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PPTA President: Charting the Future Conference

18 April 2004

PPTA president Phil Smith’s opening address to the Charting the Future conference

Keynote speakers, international guests, delegates, interested observers, it gives me much pleasure and a great deal of satisfaction to welcome you today, to PPTA’s Charting the Future Conference, where you will be considering the future of secondary education in this country.

I am particularly pleased to be performing this task today for several reasons.

First, this conference is of paramount importance for the Post Primary Teachers’ Association. It is a very public, unambiguous indication of our commitment to the future of secondary education. We are passionately interested in the possibilities ahead for our sector. We are committed to exploring the nature and needs of the secondary students that we currently teach and those we expect to teach in the years ahead.

The truth is that over recent years we have not been able to do all that we would have wanted in the important realm of professional issues. In the past, as an organisation, we have certainly been heavily involved in the major debates in education: such issues as state versus private education, the position of Maori culture and language, the place of women, school discipline, curriculum and assessment, rural education, and the professional development of teachers.

However, I am going to take this opportunity to deal with something that has been concerning me for some time now. Far too often I have been hearing it said that PPTA has become far too focused on industrial concerns, on union matters, that they should be more involved in professional issues, the way they used to be.

The truth is that from its inception in 1952, PPTA has always had two consistent constitutional objectives to follow: the advancement of the cause of education generally and of all phases of secondary and technical education in particular, and secondly, the upholding and maintaining of the just claims of its members, individually and collectively.

The reality is that up until the mid-eighties, our focus was probably more on professional issues than on union matters. In fact, this association used to often lead the debate, for example, on the abolition of corporal punishment, or the overdue change from the old-style University Entrance to Sixth Form Certificate. Then that professional contribution tailed off.

We didn’t wish to stop it – but the late 80’s and 90’s saw the elevation of the notion of ‘provider capture’ to the level of a sacred mantra in government circles. So PPTA was deliberately shut out of having any serious professional input at all.

To put it bluntly, this was insulting to a profession that attracted people not because of its great pay and conditions but because of the intrinsic interest and challenges of working with lively young people and developing in them knowledge and skills for responsible adulthood.

It is a truism that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Thus it is that PPTA simply has no option but to fight industrially when teachers’ working conditions have been neglected to the point of threatening the essential viability of the education system. Who else will act in these circumstances? Let me say, however, we would always prefer to be participating in productive problem-solving, planning for the future, and considering the sorts of things that this conference is going to be working on. But, if the government of the day is not genuinely committed to the traditional New Zealand view of state secondary education as a public good, we are in strife.

Our commitment to the effective provision of secondary education to all sections of the community, and to the professional interests of the teachers we represent, left us no option but to fight against policies which threatened this view. It saddens me to observe that it seems from some signals that we may possibly have to go through this again.

There is a reality about educational change that has to be acknowledged. No effective change can happen in an education system without the constructive, willing, supportive involvement of its teachers. Teachers go into their classrooms, they shut the door and they teach their students. Like it or not, they make their own professional judgments during every lesson they teach. They are accountable for everything they do to the people who matter most, the students in front of them.
They have a profound responsibility and they would not be in the job if they were not prepared to accept that.

In New Zealand, PPTA is the voice of secondary teachers.

This conference represents our determination to be involved with the future of the profession, not for the benefit of narrow sectional interests, but for the benefit of all our young people and ultimately for the good of all New Zealanders.

We are here today because we share a desire to chart the future of secondary education with humanity and wisdom. We have a stunning range of speakers to listen to and a wide range of workshops to participate in.

I am sure that we will have a very stimulating time together, with many useful insights and illuminating interactions and that we will go from here inspired and reinvigorated.

I wish you all a very enjoyable three days and I am happy to declare the conference officially open.


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