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Speech To The Auckland Primary Principals' Assn

Hon Trevor Mallard Speech Notes

Speech To The Auckland Primary Principals' Association

Thanks for meeting with me today.

This year I have been making an effort to get out of Wellington to meet with as many local principals’ groups as possible.

I seized the chance to speak to national associations last year. But my workload meant that I don’t get out as often as I would like.

You have asked me here today to discuss aspects of the Education Amendment Bill No. 2 and what it means for you.

The Bill covers a bunch of different areas – and I today want to focus on planning and reporting proposals.

I’m told that they have been causing some uncertainty here in Auckland.

I welcome the chance to clear up any misunderstandings once and for all.

It is important to explain where the proposals fit in with other initiatives within the sector.

For the past two years, the National Education Guidelines have required all schools to develop a strategic plan.

The Bill will now bring that requirement into law.

So what was the thinking behind it?

I was amazed to find out that until this Amendment came along, neither the 1989 Education Act nor the 1964 original made a single mention of student achievement.

I’m horrified to think that our education laws have never explicitly addressed the idea that our overarching aim is for kids to learn something!

The reason we want our schools to focus on - and plan for - their activities is very simple: to help students learn better.

Strategic planning also helps us sharpen up the way we do things.

In this day and age, why should schools waste time repeating themselves in a flurry of forms for the Ministry of Education and other government agencies?

One secondary school principal told me that in the first two terms of last year he had received 58 forms of correspondence from government agencies requiring a response.

A couple of years ago during a school visit to a sole charge school, the principal showed me a stack of paper more than a foot high. This represented the requirements placed on her.

The Government is being active to help schools work smarter.

What we are trying to do is set in place a system that cuts out double handling of information – a system that simplifies the flow of data between schools and the Government.

Where possible, the new system will harness digital technology.

ICT is changing our lives – and the difference it can make to students is no less dramatic.

It makes more sense for other agencies to go to one place for information rather than schools having to duplicate information they may have already compiled for the Ministry.

I want to talk now about how the Select Committee took on board the mountain of submissions on the Draft Bill.

During its deliberations, the committee came to appreciate the importance schools place on existing charters.

That explains the final decision to retain the name ‘school charter’. The new charters will keep the elements that define the school’s identity and mission, in conjunction with the new planning and reporting requirements.

The Select Committee heard - loud and clear - the concerns that the Bill might hand the Government powers to dictate the direction of schools’ planning and reporting.

This was never – ever - the aim.

The committee has therefore taken great pains to amend the wording to get rid of words like ‘specific’ ‘detailed’ and so on.

There is just no way that the Government wants to dictate the content - or direction - of schools’ plans.

The aim here is simply to ensure that issues like learning and curriculum, personnel, property and so on don’t drop off the agenda.

The National Education Guidelines already require schools to have a strategic plan. So that particular part of the new legislation means business as usual.
The Act has always required that schools report annually to parents. So there’s no change on that front either.

You're all familiar with the annual routine. Around October or November, every school sets in place a planning stage for the next year. This is when you set your budget. This is when you hammer out things like next year’s emphasis and the professional development programmes.

In this way, the work of annual planning goes ahead. The legislation doesn’t change that one iota. What will change is the way you think about these things.
Annual planning should be done in the context of a school’s strategic vision, with goals and reports firmly tied back to those plans. Few could disagree with the wisdom of that approach.

The legislation asks for plans and reports to be lodged with the Ministry.

There are logical reasons for this.

First, the Ministry needs your reports to do its work in such vital policy areas as analysing national trends.

Second, taxpayers and Parliament need a better read-out on the value we’re getting from the billions of taxpayer dollars being pumped into schools.

Yes, the Bill does allow the Ministry to query something in a school’s plan.
But this is only to safeguard that no school is ignoring issues its own reports are urging it to deal with.

This would only crop up if a school was, for example, planning to do something illegal like run a deficit. If you’ve heard nothing from the Ministry inside three weeks after lodging your plans, you can assume that everything is sweet.

Let me restate: in no way does this approach pose a threat to self-governance.
It is simply enshrining in law the need for schools to know they are fully accountable for their decisions.

And what is more, they will have to be ready to defend them if necessary.
I anticipate that many schools will use the assessment tools for teaching and learning (asTTle tools) to monitor the progress of their students.

No school has to use those tools.

But they’re so good, I think most will seize the opportunity.

Together with other assessments, AsTTle will provide a very rich set of information.

It will allow you to report back to parents about how well your school is doing - and what - if anything - you plan to change.

The information each school chooses to report will be its own, and may be communicated in its own way. Importantly, you will be able to analyse the data closely for trends within your school.

I was told recently of a school in Christchurch where concerns grew that students were not writing well enough.

The principal and staff identified the areas of concern and took a strategic approach to resolving them. Here I’m talking about such things as proper uses of punctuation, appropriate use and placement of adjectives and adverbs for emphasis, and so on.

Teachers came up with some writing tasks used as assessments. They got together and marked these and built up some graphs showing the performance of the students on those particular aspects of writing. Over the course of the next year, teachers began putting special emphasis on these aspects during class.
At the end of the year, they devised assessments again and measured how well the students had done.

Not surprisingly, because of the teaching emphasis, the new statistics showed improvements in the areas targeted in the plan. It meant the principal was able to give the board and parents a report that showed last year’s data and the improved learning at the end.

This kind of initiative should become second nature for any school seeking good information and strategic planning focussed on learning. I have asked the Ministry to prepare a range of frameworks and templates to help schools with strategic planning and reporting. The key philosophy of Tomorrow's Schools was to give communities more say in the running of their school. But that has led to unnecessary inefficiencies in the system and government has a role in providing centralised support that schools can adapt to suit their needs and the needs of their communities to meet our shared objectives of providing our children with opportunities for excellence.

In this case, please note that I am not asking for a single, tightly prescribed, template. I do not expect all schools to plan for and report exactly the same information in the same way.

The aim of these frameworks is to provide for the particular priorities that schools - on the basis of their self review- will set for themselves. Please also note that working groups made up of your professional colleagues are feeding into the process here.

Our schools must be self-managing and self-governing. Gathering hard data about student achievement must be the impetus for your programmes.

Every school’s information – just like its student group - is unique. The government will not require exactly the same information from all schools.
That would presuppose that all schools have exactly the same issues – and that is clearly nonsense.

You are the people in the best position to collect and analyse information that will tell you where you need to focus your efforts.

The Ministry will collect that information but doesn’t want - or need - anything else.

That is what the government expects of you.

That’s what we need to know you’re working away on.

Finally, I'd like to finish by thanking you for all the wonderful work that is going on in New Zealand schools. I often scratch my head at the level of criticism that is directed at our schools and our school system. I think overall we do an excellent job. There is always room for improvement and we should never think that we can't do better. But New Zealand schools are exciting and innovative places of learning. Teachers do challenge and support their students and principals encourage them to do better.

I often read of people accusing schools of 'dumbing' down education. I challenge those people to take a look at the series of "Figure it Out" books that I launched at Jean Batten School in Mangere this morning. They're challenging, fun, and relevant to things children are interested. They also cater for our objectives to improve numeracy levels.

Like a lot of other work that is going on, they support excellence.

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