Minister’s rose-tinted glasses are two generations out of date

Published in NZ Herald – 30 May 2012

Education Minister Hekia Parata’s comment that she was once in a class of 43 students will resonate with older New Zealanders. Large classes were the norm in the 1950’s and 60’s and I have a class photo showing 57 alongside me at primary school in South Dunedin.

Today class sizes are closer to 30 than 50 and many will think the Minister’s proposals to use an increase in class size as a way to fund improving the quality of teachers is no bad thing.

But classrooms have changed dramatically in the intervening generations. In the past most teaching was done as “chalk and talk” from the front of the room and kids assessed with exams twice a year. But teachers today are expected to see their students as individuals with individual needs, learning styles and challenges and adapt their teaching accordingly. They are expected to be able to give good and frequent individual feedback on progress and feed forward what students need to be working on to develop their learning. Assessment has grown like topsy into a much larger burden and with national standards now infecting primary schools this will increase again.

Relating to students as individuals is good education practice. This is especially so in schools in low-income areas where all the research and my many years of personal experience show the relationship between teacher and student is critical to good learning.

Changes in the teaching of children with special education needs has also impacted significantly on classrooms since 1989 when the Education Act gave children with special needs the right to enroll at their local school. This was universally welcomed but like so many good policies was never resourced for success. There is no better illustration of this than last week’s announcement that the Ministry of Education wants to close four residential schools for intellectually disabled children and those with serious behavioural difficulties and require them to access their education in mainstream schools.

This mirrors the 1998 Ministry decision to withdraw direct funding from the country’s special needs units attached to mainstream schools and require the children to enter mainstream classrooms unless their school or local cluster of schools could fund a unit themselves. Many schools and parents put up valiant struggles but the massive financial leverage of the Ministry means the small number of remaining units are facing forced closure at the end of this year.

These changes are fraught for teachers because the resources and the smaller class sizes are just not there for this to be a successful strategy in many cases. One of my most dispiriting experiences in education was some years back when a meeting of several thousand secondary school teachers loudly applauded a speaker who was struggling to support children with special education needs he was required to teach in his mainstream classroom. He was supportive of mainstreaming but frustrated at his inability to do the best for all the kids in the class without the support needed for them all to become successful learners.

Increasing class sizes makes all this that much more difficult. We already have the unsavoury behaviour of some public schools discouraging enrolment of children with special needs. God forbid that that extends to classroom teachers who will see their own reputation tarnished and their income reduced through performance pay if they welcome children with special needs into their classroom.

Today’s teachers are expected to be super-teachers – to take a class of 30 or so students and deliver increasingly individualized education programmes with much more emphasis on assessment and feedback to students and parents. Instead of helping and resourcing teachers to do this job the government is making it harder.

One of the ironies is that National Party government ministers seem to prefer to send their own kids to elite private schools where small classes are given priority, children with special education needs or behavioral problems are refused enrolment and rather than performance pay the teachers are paid the state school pay rates with an additional percentage.

And just to make sure their kids are resourced properly the government gave them a 22.3% increase in government subsidies for 2010 with further increases since.

Not so for schools in our low-income areas where student achievement is well below other areas. The issues here are multiple but the elephant in the room is our appalling low-wage economy where on top of 160,000 unemployed we have half a million people earning less than $16 an hour and over a hundred thousand who don’t get enough hours of work to enjoy a decent income.

But despite the now frequent attacks on teachers and schools New Zealand has a good public education system which consistently ranks third or fourth in the world in international achievement comparisons. If only our athletes in London could do so well.

These fine levels of educational achievement have been built by teachers and schools despite recent government policies which mimic the failed school policies from the US and UK.

Let’s give our public school teachers and public schools a break and applaud them as world champions. And let’s give them the resources and support to ensure every kid is a champion learner rather than belittle them and make their job that much harder.

John Minto
National Chairperson
Quality Public Education Coalition

Animal Farm – New Zealand under John Key

The Green Party last week produced an excellent analysis of who has benefited and who has paid the price after four years of National/Act/Maori Party government.

It’s an important document and deserves to be presented in full. Here it is:

Anyone who has followed political decision making under National will not find anything surprising but it’s refreshing to see the impact of National’s polices so starkly presented. The wealthy are creaming it while those on middle and low incomes are much worse off.

A solo mother working hard to become an independent earner is a heavy loser. Her training incentive allowance was cut by Social Development Minister Paula Benefit meaning her struggle to get off a benefit got a lot harder. She is $5,740 worse off on an income of $32,500. The “typical family” is also a heavy loser coming out $11,060 worse off on an income of $71,500. The big winners are the wealthy. Those in the top 10% of income earners are hugely better off and the further up the pinnacle the better it gets. John Key himself has personally gained an extra $19,280 from his Prime Ministerial income alone.

The analysis doesn’t give the full picture however. As the Greens point out 20% of households are earning even less than the solo mother while at the other end the incomes are further inflated from “investments” which are unearned and untaxed. Freebies for the rich. And the impact of the increase in GST to 15% is also not factored into the analysis.

The biggest single factor in increasing the gap between rich and poor under National has been the $2 billion in tax cuts delivered mainly to high income earners. This was accompanied by an increase in GST which disproportionately affects the poor (the top 10% of income earners pay just 4% of their income on GST while the poorest 10% pay 14% of their income on GST)

The budget has made things worse. Increased prescription charges, larger class sizes, less access to student allowances etc will all help grow the gap between rich and poor.

A letter to the Dominion Post put it well last week:

“As a pensioner, I can’t contribute a great deal to the economy so am pleased to be able to help the Government give millionaires tax cuts by paying more for my medication”

Like the farm animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm looking through the farmhouse windows at the luxury living of the pigs at the expense of everyone else we can see that under National “all New Zealanders are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

Students from low-income families pay the price

(Media release for QPEC from National Chairperson John Minto – 4 May 2012)

The budget changes to student loans and allowances foreshadowed by Tertiary Education Minister Stephen Joyce reinforce the difficulties faced by students from low-income families in accessing quality tertiary education.

The four-year freeze on the parental-income threshold for access to the student allowance will mean the struggle for these students gets that much tougher as inflation cuts their access to what is already a minimal payment.

Similarly the refusal to extend the student allowance beyond four years makes it harder for students from low-income families to enter the longer, more expensive courses such as medicine or optometry. They will be left high and dry after four years.

These students, often Maori and Pacifica students, are already on the margin in terms of representation in higher level tertiary study and the hard work done by families and schools in low-income communities to get them into high-quality tertiary education study will be further undermined with these changes.

At the other end the post-graduate road is tougher as well with repayment requirements up 20% to 12% of earnings over $19,084. This will shorten repayment times but make a post-graduate experience that much more difficult.

The government’s arguments for the changes don’t stack up. Yes, we are in an economic recession but the government’s priority was $2 billion in tax cuts for the top 10% of income earners two years ago with the shortfall to be picked up in this case by tertiary students from low-income families.

We should be removing barriers to tertiary education for these young New Zealanders rather than adding barbed wire and broken glass to the top.

Glen Innes needs our support – why? and how?

Aucklanders could be forgiven for being confused as to why so many Glen Innes residents are stridently opposed to the redevelopment of their suburb.
Who could object to a project which promises major upgrading of state houses, refurbished community facilities, improved education, more job opportunities, better shopping and recreational areas?
It sounded great when the plans were first announced in 2008 with barely a few ripples of concern through the community.
However with a change of government and more details of the project being released alongside harsh policies to reduce and sell state houses the concerns have mushroomed.
So close to Anzac Day it’s worth remembering the area around Glen Innes was settled in the aftermath of the Second World War and street names reflect some of the battles where New Zealanders fought the rise of fascism. Dunkirk, Tripoli, Tobruk, Benghazi and Alamein Roads are there along with Upham and Ngarimu Roads remembering Victoria Cross winners Charles Upham and the Maori Battallion’s Moana Ngārimu.
A large war memorial reserve beside the Tamaki estuary provides a reminder of the history and a place to celebrate community life after six years of war.
Returning soldiers and their families moved into this community in large numbers after the war with the government providing much-needed housing. It’s an example of the best of urban development from the 1950s when state houses were spread through a community and every family could expect a decent standard of living. Generations of kids have grown up in these well-treed streets with robust houses and large sections.
Back in 2008 the then head of the Tamaki Transformation Project Pat Snedden told the community –
“There will be no requirement at all for any existing tenant in any state house to move out of the area as a result of anything that occurs here. There will be no reduction in state houses as a result of anything that occurs here”.
However in the first stage of redevelopment state housing is being halved (from 156 to 78 homes) and families on low-incomes are being forced to abandon homes they have lived in for decades. By any measure these families have paid off their houses several times over but they will either be forced out of the suburb altogether or into a new high density housing area which will be an urban slum in five years.
It’s small wonder the community feels betrayed and abused with previous assurances shown to be meaningless.
The government’s plan has a public relations name (TTP) but in practice it’s ethnic cleansing on a grand scale. Maori and Pacific families are being forced out of their homes on the slopes of northern Glen Innes for high-income housing to take their place. It seems the government thinks families on low-incomes don’t deserve homes with a harbour view.
The first state house was shifted out last week and up to 40 are scheduled to be moved in the next few weeks as the land is prepared for selling to property developers. They in turn are excited at the rich pickings they will take from buying this crown land and developing it for private profit. It’s hard to believe there is a desperate shortage of state houses.
The government claims the community has been consulted widely but this is a sham. The only local person from Glen Innes on the transformation board is National MP Alfred Ngaro who believes “state housing creates dependency”. Alfred is entitled to his views but he has never been elected as a community representative of Glen Innes.
The makeup of the transformation board looks as though it could happily represent Remuera but is hopelessly out of its depth in understanding the Glen Innes community. I have never seen a more patronising, unsympathetic and inarticulate response from an organisation as given by the transformation board chair to an angry community meeting in February.
But these National Party appointees blunder on uprooting this community family by family, street by street. They won’t be happy until this last piece of coastal Auckland which is still occupied by low-income families is handed over to property developers to create another McMansion suburb by the sea.
This is not what New Zealand soldiers fought for or, in the case of Ngarimu, died for. He was killed in 1943 and never had the opportunity to raise a family in a suburb such as Glen Innes.
Looking at Glen Innes today there’s a lot to feel embarrassed about as we remember our old soldiers’ legacy.
So what can we do to support this community under attack?
• Join the text alert to join protests against the movement of state houses. Text to 0211239252 to get the alerts.
• Come to the community forum on Wednesday 9th May at Grace International Church (off Line Road, GI) at 7pm where the community will speak out with a plan to deal with the crisis.