The ERO visit and the water play

(Based on a real incident)

They’re here. What a sight!

Get a grip!

Eye of the beholder?

But just too much power.


The inhibiting game of second-guessing what the review office wants.

Why does it have to be like this? (Feeling sorry for myself.)

Why can’t we agree on the main aims of what we do, as in the curriculum document, and then be visited by people interested in the various ways schools move towards those aims?

Why this obsessive call for data?

We all know national standards are hurting children, inhibiting teachers.

It’s screwing New Zealand education.

We could just as well just post it in and they post back whether there was enough or not.

At most they spend ten minutes in a classroom.

(To be famous last words.)

They are saving the children (to their mind) by destroying their learning (to mine).

Something sinister?

Is it to set up the grounds for saying – what’s the use of giving more money to schools as teachers are not up to the job?

She looked out the large window to the right of the outside door; saw the cloud clearing from the blackish-green of the distant ranges, the sun coming through.

What a promising day to waste being on edge.

About a dozen of the children were already inside. She liked that – their murmuring application to some self-appointed task.

She let it run after the buzzer to allow the day start with a nice flow.

By now all the children in the new entrant room were involved in some activity.

A number of them are with their ‘I can read’ books most sprawled on the cushions; others are in the dress-up area; a number are completing writing and artwork from the day before. All the children are involved. A parent-help is going around the children while I take the fortnightly running records.

I start to read a story about a taniwha, most of the children drift over. Even the three who don’t are listening while they stay with their artwork.

As I read I leave silences, which are followed by surges of responses by the children. A rhythm develops between the reading and the class.

The children mime certain parts and then, in role, are asked questions by the children.

The children, as is usual, can choose whether to go outside for water play first, or write about the taniwha or a topic of their own choice, with their turn at water play after. Artwork and writing (also drama) go together with children allowed to do one before the other. (A lot of this work is continued and completed in their own time, especially before the bells and after.)

Play is an important part of my classroom, providing children with a lot of opportunities to learn, imagine, create, experiment, relate, problem solve, and a wide range of other competencies. I have found water play a winner right through the contributing school years, but for new entrants and juniors a necessity in meeting class aims.

Two raised troughs and one large bath are available to the children. The equipment I put out is suggestive of what children might do rather than directive. There can be plastic, wood, or metal items; cups, spoons, bottles, colanders, sieves, funnels, and lots of tubes; sponges, waterwheels, and watering cans; squeeze bottles; shells, stones, seaweed, and driftwood; cardboard and blu-tack; soap or detergent.

The learning from the regular water play is continuous in experience: when the children come back from water play, what is discussed one day contributes to the experience the next and so on. It also contributes to their writing.

Recently, I have been concentrating on problem-solving abilities and useful maths vocabulary such as more/less, same/different, many/few, empty/full, before/after, greater than/less than, and counting.

So there we were: the water play group on the verge of putting on their hats to go outside and the writing group ready to do writing though some had chosen to do artwork first.

The children were now moving to their areas: the water play group down the outside steps; the writing (and art group) to the writing or art area.

There was a knock and there was the ‘birdie’ one at the door. As she was introducing herself she suddenly became more interested in peering over my shoulder.

‘Where are the children going?’

‘Out to do water play.’

‘Water play?’

‘Yes, water play.’

‘They play with water,’ I added.

She could sense an attitude.

‘And what is the other group doing?’


‘But some aren’t.’

‘No, some are doing artwork.’

‘Artwork instead of writing?’

‘No – artwork with writing.’

She was vexed.

Abruptly she left me to go outside.

Standing a couple of careful paces back from the children she stared. No attempt was made to relate to them.

They were connecting tubes, some of which went upward in a crazy structure that fed into containers by pressure from plastic bottles.

She abruptly turned left and walked swiftly past the room and out of sight.

Not long to wait. All three were at the door. Perfunctory introductions and they brushed past me, first to see the writers (and artists), and then outside to see the water play.

They had the look of something they were still looking for.

There was more going on here than teaching and learning, this was about putting a teacher down, about instilling the right attitude to authority. All teachers know about this.

They went into a huddle in full view outside my classroom window.

Then before I could move they had me surrounded.

The man was disturbingly close.

‘We are concerned with your programme.’

‘Why in writing time are children doing artwork?’

I was not going to be bullied.

I was provocatively allusive.

‘They are both forms of expression and communication and belong together.’

‘Children must be able to write to pass exams.’

‘It’s a national standard,’ he added.

‘This is a choice programme and the children have the choice to do writing and art on a topic of their choice or one I suggest, and whether to do the writing first or the artwork.’

‘Why complicate it when writing is a national standard?’

‘One helps the other.’

But this was not really what they were about.

They hated the water play.

I explained its purposes and how it tied into the competencies. They were having none of it.

‘When do they do their writing?’ was the question asked almost exultantly.

‘At the change over.’


Then to retrieve: ‘Where is the data for this water play?’

‘I make evaluative comments in relation to the competencies.’

‘No – we want figures, real data,’ the other woman said.

‘Hard data.’

We’ll come back later.

They never did.

No need to.

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16 Responses to The ERO visit and the water play

  1. Lesley Forrest says:

    This posting is so close to true it is scary. Why is it the ‘authorities’ don’t have the key competencies developed with young children and their peers as per the NZC- particluarly Thinking (critical and creative), Relating to others, Participating nd contributing, and then Managing self, and Using Language, symbol, and texts. The above story clearly shows an inability and/or unwillingness to diplay any of the competencies and, very sad to say, the sor of behaviour observed in more than one school during this year.

  2. Catherine says:

    Teachers have also posted on Facebook that ERO were very enthusiastic about seeing developmental play-based learning in junior classes, so maybe it depends on who you get!

    • Kelvin says:

      Fair point, but its Kafkan, teachers never know. And water play is something else again.

      Iona Holsted and Katrina Casey have both recently said data needs to get harder.

      Disastrous results occurring but there will be no change of direction.

      Bad institutions need some reasonable people as a front.

      ERO shouldn’t be driving the curriculum, let alone assessing it. As I’ve pointed out many times, it is the essence of a neoliberal institution: a severe separation of assessors from the assessed.

      ERO is the guardian and promoter of NS, the toolbox of centralised control.

  3. 111peggyb says:

    Why do we keep accepting this behaviour from ERO. When did the teaching profession become so afraid? All I see right now is talented professionals, killing themselves to provide the best and most creative learning environment possible – only to be shafted if they are not forelock tapping, sycophants who are prepared to toe the party line and turn education into an assessment factory!

  4. Catherine says:

    Hope the school was able to put what ERO said to the side, and maybe even educate the reviewers.

  5. Megan says:

    What fascinates me is that some of the reviewers are no longer in the teaching profession, or they come from a different teaching background – for instance I am an ECE teacher, and our last ERO visit had a retired Primary and a semi retired Secondary teacher assessing us can they not have like settings assess each other, at least then they will have some understanding about the setting.

  6. Sally Pendergrast says:

    The problem is much bigger and more malevolent than ERO. We are fully immersed in a system that is obsessed with measurement, justification, and producing “outcomes” (“show me your data”)
    Teachers and management of schools (esp management because teachers are exhausted by,you know, teaching .) need to push back and stop manufacturing these “outcomes”. We are seeing more and more children with anxiety related issues, great teachers burning out and/or becoming disillusioned. Let’s stop being our own worst enemies by buying into this nightmare. We can change this by being real, honest, and actually actioning the curriculum.

    • Kelvin says:

      Dear Sally: An insightful analysis of the problem, but sustained change can’t come from acts of individual will, not supported by structural change – we need leadership from the political parties and teacher organisations for this to happen – to sweep in those brave individual wills.

  7. Bruce Hammonds says:

    Wen I used to present I liked using the ‘joke’ that when a school got notice of an ERO visit the staff suffered from ‘anticipatory dread’ signaled by an outbreak of new clear folders!In the current toxic environment, where schools are never sure of the current agenda of ERO, there is , what one writer calls, ‘a corrosion of character’ as schools try to guess what will be required putting their own beliefs on hold. Creativity and diversity get lost in the process.

  8. Kelvin says:

    Bruce: Yes – most principals, possibly wisely, go for the lowest possible fear denominator. And there it is, NZ education screwed.

  9. principalmms says:

    What was happening in that learning environment was REAL learning with children making decisions, managing themselves and having access to creative, imaginative experiences. Unfortuantely the people who were viewing this have no idea of what works for tamariki – they have a very narrow view of what they expect to see and if your leanring environment doesn’t fit into this – no matter how well the children are doing – you will experience the same scathing inquisition outlined above. Kelvin is absolutely right – we need to stand up to these people and stop letting them ruin our fantastically diverse schools. We want to do what is right for our children and that will be different depending on where you are and who is in front of you. We are not all the same and we should not be told to be. Last time we had ERO in our school they tried to completely destroy us – we didn’t allow this to happen because we are solid in our belief that what we are doing is right and works for our children and families. If we can do this as an individual school surely if we all stood together we could make some real changes in the current system?? We know this obsession with standards is wrong for our children, what are we scared of? We need to stop this duplicity of one face for the powers that be and another for what we REALLY do every day with our kids. No wonder we are all buring out – it’s hard work playing these games on top of what is already a very demanding calling.

  10. John Carrodus says:

    So Kelvin, ERO are no longer circling the toilet, they are now slithering further into the septic tank than they were when EROwars was published many years ago! Heaven help NZ public education.

  11. wheeledped says:

    I am so pleased that this teacher is doing the right thing for the children. It’s a shame that this approach is not understood or appreciated by ERO (and I suspect, teaching colleagues). I’d like to encourage this teacher to continue with this practice in the knowledge that there is a growing body of evidence to validate this approach. Teaching is a human endeavour and that seems largely forgotten (or maybe that has never been fully embraced). I would also like to suggest that we all embrace the standards. Seems strange to suggest but I am finding that learning through creative play and the achievement of national standards do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I am finding that play can enhance the experience. I have written about it here…

    The only thing then left unsolvable at the moment is the ability to convince the boffins and the non-believers the merits of your approach. That would be a cool long term outcome but in the meanwhile, we all need to keep doing a fantastic job for the children. The children, their parents, your colleagues, ERO may never appreciate our efforts but that is no reason to stop. I encourage teachers to see themselves as problem solvers and thought leaders…

    We need to keep trying to convince the policy makers, but fail to do so should not mean we abandon the children for their failings.


  12. Kelvin says:

    It isn’t really up to the teacher: even what were the most sublime principals now play it safe – to not do so is to almost guarantee eventually burning and crashing. The risk-reward over a career does not pay off. At best it leads to a series of humiliations.

  13. Margaret Lange says:

    Kelvin, the water play story is familiar! Forget Tomorrow’s Schools. This shows that little has changed in some 70 years and it’s never going to while individual teachers and schools are the only ones fighting it. We are a very small school and we did beat ERO at its own game but it was a hollow victory as the big picture hasn’t changed – the lack of understanding of a solid educational philosophy and the non-existence of relevant experience of more than a few review officers and administrators continue, as does the more recent subtle penalising of schools that don’t toe the party line.
    I don’t know how this can be fixed but I have long advocated that ERO’s main focus should be on secondary schools where it would be very clear to anyone with a few clues that there may be whole groups of children from specific contributing schools that don’t meet the ‘one-size-fits-all’ criteria. As we all know, this is likely to be for any other reason than the incompetence of the teachers but it would be a great opportunity not only for some in-depth and probably unwelcome research into why some children are more ready for secondary school than others but also for those contributing schools to be investigated and offered help, preferably by people who know what they are doing.

  14. Kelvin says:

    Five days into it Margaret and this could be the letter of the year. As you suggest, ERO is the key to any real change, and the quickest way to effect it. I regularly turn the matter over in my head. The first thing is, is that schools should run on the official curriculum and the schools’ interpretation of it. Let’s keep exchanging ideas. All the best Margaret – remember a drum is hollow but can make a lot of noise. You and the school did wonders with that famous victory. Now we have the head of ERO, who wouldn’t apologise, secretary for education. I may rerun the story in an abbreviated form to put her on the spot..

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