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Martin Thrupp: Apathy will deliver damaged schools

National Standards: Apathy will deliver the damaged schools we will deserve

In recent weeks both the NZEI and Education Minister Anne Tolley have been touring the country trying to shore up support for their respective positions on the introduction of National Standards. These charm offensives both warrant close attention, but for different reasons.

The teacher campaign is an exceptional event in the politics of education. Contrary to some commentators, New Zealand primary teachers and principals are hardly a radical bunch. Many work in small communities, they work with an obviously vulnerable section of our society and they are predominantly women, many of whom take time out to raise their own families.

These factors tend to have a conservatising effect on the profession. Yet support for the NZEI bus tour and boycotts of the National Standards by schools in various parts of the country show that that National Standards have many primary teachers and principals concerned enough to be actively contesting the policy.

I share those concerns and have been giving numerous presentations to support the NZEI meetings. The main risk is the development of a culture of performativity. This can be expected to involve damaging shifts in the culture of primary schools as the assessment ‘tail’ ends up wagging the teaching and learning ‘dog’.

League tables of school performance in the National Standards will be the main driver of the cultural shifts. Once the public begins to judge schools by these league tables, wider criteria for choosing schools will become increasing ignored and the relationship between schools and families will become less productive. There will be an intensified local hierarchy of high performing ‘star’ schools and others demonised as ‘failing’. This pattern will largely reflect socio-economic differences.

Within schools, greater anxiety around performance in the National Standards can be expected to lead to a narrowed teaching focus. Schools and teachers will come to measure their worth and value by National Standards. Schools towards the top of the league tables will find it easy to recruit new staff, whereas applicants for low socio-economic schools will be further discouraged by their poor showing on the league tables.

A ‘National Standards economy’ can be expected to develop where school energies and funding will be directed towards achievement in National Standards and away from other areas. ‘Educational triage’ will see attention to some pupils over others. Children will become commodities sought or repelled by schools depending on whether or not they have the kind of National Standards profile that is likely to enhance school performance and reputation.

Across the socio-economic spectrum, it can be expected that school will become a more tedious experience for children as the curriculum becomes narrower. Teachers’ frustrations with ‘underachieving’ children will translate to them even if nothing obvious is said. The National Standards will decrease pupils’ internal motivation and undermine their identities as learners.

Such cultural shifts reflect the logic of the National Standards and once they occur they will take on their own momentum and be very difficult to reverse. This is why National Standards need to be contested by schools and their communities at the outset. The risks are clear and there is much of value in our existing primary system to be lost.

Meanwhile Anne Tolley’s meetings are seeing her presenting various arguments in support of National Standards. These arguments are often delivered with conviction but are invariably flawed, implausible, or in some cases downright disingenuous. They rarely cut the mustard once the detail is worked through.

Examples are the unrealistic view that the Standards will somehow fix the problem of the ‘long tail of underachievement’ and the mischievous reporting of ERO data to argue that many teachers are incompetent. Even where a valid concern could be conceded – such as the unhelpful nature of some school reporting – the National Standards are the wrong response. They would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Most people who take the time to properly engage with the Government’s case for National Standards will realise the limitations of its arguments. Unfortunately there is considerable risk that public apathy around the debate will deliver the damaged primary schooling we will have deserved.

Opinion poll results suggest that the public has little understanding of the National Standards policy and the NZEI meetings continue to highlight this problem as well. If people do not understand the intended National Standards regime they are unlikely to pick up the concerns about it either.

When the first instinct of primary teachers and principals is to accommodate reform, some schools may also find it easiest to just go with the policy. Board members who never envisaged themselves dealing with such a contested issue and those who will soon be finishing their term or those newly elected after the forthcoming elections may not be well placed to protect children’s interests in this area either.

Parents and other members of the public who have concerns about the National Standards need to be raising them with local teachers, principals and board members as well as with the Minister of Education. The outcome of the battle over National Standards may well turn out to be less about the pros and cons of the policy than about professional conformity and public indifference.


Prof. Martin Thrupp
Professor of Education
University of Waikato

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