Retirement gives one a wonderful opportunity to reflect on where one has come from and to use one’s experience to discuss, ponder and predict where education may be heading in the future.

My children experienced a fabulous education in the state education system. I fear for what may well be my grandchildren’s experience.

Charles Beeby, New Zealand’s finest educator whose bronze bust is on the Ministry of Education’s reception counter, would cringe in his grave if he knew where things were at today. Beeby’s educational ethos is best summarised as “every person regardless of background or ability had a right to an education of a type for which they were best suited.”

Today’s education system is completely based on what the Minister of Education wants, not what the profession recommends.

Students are being treated as data, when in fact they are children. As children they have a wide range of needs that far outweigh the academic progress that is a fixation in the Minister’s mind. We currently have a Ministry of Education that is hell bent on measuring and analyzing the product, rather than the child’s progress and the teaching and learning process by which they achieved it.

The Minister has set a target that 85% of Year 1-8 students will be at or above National Standard by the year 2017. Admirable! But achievable? No. It is actually impossible. Why?

1 Every child has the right to safety and security, good food, a healthy lifestyle and good housing. Teachers will tell you that children are now arriving at school either ready to fly or to make one cry. Child poverty is increasing at an alarming rate and here in Hawke’s Bay it is no exception. These children are behind the eight ball right from the start. And, no matter how exceptional the teacher, they don’t catch up. I admire the teachers, especially those in our low-decile schools, because for them children’s needs come first. The human element: “Tender loving care and an ear that listens.”

2 My education colleagues agree that teacher morale is at an all-time low. Education has lost its fun factor. Teachers are being smothered with paperwork, accountability trails and regulations. They no longer have the energy, the passion, or the desire to expose these children to those authentic and rich learning experiences that children in the past would have been exposed to. We have schoolchildren here in Hawke’s Bay who have never seen the sea.

3 A child who is under stress often exhibits a range of very challenging and unpredictable behaviours. Schools are not equipped and teachers are not trained to handle them. They continually disrupt the learning of other children; parents of these children rightfully express their concerns and the offending child is stood down or suspended.

4 I am aware of a local Hawke’s Bay school where at least 50% of the school’s population changes from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. They have a transient school population as parents chase employment or move from one rental property to the next. Poor attendance, transience and transition are real barriers to learning.

Investing in Educational Success (IES), $359 million over four years, at first glance sounds like pennies from heaven. However when one uses a current Education Ministry strategy and analyzes the data, it actually boils down to the grand amount of $117 per school-aged pupil per year for four years, based on the Education Counts 2013 website data. Equal to half a day of teacher time, a day of teacher aide time, a quarter of an iPad, or part of a voluntary donation for most decile 4-10 schools. IES funding is actually a bait to entice the profession to buy into the grand plan that lurks within cabinet papers.

By deciding to buy in, so-called ‘expert’ principals/teachers will probably need to agree to the State Services commission and give away their freedom of speech. Another question they need to ponder: is the additional pay for being an ‘expert’ teacher merely performance pay in disguise? I would also bring into the debate the skills set required by an ‘expert’. If relationships and collegiality are not part of them, then they won’t cut the mustard.

Boards of Trustees will lose their own autonomy, as IES may show that one Board can govern a cluster of schools and some smaller schools will close. As we are all aware, there is no such thing as a free lunch and in this case the consequences could be dire. We are working with the same government that recently restructured the NZ Teachers Council by replacing independent board members with their own appointees. They also tried unsuccessfully back in 2012 to increase class sizes in the mid years of education until the parents/voters rebelled and normality returned.

“A leopard never changes its spots.”

Innovation stymied

When IES was first announced I was involved with a group of ten very successful local schools that discussed the concept with a senior manager from the MOE head office. Our proposal was going to provide professional development for teachers across a range of subjects, in conjunction with groups of students from across the region being provided with extension andor remedial work that would meet their learning needs. Running alongside this was a public/private partnership to provide additional funding. We were strongly encouraged to apply.

Our application was declined. Because we didn’t have a pipeline where pupils could be tracked through from early childhood to primary to intermediate to secondary.

Thus a very innovative, creative idea that was supported by a range of schools with credibility was declined. Why? Because the Minister was not prepared to accept any modification to her idea so that it could be adapted to meet the needs of local students. Or probably closer to the truth – her grand plan.

The head office of the Ministry of Education has been taken over by government appointments of civil servants (bureaucrats), compliance freaks or policy analysts. Karen Sewell (ex-Secretary of Education) was the last of the educationalists who was prepared to stand up and be counted on behalf of students and teachers. It was a very sad day for education in New Zealand when Karen decided that the writing was on the wall and gave it all away.

For a number of years there has been a huge debate regarding the discrepancies in decile funding (Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement). In today’s technological world the allocation of additional funding is outdated; in fact it is archaic.

Take ‘decile ten’ schools: they receive no decile funding to meet the needs of their students. Some schools in Havelock North, North Shore, Remuera are all so-called ‘decile ten’ schools. The average house price in the Auckland suburbs is in the millions. We all know that is not the case in Havelock North, and yet as far as additional funding is concerned they are treated the same.

When a child enters a school they come from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds and they bring lots of joy along with all sorts of problems. For far too many children in New Zealand, school is their safe place and the teacher is their face of trust. From my experience a happy child will learn and a happy teacher will work their butt off to make children’s learning an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

Sadly, here in New Zealand, if we continue to measure the product and not value the progress or the process, no matter how much money is spent, it is not going to make any significant difference.

The motto of the Education Review Office is:

Ko te tamaiti te putake o te kaupapa
The child – the heart of the matter

To me that means the whole child, not just the part of a child’s learning that can be analyzed and judgment made about the school’s and the teacher’s input into their learning. If the Education Review Office was truly independent like they claim to be, they would revert back to their motto and be true to all, not just to the data driven regime of the Minister.

Malcolm Dixon is recently retired Principal of Frimley Primary and HDC Councillor.

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