureaucratised and desiccated school education system – you and NZEI have worked bravely to provide that opportunity, now grasp it and make it count.
But of course, the final form of the working together ‘structure’ would need to be radically different from the present heavy-handed one – an important part of that is that group decisions are not binding on a member; the unsavoury cask nexus that has secondary eyes so shining is removed; and a three year cycle of returning to members to see if the group structure was still supported is undertaken.