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Speech to the Rural Teaching Principals' Conf.

Minister of Education

Speech to the Rural Teaching Principals' Conference

New Plymouth

Thursday 18 May 2000

Embargoed until 10.00am

In 1997, the year after I became Labour's education spokesperson, I started a practice which I have kept up and plan to keep up while I am Minister of Education.

That was to make a concerted effort to visit small, rural schools whenever I could escape from the cities for a couple of days.

I represent an urban electorate in Wellington and I have regular and positive contact with the schools in my electorate. Whenever, I make policy decisions, one of the processes I go through is to think about how it will affect the schools that I know well in my electorate. I think about how it will affect some of the schools in Hamilton - another area of the country I know well. And then I think about how it will affect some of the small, rural schools I have visited.

Each school in New Zealand is different and unique. As a policy maker, I have to look at those differences and work towards ensuring that what we develop is in the best interests of the school sector as a whole and not just, for example, large urban secondary schools. That's why I see making an effort to visit some of you as really important. You add the 'face' to the pieces of paper I get from the Ministry of Education.

Rural teaching principals face some extra difficulties that their city peers just don't have to think about. Let me tell you a couple of anecdotes of situations I have experienced through visits to New Zealand's northern most school and southern most school. I've also visited the western most school. Unfortunately I've never had the opportunity to visit Pitt Island School which even by the most careful planning cannot really be fitted in alongside visits to other schools.

In Te Hapua in the far north I arrived to visit to a school with a growing roll. A blessing for many small rural schools but not necessarily when there is absolutely no spare accommodation within two hours drive for the extra teacher they were now eligible for. So luckily, not only had the principal and his wife extended their personal hospitality to the Opposition spokesperson on education, but they were also hosting, more long term, that extra teacher. One of the associate education Ministers at the time, who also happened to be from Northland, had a brilliant response to the situation: The board should buy a caravan and park it next to the school.

At Halfmoon Bay School on Stuart Island, my pending visit was greeted with more great enthusiasm because I got to be a courier and bring their school photocopier back from repairs in Invercargill and therefore saved them the freight costs. Not to waste the opportunity, I was also used to escort a student with a broken arm to the Mainland.

These are just small examples that I have personally experienced of some of the challenges that rural teaching principals face. I know that there are a lot more every day issues that you face that we need to address when we're developing policy.

This week, the process began for what I see as one of the major issues that needs addressing - that is staffing.

On Tuesday I had the pleasure of chairing the first meeting of the review into school staffing review team.

I've brought along copies of the terms of reference because I'm hoping that first of all, you'll find them to your liking. Secondly I hope you are able to use this forum to discuss the terms of reference and how you might respond to them as an organisation.

There is a strong focus on the needs of small rural schools.

I've always said it was madness to think that if your school has twenty students, the administrative work takes five per cent of the time that it takes in a school with 400 students.

So the first task of the Review Group will be to make recommendations for staffing assistance to small rural schools, for implementation next year. The wider review will propose a phased implementation plan, taking into account of issues such as affordability and teacher supply.

I also want the review team to take into account the needs of low decile schools. We will report by the end of February 2001, with recommendations on a long term staffing formula for schools.

It's quite a small group. There are eight of us altogether. There's me, Graeme Marshall who is the former principal of Hutt Valley High School as project director and who will chair the meetings in my absence. The remaining six members have each been nominated by six key sector groups including, as your representatives, a nomination from both the NZEI and the NZPF.

But while membership of the group is small, wider consultation throughout the year will give all interested parties the opportunity to contribute to the final recommendations.

One of the other areas of need for teaching principals - and one that I want to address fairly quickly - is access to professional development.

I made the decision not to continue with the previous Government's plans to make professional development services contestable before I even arrived in the Beehive. I spoke earlier about how I imagine the impact on schools I have visited as part of my policy making process.

If you like the idea that teaching principals should be able to access as much professional development as their urban classroom teacher counterparts, then you have schools in the depths of western Southland to thank.

The school that really convinced me the previous Government was clearly misguided was the school that told me that under National's policy, their school would use all their professional development money to have someone drive from Dunedin once a year, stay for a few minutes and then turn around and drive back again.

Good governance does not mean treating everyone the same, it means treating people fairly and giving everyone access to opportunity. In your case it means giving you the opportunity to continually update and improve your methods through professional development. That will have flow on effects for the children you teach.

I believe that the one factor that impacts on a quality of a child's education more than anything else at a school, is the quality of the teacher. I think we have some work to do in the area of pre-service teacher education. But I'm always conscious that most of the teachers who will be teaching the next generation of children are already working in schools.

Most other professions in this country have professional development requirements attached to their registration. Teachers do not. I think it's rather ironic that those in the education business are on a limb in this regard. But I want to tag a professional development requirement to teacher registration. I'm proposing to establish an Education Council. It will be in legislation to be introduced later this year and passed next year. Details are still being worked through but it will be basically an expansion of the role of the Teacher Registration Board. It will have more of an emphasis on setting standards in teaching rather than just straight registration. As such, it will also work closely with the NZQA and teacher education providers to make sure that standards in teaching begins from the time a potential teacher begins their qualification.

Before we get to the legislation that will bring in the education council, we need to pass an amendment bill that is currently before the House. That of course is the legislation related to the Government's policy of abolishing bulk funding.

Bulk funding has been one of the most divisive and destructive issues in education. While some schools have no doubt enjoyed the benefits of bulk funding it has led to an unfair distribution of funding between schools and it did not recognise the educational needs of schools. Over time bulk funding would have exacerbated the problems of schools in poorer areas in recruiting and retaining the best teachers.

I don't want to disregard the positive aspects of bulk funding - namely the extra funding and the flexibility. We have agreed to allocate all the money that National had earmarked for bulk funding to all schools. You will have the flexibility to use that money for staffing or operational costs but we will continue to operate a central staffing formula to ensure that schools maintain minimum staffing requirements. Schools will receive more information about the formula for this later in the year.

I know the National Party is running a half-hearted campaign around the country against our bulk funding policy but a lot of what they are saying is rubbish. Because in their 'scaremongering tactics' they are completely ignoring the fact that there will be significantly more funding in New Zealand schools next year than there is this year.

You will be able to find out how much more funding I'm talking about at 2.00pm on June 15 when the Budget is read.

I want to talk briefly about another aspect of this current bill and that is changes to improve the operations of boards of trustees.

Boards have an important role to play in education. However there are difficulties that boards face in some communities. These can include having insufficient people standing for election and high turnover of board members with the inevitable loss of experience that this entails.

So the legislation provides for staggering of board elections so that not all board members are replaced at the same time. It removes the current limit of 4 schools on agreed board amalgamations to govern clusters of schools.

It also clarifies staff and principal representation when boards are amalgamated, and allows schools that have merged to hold an earlier election for additional members.

While information technology can help small rural schools to combat isolation, the staff and boards of trustees of small schools are likely to have much more difficulty getting the expert help they need to make informed decisions about investment in the hardware or the best possible use of information technology. In addition, access to technical support and advice or maintenance services is costly and inconvenient.

We are working on ways for schools to have access to centralised help and buying power. You too will then have the advantage of economies of scale that are at present only available to the very big schools in the cities.

To finish off I want to revisit another early decision I made as Minister of Education and that was to approve the extension of the supplementary funding entitlement to all primary school principals rather than just those on individual employment contracts.

You will know, better than I do, how the change has affected you personally. But I am pleased that as Education Minister I had the opportunity to demonstrate, within the public sector, the Government's commitment to collective bargaining.

Some of you will have chosen to stay on an Individual Employment Contract and certainly that is your right. But I know that many of you - those on collective contracts and those on IECs - felt the unfairness of a system whereby the Government financially rewarded only those schools whose principals either broke away from the collective or were not allowed to be a part of it.

I've been really heartened by the response to this decision. Many people have written letters to me about this, and if you're in that group I'd like to thank you.


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