So following on from puffer jackets a few weeks ago, the big education story of the moment is a student who may or may not have been stood down for posting a speech critical of her teachers on Facebook.
Despite the ethics of turning a 15 year old’s Facebook post into a news story without comment from the people on the other side of the issue, it’s out now, so let’s canvas some of the facts.
1. The speech doesn’t name anyone and while it’s harsh in its judgements of some teachers, isn’t any more challenging or offensive than many other things teachers will have heard.
2. The school hasn’t confirmed that the student has been stood down – in fact there is some uncertainty about this.
3. The media now are saying she was stood down ‘after making a speech’ rather than because of the speech – so if she was stood down, it could have been for a range of things.
4. It would be highly unusual for a student to be stood down for making a speech like this or posting it on Facebook. And it would also be highly unusual for a school to have to respond publicly about an individual student being stood down – but in this era of parents being quick to run to lawyers or media, maybe it’s something schools should be prepared for.
So, the facts are pretty uncertain.
But what about the wider issues?
It's definitley important to acknowledge that the experience she’s talking about at school, of being unhappy and not feeling engaged by her teachers is real. It’s an unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable corollary of the law that makes school compulsory. If we thought that school was going to be inherently and always engaging and fun and its value would be self-evident, then we wouldn’t compel people to attend.
I guess the reason though that editors have decided that this is a ‘big’ story is the idea that it’s reflective of a wider malady – that her experience is one that is symptomatic of something bigger. There’s a clear narrative here, that shown by the quotes selected from her speech – that teachers are lazy, that they don’t care about the students, that students are unhappy and ground down by teachers.
There are always people willing to promote this narrative – partly encouraged by people within the education sector who (maybe rightly) take the view that we need to be self-critical in order to improve and change. That’s fair enough.
More importantly perhaps, is this actually symptomatic of something broader?
The evidence would suggest not.
Are schools kicking students out willy-nilly for minor infractions? It doesn’t seem so - data the Ministry put out just the day before confirms this. The numbers for stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions are the lowest since records have been kept.
And what do students think about school? The Youth 2000 series, which surveys around 9000 high school students shows a steady increase in their sense of satisfaction with school between 2001 and 2012. Students who report liking school a lot, a bit or thinking it is okay have increased from 85.5% in 2001, to 87.8% in 2007 and to 90.2% in 2012. This isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a trajectory that is going the right direction.
What’s more, the proportion of students who think that their teachers treat them fairly has also improved steadily, from 42% in 2001 to 51.7% in 2012, and it’s a similar story of steady but gradual improvement with students reporting that their teachers care about them a lot.
Another major survey gave students at New Zealand secondary schools five statements to agree or disagree with about their views on student teacher relationships. With all five of these statements, things like “I get along well with most of my teachers” or ‘If I need help, I will receive it from my teachers” around three quarters of students agreed. And it’s worth noting that the rates were higher in New Zealand than the OECD average, and higher than in Australia, where, the student who sparked this whole thing is heading off to live it appears. I hope she has a better time at school there!