Two bits of policy, Chris Hipkins, Labour, a challenge, clusters, and a bit at the end

Labour’s latest two bits of policy bring bad and good news: Labour has gone with NZEI, and will continue with clusters – albeit with changes, oh dear! but listened to teachers, and national standards will go, oh good!

Can’t NZEI get it? clusters just won’t do it.  Education from primary through to tertiary is in decline (Te Whariki is still doing good things for early childhood), and nowhere faster than primary – it is not primary schools’ fault it is the system’s, but schools will get the blame and the bureaucracies, as ever, will come up with the answers, mainly via the education review office tightening the screws.

Clusters just won’t do it.

Get this straight: if National is returned, paying for the clusters will just about be it, and National will have another term saying clusters will solve everything (another three years lost for Maori education) just as they said it for national standards; as well, because NZEI has supported clusters, they might be able to carp about them, but not really oppose them – they will have fallen into the government’s trap just as they did with Tomorrow’s Schools; if Labour gets in, then there won’t be much else for primary, certainly not in the first year. When Andrew Little is talking about education as one of Labour’s three major policies, he is talking about full qualifications for early childhood teachers, extra pay for support teachers, and free tertiary for students – there will be precious little for anything else.

Clusters can be nice socially, moderately useful educationally, but they don’t get to the heart of education where teachers and children are struggling; as well, their reach and effect is, and always will be, patchy. And, of course, over time, they will increasingly become administrative units for the government and a captive market for private corporations.

But at last from NZPF, a hint of good sense and independence from government policy by Whetu Cormick, who wrote in his latest newsletter: ‘Some principals attending the Moot made the comment that it is not about the government not having funds, it’s about priorities.  With special education in such disarray many principals feel that the $329 million set aside for future Communities of Learning, might be better spent on supporting special education now.’

  • In the Whanganui Chronicle, Chris Hipkins (March 18, 2017) described the clusters as flawed due to lack of consultation, but that if Labour became the government it would retain the idea.

Oh for goodness sake Chris, listen to classroom teachers not NZEI.

  • But in the Manawatu Standard, Chris Hipkins widened his scope and said some quite inspiring things about education, mind you, just at the end he is more Grant Robertson than Peter Fraser.

Chris Hipkins, however, also started off unpromisingly with the groan-inducing education cliché referring to an ‘outdated system designed for the industrial age that needs to be overhauled for the 21st century and better resourced.’

What he fails to recognise that it was a case of an increasingly industrial 21st century (think of commodification) backing into a somewhat more enlightened 20th one.

‘We have a factory model of education,’ Chris Hipkins says, ‘a filtering system – SC was designed so half of young people would fail. The workforce needs of today are very different to what was needed in an industrial economy.’

An analogy oft used but is it a good one? Would a factory be functioning if half the product failed?

A dose of realpolitik, there is no escaping from secondary schools being a filter, no matter what fantasists say (Jane Gilbert, for instance), secondary schools will always be a vocational filter; as a liberal idealist I recognise that – indeed need to recognise that to be able to respond realistically. What is needed is a much higher proportion of children beginning their attendance at secondary school who are independent readers, fluent writers, good thinkers, creative and imaginative, and who like school – in other words more children being given a chance.

And what is needed from there is a system to pick up students at the end of secondary – and Chris Hipkins is up to that.

‘First of all,’ he says, ‘we need an education system that … is seamless and life long.’

Then to his Peter Fraser mode:

‘Funding should cover 100 per cent qualified staff for early childhood.’


National standards and burdens on students and teaching resources from over-assessing students should go …


… subjects outside reading, writing, and arithmetic should also be fostered as strongly to support creativity, and the focus in schools should be teaching children to learn …


… so they can continue to adapt to changing needs in the workforce.


Chris Hipkins should have articulated that children need to be prepared not only for changing needs in the workforce but also for changing circumstances in their lives.

Life is not just for work but life.

Chris Hipkins should never mention the 21st century again in reference to education; it is not as if children have any choice as to what century they reside in and 21 carries no more significance to how one should approach the education of children than 20.

Like a lot of other people in education he should stop looking over the top of children and look at the children before him: the best way to prepare children for the future is to meet their needs now.

The last few weeks I have undertaken a systematic investigation of how clusters are functioning and, overall, relative to cost, not well, some dithering, some very brittle in purpose and relationships, and a few nicely.

Two points: First, I don’t want hear the absurd claim that clusters are a break from a competitive model, primary schools have never competed in that sense, they have always been co-operative – the previous system through the various ways teachers met and discussed freely, was a huge stimulus to those within it, for instance, the legendary way stjcs handed on knowledge.

And a personal point, the way clusters impart knowledge wouldn’t have suited me, I like my knowledge from leg glances, the sparkle of an idea and no more, and from there to work on it in directions that suited me in relation to the children.

I pose a challenge to Chris Hipkins and Labour to put me in the wrong with I have to say below.

A below average-size school would get $220,000 extra every four years if the internal funding for clusters was allocated to schools. I calculate another $200,000 if the bureaucratic and other external costs were included. What would that do for high needs children? For class sizes? For employing specialist teachers (drama, arts, Maori, science, mathematics, the lot). For having an independent specialist service? For really supporting education for Maori (see below).

Chris Hipkins and NZEI, it seems, have combined to have the cluster policy retained. It will be a cluster policy without national standards so the most detrimental characteristic will be absent but it will still be a policy with a collaboration sticker deceptively attached to it. It will still be an administrative unit of education and another layer of bureaucracy. It will still be a Labour Party incapable of standing back and asking what is the best way to get new knowledge into classrooms. It will still be a Labour Party incapable of standing back and asking what it is it that teachers in classrooms need most. It will still be a Labour Party unable to come up with policies that aren’t warm-ups of National Party policy or borrowed from overseas. It will still be a Labour Party incapable of a cohesive restructuring in the interests of teachers and children. But I could be wrong, so let’s see what he has in the manifesto bag. If it isn’t a restructured school review process, it’s a fail from the start.

Oh yes – the clusters will be administered differently but they will still add up to a distraction and a use of money that could be better spent. And the wonder is, clusters are failing now – with all the threats and inducements, only half the children of New Zealand are in cluster schools. The prospect beckons of three years of fooling around with clusters to the neglect of issues that matter more. (I reiterate, though, that I did come across some clusters that were working; they tended to share a set of characteristics which I will discuss in a later posting.)

Clusters are a mini-Tomorrow’s Schools, an extension of Tomorrow’s Schools – and while they mightn’t display their full neoliberal colours under Labour, three years later, under National, they will be subjected to national standards again, made compulsory, and then, as occurs with any period of Labour rule, the Labour education rule will be forgotten, a nothing – that is because Labour has no school education structural ideas for itself, it simply accepts National’s policies – the real Party of structural change – simply making them a little kinder.

When I left the formal education system to fight the philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools, in other words fighting Labour, National, and NZEI, I had to contend with the Tomorrow’s Schools propaganda waffle of schools having more freedom; now, with clusters, I have to contend with the propaganda waffle of collaboration, again fighting Labour, National, and NZEI.

And the bit at the end.

During the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools, I remember listening to national radio (as it was called then) and a Maori woman being interviewed on the street and her saying: ‘The system has failed Maori children; this is its last chance’. Well, it failed in funding, system, and philosophy. Bill English’s favourite saying for being miserly with schools is we can’t just throw money at schools, well not throwing money at schools hasn’t worked, so I’m tempted to say why not try it. But, yes, the system needs to be put right, the holistic philosophy valued, the advisory support there, the bureaucracies tuned in – then the schools with many Maori children provided with access to generous support, including substantial bonuses for teaching in hard to staff and particularly challenging schools, we can’t just lollop along at a slightly faster pace, we need to gallop.

A strange way to conclude perhaps, but the message and circumstance stuck in my head.

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8 Responses to Two bits of policy, Chris Hipkins, Labour, a challenge, clusters, and a bit at the end

  1. Gary says:

    And will the NZEI include the numerous lucrative CoL ‘positions’ which are being created into its upcoming new ‘Career Framework’?

    • Vern Stevens says:

      I really don’t think NZEI have a bloody clue of where they are at, or what the want to do. I think that their mantra says that it is OK to frustrate teachers, by saying one thing, but actually doing the other, but for gods sake, don’t upset the minister, cause she might kick us out of the tent and she might not like us.

  2. Kelvin says:

    A loyal Auckland reader:

    Great piece – thanks! Agree with everything – of course!

    Love this: ‘ I like my knowledge from leg glances, the sparkle of an idea and no more, and from there to work on it in directions that suited me in relation to the children.’ Fabulous.


  3. kellyned says:

    Also keep in mind that there are a good number of schools that have joined CoLs but which have a ‘wait and see’ attitude, without any real belief that they will work. Some of these have been pushed into the CoL by Boards.
    I (luckily) am located in such a place that my nearest schools are so distant that even my BoT can easily see and doubt the likely effectiveness of joining a CoL.
    If they survive as a ‘thing’ it is likely that eventually we will join one. However in the mean time i am happy to save my energy and sit and watch!!

  4. Greg Patel says:

    Beautifully stated as always. Nothing destroys collaboration as fast as appointing experts. When their is money to be made, why share for free.

  5. stephen dadelus says:

    Massively insightful as always. I think Chris Hipkins has lost his old mojo. He’s now trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Over the years I have come across those of this ilk. They pop up in strange places, assisting ERO teams on visits to schools, then heading back to play principals within their school communities; I see them now as Ministry bankable assets pushing CoLs and collecting their twenty pieces of silver. Big egos. Loud mouths. Empty vessels.

    I do hope Chris Hipkins takes up your challenge and does the maths on the CoL budgets and the grotesque expenditure force feeding the CoLs to appear to succeed while hard working principals, their staffs and children remain under funded and under resourced. Shameful. Good on Whetu Cormick. He needs pursue his position with a passion and a vengeance. There is that great silent majority of teachers in primary schools across NZ just begging for some professional leadership at the national level. Can Whetu be the Moses of the 21’st Century!!! (or as you say 20th C.). We both know, Kelvin, that the 20th was definitely the best century.

    A great piece of writing Kelvin.

  6. Kelvin says:

    Mad Hatters invade Ministry of Education National Office..
    Is Ministry boss of Learning Support an alien from reality or else on something common up in northland?
    “Ministry of Education’s national director for learning support David Wales said the Ministry is well aware of the problems in Northland.
    He said suspension is not the answer and if violent behaviour is occurring schools should discuss it with police……….” NewstalkZB
    Call the police he says…before during or after the furniture starts flying…. or perhaps police will base a policeman in every school up here…. or the talk itself will fix the problem….These are 5 – 10 year olds I am talking about……
    The last time I rang when I was restraining a child who was aiming to drastically and suddenly reduce my weight using the knives I was dodging, the response was sorry, we are too busy.. You will have to deal with it….
    What about the small school 110km from closest police?
    Folks we are in trouble when this is best offer of help and advice from Ministry.. When we are so desperate for help for psychological medical counselling services.. for assessment services,,,, for 1 on 1 help during school time….. The Ministry Chiefs answer is to agree that we have a major problem they are well aware is about and for us to call police…..
    This is all about a plea for help to help these kids before they graduate to the next level and help is too late!
    It is not as if there is not funding available. The Minister has over 300 million set aside for her Pet Project Communities of Learning that schools have been resisting despite extreme pressure from Ministry. That could be immediately released where it is desperately needed now… After all we are talking children here and not some Ministers whim…
    No wonder why we are desperate,,,, and been driven to this situation?
    (317 Words)
    Pat Newman
    President Te Tai Tokerau Principals Association

  7. Melanie says:

    There is a large group of NZEI members who do not support Communities of Learning. I won’t work in a school that is in a CoL. One of my friends was approached to take a CoL role. She told her principal that she voted against CoL at the NZEI meeting so she would not be taking any role in the CoL. I respect that.

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