Buoyed by the fact that I was still alive after writing about National Standards in the last issue of BayBuzz, I agreed to tackle the class size debate!

In the interim, this issue has been temporarily resolved anyway, as Minister Hekia Parata responded to a public outcry from parents and a very rare joining of forces of unions and professional groupings across the educational sectors. All were concerned, it seemed, about the potential impact of the adjustments to class size that were being proposed as a trade-off for improving teacher ‘quality’.

It’s well worth looking at what we can all learn from this furore. The National Government has been clear right from the start that they want to tackle the so-called ‘tail’ of educational achievement that dogs New Zealand (and other countries in the OECD.) Previous governments have attempted to do the same thing, and many of us well remember the ‘Closing the Gaps’ policy that a former Labour government was forced to drop due to an outcry about its targeting of extra resources at Mãori and Pacific children and communities.

Ironically, that policy was trying to target exactly the same challenge that Anne Tolley and now Hekia Parata are trying to get some action on – that Mãori and Pacific Island children are disproportionately represented in educational underachievement statistics … boys more than girls. While progress has been made over the last decade in improving the statistics, there is still a gap between the educational achievement of pakeha students and Mãori and Pacific that stubbornly refuses to go away.
The tertiary sector is also heading at pace into this territory, with clear signals that funding of universities and polytechnics for example will be partially based on clear plans for and evidence
of closing of the achievement gap at tertiary level.

Alongside this runs a theme that is worth examining. The education sector can get very snippy when they’re told they need to do better at addressing the ‘tail’!

One if its representatives who happens to be married to me is a case in point. The minute I try to open a discussion about improving the educational statistics of underachieving students he goes all defensive on me, muttering about how easy it is to point the finger when I’m no longer teaching in the classroom.

Exhibit A

Teachers, no matter how good they are, often take suggestions for improvement as an indictment on their current teaching practice. This is not confined to the education sector of course, but there’s something about teaching that makes you vulnerable. You pour your heart and soul into trying to transform the lives of hundreds or thousands of New Zealanders via education throughout your career, and that makes you personally vulnerable when you are told you could do better. A teacher’s job is literally never done – hence the fear of failure is never far away.

In spite of this, there are many schools and many principals and teachers who remain committed to raising the achievement levels of their students. And they have been working on this for much longer than the current education policy has been alive.

I’ve written about some of these initiatives in this magazine, and they are many and varied. Information technology strategies to engage young people. Trades academies to bridge the vocational education gap. Te Kotahitanga, which focuses on better teaching practice for Mãori. Project-based learning for gifted students. Literacy and numeracy improvement projects … these are just a few of the innovative projects that are currently going on in the various education sectors to address exactly the issues that successive ministers of education have highlighted.

So it’s not surprising really that when new policies come along to improve teaching ‘quality’ – such as performance pay and new qualifications for principals and teachers – their probably sound intent and possible merits are lost in the frustration of a teaching profession who are already trying. And sometimes succeeding in improving that quality and, more importantly, student outcomes as a result. I guess they feel that a constant flow of new initiatives without time to gauge the effects of the current projects is really disheartening.

So is there a possible way through the current impasse? It’s rare for early childhood, primary, secondary (and tertiary) sector groups to work together on anything in the public eye, except as they have in this past month in order to defeat a policy. Wouldn’t it be great if the government could harness this latest united front to look at how we can join the dots around strategies that work for children and young people who are not currently achieving in the education system?

I’m sure that various evaluations of some or all of the initiatives I have mentioned are occurring. What I’m less sure of is whether these are used to identify the ‘winners’ and scale up those that are showing great results after rigorous analysis.

This approach was recommended by the economic think-tank New Zealand Institute in their report More Ladders, Fewer Snakes… which quantified the amount of money that could be saved by scaling up preventative strategies that are currently working, rather than picking up the pieces of educational failure. While this institute focused on the successful use of IT to engage children in learning, there are other initiatives also showing promise. Under Minister Anne Tolley’s watch, Te Kotahitanga was extended to more schools across the country based on its well-researched success, and this year more trades academies were established across New Zealand following the first promising openings in 2011.

I know that the education sector is as keen as any policy analyst in the Ministry of Education to see all our children succeeding. Relationships, trust and goodwill need to be rebuilt between the sector and the government agencies that are involved. This is hard work, given the independent way in which not only every school, but each school sector operates. But it can be done. We’ve just seen that.

Some real leaders emerged from the class size policy crisis from across the sector. We can only hope that those same leaders will now work as willingly and effectively with parents and the current government to do what all of us should be doing – addressing the educational failure of some of our children and the misery that it creates. That adults should fail to do this is not an option. For us or our kids. Let’s just get on with it.

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