The moment it went wrong for being a principal

The idea in Tomorrow’s Schools was that if the government got the administration of education right, and principals followed suit with their schools, the appropriate curriculum implementation would devolve from that. And an appropriate curriculum implementation did evolve from that – a curriculum appropriate to the way neoliberalism worked in education.

The year was early 1989, with Tomorrow’s  Schools officially imminent; the place a conference facility at Onerahi, Whangarei; the conference sponsored by the Whangarei Principals Association; the speakers Maurice Gianotti, soon to be head of the education review office, who spoke the first day, and me, to speak the second.

Principals who attended still shake their heads at the chasmic divide between the messages of the two days. Maurice Gianotti in his urbane way delivered a message of sunny vistas; I, in my barbarians-at-the-gate mode, of an education system going too far to the right and heading into series of calamitous storms. Both of us, of course, overstated our positions.

There was no doubt where the main point of difference lay: the role of the principal in curriculum matters in their schools. Maurice Gianotti spoke of the way goals should be set, administrative systems established, delegations made, reviews and accountability systems established, also systems for teacher assessment of children’s learning. He made much, of course, of the freedoms that would be available to schools, and the opportunities for initiative. In speaking of the role of the review office, he said that, in respect to the curriculum, their attention would be on outcomes; under no circumstances were officers to comment or give advice on classroom practice or the curriculum. He said that it was on school administrative systems and learning outputs that the review office would focus, and that under Tomorrow’s Schools that was where principals should be focused, too. The message was somewhat softened by his talk of the often-made distinction between management and leadership. In his references to leadership, the role of the principal inevitably became somewhat involved in setting up curriculum opportunities. While Maurice Gianotti’s talk was fairly much the standard neoliberal talk for the time, it was not as harsh as some other such advocacies. Indeed, Maurice Gianotti was only to last two years as head of the review office to be replaced by Judith Aitken: Maurice Gianotti could not force himself to be as ruthless as his political controllers required.

The argument I developed on my day to speak (I have the notes in front of me now) was the damage about to be done: teachers would be marginalised; our child-centred and professional value system demeaned; attention would be to administration and away from the curriculum; we would have accountability; and they – the government and the bureaucracies – would have the power. However, I said the tactic now is ‘to make the best of what clearly isn’t the best and to act on the implications of the changed system and turn the situation to best advantage.’ At about the same time as this conference, it is significant to note, Lange ruefully acknowledged that Tomorrow’s Schools was not about children and learning as was promised, which would now come later he promised again (but it never did). To be fair, a lot about children and learning did come later, but none of it freed teachers to be more creative and imaginative, which is what this posting is deeply concerned about.

The setting, about a year later, is the Waipuna Conference Centre; the occasion an Auckland Principals Conference; this time I had only an hour to say whatever I wanted to say. I launched into it in impassioned tones. I titled my talk: ‘Knowing who we are, knowing the new reality: Then taking the initiative and scaring the living daylights out of them.’ Fat chance, I know.

The emphasis was on the characteristics of the New Zealand way. I talked of Clarence Beeby, Elwyn Richardson, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, developmental teaching, the balanced reading system (‘I can read’), drama (potentiallly life changing), the arts (responding to the environment as a place in the South Pacific), social studies (interaction of knowledge and the affective), science (investigative), mathematics (problem solving), and writing (sincerity). Particular attention was paid to the need to engage the affective as the basis for learning, to teachers having the freedom to pursue children’s interests freely and imaginatively; and to the availability of choice (carefully set-up following a series of open-ended activities) for children in their learning. At the end, I was satisfied with what I’d said and the reception received.

When, however, I was in morning tea line, two principals in the coffee one headed directly to me; one of them spoke, the other nodded in agreement.

‘Kelvin,’ the principal said, ‘that was good, but we are past that now, the curriculum is not our real interest, administration is.’

The principals did not intend offence, and I did not take any. In fact, such comments directly from schools are a valuable source of clarity in evaluating complex situations. The comment is tellingly germane to when the role of principals in relation to the curriculum had changed. It was at that moment I fully comprehended, that yes, the role of the New Zealand principal had changed and, in my interpretation, gone wrong. From then on, principals would make decisions on the curriculum through an administrative focus rather than an informed curriculum one.

In 2016, quite by chance a retired principal wrote to me and in passing mentioned that he had heard me speak for his first time at Waipuna and that he had sat by a person who was ebulliently supportive of my message throughout; he was to learn that that person, a later speaker, was Witi Ihimaera.

Such are the small things one holds on to.

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7 Responses to The moment it went wrong for being a principal

  1. Bruce Hammonds says:

    What you said, way back then, has come to pass – sadly for creative education and what could have been.

  2. Paul says:

    Kelvin, a melancholy post. Your tone is understandable, of that there is no doubt, but don’t forget that in pockets resistance continues and especially in rural and small schools there is really no alternative but to resist the current political stance on education. The schools there play such an important part in the mix of these communities that they are forced to be focused on children and curriculum or they fail. The emperor has no clothes and we all know how that story ends – sadly though in education there are children and teachers and principals and parents and communities and a country that suffers for the emperors foolishness and vanity.

    • Kelvin says:

      As all terrific principals know, you being one of them, how much more terrific you would have been without all the cruel and hateful rubbish you have had to put up with.

  3. Thank you for keeping our recent past in our consciousness.

  4. kellyned says:

    Hi Kelvin
    Thanks for another reminder of what really matters. I see so much investment involved in dragging schools and principals ‘off point’. Tomorrow’s Schools was just the beginning. The latest being CoLs. Interesting to note recent conversations where schools in CoLs are having great difficulty finding teachers to take on in-school and between school lead teacher roles. It seems many of our teachers are still student focused – in spite of everything.
    You mentioned Witi Ihimaera above. I never knew he was involved in any way in the educational setting – Good to know.
    Recently I have been seeking out writings by Sylvia and Elwyn and have been pretty successful with them. I have however struggled to find material by Beeby.
    I find Sylvia and Elwyn refreshing and powerfully grounding in the basics of how to engage learners meaningfully.
    Keep beating your drum.

  5. Brent Jenkin says:

    Well said Kelvin, your messages (and Bruce’s) over the many years have been a beacon of common sense and an inspiration amongst the subsequent MoE/ERO ‘management madness’ we have all had to endure. I was a principal prior to 1989 and am still in the game. I knew you back then in the Rotorua area and worked with you when you were a senior school inspector. Know that the pockets of resistance aren’t just in the small school/rural areas though. Some of us in big city/urban schools also fight the good fight and put student needs and curriculum in front of administrative gumpf. There are many ways to subvert ridiculous Government initiatives that don’t bring any added value to the learners in our care. I have been an educator for 42 years and the last 31 as a principal. For a long time, we have functioned and thrived here at our school on the basis that if its not good for our kids and their learning, we simply don’t do it. Its been a very successful model for us and very much appreciated by our community and successive boards which have been very supportive of what we have been doing. Keep writing, love your wisdom, your insights and your work – it helps to keep me grounded.

  6. Sue McIntosh says:

    And how many more great principals and senior managers will be lost to this craziness?!

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