Labour’s primary school education policies hang in the balance (before they have even begun)

Is this going to be a bold Labour Party or a timorous one?

If the school review policy is not changed, that will dramatically reduce benefits from the abolition of national standards and other potentially positive changes.

On a personal note: I have never liked institutional power, which makes it strange I know that I became a senior inspector of schools; but I have been close enough to it to experience its allure also to witness the harm to those who are the object of it and the personal corrosiveness to those who carelessly wield it.

After David Lange brought in Tomorrow’s Schools and the administrative structures that accompanied it, he was bitterly disappointed that the curriculum did not improve – he said the government would pay attention to it later. It never did because, perhaps unknowingly, he was following the neoliberal agenda to a T, so we were left with an almost exclusive focus on the administrative structures and the curriculum it allowed – a narrow and ideological one.

To improve the curriculum, to make it enlightened, you need to have people who know the curriculum in an enlightened way, really know it, not people who take their curriculum lead from those people who focus on structures. Structures should not lead the curriculum; the essential characteristics of the curriculum should lead the structures.

It is ridiculous to deny that Tomorrow’s Schools was from the neoliberal playbook. The idea and basis for Tomorrow’s Schools came from Treasury, the same source as for Rogernomics. Before the implementation of Tomorrow’s Schools, a considerable number of young, suited, Treasury males swarmed through the Education Board buildings interviewing us. They made it abundantly clear the education system was being changed to serve the new economics one.

It is time for the Labour Party to break the shackles completely.

National standards were developed for the education review office, policed by them, lived by them.

To retain the present structure would be the most damaging of tricks to play on expectant classroom teachers.

In a coalition, the Greens would welcome such a change and so would New Zealand First, the sticking point is within Labour.

Jacinda Ardern in her first speech as leader said she wanted an education system that fostered creativity – that won’t happen under the present review structure.

Is this going to be half-way house Labour?

The New Zealand primary education is in significant decline, amidst all the numbers, including international ones, are the numbers from the Dunedin Monitoring Unit (carried out by academics) – the numbers are on average about 20% below the official national standards results. Those declining numbers have taken 25 years to bring about and will take decades to recover from, but the present system of national standards, and outcomes-based school reviewing, all kept in place by the unyielding rule of the education review office, must go if that recovery is to begin.

To take away national standards and to leave in place this undiluted neoliberal institution (evaluation institutionally separate from practice; based on outcomes-based measurement; narrowing education for vocational and ideological ends; having people controlling, deciding, and judging in education who have little or no experience of what they are controlling, deciding, and judging to conform to the neoliberal idea that people involved directly in an activity be excluded from controlling, deciding and judging because of a supposed self-interest) would be a cruel hoax to play on all children and I isolate Maori and Pasifika children in particular.

The key aim in primary education is to hand on to secondary schools children who can think, like to write, are independent readers, express themselves, and enjoy learning. That cannot happen in a widespread way under the present system.

There will be principals who prefer the rigid nature of the current system with boxes to tick all in a row. There will be some, if change were to occur, who would find unsettling the need to give more active consideration to the whole curriculum and real achievement. But talk to the teachers who are pulling out their hair at being stopped from widening the curriculum and genuinely getting children to think, independently read, and express themselves aesthetically.

At the moment teachers often have to ask reviewers to come in to their rooms, and when they do, they observe how uncomfortable they are to be there.

To invite junior teachers to continue with early childhood’s Te Whariki is a brilliant inclusion in the Labour manifesto but completely at odds with the outcomes-based, measurement-based, records-based way the education review office functions and the way it is staffed. Labour must get a grasp of its philosophy and follow through.

There are some good people in the education review office who do useful things, in a kindly manner, serving in some respects to ameliorate the fear-inducing environment but, as history informs us, destructive institutions to gain sufficient acceptance require some good people for a façade. The review office is beyond the democratic pale. The relationship of review office to school is one of unpredictability and lack of accountability leading to an overall relationship based on fear that is often sublimated by schools furiously conforming to, even going beyond, review office expectations.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the review office’s way of functioning is its anti-democratic way of deciding, without consultation with parents, teachers, or any representative consultation group, what curriculum areas should be emphasised, how teaching should be organised to minute non-disputable detail, and how schools should be administered. The official curriculum in New Zealand education is now a document interpreted for meaning by an unaccountable, centralised grouping (review office, ministry, Treasury), with the latest word often being spread through review visits and edicts.

I have always advocated a review system that has a review organisation as part of the ministry structure and involving teams with an education cross-section of members.

There is a South Australian model that is close to my idea: the composition of teams is determined primarily by the knowledge and skills required to undertake the various parts of the review programme.

I would see the review programme as being based on the official curriculum – if the official curriculum does not meet what is needed, then the curriculum should be changed, using the full democratic processes of curriculum development. Schools should then be given a good deal of freedom to interpret that curriculum to suit their children, community, and teachers. And, it would be on that curriculum interpretation the school would be reviewed.

The days of bureaucratic institutions producing arrays of objectives, indicators and the like must be ended. Also ministers imposing curriculum change on schools without following proper curriculum processes. For instance, as was done using corporates and private companies to produce the digital curriculum with only one teacher present and that a relation of a cabinet minister.

In general, school-based review teams would be led by a permanent review officer, and the teams comprise a school principal, a community representative, one or two school-based teachers (not from the school), and the principal of the school.

All principals of review teams should receive training in review methods. This training could be provided various organisations, for instance, universities, NZEI, PPTA, STA, and some private organisations, with an emphasis, I suggest, on the curriculum. Over time the desired effect would be to have principals and teachers in all schools trained in review methods. This opportunity to work in review teams would provide school-based staff with a valuable insight into school planning and development and enrich, inform, and inspire the whole system.

What could be closer to the democratic ideals of the Labour Party than this?

Let the present Labour Party demonstrate recognition and some penitence for promising school freedom in Tomorrow’s Schools and then taking it away with the education review office. It seems to me Labour, in 2017, is proffering educationally positive things on one hand but is still lacking sufficient trust in schools by holding on to the repressive education review office on the other. As a byword, Labour wants to act on refreshing and democratising our institutions and society – the conceptual opposite to neoliberalism. There is a reference in the Labour manifesto to paying attention to other matters that arise – let a new way of reviewing schools be one of those matters.

Let trust reign!

Jacinda promised creativity in education; it can only be achieved with a very different education review process.

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7 Responses to Labour’s primary school education policies hang in the balance (before they have even begun)

  1. Vern Stevens says:

    Yep agree Kelvin, but first we must rid ourselves of National. If we end up with a Labour Govt or a Labour led coalition after September then I’m sure that they will at least listen to what the profession has to say and not just pay fleeting lip service to what the real experts have to offer.. On top of that and I’m not being sexist but the profession collectively needs to grow some balls.

  2. Auckland George says:

    Very true. The ERO might have had some merit if it offered a truly independent audit. Also if somehow facilitation of improvements were part of the package but it is not.

    My experience with ERO as board member of two schools was bewildering and frightening. Wheel them out.

  3. Jo Duston says:

    I actually don’t care what party is in, and until ERO get real, but until they actually see what teachers are dealing with both with learning and especially behaviour, where the ed specialists give 1 hour support from non trained poorly paid people a day, for violent destructive children who destroy the learning opportunities of other normal children, who subject them to vile language that they shouldn’t be exposed to,….thank God the ‘F’ sound is late to be obvious…., till they recognise the trauma that teachers are experience having to deal with these children, till they realise that a visit from the ‘ experts may happen if there is no crisis somewhere else, once a fortnight if your lucky. Till there is something other, than you have to watch a child destroy a room while the class has been evacuated so they don’t get hurt, Until someone actually supports us as a profession. How can Principals say they are keeping children emotionally and physically safe. I defy anyone to say they are. And ERO will come in and ask how are you targeting these children, who have special needs, to make progress, when you are actually trying to protect the other ‘normal’ children hoping they will be able to make progress.

  4. Brent Jenkin says:

    Once again a thought provoking response Kelvin. Your views on ERO are well known and shared by many of us. The narrowed curriculum we see is hugely concerning, the NZ Curriculum is an excellent document that seems to be too often not even taken into consideration by the political wannabe’s. However it is important for us to remember though that under a previous Labour Government, ERO was just as destructive and narrow in its assessments of schools as it is now. You are also correct that other than statements around National Standards, Labour has said very little about what they would do in respect to education if they were elected. We should indeed be worried and asking questions as other than hanging on to political ‘Jacinda words’. Everyone seems to be hanging on to them yet they are just skilfully designed sound bites to get votes. Policy needs to be carefully thought through and not made up on the fly as a populist sound bite for the hustings. I am not at all sure that if elected, that a Labour Government will be capable of making the significant changes that are clearly needed. For example I have long suspected that if the Government of the day were truly concerned about the ‘achievement tail’ then spending the $360 million they spent implementing NS’s had been spent on staffing targeted at these children, we would have had a measureable effect. I am certain we could have raised the achievement tail rather than the millions of dollars being wasted on National Standards. Education policy needs to be purposeful and carefully thought through with the impacts discussed with those who actually know how teaching and learning works. Generally that isn’t politicians with a party agenda and whose collective education experience too often involves having merely been to school at some point

    • Vern Stevens says:

      I strongly believe that Education, along with Health are far too important to be political footballs. For changes to be made in these areas the proposed change should have to have 75% across parliament. I would love to see NZEI, NZPF, PPTA having a serious crack along those lines.

  5. kellyned says:

    I suspect that some of Labour’s intentions are somewhat mooted at this point – least they inadvertantly provide ‘sound bite foder’. I can just hear “Labour doesn’t believe instandards” all over again.

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