Trevor: as a Moses for the primary school education system, you failed us
[Based on a posting I wrote to Trevor nearly a decade ago.]
Best wishes for your aspirations to be a speaker; you will make a good one.
This posting, though, is a reminder how deeply disappointing you were as a minister and spokesperson for primary education – we wanted a Moses, as I wrote back then, but we only got the bulrushes. As a former secondary teacher you never got even close to understanding primary teaching.
And I suspect, through your membership on the Labour education committee (or access to it), you have been a continuing obstruction to any fundamental change to the top-down model in place then and now. We are in disarray and you bear significant responsibility for it. As far as primary education is concerned it would have been better if you had never been.
I put all this to you a number of years ago and you said you’d get back to me, you didn’t. So, here’s another chance for you to remedy that.
Trevor, as I said at the time, you owe us, your leader was a minister of education for Tomorrow’s Schools, that inglorious surrendering education to neo-liberalism, fundamentally changing the education system and contributing to the increase in social inequality. It also left the defence of the humanist tradition bereft because its natural defenders were doing the attacking. Brilliant! What was the Labour Party thinking? Have you noticed that David Lange in his retrospectives hardly mentioned Tomorrow’s Schools, and Phil Goff never mentions it?
On one occasion during the Tomorrow’s Schools implementation I confronted Goff as he walked across the Massey Campus: ‘Why’, I asked, ‘were we adopting an American education control system which had its origins in industrial production?’ It was clear he wasn’t prepared to care a bugger. And on another occasion, before that, when what was to be Tomorrow’s Schools was mainly a glint in the eye of Treasury, Noel Scott, Labour member for Tongariro, former district senior inspector for secondary schools when I was in the primary inspectorate, offered me a taxi ride from Wellington airport, in the course of which, on a cigarette packet with a stub pencil, he gleefully mapped out the structure he had decided was the bee’s knees. The structure had, of course, emanated from the neo-liberals in Treasury.
Secondary teachers continually demonstrate that they don’t understand the true nature of primary teaching. Which wouldn’t matter so much if it wasn’t that so many secondary teachers seem continually hell-bent on getting out of secondary teaching into positions of power to be hell-bent on making decisions about primary teaching in the light of their understandings about secondary teaching (which, as I’ve pointed out they seemed hell-bent on getting out of, in the first place).
In other words, Trevor, as a person with the aforesaid secondary background, as a potential Moses, you had some ground to make up (which you never did).
I know you have no time for education philosophies (a not inconsiderable lack in a potential education Moses), nor your colleagues, which means those who do, run rings round you, for instance, John Hattie, who appeared to be something of a mate of yours. You even mouthed some of his education right-wing toxic little slogans, and one toxic little slogan, in particular.
[Hattie continues to fool a lot of people, but his number has come up especially with a number of senior English academics. I am willing to accept that when he did the gigantic meta-meta research as a young man, he believed in it, but it is impossible for me to believe he does now – so to be still drawing on it, rather than apologising for it, is a kind of academic fraud. 2016]
And the particular little right-wing toxic slogan? Well, it’s the one driving the right-wing assault on teachers and schools; it’s the one that seems to distract the Labour Party from coming up with ideas for genuine education change. Is there an education thinker in your Party? [2016: OK, perhaps, Kelvin Davis.]
And now for the little right-wing toxic slogan referred to. I know you were being tactical when you said, as you repeatedly did, that you didn’t accept poverty as an excuse for children not doing as well as other children, or you accuse teachers of using poverty as an excuse for ineffective teaching. Excuse me: do pigs fly for you? The effect of poverty on children’s education is so obvious it seems to have escaped your attention. (Which is the way big lies work.) The relationship of poverty to poor education performance is not, of course, deterministic. When we are talking about sociological effects such relationships never are, but to take the exceptions and make them a rule is ridiculous, and especially for Labour politicians. (Ivan Snook has written persuasively on how the various apparent school-based contradictions to the serious influence of poverty on learning have come about or made to come about.) Leave the distortions to the Hatties of this world. For goodness sake, you should have taken a step back and thought about what you are saying, the implications of what you are saying. Have you ever ventured to say that poverty is no excuse for poor families having more health problems?
Of course, there are instances of teachers and schools using poverty as an excuse for inefficient teaching. Of course, there are schools that do better with children from poor families than other schools, but to use such instances to deny that poverty has serious effects on children’s learning is cruel. It was cruel because it prevents real solutions being proposed, discussed, and acted on.
Tomorrow’s Schools was sold as advantageous for Maori children: it never could be and never has been – it was always going to be another burden to them, and always has been. I remember vividly a Maori woman at the time being interviewed on National Radio and her saying. ‘All right, but this is your last chance to do something for our children’. Well – Tomorrow’s Schools never had a chance to do something for Maori children because it wasn’t about children Maori or otherwise, but changing power relationships amongst adults.
Could you tell me for what the purpose ‘Working for Families’ was introduced? Surely part of it was to improve the education outcomes for poorer families. If that was the case, then surely that is an admission that poverty affects education outcomes. For goodness sake, what am I doing? Now I’m being drawn into the madness – am I really in this the 21st century spending time establishing a relationship between poverty and reduced education outcomes? And with a Labour person. To find myself involved in arguing something so self-evident is demeaning.
There is much wailing a weeping about the education performance of Maori and Pacific Island children. The toxic little slogan being discussed has had tragic effects on finding fundamental ways to address this. It is not a new issue. A cousin of mine, Malcolm Lovegrove back in the sixties, gained the second doctorate issued by New Zealand universities (I think Don McAlpine was the first). The main finding in it was that middle-class Maori children did as well (actually a little better) than their pakeha counterparts in the test that was administered (also urban children better than rural children and girls better than boys). This, of course, is completely unsurprising because we know middle-class children of whatever ethnicity will do as approximately well as each other. Which leaves questions for the promoters of that toxic little slogan: If it is correct about middle-class children, how is it that children from poor families so magically and tragically attract such poor teachers and are attracted to such poor schools?
Any socio-economic grouping of Maori children, on the whole, will do equally as well as their pakeha counterparts. I hasten to add that it is a basic right of children of all ethnicities to have their culture as part of the curriculum and, given the Treaty of Waitangi and its implications, particularly so for Maori. Special Maori schools are needed for issues of high competence in te reo and matters of sovereignty which, admittedly, do have sociological implications that feed back beneficially into the education of Maori children. But the point I am making is that if particular teaching procedures and environments are decided as being conducive to children’s education, on the whole, they will be conducive to all children’s education. For instance, Russell Bishop’s Te Kotahitanga programme is designed to help secondary school Maori children by improving relationships between them and teachers. However, while improving such relationships is particularly important for Maori children who are struggling, it would also be at least helpful to all children – struggling or not, Maori or not? [This sounds as if in 2008 I bought into the madcap 2016 Maori plan of ERO.]
The tragedy of the situation for Maori education is that we have politicians in right-wing, or conservative parties like National, Act, and the Maori Party providing a cataclysmically wrong narrative about Maori education with, of course, matching cataclysmically wrong solutions. When this narrative and its associated policies fail as they are bound to, schools are blamed, allowing those same politicians to take the high ground to their political advantage but to the disadvantage of teachers and Maori children. This is neo-liberalism in education to a T. Contrary to the ideas of these politicians, poverty does have a huge effect children’s education performance; state schools are not letting Maori children down; national standards will not benefit Maori children. (I do grant, that as spokesperson, you did oppose national standards, but that is typical of you and Labour: address some symptoms but never the structure that produces them.)
There are, however, obvious ways to improve Maori children’s learning – one of them difficult to effect but fundamental, the other as simple as falling off a log. The answer to Maori education performance in primary schools is to reduce the wealth gap in New Zealand society and reduce the number of children living in poverty. In the immediate though, teacher-child ratios should be reduced and there should be made available to New Zealand schools a substantial increase in ancillary aide hours for one-to-one or small group tuition in literacy and numeracy. One-to-one tuition has a magic all of its own, a magic that relies not on sophisticated techniques but humanity, warmth, and patience. As well, while steps are taken to reduce the number of children living in poverty, schools should develop policies to provide some compensation for social disadvantage – the ancillary aide hours would help in this, as well as the kind of ideas implicit in Te Kotahitanga.
Trevor, such ideas are the kinds that are consistent with Labour’s philosophy, but you have neglected them, certainly not featured them. Your policy centrepiece is about computers. Yes – as governments all around the Western world demonstrate, computers are the kind of showy policy centrepiece that do the public relations job in the absence of a coherent education policy. The relationship between computers and education in primary schools is far more complex than meets the eye. I don’t want to go into the matter here except to say that just because computers are fundamental to our way of life does not mean they are fundamental to school learning; and in just the way computers are showy policy centrepieces for selling a political party, they are also showy centrepieces for selling a school.
Which brings me back to Hattie, the hollow man, clearly discredited in the eyes of primary teachers, National’s big hope, but who proved too unreliable even for Tolley, and now fled to Australia and increasingly the UK. An academic who provided the figures and rationale for the toxic little slogan discussed above and for the wide-ranging right-wing education programme from management by objectives, to top down administration, to technocratic management, to atomised learning, to teacher performance pay, to national standards, and to class size being of no moment. And yet Trevor, this is the person you invited to speak to the last Labour Party conference in government. What were you thinking?
I’ll be straight about this Trevor. My postings about Hattie and his dodgy research and slippery commentary succeeded in making his relationships with primary teachers uncomfortable and undoubtedly played a part in his departure for Australia. Look how, in trying to maintain his reputation with primary teachers, he signed the petition by the four academics on national standards then backtracked. Look how ‘Visible Laboratories’ collapsed. Look how MultiServe and he were going to great things but didn’t. Look how Tolley in the 2009 Sunday Star-Times declared Hattie was going to be at the centre of things for various of her policies but was sidelined. Hattie said my postings were abusive, but they weren’t, they are, after all, there to be read, and a reading of them will show they may have been hard-hitting but remained essentially analytical. My intention with regard to Hattie was to inflict vocational paralysis through persistent analysis. To understand this academic and his right-wing education philosophy, I invite you to read the last posting I sent out on Hattie: ‘Horizons, whirlpools, Sartrean secrets, John Hattie and other symptoms of the continuing education tragedy’.
But Trevor, you chose to confuse Labour’s education message by making Hattie, your pal, the hero of the hour, and confirmed in the minds of primary teachers that people with a secondary background have a tin ear for all but the starkest messages from primary, and that Labour politicians are more comfortable with right-wing academics than humanist ones. You should have broken the hold of neo-liberalism in education, Trevor. Strange how you and Labour recognise neo-liberalism in economics but not in education – a constructed lack of recognition because of condescension to teachers and the lack in Labour of education thinkers. You should have taken steps to develop an education system based on truly valuing variety, on truly valuing partnership; taken steps to develop a system which boldly expresses our New Zealand identity; taken steps to develop an education system that is organised by aims not bureaucratically set and monitored objectives; taken steps to develop an education system that respects and is informed by both teacher and a genuine spread of academic knowledge; taken steps to develop a system which is set up for children and curriculum not ease of bureaucratic control; and, in respect to the theme that introduced this posting, taken steps to develop an education system truly addresses the issues surrounding children’s learning and poverty.
I believed the country, as I said those many years ago, was ready to listen to such a message, but you lacked the insight, patience, and inspiration to do the job.
Perhaps you lacked a burning bush.
[Labour in 2016 in primary education remains a huge disappointment: a near invisible spokesperson, nothing from its leader, too stodgy it seems to go there. In some ways the legacy of years of mishandling by our failed Moses. In its heyday, education for Labour was a lively part of its core values. But now, no intellectual energy; no innovative thinking; no feeling of even caring; and no noticeable understanding, that away from the spin, school education is in crisis.]