National Standards threaten public education

The most encouraging aspect of the launch of the government’s so-called national standards last week was the decision by teacher and principal groups to boycott the gathering.

Despite Prime Minister John Key labeling the event the most important development in education in 20 years serious concern among educators is so widespread that those who job it is to implement the standards stayed away.

Predictably the Minister of Education was furious but is determined to force the changes through. She says she is “delighted for the first time that parents will now have information on what their children should be able to achieve and by when.”

She also said “Parents want, and deserve, clear information on how their children are doing at school.”

Prime Minister John Key took up the theme saying “parents want, and deserve, clear information on how their children are doing at school.” He said the standards were supported by parents, would lift achievement standards and provide “clear signposts” on a child’s progress.

It all sounds like motherhood and apple pie. Anyone would think schools were deliberately keeping parents in the dark and the government was stepping in to force those know-all teachers to toe the line.

In fact the vast majority of schools do provide parents with high quality data which tells the parent how their child is progressing, what the areas of weakness are and what needs to be done to improve in any particular area or excel further in areas of a pupil’s strengths. They also tell parents how they progress compared to other kids of the same age.

So why are teachers and principals so opposed to national standards? Simply because they will not raise educational achievement one iota but will bring a host of negatives for schools and pupils. There is not a single credible educational academic or school leader who supports the government on this one. Educators know the government is playing politics with our kids’ futures.

It is true the government of the day has the responsibility to set the direction of educational policy and the responsibility of the sector to implement it. But there is also a profound responsibility on education professionals to let the public know when a government has got it wrong.

So it’s good to see them kicking up a fuss. Their responsibility to parents regarding the education of kids is greater than their responsibility to the government of the day.

So this comes down to a battle for the hearts and minds of the public. The government is wading in with simplistic rhetoric which tries to convince parents that teachers and principals and preventing parents getting good information. They are claiming the national standards will improve student achievement but there isn’t a skerick of evidence to back up this claim.

On the other hand our education professionals can point to a host of overseas examples where national standards have had a dreadful and demoralizing effect on students and student achievement. The government is insisting on a policy which educators know does not work.

Waiting in the wings are the media who are siding against schools and championing their right to compare schools with league tables, based on national standards. They did this with secondary schools where they lauded praise on the likes of Cambridge High School and Avondale College and slammed low decile schools. Heaven knows we don’t want primary schools emulating Cambridge with its artificial 100 pass rates and what the media told us was inspiring leadership.

National wants national standards because it supports the idea of competition between schools and is quite happy for the media to publish the data to pit school against school. When this has happened overseas the effects have been wholly negative with teachers changing focus to “teach to the tests” and children getting a narrower curriculum.

The damage associated with national standards far outweighs the supposed benefits. It’s good to know our principals and parents will resist this most damaging development from the Minister who slashed night classes.


ACC under threat from privatisation

I’ve been lucky enough to claim ACC only twice in my life.

The first was when a stack of dumps (two wool bales compressed into one for shipping) in a Napier woolstore collapsed and broke my leg. The compound fracture left me with five months in plaster and several weeks of physiotherapy to follow.

The second was a week off work with an infected knee after being pierced with a wool hook. For most of the time since then I’ve worked in relative safety as a classroom teacher but at the time I needed it the ACC was a godsend. It paid 80% of my working income throughout that time with medical treatment and physiotherapy paid in full. I hadn’t experienced life before ACC which had only come shortly before my first accident so I took it for granted. And so should we all.

National are itching for a chance to undermine this pillar of community-provided welfare for accident victims and last week launched their first foray with a raft of proposed changes to increase levies and reduce cover.

Firstly ACC Minister Nick Smith set the scene for policy change with a dramatic announcement of ACC liabilities being far beyond the ability of the fund to cover. He said it was a billion dollar disaster and would wreck the economy if not reigned in. One might have thought he was talking about the big four banks but somehow their billion dollar taxpayer gouging is not on National’s agenda. Instead its state-provided services he has his ideological eye on.

As several commentators have pointed out clearly and succinctly Nick Smith’s announcement was grossly misleading but there is nothing like claims of economic crisis to soften up the public for bad medicine. The scheme in fact is cheaper and run than comparable schemes anywhere else in the world. The ACC architect back in the 1970s, Owen Woodhouse, points out it cut administrative costs from about 30% in private insurance schemes to just 10%. He blames the problems with the scheme to the National government’s decision in 1998 to allow private sector insurers to compete for accident insurance.

The government’s proposed increases in levies will hit motorbike riders the hardest and it’s true this group have a higher accident profile. When I was in the male orthopaedic ward around three quarters of the other patients had broken bones from motor bike accidents. So should these riders pay a higher levy? I can’t see why. There is no evidence bike riders are more responsible for accidents they find themselves in than are car drivers. It’s just that bike riders are much more vulnerable in accidents. In fact there is a case for reducing ACC levies for bikes. They are more efficient with a smaller carbon footprint and we could dramatically reduce the need for more roading if a higher proportion of road users were on two wheels.

But National’s further differentiation of levies is another step to “user pays” rather than “community pays” and this is a necessary element to privatisation.

Meanwhile Smith’s proposal for reducing cover for the families of suicide victims is thoughtless as were his comments comparing loss of life through suicide with that of terminal illness. But the biggest impact of the proposed reduced cover is for seasonal and casual workers. Calculating ACC payouts using the average of their yearly earnings rather than the previous four weeks’ earnings will result in lower payouts for these already vulnerable workers. Why should their down-time between employment be used to reduce their accident income? They are already the lowest-paid workers yet do essential work for the economy in the likes of horticulture and hospitality. Why should their payouts be cut simply because they are vulnerable workers and easy to pick off?

Meanwhile all of us will face stiff increases in ACC levies. This is another important prerequisite for National’s plans to privatise the service. Higher levies and the chance for bigger profits will encourage the private sector to move in. A cheaper public-service based approached is anathema to National.

Their plans are for the most valuable parts of the service to be run for private profit while the bulk of what remains will be left for the taxpayer to pick up. This follows a familiar pattern. The first step in privatising rail for example was selling off the profitable freight forwarding section which left the rump in an even more parlous economic condition.

Nick Smith isn’t having it easy. His proposed plans are under threat because he can only proceed with ACT backing and Rodney Hide wants the privatisation speeded up. National went into the last election with plans to privatise provision but want to leave the “p” word out of policy till their second term of government. ACT is putting the pressure on and John Key says he’s open to the idea. The rest of us shouldn’t be.

Infratil puts the boot into low-paid bus drivers

Last Friday I joined a protest by Auckland bus drivers locked out by their employer, the Infratil-owned NZ Bus company.

It was a lively, spirited protest by some 400 drivers and supporters. Many are from the Pacific and an entertaining feast of singing and dancing accompanied open defiance of the company’s best endeavour to starve these workers into submission.

Earlier in the week the drivers had issued a work-to-rule notice saying they would not drive buses with faults, buses without radio telephones and wouldn’t break the speed limit when faced with tight timetables. They took this action after a full five months of bargaining.

It’s not surprising they want a better deal. These drivers have a starting rate of just $14.05 an hour and can be rostered anywhere between 4.30am and 1am the following morning. Their shifts will often be split leaving them with four hours unpaid work in the middle of day and they can be away from home for up to 15 hours at a time. They don’t get regular morning or afternoon tea breaks and can be rostered up to 5 ½ hours without a break.

When the NZ Bus drivers announced the work-to-rule to achieve the same as other bus drivers in Auckland the company response was to lock them out. No work till they agree to the company’s terms.

This is just the latest in a series of lockouts of workers around the country as employers go on the offensive against workers. Lockouts were once a rare event but have recently become commonplace. In the last two weeks companies have closed the door to workers at Bridgeman Concrete in Auckland and Open Country Cheese at Waharoa and at a number of smaller worksites around the country. These employers have had it so good for so long they aren’t used to workers fighting back. They are reacting with high-handed arrogance and aggression when Oliver Twist comes back for another ladle of gruel.

A worker fightback is long overdue. One of the locked-out bus drivers told how he has been a bus driver for 30 years. In 1982 he was paid $7 an hour when this was the median wage in New Zealand. By the late 1980s, when allowances were included he was earning $15 an hour. Now in 2009 he is on just $16 an hour with minimal allowances. The median wage in the meantime has risen to $18.70 (June 2008) but if his wage from 1982 had kept pace with inflation he would now be earning $21.66 an hour. Over the 30 years he has been driving the median wage has dropped in real terms by 15.8% while the purchasing power of his pay has decreased by no less than 35.4%. In other words all low and middle-income workers have gone backwards but these drivers have gone backwards much further than most.

On Infratil’s website there is the usual corporate spin about how visionary they are and how they invest in people. They should mention this applies only to director and senior management salaries – certainly not their bus drivers.

Much more insightful though is the bald statement “Infratil’s primary goal is to provide its shareholders with a consistent return of 20% per annum over the long term.” So there you have it. Lowly paid workers are being locked out so Infratil can keep passing fat cheques to its shareholders.

One might think the company would consider Auckland commuters before locking out the drivers but this doesn’t seem to bother them. They are running a monopoly on most bus services so they can afford to ignore public sentiment which seems to be firming up behind the drivers. People are asking why this very profitable corporation can’t pay the same rates as other Auckland bus companies.

Infratil claims the problem is strike action by the union and hopes the public will blame the drivers. It’s all spin – the workers are locked out by a resource-rich corporation which puts profits before people – either employees or the public. Families on low rates of pay don’t have the financial resources to sustain a longer-term lockout and this is what the company is counting on.

NZ Bus gets huge subsidies from Auckland ratepayers in a win-win deal for Infratil. On the profitable routes they get to keep all the profits while the ratepayer makes up any loss on routes which are not profitable. And it’s not chickenfeed. Auckland ratepayers give them over $58 million every year.

NZ Bus is a good example of why essential services such as public transport should be in public hands where they can be run more cheaply, more efficiently and reliably with better pay and conditions for those who do the work.

Devastation in Samoa and South Africa

There’s only been one story on New Zealand’s mind this week with devastation in Samoa and Tonga dominating the news with the heart-rending stories of families ripped apart by the tsunami which killed so many and destroyed so much.

I agree with those who say New Zealanders have reacted well. We have taken to heart the suffering of the victims and generous donations from many quarters are helping in the immediate relief effort. It’s as though New Zealand now sees itself as a South Pacific country rather than an outpost of the British empire as it did until not so long ago.

Most of us are Pacific Islanders now it seems which is a pleasant change from earlier decades when feelings often ran high against Pacific migrants coming to New Zealand.

Our government has not reacted with the same generosity of spirit with only a million dollars allocated at the front end of the tragedy and another million belatedly added. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully says there will be more and Prime Minister John Key reiterated this during his weekend visit.

However it’s worth remembering the extent to which the New Zealand economy has been built by Pacific Island labour these past 50 years.

Compared to the $2 million the government is donating to the relief effort Pacific Island workers have helped businesses here accumulate billions in capital. This was, and still is, predominantly in low-paid, insecure, family-unfriendly work. These jobs have benefitted the Pacific as money remitted from here helps keep the local economies afloat but the benefits are lop-sided in favour of New Zealand business.

There is always the tendency to see the Pacific as dependent neighbours and treat them paternalistically while eyeing whatever resources and business opportunities they may have available. In reality the dependency is as much the other way round.

It’s important we remember this when it comes to further aid from New Zealand for reconstruction. In Disaster Capitalism author Naomi Klein describes how similar disasters have been used to rebuild economies to the detriment of local people. New Orleans in the US for example was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina with so much of the public sector services such as schools now operated via private contracts. Murray McCully won’t be averse to looking for such opportunities to provide “aid” with strings attached. We need to keep an eye on him.

Another story touched a raw nerve with me last week when an armed gang of 40 men attacked the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban, South Africa. Three were killed, many injured and over a thousand people fled their homes. The attack was nominally ethnically based but it quickly became apparent the real target was the very successful Abahlali baseMjondolo (Dwellers in the Shacks) organisation which has its headquarters there.

ABM is the largest movement of the poor in post-apartheid South Africa. It has developed links across the country with other shack-dwellers and while it is politically independent it is deeply resented by the ruling African National Congress. ABM is telling the world the emperor has no clothes. ANC policies are benefiting the wealthy but impoverishing the people.

After the initial attacks the police turned up the following morning and arrested members of ABM rather than investigating the attack. Local ANC officials blamed ABM for the violence and said people wanted ABM out of the settlement. The police chimed in and what has been reported is such a tissue of lies as would do credit to the old apartheid regime. Death threats have been issued against the quietly charismatic ABM President S’bu Zikode and his family and the organisation has been forced to meet in secret.

I visited Kennedy Road in April this year and was privileged to be welcomed at one of ABM’s regular monthly meetings where representatives from many squatter camps come to develop policies and address day to day issues and campaign for a better future. It is a profoundly democratic organisation.

The informal settlement is now run by a local ANC representative with police backing. Attendance at meetings depends on being able to produce an ANC membership card. It is a dark time for South Africans fighting for better government policies to support the majority of the population. 15 years of ANC rule has left most worse off while the number of ANC millionaires increases each year.

Whether the problem has a natural cause, as in the Pacific, or is man-made, as in South Africa, it is the most vulnerable who suffer the most.