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Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

Deborah Coddington's Liberty Belle

It's a rare day New Zealand makes it to a news story in the British papers, so it's been nice this week to see Sir Edmund Hillary feted as a New Zealand icon and the conqueror of Everest. One article talked of his being bullied at school, and that when he climbed Everest he discovered "even the mediocre can have adventures and even the mediocre can achieve."

Well, maybe in 1953. Sadly, less so today, as New Zealand itself seems to wear mediocrity as a badge of honour. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our education system. Schools, as a Dutch academic wrote recently, are breeding grounds for social behaviour. School is, after all, the place where our children spend more than 1000 hours a year under the care, influence, and instruction of other adults. For me, the weepy moment when I deposited my hand-clutching five-year-olds at their first schools came because I knew, from that moment on, I would not be the central figure in their learning. Teacher would 'know better' than Mum.

And that's how it should be, in a child's eyes. Parents are boring. Teachers inspire.

So why are so many of them expected to work in such archaic, uninspiring situations? Teachers are professionals, like lawyers, accountants, architects, writers, film-makers. But are any of these other professionals paid according to what their representational body fights out with a cabinet minister, rather than commensurate with their success, skills or talents?

Are any of them forced to fill in endless piles of forms to be sent off to a central bureaucracy - an exercise which takes up precious time they could be spending helping, guiding and assisting their clients?

Are any of them forced to work in a physical environment designed by the bureaucracy, rather than suiting the vastly different individual needs of their clients?

How many teachers in state-owned schools, aside from those who are part of senior management teams, have their own offices to retreat to after class for preparation, marking, and research? Most teachers must use their kitchen tables for such activities, a practice no lawyer, architect or accountant would tolerate for long.

And how do these state schools treat parents - the clients' representatives? Think about last time you visited your children's schools - was there a waiting room with magazines and a full time receptionist to greet you and ask you if you'd like coffee or tea?

This isn't the schools' fault - it reflects the way we think about state schools in New Zealand. Our top-down treatment insults the capabilities and intelligence of the teachers and boards who run them.

Next week I visit the Netherlands where freedom of education has been a constitutional right for nearly 100 years. It is a system unique in the world, where funding follows the child no matter whether the school is public or private; where there is freedom to set up schools, freedom to determine the principles on which they are based (freedom of conviction), and freedom of organisation of the teaching. But to the Dutch, this is not enough, and the academic I quoted earlier will tell me how we could remove the corsets from the traditional delivery of education and let our students expand their minds.

His paper talks of tailoring education to the individual student, inspiring teachers, and involving parents and the social community. Schools are architecturally re-designed and become the focus of the village or town - not just a place that too many students return to each day with a collective groan, graduating with a certificate in mediocrity.

This 'thought experiment', which has been picked up by the Dutch Government, grew out of students' lack of inspiration due to curricula that don't meet their personal demands; from concern over children from deprived backgrounds dropping out altogether; and from teachers demotivated by lack of development opportunities, high work pressure, and unattractive work environments.

The Dutch admit this won't be easy for them, so for the New Zealand education establishment, a new direction will be even more of a challenge to the status quo. But I'm reminded of words from American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

We don't need mediocrity. It's a dirty word. I'd argue that Sir Ed was never mediocre, but that's how he felt, and that's how too many children feel when confronted by the staleness of our state-run education system. Let's be bold. Why not make every child an Edmund Hillary, conquering their insecurities, having adventures, achieving their goals and feeling on top of the world?

Yours in Liberty, Deborah Coddington

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