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Wgtn. Primary Principals' Conference - Dalziel

Hon Lianne Dalziel

4 September 2003 Speech Notes

Wellington Primary Principals' Conference.

Presentation of awards - theme "Thinking Heads - What's at the Heart"

Ilott Concert Chamber, Wellington Town Hall

12.15 pm

"Thinking Heads - what's at the Heart"

Thank you very much for the opportunity to address you again. I bring, as I did on that occasion, apologies from the Minister of Education.

I referred back to my notes from my previous attendance and found that they were still relevant to this conference's theme of "Thinking Heads - what's at the heart?"

Last time I commented on the fact that I had just received a letter from a primary school principal, after I appeared on Face the Nation, and dared to suggest that young children are influenced by the messages they receive. I said if children are told they are stupid often enough, and this message is reinforced at home, then they start to believe it.

He was deeply offended at the suggestion, and said that things had obviously changed since I was at school. I think he was trying to tell me that someone should have told me I was stupid then, because I clearly was now.

However, he missed my point completely. What I was trying to say is that children do take in a lot, and when they do not have a supportive and loving environment at home, then the consequences can be disastrous.

The reverse is true as well. Children who receive positive reinforcement at home and in school do better.

The Face the Nation programme was focussed on the comments of Cecilia Lashlie about children who seemed to be on a trajectory to jail.

I have heard many teachers make similar comments, which led me to comment that we know the characteristics of our present inmates, so is it so hard to identify those who are at risk?

However, it is true to say that not everyone who fits that picture ends up in jail, nor do all inmates come from the risk profile background either.

When I meet people who fit the risk profile, who have done very well, there have been two differentiating factors:

1) an absolute determination to prove wrong, everyone who ever said "you'll never amount to anything' , and/or

2) the intervention of a significant other - and although these might be partners, children, coaches, mentors, you may or may not be surprised to learn that many of them are teachers or principals.

Someone who recognises a special talent, or who gives encouragement, or who allows children to see what is good about themselves, helps immeasurably.

The difference that you and your teaching staff can make to the lives of these children is enormous, and the theme of your conference suggests your recognition of that.

So it will be no surprise for you to learn that I believe the education system can play an enormously important role in conjunction with families, communities and other agencies, to support all of our children achieving their full potential in life.

However, I am not satisfied that the education system is realising its own potential, and is failing many children as a result. This is not the "fault' of teachers, principals or boards of trustees. It is a systemic failure that traces back, in my view, to how we teach our teachers, coupled with a lack of research and an evidence-based approach to education, and the difficulties in integrating education, health and child, youth & family resources across governmental funding silos.

When I spoke to you last I backed up that statement with a number of observations that had resulted from my listening to teachers, parents, officials and educators.

My observations are these:

- Not all children learn in the same way, so a "one-size-fits-all' approach will always produce winners and losers, successes and failures;

- Knowledge of each child's developmental stages and diverse learning styles is critical to ensuring that teaching is effective;

- The earlier that developmental delay or specific learning needs are identified, the earlier that appropriate interventions can be designed and implemented;

- The transitions from early childhood education to primary school, from primary to intermediate, from intermediate to secondary, and from secondary to tertiary or vocational training are potentially difficult, and need to be managed appropriately;

- Care must be taken to ensure that additional learning support or behaviour management does not alienate or isolate children and young people from their peers, nor that it create inappropriate ongoing dependence;

- Early childhood education services and schools are points where families and communities inter-connect, and present the opportunity to address wider social/health issues;

- Children and young people do not live their lives in silos for the convenience of funding arrangements; they have whole lives, and the connection between school, home and community must be both supportive and supported;

- Programmes that are provided through early childhood education services and schools must be well-researched and evidence-based

After two more years, I believe these still stand, and fit very well with your conference theme: "Thinking Heads - What's at the Heart?' Since I last spoke my associate education delegation has been expanded across the Student Support programmes that are designed to address some of our more at risk students. So I have been able to expand my thinking along similar lines across what was in my view an artificial separation between special education and student support. My focus on research has now expanded out from students with physical disabilities to residential schools and to the effect of setting on students with a range of learning needs.

The settlement in the Daniels' case has also provided a welcome opportunity to provide an inclusive framework for establishing the learning support network.

In conclusion, a few years ago, I came across an article written by Eamon O'Shea from the Department of Economics at the University of Ireland in Galway. He wrote:

"Education has a role in the development of civil society beyond the current preoccupation with economic materialism. Concentration on market-based economic returns and monetised information misses valuable elements that cannot be measured in terms of money and may have a materialistic bias, restricting outcome assessment to the measurable.

"Education must be judged on its contribution to broadly defined human well-being as well as to economic growth. The role of education in the accumulation of social capital is vital, since relationships are broader than market interactions and include elements such as common citizenship, trust and public service."

The particular article is focussed on schools and suggests that it would be insensitive to blame them for not paying enough attention to well-being and social capital, when they are in fact being asked to deal with the fall-out from declining social capital, as they come closer to being the sole purveyors of the norms of social responsibility.

Even though I think that is true, I believe it is important that we continue to recognise the critical role you play in this regard. Just about every question that is posed in terms of this country's economic and social development finds at least part of the answer in education, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

Thinking heads - what's at the heart? At the heart of a thinking head is always the drive - the passion - the motivation - the desire to learn, know and understand. As principals, educators and leaders in education, it is admirable that this conference theme reflects your desire to discuss and raise issues pertinent to meeting the needs of your students in an increasingly challenging and complex environment.


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