Maxim Institute real issues. No. Seventy-Five
Contents: School closures defy reason, Several schools south of Dunedin are to close but there are no sound reasons to axe them. - 'Jobs Jolt' expensive remedy, A new 'tough love' package aims to reduce welfare dependency. - Student debt hits $6 billion, Students are borrowing $40,000 per hour. Is there a better way?
School closures defy reason
It's beyond belief that a number of performing schools, all vitally involved in their communities, have been closed at the stroke of a bureaucratic pen. But that's what has happened in Mosgiel and the surrounding Taieri Plain south of Dunedin. Education Minister Trevor Mallard has wielded the axe to chop the number of schools in the area from 15 to 7 next year. Many have been the cornerstone of their communities for more than 125 years.
The move has not been brought on by falling rolls. The 'restructuring' is meant to improve the quality of education, although opposition MPs suspect the real motive is saving money. Greens co-leader Rod Donald claims the decision ignores research on the benefits of small school education to pupils and their communities, ignores future growth on the Taieri, and goes against the Government's own regional development strategies of attracting more people to the provinces.
If the schools were poorly governed or under-performing, the move might be reasonable, but North Taieri, for example, was runner-up in the Goodman-Fielder Small School of the Year in 2001, while Wyllies Crossing won the same award in 2000. Meanwhile, North Taieri held a number of public meetings and secured a pledge of support from 104 parents to ensure a buoyant roll in 2004. It has also been running effective programmes for local Maori. One parent even offered to buy the premises with the proviso the state fund operation costs and teacher salaries. But no, our rigid centralised system will not allow it. Mr Donald says, "The community has been taken for a ride, spending hundreds of hours consulting to turn out a meaningful preference, which is ignored".
The decision is a consequence of the ideology driving the present Government. It goes like this: the further you are away from problems the easier it is to solve them. Ministry bureaucrats in Wellington supposedly know more about pupil needs than parents and other members of the community. It was significant that Mr Mallard ensured his plane had left Dunedin before the closures were formally announced.
Schools have always been among the most important agencies in any community, but especially in rural areas. Worthwhile education reform could give parents, principals, teachers and their communities the chance to run their own schools. When that occurred in Sweden, small schools on the verge of closing were revitalised, because decision-making was devolved to parents and other community groups. A transition from state control to parent and community control is possible if both sides understand and support each other.
The closures also violate a basic human right-the freedom for parents to choose the type of education they believe best suits their child (United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, Article 26:3). What's happened also runs counter to a Ministry report just released (Best Evidence Synthesis) that states, 'Genuine home/school collaboration can also lift children's achievement significantly. The evidence shows effective ways in which schools can initiate such collaborative partnerships' (p. vi).
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'Jobs Jolt' expensive remedy
Will the new $104 million 'Jobs Jolt' really make a difference and help reduce chronic welfare dependency? Employment Minister Steve Maharey believes so, predicting the plan will help 22,000 people into paid work over three years. Among its 10 key points, the package will remove benefits for jobless people who move to remote areas with little work; require those unemployed aged between 55 and 59 to be available for work; intensify employment programmes for solo parents, and introduce employment coaching for the skilled and work-ready jobless.
We do have a major welfare problem. The Ministry of Social Development is our largest government department spending $13 billion of taxpayers' money this year. Currently, 110,000 are receiving the Domestic Purposes Benefit alone, with 1,286 new recipients in the last 12 months to June. The number of registered unemployed since 1999 has increased 61 percent and now sits at a figure in excess of 17,000.
The 'Jobs Jolt' is acknowledging the failure of earlier initiatives such as the 'Pathways to Opportunity' (in 2001) and is pushing the so-called 'enhanced case management' model in order to get results. Notably however, the package does not account for the way employment has changed in recent decades; there are today fewer unskilled jobs; many former 'permanent' jobs have become short-term contracts or part-time jobs; youth is preferred to experience, and most state-sector service jobs have been centralised. Many men in the 55-59 year-old bracket are highly skilled and motivated, but run against a brick wall with employers who have a bias against hiring older staff. Providing a case manager won't solve that problem, nor does it tackle the root cause of a culture of state entitlement extending back many decades - to Michael Savage's Social Security Act of 1938.
Student loan debt now $6 billion
Student leaders are condemning the Government following reports that loan debt now exceeds $6 billion. The figure has doubled in the last three years meaning students are borrowing at the average rate of $40,000 an hour.
Education is not, and never has been free. Taxpayers currently fund about 75 percent of tertiary fees, recognising the benefit of higher education to the community. The remainder is the student's responsibility, which is fair enough, because they stand to benefit personally as well.
Student debt is not just an educational or even a financial problem. Young people are told higher study is important and that we need to become a 'knowledge society'. But unlike previous generations, today's young people (aged 18-25) have suffered more than any other the results of family dysfunction and confused thinking. When families fracture, it becomes harder to pass on an inheritance, either financial or emotional. Facing debt - sometimes the size of a home loan at the end of their studies - they are reluctant and less willing to marry, start a family, commit themselves to property, and are more likely to be tempted by employment opportunities overseas.
Many full-time students still depend on their families, personal savings, charitable grants or scholarships, and the family is the key if we are to change the system. Functional families earning a decent wage can better support children through their studies in obvious and less-obvious ways. By revising the tax system we could reduce the welfare burden on the taxpayer and help parents save for their children's future educational needs. In this way loan debt could be significantly reduced.
$3,500 for winning essays - "No Man Is an Island"
Our 2003 essay competition for tertiary students is underway. In addition to prize money, up to four finalists will receive paid summer internships at Maxim. For details visit: www.maxim.org.nz/essay/2003.html
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK - Rita Brown (1944 -) US writer and poet
Education is a wonderful thing. If you couldn't sign your name you'd have to pay cash.