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Mallard Speech: Secondary Principals’ Conference

30 April 2002
Speech Notes
Secondary Principals’ Conference

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.

It is the third time I’ve addressed your conference as Minister of Education.

Each year it becomes more difficult to decide what to speak about – or rather what I have to leave out due to time constraints. There is a lot of exciting and innovative work going on in secondary schools. There are problems and there are ideas and initiatives to address those problems.

We have high expectations of schools. But by and large those expectations are met. I certainly appreciate the job you do in your schools. The life of a principal is very pressured and the challenges you face on a daily basis are enormous. And you, like I, probably get some negative feedback. It seems to be a fact of life that brickbats are easier to throw than bouquets. But most New Zealanders generally have a high regard for the quality of schooling in New Zealand. They recognise that our schools are world standing. That they are well supported by the state. That they are staffed by many thousands of dedicated professionals.

I was involved in the development of the Labour Party education policy for the 1999 election. Two things underpinned it. First the need to promise only what we were sure we could deliver – to not create false expectations. Unfortunately, not everyone heard us. We were also determined to be part of a government that showed fiscal constraint … not to blow the budget in one term – a blow out which would take years to recover from.

But within those fiscal constraints, we endeavour to look constantly at ways to progressively improve the teaching environment and conditions. In many ways that is what the offers to the PPTA are about – increased pay broadly in line with the movement in salaries in other areas of the economy along with more time off and more support through the extra staff.

In the current financial climate, the $125 million for the two-year contract that is being offered to secondary teachers is a significant slice of the pie. We simply can’t afford to meet demands that run into the 100s of millions of dollars. To put it in context – the limit on total new funding in this year’s Budget is $815 million and of that $400 million is allocated to health.

And we will only ever have sufficient funds for social policy spending if we keep a vigilant watch over our economy. None of us could afford to have Air New Zealand collapse. The potential losses to the economy were indescribably bad. To put it bluntly – the government bailed Air New Zealand out so that we would have money to spend on core areas like health and education. I’m sure all of you understand the difference between capital and operational spending.

In our next term of government, we will continue to show such fiscal constraint. We are not going to suddenly decide we have a bottomless pot of money. But nor will we promise tax cuts that will seriously erode the pot we have. We are going to continue with our platform of smart active government.

This will be reflected when Michael Cullen reads the budget. Do not expect any wild or radical surprises in the education budget. Instead expect a range of sensible initiatives to implement our economic and social policy priorities.

Let me outline just a couple of initiatives from last year’s and this year’s budgets that are particularly relevant to your sector.

By now you will be benefiting from the Microsoft deal we negotiated last year for up-to-date software for schools, and teachers, at no cost to you. I’ve been told that some schools are saving up to $35,000. That deal was incredibly important to the government. We utilised our bulk buying power to get a really good deal for schools. We’ve also used it for laptop computers for principals. We’ve started with the supply to new first time principals and principals from the most isolated schools. Over the next two years, this will be rolled out to all school principals. What we have been able to do is drive the cost of a laptop down from $4,500 to $3,000.

In this year’s budget – we are setting aside $25 million over five years for laptops for secondary teachers. Permanent, full-time secondary teachers or their schools will have the option to lease a laptop over a three-year period. Government funding will meet up to two thirds of the total cost of leasing with teachers or schools meeting the other third.

Our world is changing at a phenomenal rate. I am constantly amazed at some of the work that children in primary schools are doing using ICT. It poses a real challenge to secondary school teachers. I hope it will be an enjoyable challenge. But I seriously doubt the ability of secondary school teachers to continue to cater for the needs of their students unless they too can ride the information technology wave.

Familiarity and good use of the laptops will also help with workload issues by cutting down on some of the meeting and paperwork. Administration will become more efficient.

I hope that a majority of your teachers will take up this offer. It has certainly been the case with similar overseas offers. Please encourage your staff and boards to look favourably at this.

The second pre-budget announcement I want to make today concerns literacy. Regardless of how fast our world is changing – teaching children to read, write and count will always be a fundamental role of our education system. They won’t be able to use their computers if they don’t have these basic skills.

In our primary schools, there is a lot of work going on to lift standards in these crucial areas. We are putting a huge emphasis on increasing participation in quality early childhood education. I hope your sector will benefit from these initiatives in years to come.

That’s not to say that standards are not already high. The OECD results released last year showed us that we are among the top performing countries in the world.

It assessed more than a quarter of a million students in 32 countries and measured their performance in reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy. It ranked New Zealand third for average performance in reading, and mathematical literacy, and sixth for scientific literacy. We had more students at the top level of reading proficiency than any other country.

In New Zealand the study involved 3,600 students from more than one hundred and fifty schools. Schools involved remain anonymous – but thank you to you all for taking part in the study. Congratulations on some stunning results.

There is, however, room for improvement. In particular we need to address the fact that, while we have a large number of students performing at the top of the scale, we still have too many students performing at the lower levels.

In the primary school sector, one of the big success stories in improving literacy has been the Primary Literacy Leadership programme. 2000 primary principals have attended awareness workshops and 900 of them have committed themselves to the enhanced literacy leadership programme.

Starting from next term, we are introducing a secondary model.

We want a clear understanding of the current literacy achievement of different groups of students. We want to know what works. And we want to develop ways that let all schools make positive changes and sustain those changes.

Already there are examples of successful literacy programmes in secondary schools throughout the country. A feature of many of them is that they are lead by the principal.

There will be almost $1 million over the next year to provide the programme, including enough to cover principal participation, and that of teacher association leaders, in seminars and workshops. They will be lead by secondary principals who have a particular interest in literacy.

Leading from this, the Budget will also include nearly $3 million to fund indepth literacy professional development programmes in secondary schools with identified need.

The success of these programmes will depend on the willingness of individuals to share their ideas and their experience with others. It will also depend on the ability of schools to understand their communities and their different values and perspectives.

It is a message that works.

It is a major part of the suspension reduction initiative introduced last year. That programme was a direct response to the high proportion of Maori students being suspended but has obvious flow on effects to all students. Schools work together to develop area wide strategies to reduce suspensions. Basically, it challenges them to identify why the suspensions were occurring in the first place and then work out ways to tackle the issues that surround the suspensions.

Suspension statistics for last year will show that the change is working. Suspensions are still too high. But it is pleasing that in the areas where the suspension reduction initiative has been operating there is a distinct change in direction. Suspension rates are going down – not up!

These statistics will be released next week. Nationwide, there has been a slight drop in suspension rates. It’s not significant, but it is a distinct change in direction that provides much promise. Working together is making a difference. In particular, the statistics will show an improvement in the Maori suspension rates as a result of the suspension reduction initiative. They will show that greater focusing does make a difference.

I want to talk briefly now about the NCEA. It too is a tool that can help make a difference.

As NCEA develops and the sector becomes more familiar with it, I believe it will provide you with some rewarding ways of catering for the learning needs of your students. There are always teething problems with new systems but that’s no reason to stay in the dark ages. A bit of feedback is coming back that some schools are over assessing. I was reminded the other day that this occurred when school certificate subjects were first internally assessed and it became known in some quarters as ‘eternal assessing’. Remember, assessing is about recognising what students can do – not controlling it. I understand from education experts that it is better to under-assess than over-assess.

Can I also remind you all that NZQA’s school relationship staff are only a phone call away. They are all former teachers and the feedback from people that have called them has been positive. However not many principals have used the service – the calls have mainly be from your nominees. Please be aware that they are also there to help you. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, I’d also like to remind those of you who want help using the software associated with NCEA that there is still money available for each school to use to bring someone into the school to provide system training for staff.

The NCEA is not my system. However I believe in its ability to challenge our most gifted and talented students and also provide a meaningful and worthwhile assessment for students who in the past, through not passing school certificate, left school with nothing to show for their achievements.

I believe it will help the secondary school sector develop more meaningful alliances with enterprise, and with tertiary providers, to enhance learning resources and learning opportunities. And I want secondary schools of the future to seriously pursue this kind of opportunity for their students.

I was asked to include in this address some thoughts on the future of secondary schooling. It is an issue that I’ve thought a lot about over the last few years. Quite frankly I don’t think we could have begun to look at seriously updating the shape of secondary education with the school certificate to bursary model of qualifications.

But in the next term of government when we are more familiar with NCEA, when we have more settled industrial climate, and when we have implemented the staffing improvements further, I hope to establish a commission into secondary education. It is a proposal I am developing as part of the Labour Party Manifesto for this year’s election.

Basically I will be suggesting a commission to envisage what a secondary school might look like in 10, 15 or even 20 years, and then to look at what steps we could realistically take to get there.

If you were to take a blank canvass and design a secondary school with the same amount of financial resources available to you have now – what would it be like? How would you design the physical space? What would be the skill mix of the staff you would employ? What subjects would you teach and how would you organise your learning … your timetable … your financial structure? How would you help ease the pressure that principals and teachers face every day? How would you see your school integrating with your local community?

There is no blank canvass. But there are ideas that can be incorporated into your schools and into school networks that will help shape a positive future for secondary schools.

For instance, there is scope for more shared facilities and centres of regional specialisation and excellence – including through greater use of ICT.

The advances in areas like the video conferencing being trialed in wharekura and Maori boarding schools with great success gives an insight into that. A few years ago, the technology was next to useless as an everyday tool. The delays and the quality of picture were just not good enough for effective teaching and learning. The advance in the technology in just a few short years has been spectacular and no doubt will continue. Used to its full potential, it could give all students in the country access to more specialist tuition. It will allow the specialist teachers to live and work in Northland or South Westland teach students around the country and be national subject leaders.

Technology will allow both teachers and schools to focus on depth rather than forcing them into being 'Jills of all trades'. They might develop deep and narrow niches – niches that could well be international and probably very rewarding.

It will pose administrative challenges – but it will be possible and it will be worth it.

Schools of the future will be physically unrecognisable – from both the equipment they have inside them and the way they are structured. A secondary school in 20 years’ time may resemble a current shopping mall in the way it is shaped and sized more than the schools we see today.

The five-year property plans mean there is more certainty for capital works funding and more flexibility with what you can do with that funding.

When you’re making those big property decisions think outside the square box. I urge you and your boards to think carefully about what kind of schools your successors and their successors might be running while you’re enjoying your long and happy retirement. This is a message I have also given the Ministry of Education property division especially as they work on two new secondary schools planned for Auckland in the next few years.

I hope that some of the changes this government is making in the wider social areas will mean secondary schools of the future will not have to fulfil such a large social worker role.

I know that the role of schools as points of intervention for wider social purposes is a much debated issue.

We want teachers teaching - not being social workers. At the same time, schools are in a position to address the social and health needs of students. Students with health and social problems are not in the best position to learn. It is an important area for us to discuss and work on.

I hope secondary schools of the future will continue to utilise the flexibility our system allows. That flexibility helps you involve communities to meet the needs of different students.

When this government kept its promise and abolished bulk funding, there were cries from some quarters that it was an end to all flexibility in the sector. That simply hasn’t panned out. The return to centralised funding has meant stability and guarantees for core staffing levels – and we are increasing those staffing levels in line with recommendations in the school staffing review. But abolishing bulk funding also freed up more money to go directly to schools and it has provided more flexibility across all schools.

There will never be enough money. Believe me – it is a fact of life that affects me as much as it affects you. I too sit at my desk with my head in my hands juggling figures and wondering how to get the best value for money. What to keep and what to drop. How to pay for the basics without limiting the opportunities for growth and innovation.

I too have to consider the best way of catering for the needs of all students from the most talented to those who struggle or who come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is a challenge for us all and one I look forward to working with you to address for several more years.


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