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Posted by on in Politics

I was sorry to see Chris Hipkins succumb to the ever-present temptation amongst politicians to use public servants as cannon fodder in their war with other political parties.

The Ministry of Education has moved to a new building instead of being scattered across Wellington in four buildings. For those who complain about “silos” in the ministry the fact that everyone is now in the same building is surely a good thing.   There is nothing luxurious about this new working space. It meets all cost-saving demands Treasury makes; hot desking (if you’re late you have to hunt round for somewhere to do your work) everything digitised, no paper anywhere and no cafeteria /staffrooms.  In other words, the complete commodification of labour. There are no personal spaces (although everyone gets single locker and a laptop) and no unsupervised spots where staff can get together and talk about things management would rather they didn’t.  As with MLEs in schools, the ugly reality is concealed by the phrase “modern working environment.”

Worst of all was the way Hipkins set the issue up for a sorry piece by TV 3 Story programme making a superficial comparison with the state of school buildings by choosing a particularly extreme example of a leaky school.  Comparing the one-story staircase at Clayton Park School with the $2.5 million staircase in a multi-storied Wellington high-rise that would have to meet very stringent earthquake safety requirements was ridiculous in the extreme.

It also missed the real story there and that is if we really cared about value for taxpayers, Clayton Park would be closed. There are surplus school places in Manurewa and it should never have opened in the first place – spending $15 million to rebuild a school that is surplus to requirements (but good at managing the media) is where the real scandal lies. 

There are times the ministry gets what it deserves but this isn't one of them.


 PPTA staff meet with a ministry official to discuss senior secondary school staffing in the (somewhat noisy) open plan ministry.


PPTA staff meet with a ministry official to discuss senior secondary school staffing in the (somewhat noisy) open plan ministry.


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I don’t envy the officials who are writing the new purpose statement for the Education Act. I’ve been on two boards of trustees which did something similar with our school charters, and it’s tortuous trying to find the balance between competing views and priorities (in one school even), let alone coming up with words that are pithy, honest, and hopefully vaguely inspiring.

No doubt many of the submissions to the review referred to the statement written in 1939 for the minister of education, Peter Fraser, by the young assistant director of education, C.E. Beeby:

The government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers

This statement, an expression of the idea of equality of opportunity, became something of a ‘foundational myth’ for our public education system, and helped cement Beeby’s place in the hearts of progressives, and eventually pretty much everyone involved in education in New Zealand. Illustrating this, until recently a bust of Beeby sat on the counter of the ministry national office (during some of the ministry’s less glorious periods he would certainly have been ‘liberated’ by various defenders of his legacy if he wasn’t so heavy).

Over fifty years after writing his most famous words, Beeby reflected on the purpose of education and the hunt for a statement to sum it up, and his words are a caution to the public servant following in his wake today:

“My search for a realistic and lasting statement on the objectives of education led me to recall a lecture at Canterbury College in 1921, where an earnest fellow-student of mine, anxious to see the relation between Shelley’s invigorating presentations and the routine lectures at training college, asked Shelley when he was going to give a lecture on the aims of education. Shelley replied, ’You tell me the aims of life and I’ll tell you the aims of education.’ It may have been the wisest thing I ever heard Shelley say. For administrators, defining the objectives presents an insoluble dilemma. If they set out to itemise their objectives in what I earlier called a grocery list, they know that there will be competition between the items, either because the conflict in principle or because they are competing for limited funds; if they spend more on jam they will have less to spend on bread. But if they express their objectives in broad abstract terms, they are aware that their words can be interpreted to mean different things, and that academic theorists are standing by to perform the useful task of spelling that out.

Oh dear. Let’s put ‘the aims of life’ into law aye….  Where could this possibly go wrong?

But, he continues with this:

Yet the public and the teaching profession have a right to know, in clear and simple terms, the overall policy of those who control the national education service…”

So, this makes things interesting, in that really what we need to know is what Parata and her colleagues think the purpose of education is.  I’m not sure about this, but maybe it would be better that this was set out in a speech (like what Beeby did for Fraser back in 1939) rather than written into law.


Anyway, good luck to whoever is writing this section, I hope Beeby’s muse appears for you.


Quotes in this post are from C.E. Beeby's The Biography of an Idea, Beeby on Education (NZCER, 1992)

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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 . 

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Today's announcement that the struggling charter school in Whangaruru will (likely) be closed has been hailed by David Seymour as a sign of the 'strength of the model'.

The possibility of occasional school failures was accepted during both the formulation of the policy and the authorisation of each school,” said Mr Seymour.

“The potential for school closure is a strength, not a weakness, of the Partnership Schools model. Overseas evidence shows that closing failing schools and allowing successful schools to expand improves education outcomes as the charter or partnership model matures.

“Education innovators should be continue to be commended for their bravery, supported in their efforts, be accountable for their failures, and congratulated for their successes.”

In a pure market model of schooling this makes sense. Bad businesses 'go under' and good ones thrive, ergo, the same for schools. 

But (in this model again...) the people who pay the price of a business going under are the owners - the risk, and the rewards, are theirs (of course in real life there are also employees, the community etc... but let's ignore that for the sake of Seymour's model).  

It's not the same with a school. The risks here have been borne most heavily by the students; around 50 of them have had two years of a complete mess of an education. The trust who run the school on the other hand - well it looks like they walk away with the assets and a couple of years of very generous pay packets. Is that what being 'accountable for their failures' means? I don't think so. 

So, after the state puts in over $4.5 million over two and a bit years into around 50 students' education, what does the minister think they have got?

* student achievement concerns remain and the quality of teaching remains poor

* inadequate curriculum leadership continues to impact negatively on students

* the curriculum is not and has not been consistent with the broad ranging curriculum vision articulated in the contract

* a lack of basic literacy and numeracy underpinning qualification credits achieved

This is really shows up some of the bullshit about the whole issue of social entrepreneurship. Vulnerable people, young people, sick people, people in jail don't have the same relationship with the providers of schools, counselling, healthcare or prisons, as they do with the people they buy their groceries from. It's ridiculous to pretend that they do. 

And we get called 'ideological' for pointing this out...  



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Winston Churchill famously referred to it as a “black dog”, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin - arguably one of the greatest heroes of modern history - has spent a lifetime dealing with it, John Kirwan has been extremely open about it, and it is infused in all of Stephen Fry’s comic genius. I am, of course, referring to depression.

There’s been a concerted effort by organisations like the Mental Health Foundation over the last decade to destigmatize depression and other mental illnesses, so it was with some surprise that I found myself reading a headline in the Dominion Post this morning, by Caleb Harris, entitled “Mentally Ill Teachers Investigated by Watchdog”. One click and I’m faced with another piece of clickbait in the sub-headline, this time; “99 Teachers Investigated Over Psychological State in Six Years”. A quick skim of the first paragraph of the article suggests that, quite frankly, we’re leaving our precious children in the hands of loonies. Loonies I tell you! Won’t someone think of the children? (Problematically, Harris appears to include ADHD and Aspergers as mental illnesses. They’re not.)

It’s not until the fourth paragraph that I discover that, actually, only four teachers in this period actually had their registration suspended which, given a workforce of some 100,000 teachers, seems incredibly small. And without comparing teachers to other professionals, this data is fairly meaningless. How many lawyers have been struck off in similar cases? How many doctors? How many nurses? Let’s face it, Harris’ article was nothing more than a cheap shot - a classic example of teacher bashing (on the day when many parents realise they’ve lost their state-funded free childcare until 2016, and are faced with the grim reality of having to look after their own children), as well as further stigmatising the mentally ill, already a soft target when the mainstream media is looking to point a finger at someone, for something.

This article really got my blood boiling. As someone who has lived with depression for many years, I don’t consider my illness to have ever impacted on my teaching. It certainly has never led to “aggressive, violent or threatening behaviour toward children” nor to “theft, bullying, harassment and falsifying grades”. That’s OK though, there’s an organisation that can DO SOMETHING about this outrage. They’re called the Education Council, and one of the things they’ve been charged with is raising “the status of the profession”. I flick them a quick message on Facebook, assuming they’re as incensed as I am, and will immediately issue a press release condemning the facile assumptions in the Dominion Post. But no … a few hours later I receive a notification from them, telling me that they thought the article was “balanced”. I am honestly perplexed by this. Were they reading the same article as me? How is the professional organisation that represents “all teachers from early childhood education through to primary and secondary schooling” and aims to “champion good teaching practice and help raise the status and image of the teaching profession” not really angry about the assumptions that this article makes - that mental illness is still taboo, that teachers who live with mental illness are a threat to the wellbeing of their students and colleagues, and only a program of “rehabilitative support” will allow them to continue teaching?

And herein lies the rub. Does the Education Council really have the best interests of teachers at heart? Whilst they quickly claim to be an “independent” organisation, the non-democratic, politically appointed positions show this to be a lie. And whilst the council is charged with “raising the status of the profession”, this doesn’t sit easily with its other roles - like replacing the current Code of Ethics with a Code of Conduct or acting as a “watchdog”. PPTA has been, and continues to be, critical of the way the Education Council has been foisted upon the teaching profession, despite the large number of submissions from members of the public concerned about the removal of democratic, non-political voice on the council. A few months back, in reply to another Facebook post, Educanz stated “Wait and see. We don't expect to convince teachers with our words but with our actions.” Today’s lack of action spoke volumes.


This is a guest post by PPTA Executive member for Auckland's Eastern Ward, Lawrence Mikkelsen.  Follow Lawrence on Twitter @suburban_ennui 

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I’ve been wondering lately if the age of radicalism in  New Zealand education in is over.

I don’t mean radical in the sense of jumping on the latest fad or getting excited about ‘disruptive innovation’. I mean radical as in wanting to change the world for the better.


In the early 1970s, from my reading of it anyway, it was pretty common for teachers to explicitly state that real social change was the goal of what they were doing. This wasn’t social change in the sense of producing better workers for ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’.  This was social change in the sense of taking on the established order.



It seems to me that the scope of debate now is about means rather than ends. This recent publication, and in particular the final two contributions from John Morris and Claire Amos show this perfectly.

To simplify, the former is the advocate of the traditional, desks in line in rigidly stratified classrooms, with a professorial and charismatic teacher up the front asking socratic questions about Shakespeare, and the latter is a fan of kids on bean bags, hooked up to a 3d printer and skyping with an industrial designer in Beijing while the teacher uses google docs to give feedback on their latest Vines. 

While they seem wildly different, I reckon it’s mostly cosmetic. Preparing students for the ‘21st century’, or the ‘knowledge age society’ is all the same – it’s about getting young people ready to be good citizens.

The radical argument takes a different perspective – we shouldn’t be preparing young people for society, because that society is stuffed.  They should be learning why and how to change it.

I’m not pretending that this was ever a dominant philosophy in NZ schools, but from my reading and talking with some people who were beginning their teaching careers then, it was really a thing for a while,  particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


Why then? I think one big reason is that education seemed less high stakes then – the sense of economic nervousness that drives a lot of decision making, both from parents and students, and from the government didn’t really exist.   This gave the freedom to push the boundaries and no-one minded too much;  kids would leave school at some point and get jobs if they wanted to, and be pretty much fine if they didn’t anyway. This all started to change in the mid 1970s. And now it’s become so much the norm that we don’t even notice it.

Maybe we’re fortunate that we’re living in an era where the big arguments are about form rather than function …. “THIS is the best way to raise achievement”, no “THIS is the best….” Maybe we’re in  Francis Fukuyama’s  ‘end of history’ for the teaching profession.


Despite what it sounds like, I’m not 100% certain that the radical take on what school is for is the right one, but it would be a real pity if there's no one to make the case for it any more.  

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At the moment schools are sorting out their timetables for next year. To do this, they need to have the teachers lined up and ready to go.

And the word we’re getting from a number of secondary schools is that they’re struggling to get the staff they need. The pressure in Auckland, with ridiculous housing costs, is one part of it. Another, all around the country, is finding teachers of subjects like science, maths, Te Reo Māori and technology. I heard recently about a secondary school with no trained maths teachers lined up for next year after several just left.

Some of the suggestions for solving these have been an Auckland allowance (like exists in London) and reintroduction of scholarships/traineeships for particular shortage subject areas.

There’s another possible solution though that’s pretty much taboo to talk about – but it’s staring us in the face and should certainly be put in the mix.

Here’s a hint.



(Data from OECD Education At A Glance 2015.  Indicator D3 How much are teachers paid?  http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933286177 - in $US with purchasing power parity. Based on earnings from 2012)

 What this shows (and not only how low our salaries are)  is that New Zealand is pretty unusual in the way that teachers in primary and secondary schools are paid the same. The OECD average is that secondary are paid around 7.5% more than primary.

By suggesting that we should look at this I’m not saying that primary teaching is less important, or an easier job or anything like that. It’s about recognising that it’s harder to recruit people into secondary teaching – as some stories from earlier this year showed. This one, on secondary teacher shortages and this one, on graduates from primary teacher training not being able to find jobs are examples of the different issues in the different sectors.

We’ve got a working party on secondary teacher supply beginning soon, which came out of the STCA round. It would be worth considering this issue as part of the mix.

For some background, read more about entrenchment here

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Posted by on in Uncategorized

Yesterday a number of technical and relatively minor amendments to the Education Act and other related legislation were announced- some coverage is here and here.

But one of the changes struck me as curious -  it's an amendment to section 79 of the Education Act which authorises the minister to make payments to boards of trustees - i.e. for their operational grants, property and so forth. 

What this amendment does is also allow payments also to be made to 'sponsors' , i.e. the organisations that run charter schools. 

Here's what the Cabinet Paper introducing this legislation said about this section:



The question is then - if this change is 'required' and these payments "should also be authorised" - under what authority have the payments (around $20-$25 million so far) been made? Does this mean that they are open to legal challenge, or should the Auditor General be looking at this? 

(I'm too petty not to point out here that this bill with these 'inadvertent omissions' was claimed by David Seymour to be the 'best charter school model' in the world... a low bar eh...)

One thing that I'm wondering (assistance welcome!), is how this fits with the fact that appropriations for charter schools were made in the budget (for each of the years they've been running, so the first one was Budget 2013 for the schools which opened in 2014) - which is passed by parliament, so that arguably would seem to authorise payments. 

However, from reading a bit about this on the Parliament website - it does seem as if appropriations don't necessarily mean that there is authority to make payments, i.e.;

An appropriation does not enable the Crown, a department or anyone else to do something which they are not otherwise legally authorised to do; the existence of an appropriation does not make lawful something which is unlawful.

So were the payments unlawful as there wasn't explicit parliamentary authority to make them? 

The other way they could have been lawful, without having explicit authority from parliament (i.e. in an Act), is if they are allowed because of the contract that the Crown entered into with the sponsors. It seems, from that same page, that entering into a contract might be authority enough. But if that's the case, why is this change required?

And then, where does that leave the extra payment made to the (supposedly about to be closed) charter school in Whangaruru? It got an extra $129,000 above the contractually agreed funding earlier this year. 

I'd be happy to be put right on this and have someone explain what's going on - and I definitely don't think it's is a conspiracy, but if it is a cock up, it's a spectacular one. 


Updated 30.11

Thanks to the people at the MoE who got back to me to answer this. Turns out there is a clause in the Education Act that made these payments lawful (particularly the one above the contract) - Section 321. This seems to be a catch all section which I have no idea what sort of 'bodies' would be paid under generally - as things like tertiary, compulsory and ECE all have their own specific sections. 

Would have been helpful if this had been mentioned in the Cabinet Paper or Regulatory Impact Statement ... That it wasn't does make me wonder whether it was dug out after the fact to cast a veil of respectability. Here's the full response:

Section 79 of the Education Act 1989 is the main resourcing provision for state schools. It authorises the payment of, for example, operational funding and salaries funding for state schools. For Partnership Schools, most funding goes through the contract. The amendment clarifies that section 79 applies to any grants or payments outside the contract to sponsors of partnership schools.


The grants are authorised by section 321 of the Education Act 1989 (“grants to educational bodies”).  However, as Partnership Schools are registered schools, it is more appropriate for grants to be paid via section 79.  The Bill clarifies the legal position.


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Posted by on in Uncategorized

New Zealand recently hosted a conference for Teach for All, a global network which the Herald described as leading ‘a teaching revolution’.


The short version of what they do is just that, short. Train people for six weeks and get them out into schools as ‘teachers’.

It’s not hard to see why this is controversial when it’s put this bluntly. In the USA, where the programme first began under the patriotic-sounding title ‘Teach for America’, the main criticism is that these teachers are woefully underprepared for the realities of the classroom, and in particular the classrooms in schools in poor neighbourhoods where they’re specifically recruited to teach.

Again, in the USA, it’s also seen as a cut price way to get bodies in front of classrooms, which undermines the teaching profession and does a disservice to needy students by giving them inferior teachers.

Teach For All’s professed goal is to close the education gap between students from poor and wealthy backgrounds, and the way that they aim to achieve this is by recruiting ‘top graduates’ who wouldn’t usually choose to go into teaching.

It’s a noble and important cause that’s worth taking seriously and looking for new ways to address.

When PPTA first was informed that New Zealand was getting a Teach First programme here we were sceptical. We had heard the US criticisms and were aware of its connections with the corporate education reform agenda.

However, we also could see that a programme of field-based teacher education, for subjects where there are shortages of teachers, could have some advantages.  Many of our PPTA members went through teacher education under somewhat similar schemes in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were paid as they trained. 

Cognisant of the potential benefits and pitfalls, we commissioned independent research on the impact of fast track teacher training schemes. The research, which pulled together over 100 studies from around the world, painted a complex picture – more ‘shades of grey’ than black and white.

Teacher training, like these six week courses, that is “minimal and highly technicist”, combined with the “inherent assumption that anyone who is bright and enthusiastic can teach”, is seen as devaluing teachers. The high turnover of graduates from the various Teach for All schemes around the world compared with teachers who have taken traditional training is also problematic.

On the other hand, the few well designed comparative studies of student achievement show that typically students of teachers in these schemes achieve similar results to what they would with other teachers, and possibly even better in science and maths.

As a result of this research PPTA’s position on Teach First has been not to oppose it. We encouraged the Teach First NZ and Auckland University, who deliver the programme here, to ensure that Teach First participants would be teaching for only 12 hours a week, with support from experienced mentors who have release time to work with them. These things happened.

In New Zealand, the teacher education programme continues for the first two years of their teaching, so they are learning and teaching at the same time.

And it has emerged since that the Teach First NZ programme is far from a ‘cut price’ model.  The government has put over $6.5 million into the three-cohort pilot of the programme, which has put fewer than 60 students through.  This is many times more expensive than traditional teacher education.

The court case that PPTA has against Teach First NZ, the University of Auckland and the Ministry of Education is on a particular narrow but important issue. The State Sector Act and the Secondary Teachers’ Collective Agreement are very clear about how appointments to teaching positions must happen, to make sure it’s a fair process. The way in which participants on the programme are appointed to schools breaches this. There are a number of options for how the Ministry of Education, along with Teach First and Auckland University, could resolve this, and we hope that they do.


In the meantime, we look forward to seeing the final results of the evaluation of the New Zealand programme, and are hopeful that even a fraction of the enthusiastic claims of its promoters, like those at the recent conference, will be borne out.

This blog appeared as a column in the November 2015 edition of Principals Today - available here

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Posted by on in Uncategorized

The Education Act update that’s touring the country at the moment, with Ministry officials doing a sterling job of talking to as many teachers as possible, got me thinking about some big questions about our system,  and not only the ones in the glossy documents.

What strikes me is that there does seem to be a widely shared understanding (thanks Cathy Wylie, and others) that our fragmented and competitive system needs to change. As the document says

“The law should also make it easier for schools … to work together more…”

And further through,

“It may also be useful to let groups of schools and kura work together when they are planning and reporting. This will help a community plan more cohesively, share expertise and reduce administration.”

This sounds great. But there’s one big problem.

If we’ve got a system where schools are set up to compete, i.e. Tomorrow’s Schools, then ‘allowing’ them to collaborate more is not going to solve this. For schools that are ‘winning’ under the current model, (the ones that the news media refer to as ‘top schools’) bulging at the seams and collecting millions of dollars in locally raised funds, what’s the incentive for them to collaborate? And if they’re not going to opt in, what’s the chance of area strategies for education working?

The changes underway specifically exclude ‘self-management of schools and kura’, which is the basis of Tomorrow’s Schools. So it looks very unlikely that there’s going to be any way to make the ‘winning’ schools behave more collaboratively, and current practises from the Auckland Grammars, Kings High School and the rest will no doubt continue.

This leads to a point that the Minister made recently in this speech. She discussed her experience of, and dislike for streaming, along with the (pretty compelling) evidence against it from the Best Evidence Synthesis. It won’t be a surprise that most of the ‘winning’ schools under our competitive system disagree and stream students intensively – with Auckland Grammar of course being the lead exponent. Despite what the Minister, and the evidence, say – there’s no ruling, or even any guidance on this practice from the Ministry- it’s up to each school to decide. Again, voluntarism rules – or is it being afraid to tread on toes?

One more piece of the puzzle is the decile funding system. At present schools with the most students from the poorest 10% of the population get around 15-20% more funding than those with the least (not counting the large sums that schools which serve wealthy communities can raise themselves). The purpose of this is to compensate for the additional educational challenges that these students face. However, there is increasingly convincing evidence emerging from around the world that to offer the same educational opportunities to children from very poor or struggling homes would cost around double what it would cost to educate privileged children. And despite this, people like John Morris, former principal of Auckland Grammar, still claim that low decile schools are awash with cash when schools like his are struggling.

I think what these examples point to is that we’ve got a system which protects the autonomy, and the resourcing of a few big ‘successful’ schools, flying in the face of the evidence and at the expense of the rest. So where does the power lie?

Well, clearly a lot with the Minister, but maybe not as much as we sometimes think, as the example above shows. She alluded to this in the same speech, when she discussed Shanghai and Beijing’s ‘equity and excellence’ gap being the lowest in the OECD- and she wistfully reflected that she doesn’t have the same ‘levers available’ that they do there.

So maybe it’s the principals of these ‘top’ schools who hold the power (as we all know a strong principal can lead their Board by the collar), with a Ministry that would like to create a more cohesive system unwilling to even propose taking a more hands on leadership role. But it’s not just them.


It’s also, and perhaps most importantly, the parents at these schools that hold the power. And they’re almost certainly the same ones that Max Rashbrooke identified in his work on wealth inequality in New Zealand – the wealthiest 10% who own more than half the assets of the country. Their choice to attend these schools, pour resources into them, and fight for them (with advocates like Matthew Hooton) is the flip side of the ‘struggling schools’ story. As Rashbrooke writes, a seesaw doesn’t make sense if you only look at one end of it. And education policy that continues to allow ‘top’ schools to deny the evidence, deny resourcing to schools that need it more, and protect their autonomy when it’s hurting the rest looks like a see saw that’s well out of kilter to me. 

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Heard the Education Minister speak today - didn't use her notes, no surprise there - and she didn't mention possums either! It was an entertaining and interesting speech but, as usual, she saved a couple of kickers for the end.

Anyway this blog is about a bell curve of teachers - yes Hekia was talking about The Bell Curve of Teachers.

(Not mentioned was The Bell Curve of MPs!)

PPTA has talked about a bell curve too - but we might have a very different way of describing teachers in that bell curve.

The Minister wants the 'bad' teachers - as measured by The Bell Curve - put out of teaching. The Minister also mentioned standards that she wants EDUCANZ to get 'onto' -  I'm guessing these standards are her bell curve measure.

When we talk about students, we talk about supporting all students to succeed - to be the best they can be.

When we - and the Minister - talk about teachers ... rather than a bell curve and labels ... I'd prefer to hear about supporting teachers to succeed.

So here's a challenge -  we don't and won't "label teachers 'bad' until we have fully equipped all teachers to succeed."*

It's a systemic thing after all.


Oh and the Minister also talked about data and the All Blacks so:



P.S. Minister - teachers already have to meet two sets of standards - The Practicing Teacher Criteria  and their Professional Standards   


Along the same lines: 

Teacher Power! 

The Bad Teacher Debate: Losing Labels in Education 


* I think quote is from Randi Weingarten President of the American Federation of Teachers


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Posted by on in Education

President Angela Roberts submitted the following letter to The Listener, in response to its editorial of 15 October.  The Listener, in its usual biased fashion, slashed it to pieces, taking out all the arguments in favour of NCEA being a multi-field qualification, providing choice for students and valid assessment in subjects that don’t lend themselves to written exams, etc.  They removed all the words from “PPTA has argued since the 85% Level 2 goal was set…” right through to “instead of standards that stretch them”. 

At the same time, they published a letter from Professor Warwick Elley which argued that New Zealand should go the English way and cut back internal assessment dramatically, get rid of modular assessment, and abolish re-submission.   Elley also supported the Listener’s recommendation to reduce internal to no more than half the credits as “a good start”.   They also awarded it “Letter of the Week” – I hope he enjoys his copy of Nadia Lim’s Fresh Start Cookbook! 

Elley’s letter was at least as many words as Angela originally submitted, if not more!  That’s really partial editing of letters that are over the recommended length.   Don’t tell me that Listener Editor Pamela Stirling isn’t biased! 

The original letter

Dear Editor

Your editorial in the 15 October edition was mostly right on the nail, but it’s a pity you drew the wrong conclusion. 

Panning the government’s “bullish pressure on pass rates” was absolutely right.  PPTA has argued since the 85% Level 2 goal was set that a target like this is dangerous in the context of a standards-based qualifications system that contains significant amounts of internal assessment.

Your claim that there has been a “gradual makeover of NCEA into an extraordinarily permissive regime”, however, is nonsense.  NCEA has always been a “multi-field qualification”.  This means that students can enter standards from right across the Qualifications Framework to gain a certificate at a particular level. 

In the absence of a percentage target, this works fine.  Students, in consultation with their families and teachers, assemble assessment programmes that match their aspirations and abilities.  A student who is aiming for a career in the primary industries can assemble a programme made up of relevant curriculum subjects such as English, Maths and Science and also more applied study such as unit standards related to farming skills.  A student aiming for a career as a civil engineer, on the other hand, will do a programme focusing largely on Maths and Sciences. 

This kind of choice is what people from the pre-NCEA generations wish they had had, instead of the heavy academic focus and built-in 50% failure rates that left many people with no recognition at all for what they could do. 

However, pressure on schools to ensure that all of their students achieve NCEA Level 2 incentivises school leaders the wrong way.  It encourages them to demand that teachers find standards that students can be guaranteed to achieve, instead of standards that stretch them.  

The answer is not to cap the number of credits that come from internal assessment.  Our robust moderation system which produces teacher/moderator agreement rates at a level envied by the rest of the world means that internal assessment is just as reliable as external assessment.  Exams are often not a valid way of assessing the much wider range of learning that can be recognised through NCEA, and which a modern school system should be promoting.   How much of subjects like Horticulture or Drama, for example, can be validly assessed through written exams?  Very little. 

The solution is instead to stop measuring the system’s success through a percentage target.  We should focus instead on how well students do when they leave our schools.  That’s the true test of a successful school system.


Angela Roberts


PPTA President

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Guess what? Charter school students love their small class sizes and feel like teachers really have time to work with them as individuals. 

That's the stunning new finding from the just released round one evaluation.

This report feels a bit like a brochure for a cruise ship holiday. Yep, cruise ship customers love it. But let's not talk about the impact on the islands where the ships stop, discharge tourists and waste, and move right along. 

Just to assure you I'm not being unfair here - check the methodology for this report: 

The PSKH were all told who we would like to talk to but the schedule was determined by each individual school/kura.

So yep, they spoke to a bunch of people who the school leaders wanted them to.  

And there's no room in here for any analysis of wider impact... or actually what the impact is at all, as earlier posts make clear. Nope, this is just to look at how well they're 'innovating' - so if anyone claims that this shows they're making a great difference for students, they're making stuff up.

How about that innovation then?

Curriculum - "Little real innovation"

Engagement with community and parents "Little real innovation"

Pedagogy teaching and learning  - "Multiple examples of 'best practice'... while similar examples can be found in some state schools, these practices are not widespread across the state sector".

Fascinating. I didn't think this research was looking at state schools - but apparently so. Would love to know how these researchers could make a call that 'best practice' (as they identify it) happens more often in charters than state schools, from a couple of visits to charter schools. I guess the people they interviewed told them.

So where are the big innovations happening?

Governance  "highly innovative".

And how so?  Here's what a Ministry of Ed person said :"The Board members aren't elected - it's a private commercial organisation; it's a business model and ensures the right mix of skills." Great to know our public servants have such high regard for elected representatives.

Use of funding "the funding model is innovative in and of itself"

Oh it certainly is. One of the CEOs noted "A big freedom we enjoy is the funding model." I wonder whether this was the one that banked $1.9 million surplus, or the one that paid management fees (on top of salaries) of $260,000. Worth noting that future rounds of charters will have significantly less money in the set up stages as the Ministry belated realised that these guys were getting absurdly high funding. 

And linked to that, policy people in the Ministry should be worried about this from one of the principals "Our success is related to our size - we don't want to grow our roll too high," when the recent change in funding was partly driven by the fact that their was an incentive for them to keep the rolls tiny, and thus keep pocketing masses of cash.

Not that Hattie is to be relied upon unquestioningly, but he's fair and square debunked the value of innovation that's all about governance and funding, and doing nothing different in classrooms. But that's irrelevant to the people who came up with the policy, as this evaluation shows. If they can inveigle the private sector into the public domain, move money from state institutions to private businesses and get in some hits on public schools in the process, then they're meeting their targets.




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Posted by on in Charter schools

A recent OIA request unearthed this email from Alwyn Poole, who runs two charter schools and a private school, to Catherine Isaac, the chair of the Authorisation Board.



ERO reviews of private schools are notoriously hands off. Gloriavale is a case in point - basically the people running the school say "This is what we want to do, and this is what we're doing" and ERO gives them a tick. ERO notes that, "...reviews of private schools are significantly different in process and more limited in scope than those for state and state integrated schools..."

Alwyn claims that their quarterly reporting to the minister would provide more than enough oversight and accountability. The irony of this is that the quarterly self-reporting from the first round has been shown, in some cases, to be misleading - and the new policy design for future rounds of charters tightens this up.

Of course, Alwyn also is avoiding (legally required) public scrutiny by failing to provide his accounts to the Charities Commission - now over three months late. Contrast this to public schools, whose accounts are public, and have to hold open Board  meetings, are covered by the OIA and have legal obligations to consult with and report to their communities. 


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Two very different education stories today gave an inkling that maybe we're going to see some positive changes around the corner.

First, Salvi Gargiulo's opinion piece in the Herald, while a response to a sad and nasty incident, was a magnificent defence of the work that schools in some of our most challenging neighbourhoods do. 

This section in particular really struck me. 

As a community, we often have little idea of the poverty trap. I have served as a principal in Nelson, Dubai, even Tanzania.

Yet, until I came to Manurewa High School, I didn't really comprehend, either.

Poverty is not being short of money this week; poverty is being in survival mode, year in and year out.

Poverty is never knowing if you can remain in the place you are living in next week; it is never being sure there will be enough money to feed your children; say nothing of yourself. When you are in that mode, personal strength is all you have left.

It is the same personal strength our students muster to pass assessments, to meet challenges they face at home and at school. It is that same strength our teachers draw on to support them through the vicissitudes of life, walking the journey with them.

There is little cause for optimism in the substance of this. That we have students and their families in ‘survival mode’ isn’t something that we should accept. 

But that a principal like Salvi can come to somewhere like Manurewa, when he could easily have stayed in the relative comfort of traditional boys’ schools like Nelson College, and make an impassioned case for our society not to judge but to support his students and their community, is heartening. 

And credit to the Herald for publishing it. Young people from all sectors of society (even Etonian future PMs, allegedly) make wildly stupid decisions. Let’s hope the community rallies around the school and gives it the support it deserves.  With a defender like Salvi, I’m hopeful that they will. 

The other cause for optimism is the sort of thing that only an education policy nerd can get particularly excited about. Today the Minister finally released her decisions on the review of professional learning and development.  While it’s not all gold, there are some good moves that should start to see a much more coherent and meaningful system of PLD developing in the coming years. 

First – 

Prioritising support will strengthen those communities and over time build their internal capability in areas of curriculum, teaching and learning.

Good to see the focus is on what goes on in schools - internal capability rather than parachuted in consultants to deliver a motivational spiel and move on pocketing their wodge of cash.


We will build effective local, regional, and national networks of curriculum and subject specific expertise, such as subject associations and gifted networks.

Recognising the subject associations, who are the (largely voluntary, un-supported and taken for granted) spine of curriculum expertise is fantastic.  For most secondary teachers the subject associations are the main repository of expertise and conduit for collaboration. Until now they’ve been sidelined by the glitzy consultancies who soak up most of the PLD resource. 

And one more- 

Additionally, in response to the growing obesity problem and concerns about progress and achievement in the curriculum hauora/health and physical education learning area, there will be a hauora/health and physical education (H&PE) pilot in 2016. Following this we will consider the framing of hauora/H&PE as a national PLD priority starting in 2017.

Secondary students earlier this year reported that health was one of their favourite subjects, and it’s great to see an often neglected area of the curriculum getting attention. A wider focus on well-being  at school is good news – recognising research like this that shows the long term value of social connectedness at school over pure academic achievement.

Of course, maybe it’s just that it’s been a long, rather miserable winter and I’m hanging out for spring – focussing on the blossom and daffodils and refusing to notice the storm clouds. For today I think that’s okay though.





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Howick College teacher Nathan Kerr and director of ICT Robert Douglas share their thoughts on web literacy 

What is it?

Students are turning the web into a giant Lego set, where they are using content on the web, pictures, sound files, multi-media footage (television programmes, movies, games cartoons, special effects), and their own media footage, and then mixing all the content together, to produce truly unique resources, in many cases with a strong global flavour, and in many cases, the finished product – has little, or no link to the original content that was used.

Examples of Web literacy are found on Social Media Sites (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, MSM Chat), and tribute videos on YouTube

It is not: focusing on software programmes, and what they can, and cannot do, it is not focusing on associated hardware, such as, laptops, mobile devices, tablets – it (hardware) is simply there to access the web, and its massive content supply, storage of their resources, and basic editing functions.

Why is it important?

Students are not focusing on software programmes, or hardware, including devices, and are solely using the web for content sources, distribution method, and feedback.

As the web becomes more accessible (more coverage, and cheaper), this development in learning will become more pronounced, and exciting.

For educators, web literacy could be exciting – as long as the focus on the learning is focussed on the curriculum.

For students, web literacy will allow them to demonstrate their learning, in a highly creative and unique way.

Web literacy will challenge traditional approaches towards digital learning, by removing the focus on learning software programmes, and hardware tools. Instead the focus is on transforming multi- type content into a finished product.

Skills needed

For students the key skills will be exploring by navigating the web for content, creating for the web via remixing content, designing the finished resource, and connecting on the web, this is done by sharing their finished project.

For educators the key skill will still be applying subject specific curriculum knowledge to the students, and managing students projects to ensure they focus on the learning objectives, and not to stray from those objectives.


Challenges of web literacy to both educators, and students is developing projects that cover all learning outcomes, while allowing students creativity to shine through.

For school management and the wider community the challenge is web accessibility, and developing policies to best match the school’s culture, and the curriculum.

School ICT manager could storage, and access those projects/resources on the cloud.


The best advice for web literacy is to focus on a specific task/assessment, this allows both the teacher, and the students to focus on a clear goal, therefore reducing the chance of getting off-task.

The techniques needed for web literacy are data capture, and data management.

Data capture can be achieved by either a simple print screen for websites, or a combination of converting media files into a more interactive file type, and transferring to a media playing, and editing software, such as MovieMaker.

ICT Manager Feedback

I own a lot of CD’s and DVD’s and I have downloaded music and movies and stored them on hard disk for when I want to use them. This marks me as being ‘pre-web.’ Why do I need to store what is available online at any time. Netflix and other systems provides access to movies and television programmes on demand. Spotify and I Heart Radio gives me access to any music I desire on demand. I have yet to make that conceptual transition that I do not need to keep it; I just need to know where to find it. This is the changing nature of web literacy. Our students are learning where to find things and how to make them interact together to create something new and unique. They are learning how to access source code and manipulate it to create. It’s a new literacy and a unique challenge to concepts of ownership and copyright.

International Community Direction

In the United States web literacy focuses on the skills and competencies needed for reading, writing and participating on the web. It has been described as "both content and activity" - web users should not just learn about the web but also how to make their own website. Web Literacy is closely related to Digital Literacy, Information Literacy, and Network literacy but differs in taking a more holistic approach. Mozilla Foundation is one of the major forces promoting, and developing it in the United States.

In the United Kingdom web literacy tends to concentrate on web etiquette (net etiquette), and standardised web literacy in terms of the best way to promote content on websites. 

 The Future

Web literacy future is based on web accessibility for the students, student’s creativity, and the student’s ability to apply curriculum knowledge using content from the web.

Educators will continue to deliver subject specific curriculum knowledge to the students.

Web Literacy is continuing to move schools away from being pen and paper islands in a digital sea.

The teething stage will be developing best practice, based on specific skills, and strategies to enable the best possible learning outcomes for the students.


Web Literacy has the following traits

·        Students use the internet as a giant Lego set, mixing and matching files into a highly unique resource

·        Many of the resource/products develop via web literacy have little, or no link to the original files used to make those resources

·        Web literacy has an international flavour due to the internet

·        Web literacy does not focus on learning software programmes, or hardware issues.


·        Web Literacy continues to move schools away from being pen and paper islands in a digital sea.

Tagged in: Web literacy
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No surprise that coverage of the latest PISA report has focused on the finding that more computer use doesn’t lead to better results, but would anyone in education really have been shocked at this?

The ICT advocates are already rushing to say “but PISA doesn’t measure what really matters”, and the traditionalists (e.g. Roger Moses on RNZ this morning) are using it to advocate for a return to more ‘direct instruction’ in the classroom, a la East Asian countries that dominate in PISA. So far, so predictable.

Looking further into the report, beyond the headlines, though there are some things that could be useful for educators, school leaders and policy makers.

Firstly, it’s abundantly clear that ICTs can’t substitute for quality teaching.  The end of the policy chapter says:

What this shows is that the successful integration of technology in education is not so much a matter of choosing the right device, the right amount of time to spend with it, the best software or the right digital textbook. The key elements for success are the teachers, school leaders and other decision makers who have the vision, and the ability, to make the connection between students, computers and learning.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is a real endorsement of Investing in Educational Success – putting resources into structures and systems to get teachers working together  is far more effective than buying hardware or software.

The report also provides good evidence to push back against the ‘edu-corps’ who circle like sharks around schools and the Ministry touting their wares. It states:

But other activities, such as using drilling and practice software for mathematics or languages, show a clear negative relationship with performance. And more frequent, daily browsing of the Internet at school is also generally associated with lower performance.

The call for scepticism and gradualism is one that some of these outfits will be very concerned about – there’s a lot of money and reputations to be made by selling the narrative of crisis and the need for revolutionary change.  Carefully planning change and figuring out clear goals isn’t super sexy, but many teachers will breathe a sigh of relief to hear the OECD endorsing it.

Still, countries and education systems can do more to improve the effectiveness of their investments in ICT by being both gradually accepting and sceptical. They can more clearly identify the goals they want to achieve by introducing technology in education, and strive to measure progress towards these goals, experimenting with alternative options too. This kind of clarity in planning would enable them, and other countries and systems, to learn from past experience, gradually improving on previous iterations and creating the conditions that support the most effective uses of ICT in schools.


Of course we shouldn’t reify PISA results (or any forms of assessment) – they’re an interesting proxy and construct, rather than a goal in themselves. Most of the important purposes of education are resistant to measurement. But if this report helps shift the focus towards supporting and building the capacities of teachers, then I welcome it. 

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Posted by on in EDUCANZ

PPTA member James Colvine shares a letter sent to the Education Council (EDUCANZ) 


Dear Council Members,

In his Highlighter report of 13 August, your Interim Chief Executive gives an account of your function, as you perceive it.  It is an absolute insult to teachers.

So your primary function is to raise learner outcomes.  But raised learner outcomes can only be achieved by rank-and-file teachers.  Indeed, most spend most of their working life raising learner outcomes.

If you want to help teachers then, first and foremost, you should respect them.  They should be supported and not patronised.  Raising the status of the profession is central.  It was considered a primary function when the rationale for your council was first spun.

Like it or not, your council has a crucial role.  You are gate-keepers.  If you do not challenge the use of untrained persons in charter schools, you will have failed at the first hurdle.  Only you can weed out the incompetents and scumbags who slip through.  The Teachers Council did great harm to my profession.  Let us hope that you are more efficient and effective in this role.

I applaud the indication that you intend to play a positive role in many aspects of Education.  But you also need to be very active in promoting a positive image of teaching and in countering the negative propaganda, to which teachers are frequently subjected.

Sadly you see raising the status of the profession only as a means of attracting “the best possible teachers” and not as a responsibility to the existing workforce.  This betrays a breath-taking contempt for those who are actually paying for your council.

The final irony is that teaching can never truly be a profession when its putative professional body is populated by government appointees.  To underline this, you place “discussions” with “key stakeholders” and the Ministry above “conversations” with teachers.  And not regarding teachers as key stakeholders is deeply, deeply insulting.

Yours faithfully,



James G Colvine

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Posted by on in Teaching Profession

Here are my thoughts about EDUCANZ.  Part of the work I am doing towards a PhD looking at the quality of teaching and the qualities of teachers.  Happy to take reflections from people about my thinking along the way…


One such development has been the set up of the Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand.  This was a political initiative aimed at increasing the government’s ability to penetrate the sector with a permissive bill which provides scope for action from the new council across a number of fronts.  There was a particular emphasis on the ability of this new council to provide leadership for the profession.    A role many would argue is taken up already by the Teacher Unions and Professional Associations.   The legislation also emphasised the new council’s ability to enact control over the quality of teaching.  This included through the auditing of appraisal documentation as well as by continuing to oversee registration via the new practising certificate. 

The Bill also established a new role for the Council:

c)To identify and disseminate best practice in teaching and leadership and  foster the education profession’s continued development in light of research, and evidence of changes in society and technology. 

At this early stage it is unclear what is mean by this.  Barbara Ala’alatoa said in the introductory pamphlet that ‘The Council will be a strong and independent voice for the profession’.  This ambiguous line in leadership and identification of research and best practice harks back to the original quality teaching report.  This is how teachers will be made sensitive to the teaching and learning cues mentioned by (New Zealand & Scott, 1986).  The ability of the Council to provide such leadership has been heavily contested.  The appointment of an Australian to the Deputy Chair’s position has further inflamed sector views and the appointment of Professor Helen Timperley (Timperley, 2007) whose work on the Best Evidence Synthesis suggest an expansive role for the Education Council around Professional Learning and Development.  Helen is also positioned in the introductory booklet as the ‘Principal Investigator Building Evaluative Capability in Schooling Improvement Project’.  This schooling improvement focus in line with government rhetoric around national standards and percentage achievement rates has a number of possible implications. 

It is early days with the Education Council, but PPTA’s boycott and conference papers have laid out a number of the complexities involved in the establishment of a politicized council that is opposed by the secondary teacher’s union.  The use of ministerial appointment and the abolition of teacher voting was argued by submissions on the bill to be particularly problematic.  The overwhelming majority of submissions to the Education and Science Select Committee opposed the council and suggested that teachers prefer their registration body to be restricted to just that function, entry and exit provisions only.  Expansive activity by the council and the inevitable rise in fees will be seen by teachers as increased taxation.  PPTA also points out in its 2015 conference paper on the subject, that PLD being organised through the council responsible for the compliance function of registration and deregistration is beset with contradictions.

It would appear, to follow the argument of Peter Jones (Jones, 2011, p. 6), that the emotional capital of teachers was being exploited by the government and the Education Council in providing a false sense of leadership to the sector.  This, of course, has been heavily resisted, but the idea that ‘organizational emotion’ can be corralled and directed by a disconnected body of ministerial appointees remains a mystery to many teachers.  That teachers must be led into ‘correct feelings’ about the quality of teaching and initiated into the mysteries of inquiry learning by a council set up to ‘bring greater clarity to the kinds of behaviours we demand of our profession’, is not perhaps a natural fit.  The relationship between behaviour modification and the control of emotional capital is not a hard jump to make and it remains to be seen how much the council will direct this sort of approach. The early documentation certainly suggests it is an identified goal. 

 This fits into an established critique of surveillance and conduct control.  There is in the shift from a code of ethics, which was established by the Teachers Council in a consultative manner, to a code of conduct produced by an unelected body, a clear shift in emphasis and one that stands against the new rhetoric of collaboration and co-operation.  This focus on bringing clarity to professional ‘behaviours’ while providing a ‘strong and independent voice’ for the profession is in many ways a shift back to the dualism of the Scott report.  The new council is aspirational on the one hand claiming to be able to drive up the status of teachers not through pay but through words, and controlling on the other. 

 The ‘struggle for democracy’, as Wrigley puts it (Jones, 2011, p. 32), is central to our cultural experience.  Thus, the removal of voted positions and the development of ministerial appointments was seen as particularly problematic for teachers.   The rhetoric of ‘excellence’ and ‘high standards’ when thrown into this mix is both specious and culturally disorienting.  The re-establishment of cultural and professional orthodoxies at a time when more than ever success for students is seen to be relational and a response to the local is a strange development.

 To go back to Paul Willis (Dolby, Dimitriadis, & Willis, 2004) we also need to be reminded of the function of culture and class in all this.     This new positioning about codes of conduct and higher standards is a way of hierarchizing the profession within the profession.  No longer are you defined purely by your position within the school, but also by the thoughts applied to you via an appraisal system that is ever threatening a lean towards bureaucratic, technocratic and ultimately reductive processes that define teacher success within distinctly measurable frames.  This is not the rich culture of teaching promised, but a new class ridden way of segmenting and separating, the teacher able to take the nuanced and heroic path from those who can’t.

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Recently we released a paper calling for the Minister to scrap the 85% NCEA target. The main reason, we argue, is the very real risk to the qualification – bluntly, it puts pressure on schools to ‘juke the stats’ which undermines NCEA's credibility.

The other day the Minister said that basically a school could do whatever it wanted with its curriculum as long as it was producing good NCEA results (see this interview – no need to teach Te Reo Maori, even in a predominantly Maori school if your grades are good).  Of course that’s the central premise of charter schools too. A senior official lately was singing the praises of schools for having a much sharper focus on ‘achievement’ than ever before. 

And by achievement, we’re not talking personalised portfolios or individual leaver profiles, this is quantifiable achievement, i.e. qualifications. Maybe there’s no problem with having a view of schools as ‘qualification factories’. But lately I’ve seen some reports and studies which cast doubt on the value of qualifications over all else at school.

One of them was the Ministry’s review of the various Youth Guarantee initiatives.  These programmes are aimed at students who are not doing very well at school and are at risk of disengaging, around 14% of young people access them. The report showed, when they tracked participants for a few years and compared them to a similar cohort, that while the programmes helped with gaining level 2 NCEA, “there is no evidence that they are providing a more effective pathway to further education and training than other educational choices for a similar group of young people”.

So, while it helps the minister’s target, it doesn’t seem to help the students much.  Is this a worthwhile initiative to put resources into?

But perhaps more important is  this fascinating report based on data from the Dunedin multidisciplinary study. It was reported on at the time and it’s not new, but in the light of schools’ supposed ‘sharper focus on achievement’ it’s worth revisiting.

What it shows is that in the long run, academic success at school is not as important for having a good life as what the authors call social connectedness.  The authors write “Adolescent social connectedness was a better predictor of adult well-being than academic achievement “.

We’ve got a few measures that relate to our students’ ‘social connectedness’,  and well-being, from some of the questions in the PISA survey that goes along with the tests, Youth 2000 and Wellbeing@School. But  are schools allowed to report these things alongside NCEA or National Standards? Does the minister have an ‘unrelenting focus’ on well-being? Not so much.


Of course , as usual, this comes back to some of the fundamental questions about the purpose of school. Secondary teachers know that qualifications matter – that’s why we want a valid, robust system that treats students fairly and is useful for people who need to know what someone leaving school can do. But there’s a balance to be struck here, and an ‘unrelenting focus on raising achievement’ may not be setting up students for the best possible lives.

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