A quiet pre-Christmas warning: We are in trouble

In 1988 I wrote a three-part series in which I predicted why primary school education was heading for trouble (which is about to be re-published); to live that warning, in 1990, I resigned at 51 years as senior inspector of schools, with a view to mitigating the harm of Tomorrow’s Schools and to preserve and keep alive the philosophy of education that is best for all children but especially children who come to school needing to build-up cultural capital.

Labour in recent decades has been hopeless with primary school education, that is because Labour, in being the party of education, thinks it knows (or even worse thinks NZEI knows), and that what is right will come naturally on assuming office. After all, how hard can it be? we are the party of education.

So things go in patterns.

Labour set up the education review office in 1990 to run education and they have ever since, with ministers only nominally in charge – the education review office turns out the same dramatically failed rubbish decades after decades, and Labour leaders, in the absence of any ideas of their own, follow along.

For instance, the review office has just put out a report on the ‘right way’ to teach reading, thus removing the chance of any other way of reading being permitted, it is not research, it is not progressive, it is just more bureaucratic propaganda. I’ve looked at other review office reading reports from over the years and there is no difference between those reports and the present one.

And while Labour drifts, the review office takes even further control; further ingratiates itself with the media and public, making it near impossible for Labour to bring in anything new, really new (not warmed up tripe), even if Labour got it into its head to do so.

The review office also comes up with the old education bureaucratic chestnut of teacher training being the problem. Teacher training is part of the problem because it is based to a T on the review office philosophy, that is on academics and ‘evidence-based truths’, and teaching to national standards (even if national standards are not there, to the inevitable substitute). And I see principals quoted as agreeing with the review office. But principals are on firmer ground in their blaming of national standards though I suggest they don’t push their luck because their reported national standards results went upwards, therefore in a decidedly different direction to PIRLS. How did that happen when PIRLS results dived? And if national standards were so terrible why did principals and NZEI go into a frenzy of support for CoLs for which national standards were their raison d’etre? And why are CoLs getting together to standardise how assessment will be taken? Are they utterly devoid of ideas?

The education iniquity of national standards is deeply entrenched, schools and teachers may give up national standards but still hold inflexibly to their associated practices (what else is there? is the seemingly quizzical response).

I do not believe in proscribing any particular philosophy or practice but I do believe in the free and open discussion and interaction of differing ideas.

A teacher came on the screen, obviously capable, but I disagreed with nearly everything she said. I say good on her and good on me; whatever, I don’t want bureaucrats proscribing who is right and whose ideas are forbidden, either hers or mine, I want the clash of idea freely expressed and undertaken.

For instance, the teacher said her children have learnt to read through phonics now they need to be taught to read to learn. I say children should learn to read what is meaningful and interesting to them from the start, even before they can read. And most children need a very light dusting of phonics because an emphasis on phonics is inefficient, problematic, and a beguilingly easy resort (though it can be something of a sugar rush), leaving a lasting ill-effect on children reading for meaning and interest in the long term. I believe children learn to read by storing whole words in their brain rather than piecing it together in bits as they go. And the idea of moving on to reading to learn is a destructive emphasis. It should be meaning and interest as ever. As well, I don’t believe in confusing reading with spelling. The teacher pointed out one particular year in which official records mandated a big learning jump – really? Is that good education child development. Look first at the child, to hell with the official.

This is all a hangover from the terrible education period of review office control of education, but now set to continue – the minister does not visit schools in rampant manner and hold principals’ career hostage pending sufficient signals of craven obeisance. It’s trumps to the review office: ministers come and go, but ha-ha, they hold all the cards.

There is a crisis in primary education, with all children, especially children from lower socio-economic levels, and affecting Maori and Pasifika children. But you wouldn’t know it with Labour. Where is the urgency? Where is the structural change? Where is the analysis of the disaster? (An analysis I have detailed for years in my posting.) Where is the vision? all fragmenting into trivia.

The thing is you cannot get Labour leaders to focus on the curriculum, to take it seriously in a real way.

When I personally challenged David Lange about the lack of direct attention to the curriculum and his hope for an imaginative one – he said it would flow from Tomorrow’s Schools structures. I pointed out to him that an imaginative curriculum was unlikely to come from the kind of structures established. Two years later he was reported as saying he was bewildered that the curriculum had not changed (it had, but for the worse). At a research conference, I bearded Phil Goff, associate education minister, as he walked across the quadrangle, he was trenchantly dismissive. When Brian Donovan (New Zealand First was in coalition with National) set up an inquiry into the review office mainly as a result of agitation through my magazine, but he was got at, and in facing the inquiry, my most virulent critic was Margaret Austin, a Labour mp (also, incidentally, Apryll Parata). Trevor Mallard was great friends with John Hattie, and Trevor, though a good guy was just intellectually and emotionally too much the man, to bend to primary to understand. And now Chris Hipkins, I know he thinks me wild and destructive … so it goes on. If Labour wants to help the groups it particularly wants to help, it won’t do so with timid nudges.

Schools are ineffably sensitive to any education system change. What appears the tiniest change at the top can multiply to severe dislocation for teachers and the curriculum at the bottom. In most Western countries, those in charge of education systems have devised a managerialist system of separating the administration of the education system and role of principal, from teachers and classroom practice. This is done by having those in administration inculcated in the values of the centre so that the values and purposes of schools don’t get in the way of the values and purposes of the centralised agencies. People are purposely chosen for administration on the basis of no experience in education, or no experience in that part of education, or being highly amenable to the centre’s values. From the centre’s view, this has the further advantage of desensitising those undertaking actions to the effect of those actions on schools, and of demeaning the value of the knowledge held in schools and the professionalism of those involved.

There is an urgent need for an holistic curriculum-driven leadership theory to be developed and advanced to challenge the managerialist-driven one. The managerialist leadership theory in education is about hierarchy of the sort that functions on the belief it knows; it knows how education works; how it can be organised and standardised into unproblematic and manageable parts; made utterly assured in its mission by the ideas of quantitative academics who also know. Curriculum-driven leadership is based on teacher knowledge, on commonsense through informed experience, on the value of variety in education, on education as part of life in a social democracy, on identifying the essences of curriculum areas, on a commitment to a broad-based curriculum, and on teaching and leadership being significantly an art.

The reality about principals and their knowledge of the curriculum was devastatingly and, in a way, inadvertently revealed in 2008 by the ministry publication, Kiwi Leadership for Principals, which said that most principals had lost touch with the curriculum even though (I would claim significantly ‘because’) they work 50 per cent harder than their overseas counterparts. This was entirely to be anticipated given the Tomorrow’s Schools’ stance that if principals got administrative systems right, the appropriate curriculum implementation would devolve from that. And an appropriate curriculum implementation did evolve from that – a curriculum appropriate to the way the bureaucracies worked, a way to make easier the way the bureaucracies worked, and a way to extend managerialism to schools. Unfortunately, it was a way that narrowed and reduced the curriculum for children. What took the place of a broad-based curriculum was the layering of classrooms and schools with measurable objectives: they were declared good by managerialists, just what the doctor ordered, what education should be about.

A crucial element of curriculum-driven leadership is establishing the essence of particular parts of the curriculum – the task for principals and teachers having discerned these is to believe in them and pursue their logic through to the implications for the administrative structures of schools. Leadership would, to a great extent, be the sum of those implications. For a broad-based curriculum, principals are central to the provision of contexts in which teachers will feel sufficiently free of constraints, and understood and supported enough, to teach in an imaginative and creative manner. Principals, however, in being drawn away from the curriculum, are increasingly vulnerable to challenging teachers administratively rather than where it matters, through the real curriculum. In curriculum-driven leadership, the challenge should come through an inspired view of the curriculum, not an unbalanced view of administration.

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4 Responses to A quiet pre-Christmas warning: We are in trouble

  1. Vern Stevens says:

    Yep Kelvin I certainly agree.what I don’t understand, is why we are still being told that we have to report against National Standards to the MOE, when the government have announced that they have gone. Surely it is just a stroke of the pen, or just an ignoring of schools not sending the BS in. The Nat standards agenda was slapped on us as law in the first 17 days of of the gnatzi party coming to power. Why can’t it be struck off just as fast?

  2. Chris says:


    Hi Kelvin,

    On a positive note the writers, illustrators and editors of the School Journal continue to do an outstanding job in providing NZ children with interesting information and entertainment and their teachers with a high quality cross-curricular resource (hard copy and on-line). The Level 3 August 2017 issue is a fine example. Giselle Clarkson, Marty Smith, Josh Morgan (surely already national treasures) and all the other contributors continue to provide a uniquely NZ world view that has sustained us through the bleakest of recent times. Once were world leaders; now sometime consumers of half-baked Australian phonics programmes!

    Do current NZ teachers have, the wisdom, the will and the wit to ensure that we forge our own way once again? Of course they do!



  3. Duncan Cameron says:

    Agree …cultural capital and the transmission of is vitally important tin creating that level playing field. I believe strongly that all primary and secondary schools should embrace an education platform that others would consider ‘toff’ Music for instance…every child should be taught that language and how to play an instrument. Two languages at least. All kids should be learning two languages…Maori and other options. And …less kiwiana and more world information. We are getting like the USA. A nation absorbed with itself and unable to progress because we don’t want to think about where we might have gone wrong.

  4. Bruce Hammonds says:

    I have to say that i am very optimistic, with the election of the Labour Coalition government, that education can only benefit. It will take time. There will need to be clean out of some Ministry advisers and also for schools to rethink their programmes , to dust off the sidelined New Zealand Curriculum, and get back to the kind of student centred learning we both believe in. If nothing else schools have escaped the National Standards plus that National were planning to introduce.

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