So much attention is given to the “education system” and attendance is a legal requirement for all New Zealand children. So for an average of 10+ years all New Zealand children attend schools throughout the country. The types of schools vary from state, private, church and home schooling, but everyone is formally “enrolled” somewhere. It is interesting to reflect on how this happened (see sidebar: History of NZ Education).

In Hawke’s Bay we have some of the oldest schools in New Zealand. Te Aute opened in 1872 and Hukarere in 1875, both before the passing of the compulsory education Act in 1877 and both still providing an education for students today.

A quick count of schools in Hawke’s Bay shows 129 (2008) schools altogether, including 109 State schools (primary, secondary, composite and 2 special schools), 18 integrated schools and 2 private schools. Bulk funding also covers funding for one teen parent unit and 2 activity centres.

Why this overview?

Legally-mandated, free, non-secular education is really mass education or education for the masses. What, if anything, does mass education have to do with learning? It is this issue that we are grappling with today.

It would seem in evaluating today’s key questions nothing much has changed. We still have too many kids not equipped with even the most basic of skills … literacy and numeracy, for example. The latest international study on reading literacy showed that about eight percent of New Zealand Year 5 students did not reach the lowest reading benchmark. The international median, for the 19 OECD countries that took part in this study, was four percent. (Source: Briefing for Incoming Minister of Education 12/2008)

We have record numbers of truants. We have schools introducing exam systems outside of NZQA systems because of their fears about global recognition, and the need to take pieces of paper with you around the world that mean something. We have teachers being struck off for a wide variety of unprofessional activities.

Is this just the tip of the iceberg, or are they small numbers receiving undue media attention?  Does the vast majority go along with the mass education system we have inherited from our colonial past or do we want more? More importantly, does our region and country need more from the investment we as taxpayers are making in educating our citizens? We are investing substantial amounts of taxpayer funds regionally, and yet in the Hawke’s Bay region, 4.5% of school leavers have little or no formal “attainment.” The national average is 4.9%.

Is this good enough?  We know from the briefing provided to the incoming Minister of Education that almost 760,000 children and young people were enrolled in New Zealand schools on 1 July 2007. Around 83% of New Zealand schools are government-owned and fully state-funded, 13% are state integrated, and 4% are independent and privately owned. There are 68 Kura kaupapa schools providing M?ori medium education. Between 2000 and 2008 education expenditure increased by 4% per annum. Education is the third-largest area of government spending, with forecast spending in 2008/09 of $10.7 billion. The bulk grant for Hawke’s Bay Schools for 129 schools in 2008 was $45,082,000. (Note that this is the bulk grant only and excludes other funding for projects and special initiatives.)

Mass education and a huge machine to keep it going!

A better way

John Hattie in his book Visible Learning, recently reviewed in the January 4th 2009 edition of Sunday Star Times, presents results from some 15 years of research. He argues that the quality of teachers, the ability of students and teachers to develop trust and to use that trust to seek and give feedback, and the model of learning and understanding that develops, is more important than class size, how many years a teacher has been teaching, frequent testing and homework.

This shows that for students to actually learn something, other factors are required. Providing a mass education system does not guarantee success, but it does provide equal access for all New Zealand citizens and that might be all it does. Whilst some families can try to enhance learning by the environment they create at home, by paying to send their children to private schools, and even by what food they feed their children, others cannot or will not and believe that it is the school’s job to educate their kids … even if they are not learning anything.

So where does this leave Hawke’s Bay students? How do we measure which Hawke’s Bay schools and other state-funded providers of education are performing well?

I would suggest that most measurements come from the mass education focus. How many pass which exams? How many leave school to go to University? But from a “skills to function in the world perspective,” what have students learnt? Do we measure how many students go onto start their own businesses? Speak other languages that enable them to travel widely? Do volunteer work? Are web literate, have Facebook and Bebo sites? Have friends around the world? Are street savvy?  Are good communicators? And show other indicators of being a fully-rounded, productive citizen?

I would suggest that more comprehensive measures of success are being developed by kura kaupapa and other models, where learning environments rather than mass education is the focus, where learning experiences include a balance between academic and non-academic activities, and where staff and pupils trust and respect each other. Te Aute and Hukarere know this from over 100 years of experience. They know they are helping develop the citizens of the future and in turn shaping our destiny as a country. So many of the leaders of yesterday and today were shaped by those two schools. If you don’t believe me, go to their web sites and just have a look at their illustrious students and the role they have played and continue to play in shaping Aotearoa.

How do we get inside the heads and hearts of our kids in a way that we can help them shape their dreams and then support them to run hard to make them happen? What about the kids who want to farm the land, but have to fight system perceptions that “only kids who can’t go to University” go on the land? Nothing could be further from the truth.

For Hawke’s Bay, the primary sector is our main regional driver of the economy and yet we know that the average age of the farmer is about 55 years. Without young people on the land using all of their skills, this region is in trouble. Places like Wairoa know this and are working hard with schools and landowners to bridge the generation gap. Mass education approaches are not sensitive to regional needs, linking in learning environments in the region to what kids want to learn and need to learn.

Regional programmes such as the Youth Enterprise Scheme (YES) and the Enterprise for Education programme (E4E) being run in Hawke’s Bay are focusing on working with senior students to enable them to learn a wide range of skills for getting into business and being successful as future citizens in the 21st Century. They are still restricted by funding, and are still run “over and above” the mass education curriculum. But it is a start, and these and other programmes are responding to the challenges of moving from mass education in a system, to a responsive environment with teachers and students learning together. They link with local businesses and bridge the gap between mass education and learning environments.

We can all remember “good” and “bad” teachers from our past, those who cared and those who didn’t. In that respect, John Hattie’s findings do not really hold any new discoveries. But what will the new Government do to demand that “mass education” systems are not always the best in providing learning environments?  Learning environments include schools, but are not just schools. But then we have not had a real debate about that yet, have we?

Maybe we should.

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