Anne Tolley, Education Minister
Congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Education. Another Colenso High School and Napier success story! (I hope you will be able to attend the school’s 50th Golden Jubilee this Labour Weekend).
Your Government was elected with the message of ambition for all New Zealanders; your portfolio is a critical one if this vision is to be realised.
With your family’s strong teaching background you will already have a rich understanding of the complexities and challenges that face the education sector. You will also be very aware of the power and entrenched positions of the bureaucracy and the many interest groups.
If, unlike most of your predecessors, you are to effect real change in education, there are five areas that must be priorities:
- Attract the best and brightest to the teaching profession.
- Target significant school-based resources for pupils who we know are failing.
- Develop a successful middle years (years 5-10) national strategy.
- Keep NCEA.
- Fund high quality research into thinking skills.
Best & brightest
Contemporary research confirms the huge impact the individual teacher has on pupil success. Teacher recruitment should focus on attracting the best university graduates. The current TeachNZ approach where scholarships are targeted to subject area shortage places too much emphasis on specific knowledge and not enough on the other much more important elements that have been identified as being critical in the make up of a good teacher.
Rather than chase subject expertise, an emphasis must also go on a combination of intellectual and interpersonal qualities. These are the qualities that engage students, particularly in an age when access to specialised knowledge is so readily available. A better strategy would be for the top ten percent of first year university students being approached and, should they have the necessary interpersonal skills, be offered lucrative scholarships if they agree to embark on a teaching career.
Better target funding
The crude decile funding system is poorly understood and fails to address inequalities. It has exaggerated socio-economic disparity and weakened the concept of neighbourhood and community schools. It needs to be replaced by a more finely tuned regime that better targets funding to schools based on the needs of their enrolled students.
This is essential to address the current chronic alienation of between five and ten percent of our school age population that has severe societal impact. Every teacher, school leader and Ministry Student Support Advisor knows the profile of these students. Every policeman, social worker and prison warden knows the long-term impact of school alienation. Over the last ten years in Hawke’s Bay alone, close to 1200 students have been officially been declared alienated. While the Ministry has the laudable goal that these students should be in school until they are sixteen, unless there is a major redistribution of funding to the schools that enrol them, this is an unrealistic goal.
There is strong evidence that the developmental needs of emerging adolescents are distinctly different from both younger and older pupils. After infancy these are the most critical years for social and cognitive development. It is also the time that alienation begins and the consequent disruptive behaviour beings to impact of their peers. A national strategy that provides clarity of approach and that will encourage and reward our best teachers to work with this age group will ensure higher levels of engagement. This will directly impact on long term success for those who are currently failing.
While NCEA has many flaws (too much assessment at too many levels), it has successfully opened the door to academic success and qualifications for many. The changes introduced in 2008 have addressed most of the issues and the current revision of standards will reduce any glaring anomalies.
Focus on thinking
As never before, our education system must respond to our changed world. The information revolution has brought knowledge to the finger tips of virtually every New Zealander. Already there are clear a signs that our traditional knowledge-based approach is being seen as irrelevant my some of our more savvy pupils whose information skills are such that they access knowledge out of school time.
To reclaim relevance, schools need to focus less on subject specific knowledge and more on developing and sharpening up the thinking skills of our pupils. While thinking is one of the five ‘key competencies’ central to the new curriculum, few practitioners (and certainly not the Ministry of Education) can clearly articulate what it is that they are developing. Apart from a number of populist theories, there appears to be a real poverty of accessible in-depth research, let alone practical handbooks for teachers to use in teaching this most essential ability. There is an urgent need for a government-funded research project that will lead to New Zealand teachers and pupils becoming world leaders in thinking.
In essence, if New Zealand is to be successful our society must be underpinned by an education system that refuses to let anyone fail. International studies show that for most (80%) of our students our system is a world beater. For another 10% we do just okay. But unfortunately, for 10% we do very badly. Your energy must focus on ensuring that the quality is extended.
Former Principal William Colenso College