There are not many New Zealand books specifically about secondary education, and even fewer by people with the wealth of experience that this author has. Bold and challenging, Bali Haque’s ‘Changing our Secondary Schools’ is in many ways a timely and important book. It’s also very flawed, both in its analysis of the problems facing the sector and in regards to the proposals for change.
An example of this is the solution he proposes to the issue of teacher workload. While it’s very welcome to see someone taking this problem seriously, there are major flaws with his solution, which is that if teachers worked through the school holidays and had the same amount of actual leave as other employees, then teaching would be a much more manageable and desirable job. The issues of all teachers being forced to take much less leave at the same time, that many teachers choose to go teaching for the family friendly holidays, and that teacher remuneration would have to increase significantly to offset this loss, are all ignored.
Haque was a secondary teacher, member of the PPTA executive, principal at three schools and most prominently lead the secondary assessment section of NZQA during the mid to late 2000s. He knows the education sector well, and is thoughtful and not easily pigeonholed.
Many of the problems that Haque identifies in this book will be familiar; unsurprisingly the main one is the ‘achievement gap’. What is a bit more surprising is that he’s adamant that schools and teachers can’t solve this problem on their own, and that a wider government programme to address poverty and inequality must occur if this ‘gap’ is to be closed. This is welcome realism from someone who in many ways speaks the language, and is a member, of the educational policy elite. In one section he is scathing of Graham Stoop, current head of the Education Council, for suggesting that “all schools, regardless of their decile rating should be expected to perform equally well”.
The main strengths of this book are the explanations of some of the existing features of secondary schooling – in particular what NCEA data shows and doesn’t, and why comparisons between schools are fraught, how decile ratings work and the problems with them, and the strengths and weaknesses of the ERO model.
Haque explores four main policies, Tomorrow’s Schools, NCEA, the New Zealand Curriculum, and National Standards in some depth, coming to the conclusion that all of them were poorly implemented, something that anyone who is familiar with PPTA’s critiques over the years will have heard before. He also lays into the Ministry of Education, PPTA and secondary principals for a range of sins, some of which are probably right, as well, of course, as the politicians.
The inconsistencies in his analysis are perhaps most clearly revealed in his views on Tomorrow’s Schools. While he rails against the competitive, fractured model of schooling that it introduced, and includes an interesting ‘mea culpa’ about his time as principal at Rosehill when he deliberately undermined a neighbouring college, he is also critical that the full Tomorrow’s Schools vision has not been realised, claiming “If we are to retain the philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools, then bulk funding is a necessary part of that philosophy.”
Similar to this, while he says that principals are encouraged to behave badly by Tomorrow’s Schools, and that their current appointment and management processes by Boards are woefully lacking, despite this we should also give them far more discretion over teacher pay, both in regards to progression up the scale and extra ‘Excellence Units’ to reward top performers.
It will be interesting to see what, if any, influence it has on the policy debate; he certainly doesn’t sugar coat things to try and make them more acceptable to the current government, for example he is very dismissive of Investing in Educational Success (“…it is abundantly clear already that the chances of success of the new scheme are low…”). Despite all the problems, I welcome an honest vent from someone with many years of experience in and around schools. Haque’s views won’t be widely palatable, which is what makes this a courageous book.
Changing our Secondary Schools, by Bali Haque, published by NZCER Press, 2014. You can order a copy here .