It was November, 2009.
In normal times websites like networkonnet should leave schools alone to survive the end of year, but these are not normal times – what has happened, and will happen, in the year’s concluding weeks will be decisive for the inevitably tumultuous and decisive events of next year.
Friday, November 27, was a gorgeous day: the place was Kawakawa School in the Bay of Islands; the occasion a meeting of Tai Tokerau principals (Whangarei to Reinga); the purpose to discuss national standards. Over 80 principals were in attendance; the redoubtable Pat Newman was in the chair; three people from the ministry were there – the Auckland second-in-command whose name I didn’t pick up, Alison Dow, and Mary Chamberlain (a last minute call in); and there was Bruce Hammonds. In the audience, with his attendance much appreciated, was Kelvin Davis, the Far North Labour list mp. His attendance could well have contributed to a subsequent significant development in what turned out to be an auspicious period for the campaign against national standards.
Pat in black (looking rather like a local mafia chapter leader) in his introductory comments, left no doubt of his point-of-view, but promised to chair the meeting fairly (which he did to the extent of hauling me in when I was expatiating with considerable enthusiasm on how bureaucrats earned brownie points by demonstrating their staunchness in going against the expressed wishes of teachers).
Alison Dow spoke in stolid fashion (which was, for the ministry, appropriate for the occasion) for about ten minutes; then came Mary Chamberlain. As I said afterwards, Bruce and I thought we had done quite well in undermining the national standards’ case, but we weren’t within a bull’s roar of doing this as well as Mary Chamberlain had. The anecdotal inconsequentiality of this was so extreme that, in a transcendental way, it became almost an art form. Perhaps, two points amidst the frenetic absurdity, the ministry apparently sees national standards as a kind of education AA providing signposts for education (OK, but where are they pointing?); and with desperate googling they have located an article that seems to be saying that while nearly all national standards are disastrous, there is one kind that might not be (though no living example was provided).
Mary Chamberlain sees herself as explaining national standards, but her judgement is letting her down, she is justifying them.
The audience spent their time shaking their collective heads and quietly murmuring, but were, and continued to be, polite.
Then Bruce Hammonds spoke in his characteristically eloquent and humanistic way.
I thundered away for about 30 minutes.
In my introduction I shamelessly tried to ingratiate myself by pointing out how I had taught at Maromaku (during the latter years of when Elwyn Richardson was over the hill at Oruaiti); then with striking irrelevance felt the need to inform the principals that I had represented the north in sport; then more appositely spoke of how my auntie had been matron at Rawene for decades working with Dr Smith and how we used to go blackberrying wearing surgical gloves and gowns; perhaps the most likely convincing winning point was how my son-in-law’s father owned the nearby freezing works’ meat shop (Mac’s Prime Meats) and that anyone who wanted a good deal need only call in at Moerewa on the way home. I even scored with the principal of my granddaughter’s principal at Hurupaki School who, when I mentioned my daughter’s attendance there, asked me if I had visited the school’s wetlands. I was able to say that indeed I had, just the day before and, as well, I had also admired the school’s new logo.
I am not going into any detail of what was said because early next year I will be sending a posting giving an overview of the situation.
In the afternoon, the meeting was thrown open to questions and statements. There is a saying about the north: Every hill a chief. After listening to the questions and statements, for me, it was every school a philosopher. The analyses and questions were clear-eyed and penetrating. It was inspirational. Tony Hamilton spoke forcefully and cogently for the NZEI principals and Peter Witana for the Federation. Then there were the equally excellent contributions from others from the floor. As I listened, I saw our future leadership. None more so than when Keri Milne-Ihimaera, Moerewa principal, had her say, concluding with the question: ‘What are the implications if I just say no to national standards?’ I parried that a bit at the time but noted her as a genuine prospect for stirring and leading debate. (Which she has proceeded to demonstrate: yesterday morning she was on national radio saying how inappropriate national standards were for Maori children.)
With the meeting in good heart, Pat put a series of motions to the meeting, the first that schools should do nothing with national standards until the teacher organisations had consulted their members in the first term.
All motions were passed unanimously.
As I walked down to central Kawakawa to where I had parked my car, it was a wonderful memory to see the cheery waves from a van full of far Far North teachers.
But then I looked across the road to under the spreading oak and I felt a chill. The ministry delegation was clustered around their public service car in deep and serious discussion. I sensed then a different message leading to a different mood to be delivered to head office. It reminded me of the change of mood after the Springbok tour match at Hamilton – a change of mood from finding us mildly comical to one bordering on hatred. The body language of the ministry officials was a signal – inevitable if our struggle was lifted to the real – that the New Year was going to be a terrible one in our education history with the education of a generation of children at stake, the professionalism of teachers, and the humanism of our system.