Laura Walters and Simon Collins: wayward and biased reporting

Laura Walters should give up altogether, her writing spirals unobstructed by any semblance of originality below that which an intelligent 15 year-old could produce – there is a breathless, girl’s adventure quality to her writing, a hugely misplaced confidence, demonstrating a lack of any apprehension of the dross she is producing. Her scrap (article would dignify the writing seriously beyond its worth) is based on bits-and-pieces she has picked up from newspaper headlines and put together in a mishmash to ludicrous effect.

She is Hub writer for Stuff.

To compare this rubbish to what you can get from any writer listed on Public Address is to make clear its Lilliputian worth.

Simon Collins – a respected senior journalist for the NZ Herald – is setting out on a weird course in his writing on education. I track him.

In a posting to come later I will describe that in my living memory, no writer, no permanent TV or radio commentator or interviewer (no, not even Kim Hill, Katherine Ryan, or John Gerritsen – worthy as they may be) has ever demonstrated a genuine understanding of primary education. The closest anyone has come is Kirsty Johnston of the NZ Herald, not so much with her dazzling ‘Under the Bridge’ series but when she came close to the real thing in her exposure of relationships between the ministry and education review office. After a tactical pause (or so it seemed to me), the Herald editors acted on their long-established education line and pulled the carpet from under her (accomplished with the utmost consideration I’m sure), to be replaced by Simon Collins who, though a respected writer on social issues, is a considerably unreliable one on education.

(There might be some who think Brian Bruce’s documentaries demonstrate the qualities I’m looking for, but I categorise them as I categorise ‘Under the Bridge’. Heart in the right place, instincts good, but presentations that go straight for big feelings and big ideas, instead of working surely towards them, invariably go off track.)

But how could media people know anything on education, relying as they do on an ‘understanding’ gleaned from their own experiences, prejudices, other media opinion and headlines and, above all, on official releases. Under National, nothing emanating from the ministry leadership or the swollen ministry media section, leaving aside the copious straight lying or deception, was, in fact, ever straight, most of it vulnerable to exposure from the most cursory of examinations, but reporters are so uncaring, so lazy, so biased, or affected by concerns for vocational security, that nearly all media releases, leaving aside the occasional routine other comment, are left undisturbed. The rationalisation might be, an intention to return to the matter, but that doesn’t do because first and official word wins. The profound problem is that in the media, serious attention to school education rarely occurs and when it does, it begins with secondary, yet by the time children get to secondary the die has been cast (which is why secondary teachers in a mixture of humanity and career protection, blatantly and universally, falsify and fudge NCEA). Whenever has any media person shown any signs of searching for the reality of primary education with an attitude that there is something deeply significant to know, that reality won’t come easily, that a strenuous humility is required, that academics don’t know (only isolated bits of it), and that that reality, if uncovered, might well be antithetical to their existing beliefs, therefore susceptible to the bane of primary school education, a resort to academic last word.

The media, in education, display their shallowness in the wild fluctuations in directions, for instance, when Simon Collins finally got round to a recognition (though timorous) that internal NCEA does, indeed, put pressure on teachers to manipulate nearly all students through – the next day he presents, in a feature article, an example of inspirational teaching of a principal displaying the photographs of a number of children he wants teachers to put an ‘extra effort’ into passing.

To put together her mishmash, Laura Walters introduces it with the callow sentences ‘Walking the fine line between principles and pragmatism can cause governments to become hypocrites. Seems it’s much easier to talk the line in opposition than walk the talk in government.’

I’m not going to waste my time on the rubbish assemblage of ‘examples’ Laura Walters chooses, but in introducing her choices for hypocrisy she does not, of course, refer to any of the numerous exceptions to such ‘hypocrisy’, for instance, the ban on non-residents buying houses in New Zealand, even though National said it couldn’t be done.

To accuse Jacinda Ardern and the Labour government of hypocrisy just doesn’t fit and if Laura Walters stood back from her breathlessness, even for a moment, she would recognise that.

But it is on her education example for Labour hypocrisy I want to concentrate.

Labour was hypocritical she implies in that ‘One of Labour’s flagship education policies during the campaign was to promise to scrap National Standards.’ And now it was saying, she exulted, that ‘schools could continue to use them’. This she pronounces is ‘a big U-turn’.

National standards she reports ‘are highly unpopular with the unions, and teachers who feel the administrative workload impede on their classroom time and teaching.’

‘They’ve also been called simplistic, and focus on literacy and numeracy …’

But Laura Walters avers ‘… parents like National Standards – they give them insight into their child’s progress: they set a clear measure, and the updates come twice a year.’

When reporting on what the unions and teachers had said about national standards, it was what teachers and unions said – when it came to parents, Laura Walters is rampantly decisive on their behalf: national standards ‘gave insight into their child’s progress’; and ‘set a clear measure’. Has our junior reporter (surely so) run a poll of primary school parents or had access to such a poll?

(I’m not saying the word union can or should be avoided but any reference to teacher unions is often motivated by, and plays on, a deep-seated political and community prejudice – a prejudice unrelentingly embedded by the major newspapers over decades and fervently picked up on and cruelly developed by neoliberal advocates.)

Before becoming a seer on primary school characteristics and structures, I assume Laura Walters had knowledge of, and therefore took into account, the work of the government-funded Dunedin Monitoring Unit which has found that national standards reported results were 15-20 per cent above the results reported by the Unit.

And during the time of national standards, this assiduous burrower for the truth would have found that New Zealand has slipped from near or at the top to at or near the bottom of the Western world.

‘… and the updates come twice a year’ – oh happy days and the birds atweeting.

In discussing national standards, reporters like Laura Walters, through ignorance or caring more for their story than the truth, approach them as if they had no past – which slews the facts of the matter – because their past is one of abject failure in the validity of their measurement, destruction of New Zealand’s international standing, and wreaking of considerable harm on children, especially the most vulnerable.

But you have, I know, already worked out, the mistake our breathless reporter has made.

Laura what are we discussing? yes national standards. How many words in the label, national standards? yes, two. Worked it out yet?

Oh well, I will continue.

Chris Hipkins, in referring to school assessment, is reported as saying ‘What tools (schools) use to do that is up to them.’

Our reporter then triumphantly announces that this ‘appeared to be a big U-turn for Labour’.

If you put the adjective ‘big’ in front of ‘U-turn’ then the use of ‘appeared to be’ must surely be inappropriate.

Laura, Laura, as was sung in Pinafore:

‘Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream’.

Under national standards Laura, did schools have a choice?

From now on they will.

So you see Laura, they are not national – they are simply something a school has decided to continue.

Will the media feast on the results of the handful of schools that continue to use those standards?

Of course they won’t because they aren’t national therefore can’t be compared (actually because of high stakes inflation they were never validly able to be anyway).

Will the education review office insist on studying those standards to the exclusion of even entering classrooms (as has become the practice)?

With the high stakes national standards gone, will those schools feel the inclination to inflate the results?

Will those schools feel the pressure to let children know after a few months at school that they are below standard?

Will schools neglect children well below the standard and well above the standard to concentrate on those round-about it?

Will those schools feel the overwhelming pressure to neglect creativity and imagination in their teaching?

Spot any differences Laura?

Enough with Laura Walters, now for Simon Collins who seems to have succumbed to the Herald’s long-established use of Auckland Grammar as the education yardstick?

My concern with Simon Collins is not an overall bias, on social policy he is sound, a soft, diffuse style, perhaps, but studiedly fair; it is in education that I have found him seriously wanting.  I believe the Herald editors delight in their obscurantism in relation to primary schools. For decades they carried attacks on the imaginative, differentiated teaching philosophy established by Clarence Beeby and Peter Fraser and which, despite the Herald (including Minhinnick), was to carry New Zealand to the top of the primary school education world.

I refer first to ‘Election Policy series’ and headed ‘Can we trust teachers?’

So according to Simon Collins the issue is not can we trust parents but can we trust teachers? Really? – my query is moot given the spotty record of boards of trustees.

It is not can we trust politicians? Really? – moot again given the undemocratic way Labour forced Tomorrow’s Schools on the system and the nine years of undemocratic National government in which never a straight answer was given.

It is not can we trust bureaucrats? Really? – moot once again because they have entangled education and made it the misshapen mess it is.

The implication in Simon Collins’ headline, is given the scintillating education success of the last 27 years can we risk moving away from trust in boards, politicians, and bureaucrats to giving teachers more freedom.

I move now to the Simon Collins’ article headed ‘Labour’s education plans revealed’.

Simon Collins has a clever way of obscuring New Zealand’s school failure: instead of saying we are near or at the bottom of the Western world, he fudges:

‘Surveys show that our average 15-year-olds out-perform the global median, although we have been slipping from near the top towards the middle of the pack.’

Oh great, we need more of that.

However, of the international tests that cover national standards nary a mention.

This can’t be by accident.

This article overall is wandering and indecisive. Simon Collins’ heart is not in it.

The wonder is, Simon, who, in a social issues context, writes so sincerely about the effect of child poverty on education, meanders and loses focus when it comes to writing about primary school education.

He outdoes himself with his vox populi – but in being only one person, perhaps it should be vox personam.

I hope you are sitting not standing for the next one.

‘Axing national standards may be unpopular with parents. A Herald poll [now wait for it] when the standards were introduced in 2010 found that 73 per cent of parents with school-age children supported them.

Did I read 2010? Yes, you did. I remember the poll it was a swizz at the time and a swizz maximal now.

Simon Collins resorts to a 2010 poll which was held amidst furious support by the Herald, and intense propaganda by the government. Of course it was bound to get a majority, why wouldn’t it sound OK to a significant number of parents? But education decision-making by newspaper polls and government propaganda is no way to run an education system. But then as Simon asks – can teachers be trusted? Better to cut teachers out of it and let children take the brunt of it when things don’t work out. Did you pick up the result Simon, bottom or near the bottom in the Western world in international testing and children ill-prepared to succeed validly at secondary? Simon, that’s your Herald, your poll, and you.

The difficulty with reporters like Laura and Simon, and just about all the rest, is a lack of awareness of how unknowing they are. If I tried to communicate with them, they would dismiss it as moonshine; after all, they would think, how complicated can primary teaching be? and, in a way, they are right, their picture of primary teaching is uncomplicated, perhaps a bit messy at base, but given the right steer, not difficult to find their way through. They are wrong: effective and inspired teaching that sets children up to succeed in a democracy, and be prepared to defend it, requires a network of relationships of infinite sensitivity, involving striving and caring children, and a  teacher working in harmonious collaboration with all concerned. But with wayward and biased items like Simons’ and Laura’s, what hope do children have? If we had media possessed of an understanding of, and a respect for, primary education, we could have an education system that in its own way excelled in the manner of Finland. Instead, it’s a kind of generational dog fight to be able to do something for all children, but especially those who need it most.

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1 Response to Laura Walters and Simon Collins: wayward and biased reporting

  1. Wellington reader says:

    Hi Kelvin
    I concur with your views on the poor state of some of the writing we are seeing at present, particularly around NS and charter schools. Below is an e-mail letter to the editor which did make it into the Dom Post recently. I also put out a release calling out both Nikki Kaye and David Seymour on false statements about charter schools:

    I see even the Sunday Star-Times last Sunday contained more nonsense – this time from Tracey Watkins – about NS really still being there and there being a lot more parents than teachers etc. etc.
    While we can lament the poor state of writing, the flip side is that things would be a lot clearer if the new government just sat down, made firm policy decisions and then communicated them clearly through the press gallery. In particular, abolishing the charter school model will not be straightforward, as there will be more involved in converting those schools to s. 156 Designated Character than they may realise. And that assumes that they have agreed what changes are likely to first be made to the s. 156 legislation before they convert. That is all time consuming…


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