Schools are the defenders of our kids education

We should warmly congratulate New Zealand primary school principals and teachers for their dogged determination to challenge poor educational practice and confront government policies which will damage children’s learning.

I’m talking about the on-going rebelliousness against the government’s so-called national standards in schools. Just when Education Minister Anne Tolley must have thought she had seen off the worst of the opposition the policy is on the ropes again.

The latest attack has come from the Auckland Primary Principals’ Association whose President Iain Taylor has written to principals suggesting they boycott the Ministry of Education’s training to implement the standards. This has created another round of ripples which show principals and teachers throughout New Zealand are prepared to boldly defend our kids’ education.

Anne Tolley is right to say New Zealand has an educational crisis. She says the long tail of under achievement is a disgrace and that she’s determined to tackle it. Sounds good so far. She goes on to say national standards will identify under achieving children and enable schools to work with parents to get their children up to speed.

But behind these sound bites the policy can’t deliver. Her approach won’t lift achievement and will cause significant collateral damage along the way.

Identifying under achieving children has never been the problem. Every teacher can tell which students are falling behind and the interventions they need to help bring them up to speed. What’s missing are the resources: smaller classes; extra teacher support in classrooms; quality professional development and additional government funding to enrich all our kids’ educational experiences. None of this is on offer. In fact despite national standards being the cornerstone of National’s education policy there is no new funding for schools – it’s expected to be done within existing, poorly-funded school budgets.

Worse still the policy takes no account of how children actually learn and will de-motivate huge numbers of kids by labelling them failures at an early age. And because these standards will have high stakes for schools there will be the inevitable narrowing of the curriculum as schools cut out wider experiences in favour of “teaching to the tests” in numeracy and literacy.

And underlining all the ministerial handwringing is the ugly truth that the long tail of underachievement is the long tail of poverty and that the solution, as it is with other social problems, is to reduce income inequality. Unfortunately the government is doing the opposite.

The latest attack on national standards has come via a principal who was a former cheerleader for National’s bulk funding policies for schools in the 1990’s. Now as head of decile one Manurewa Intermediate School, Iain Taylor told school parents in the March school newsletter:

“I have now developed some serious misgivings; over and above the few I did have ie. the fact that National Standards could well narrow the curriculum with schools focusing on only Literacy and Numeracy. This is more paramount in my mind as I sit here in the beautiful sunshine looking out to sea from Motutapu Island where I have been all week enjoying the challenge and fun of our school wide Survival Camp. These are the experiences that kids remember and are important learning steps from everyone and it is these activities I would hate to see go from our schools as our curriculum focus becomes so narrow with testing, assessing and evaluating too much.

“I am constantly reminded and have been even more so at camp as I watch students who suddenly ‘click’ – they suddenly make the connections with their prior knowledge – in other words the learning becomes meaningful. This is not dependent on age! It is a developmental ‘happening’ that is about children being ready.

“I believe that national standards compromise this understanding because it puts unnatural pressure and urgency on stages of knowledge that can be unnecessarily traumatic for both teachers and children.”

New Zealand is well served when we have principals and teachers prepared to speak with such clarity about dangerous government policy which in this case focuses more on creating an educational marketplace of winners and losers than lifting achievement and opportunities for all our kids.

So despite every government effort to force this policy through, principals and teachers are in the front line opposing it. They deserve our admiration, respect and support.

This is my last column for the Press. I’ve been doing it for four and a half years and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to put an alternative viewpoint to the dominant corporate agenda.

Thanks to all those who have contacted me to agree or disagree. I’m sorry I haven’t always had the time to respond to everyone but thanks for taking the time to give feedback.

If you’re interested in continuing to follow my commentary on topical issues you’re welcome to visit my blog on the stuff website