NCEA failure not an option

Education has always been a battleground for ideas and ideology.

This week has emphasised the point with huge prominence given to attacks on NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) by a small number of school principals.

NCEA is the new qualification which replaced School Certificate and Bursary. It was developed under National’s Lockwood Smith and then implemented by Labour’s Trevor Mallard.

These latest attacks come at a time when NCEA has had its smoothest year of operation and produced results showing improving student achievement at each of its three levels. But instead of celebrating the fact that more students are achieving through NCEA, this is the very problem they see. Too much success is a bad thing for these principals.

They argue there is a lack of academic rigour, a failure to extend and challenge bright students and, what’s more, they claim we can’t trust the results because significant parts of the qualification are internally assessed.

These arguments have been rehearsed ad nauseum in recent years. They just don’t stack up. Yes, there are problems with NCEA but it is a big step forward from the pre-determined failure of 50 per cent of our kids every year through the likes of School Certificate. The purpose of schooling is to educate young people, not to ensure half are branded failures.

These principals, Byron Bentley from Auckland’s Macleans College, John Morris from Auckland Grammar and Roger Moses from Wellington College, would prefer “gatekeeper” exams as we have had in the past. Such exams are generally more beneficial to students from high-income families as they weed out other students before they have the chance to access higher level university courses.

These well-publicised, repeated attacks inevitably weaken public confidence in NCEA. Unless it is well regarded in its own right then our universities, polytechs and employers could well begin to regard the school a student attends as being more important than the qualification they obtain. Once again it will be students from low-income communities who will bear the brunt of a low-credibility NCEA.

Once upon a time, if a student received a 52% pass in School Certificate maths the school he or she attended was irrelevant. Despite its shortfalls it had the same credibility whether it was gained in Invercargill, Temuka, Porirua or Fendalton. NCEA has yet to gain this level of public confidence.

Now other school principals such as Brent Lewis from Auckland’s Avondale College have taken fright and worry that parents might remove their children unless he offers an alternative to NCEA.

Labour must take the lion’s share of the blame. From the outset the new system was poorly resourced and was carried on the backs of teachers and schools. There were low quality exemplars, a lack of training and teachers in every secondary school were expected to reinvent the wheel by developing almost all their own resources.

And on top of everything else the best features of NCEA were buried under a mountain of over-assessment. It was the old story of weighing the pig frequently instead of feeding it.

Not surprisingly, the qualification struggled in the early days and was brought into disrepute by practices such as those at Cambridge High School where 100% pass rates disguised a multitude of manipulative practices designed to enhance the school’s reputation rather than improve student learning. It’s worth remembering that the first person on their doorstep to congratulate the school on its pass rate was none other than the then minister of education, Mallard.

Many of these problems have been eased but the legacy is a qualification which is still fighting for the place it must occupy at the heart of secondary education. It’s our only national qualification and failure is not an option. Getting it right remains the Government’s biggest challenge in secondary education. We can take some encouragement that Minister of Education Steve Maharey is pushing for further changes to bolster public confidence in the qualification.

But it’s time to take a closer look at the attackers. Besides being principals of decile 10 secondary schools each of the three, Bentley, Moses and Morris are also members of the Business Roundtable’s education sub-committee, the Education Forum.

Bentley chairs the Forum with Moses as deputy chairman. They sit with Business Roundtable executive director Roger Kerr and representatives of the private education lobbies to promote the policies of the forum’s big-business backers. For example, the forum has called for student fees to attend our universities and polytechs to be dramatically increased and for increased government subsidies to private schools. These are policies to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

The problems with NCEA need fixing but it’s long past the time when we should give any credence to those who attack NCEA to promote narrow sectional interests above the interests of all our kids and their futures.

Mugabe’s tyranny rolls on

Last year I met Ms Sekai Holland on a sunny Saturday in Auckland. She was visiting New Zealand to lobby our Government to support the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in its campaign to oust Robert Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe. She was an engaging, energetic, middle-aged woman and explained the threats to Zimbabweans who opposed Mugabe’s tyrannical rule.

Her words were dramatically underlined last week when she was one of the 49 leaders of the MDC arrested, assaulted and beaten by Mugabe’s henchmen when they tried to hold a prayer meeting (public meetings are banned). Her husband, Jim Holland, returned from a trip to Tanzania and circulated this message:

“At 11pm I managed to get to see Sekai in hospital. She has been badly injured, suffering from extensive bruising and lacerations all over her body from many hours of beatings from a team of 15 members of the CIO (secret police).

“She fell unconscious twice from being beaten in the head. They ended up deliberately breaking her arm and her foot, then forced her to walk on the broken foot. She is due to go into theatre in the morning to have pins inserted to help heal the breakages, and she will also need a CAT scan to see if she has any hidden head injuries.”

Such treatment of opponents of Mugabe’s rule has become commonplace.

It is the routine brutality which goes hand in hand with political repression.

Twenty-seven years ago things were different. Zimbabwe was a country with so much promise. The regime of Ian Smith, based on white- minority rule of the country then called Rhodesia, had been discredited and the armed liberation struggle had gained effective control of most of the countryside. A negotiated agreement followed which saw the first Parliament elected and a landslide political win for Mugabe who became the first President of a democratic Zimbabwe.

But from the outset Mugabe’s hands were tied. A typical feature of the transition from colonial rule to independence all over the world involves the colonial rulers, Britain in this case, ensuring that while everyone will get the vote, the economy and resources will effectively remain under the control of the same individuals and companies with ties back to the colonial homeland.

The biggest issue was land ownership but before the first democratic vote was cast, Mugabe had agreed to allow land to remain in the hands of white settlers whose freehold titles would be protected by law. Twenty years after his election as President just 4500 white farmers still owned 75 per cent of the most productive land in the country while millions of blacks continued to live in landless poverty.

When Mugabe’s support inevitably waned in the face of black frustration he reacted first by accusing white Zimbabweans of selfishness and holding up black development. This was frequently true but the fault was Mugabe’s failure to implement an effective plan to manage land resources and bring hope that things would improve.

As his support slumped further he responded with the time-honoured tactics of despots and tyrants through the centuries. Vicious attacks on political opponents, brutal repression and electoral fraud. A reign of terror has been in place for several years now.

Two years ago New Zealand had the chance to do something effective through cancelling the Black Caps’ cricket tour to Zimbabwe. The Government cranked up the rhetoric but in the end there wasn’t so much as a simple Government request for the cricketers to abandon the tour. The Black Caps played and Mugabe relaxed.

A powerful gesture such as this would have sent a strong message to black Zimbabweans struggling for freedom from oppression. It would have been an important step in isolating Mugabe and undermining his regime. This was at a time when the international spotlight was sharply focused on New Zealand which planned to tour while Mugabe bulldozed squatter camps and forced their inhabitants to relocate to rural areas where there were not even rudimentary facilities.

At the time, Foreign Minister Phil Goff tried to deflect attention away from Government inaction by saying New Zealand would work with other Commonwealth countries to build pressure for a wider sports ban on Zimbabwe.

Two years on and there is no evidence of any moves in this direction. A Zimbabwe cricket team is currently playing in the Cricket World Cup alongside New Zealand, without a squeak from our Government.

The last word here should go to Sekai, from her husband’s circular:

“In spite of the injuries and pain, Sekai was in amazingly good spirits, as she knew that they had won. She said that none of the leadership cracked under the torture, and they are all determined to continue the fight for justice.”

Kia Kaha Sekai.

Where is the dignity for hotel workers?

Staying in a hotel is usually a relaxing experience. Someone else is making the beds, cooking the meals and cleaning the toilets while the guests are pampered.

But all is not well.

The hospitality industry last week launched its own specialised recruitment website. The chief executive of the New Zealand Hotel Council Mark Oldershaw says “We have been struggling for some time to attract and retain a regular stream of employees that see hospitality as a long-term career option”.

This is no surprise to many and neither should it be a surprise to Mr Oldershaw. The pay and conditions of work in this sector have deteriorated drastically over the past 20 years.

Wages rates have not kept pace with inflation and penal rates for overtime and weekend work were stripped from hotel contracts under the National government’s Employment Contracts Act of 1991. The result is that hotel workers are amongst the lowest paid and hardest working in our low-wage economy.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year talking with these workers and the story is the same everywhere. The work is demanding, the hours are irregular and much of the work is rostered. On my first hotel visit last year one of the housekeeping staff (staff who clean and maintain the rooms) had been in tears earlier in the morning because of the huge workload she faced that day. Rooms are allocated based on very tight timeframes. For a room which might cost $150 per night the cleaning staff would typically have 15 minutes for a day to day clean (approx. $3 before tax for the housekeeper) or 40 minutes for a full clean when the guests leave (approx. $9 before tax for the housekeeper)  Small wonder that housekeepers typically work through their breaks to finish on time at the end of the day. If they don’t finish their job in time they work on unpaid after their shift till it’s finished.

At the heart of the problem is a lack of respect for the workers.

One five-star Auckland hotel has just had a multi-million dollar upgrade but has offered the workers a nil percent pay increase for the year during which the upgrade took place. The hotel says it kept employees on pay throughout the refurbishment and so shouldn’t have to pay an increase. However the employees were expected to do a range of work outside their normal work duties and were required to take their annual holidays in the middle of winter while the upgrade was underway.

Now the company is poised to increase its income dramatically but the workers are effectively getting a 3.5% pay cut because of inflation.

Another Auckland hotel had the misfortune to open at the time of the September 11th attacks when worldwide travel slumped. The hotel struggled in the first two years and over this time the workers agreed to no pay increases to respect the hotel’s situation. However now that the hotel is very profitable the management are offering a meagre 3% pay increase, just keeping up with inflation. There is no shred of loyalty to their workers. Loyalty is reserved for their shareholders – based in Hawaii – who have never lifted a finger to make a bed or clean a toilet.

Yet another hotel offered its employees just a 2% wage increase. In this case all the housekeeping staff went on strike for three hours one busy morning last month while the management staff frantically made the beds, cleaned, scrubbed and vacuumed. These workers have now been offered 4% to 6% increases. Still modest but improving.

Most of our hotels are now owned overseas. Negotiating to improve pay and conditions means talking with local managers who are under huge pressure to keep wages down despite the high profitability of the global chains to which the hotels belong.

Our hotels need a wake up call. Mr Oldershaw should forget the flash website and the “many initiatives” they will be launching this year to address their labour shortage. Hotels have to front up to the fact that low pay and heavy workloads are the reasons why it is hard to find staff. A hotel I visited two weeks ago had 20 new housekeeping staff begin this year and all have now left. The pay is poor while the workload is exhausting.

Our hotels are often the first face of New Zealand to overseas visitors. However the good service guests receive is a superficial sham when hotels fail to treat the New Zealand citizens they employ to give that good service with the same decency and respect.

Afghanistan and the dirty politics of war

Two reports released last week give a typically bleak insight into the dirty politics of war.
In the first, Defence Minister Phil Goff said New Zealand’s Special Air Service soldiers who took part in the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan acquitted themselves well. He was reporting to parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee.
From 2001 to 2005 there were three deployments of troops to Afghanistan, numbering from 40 to 65. One of their main tasks was “snatch-grab” missions whereby suspected terrorists were rounded up and handed over to the US for detention and interrogation at Bagram airbase. Our troops were involved in the capture of between 50 and 70 suspects.
It has now been revealed that within a few months of arriving in Afghanistan the New Zealanders expressed serious concerns at how their suspects were treated when handed over to the Americans.
Instead of being photographed, identified and having their weapons properly registered the suspects had their heads shaved, no photos or ID taken and their belongings thrown into a single pile.
So concerned were the New Zealanders that they called a meeting with special force units from other countries.
The outcome of the meeting is unclear but neither Goff nor the former Defence Minister Mark Burton claim to have been aware it even took place. They should have been. Bagram air base is the Abu Ghraib of Afghanistan with routine torture and brutal treatment of suspects.
For example in March 2003 the death of two detainees at the base was confirmed as homicide, contradicting earlier false US military reports that one had died of a heart attack and the other from a pulmonary embolism.

The death certificates showed that one suspect, known only as Dilawar aged 22, died from “blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease” while another suspect, Mullah Habibullah aged 30, suffered from a blood clot in the lung that was exacerbated by a “blunt force injury”. These men were beaten to death during interrogation.
Were these detainees “snatched” by New Zealanders? We don’t know. At the time Helen Clark was specifically asked to protest their torture and murder but refused.
Goff now loftily says that “We from quite an early stage have made it clear that our expectation is that all detainees are treated humanely and in accordance with international law”.
Just how the government “made it clear” and to whom is a mystery.
What is perfectly clear is that while New Zealand soldiers were raising concerns in Afghanistan our government was refusing to engage.
Goff did reveal last week that after the first SAS deployment the former New Zealand Defence Force Chief, Bruce Ferguson “negotiated a deal with the International committee of the Red Cross to follow up on any prisoners New Zealand forces helped to capture”.
Goff also said “…to the best of our knowledge, none of those people are still in custody in the hands of US authorities”.
They may no longer be in detention but equally they may well lie in unmarked graves. We will never know.
Why didn’t the government just front up and ask the US some straight-forward questions? The answer it seems is that it’s best not to ask questions that might tell you what you don’t want to know.
Instead Goff’s statements are designed to smooth over uncomfortable truths, disguise a lack of moral courage and discourage unpalatable questions. They amount to a political whitewash.
The second report paints a grim picture of life in “liberated” Afghanistan. The Washington based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a survey financed by the US government. It bluntly says what we have all known for a long time now. There has been a collapse in confidence and support for the Hamed Karzai government (now associated with nepotism and corruption) and a resurgence of support for the Taleban, not in its own right but for the fight to oust foreign troops.

Ordinary people now even prefer justice to be dispensed by tribal authorities rather than the newly established courts because most cannot afford court costs or the amounts needed to bribe judges.

The country is effectively in the control of warlords and drug barons, one of the largest of whom is none other than Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

Few tears were shed anywhere when the medieval Taleban were toppled but by any measure Afghanistan today is in a worse state than when New Zealand joined the invaders in 2001. Foreign invasion and occupation was never going to be the answer.

We must now all share the shame of our involvement and our government’s lack of backbone.