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Education Can Make A Difference - Coddington

Education Can Make A Difference -- Deborah Coddington

Address to ACT Central Regional Conference, Awatea Conference Centre, Palmerston North, Sunday 9 November 2003

Last week I was handed a letter written by a teacher of 20 years experience who is fed up with the state of education in this country.

He quoted Karl Popper, the famous philosopher who spent some time in New Zealand.

Popper said:

"The principle that those who are entrusted to us must, before anything else, not be harmed, should be recognised to be just as fundamental for education as it is for medicine.

"Do no harm, and give the young what they most urgently need to become independent of us, and to be able to choose for themselves, would be a very worthy aim for the education system."

There is much to celebrate in New Zealand schools.

Our best and brightest children continue to do better and better compared with the rest of the world.

If we bring that comparison back to ourselves, and look at our own children's achievements compared with what we were like at their age, I'm sure most of us agree that despite the struggles we've faced - getting them out of bed in the mornings, hearing reading, testing spelling, coaching sports, sleeping on hard camp stretchers at school camps, praising artwork we had no idea about - our hearts burst when we see them achieve a goal they've set their minds to.

In a month's time, my youngest daughter will leave school and take her place at Auckland University's School of Fine Arts - out of 900 applicants, she was accepted without an interview.

She has also been chosen as her school's valedictorian student at the prize giving. She plays flute to ACTL level, and thanks to a small fortune I've spent on singing lessons, she made me weep last week when she sang Schubert at a concert in Auckland.

But my children, and your children, are the lucky ones. We're not representative of the children in New Zealand - one in every five 16 to 18-year-olds - who leave school unable to read a bus timetable.

This is not an exaggeration. According to the latest international survey, nearly 20 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds in this country scored on the lowest decile in terms of literacy and numeracy - classified as lacking the literacy skills needed to cope on a daily basis.

Fifty percent of our children leave school unable to read properly.

This is what the OECD refers to as "the tail" and this is what causes most concern about New Zealand's reading standards.

Imagine the scene in New Zealand if nearly 20 percent of children leaving school in a month's time were so crippled physically that they were unable to move around and function properly from day to day.

There'd be an outcry. There'd be weeping parents on the Holmes programme.

Answers would be demanded of cabinet ministers. Lawyers would talk of class actions, as they did when women were affected by bungled smear tests.

As soon as the offending schools were identified, parents would remove their children from those schools en masse.

So why do we think it's acceptable that children leave school intellectually crippled.

I'm not an expert on education. I don't know the latest research into best practice. I'm just a mother of four children but I could tell if my children were learning to read and write and do their sums. I could tell if neighbours were happy with our local school. I could tell if my kids' exam results were good or bad.

Who am I to say, just because I'm a politician, that other mums and dads can't make the same judgements where their own children are concerned?

In 2001, when I was a feature writer for North & South magazine, I wrote a story called "The Lost Generation: Why Your Child Can't Read, Write or Add Up".

I looked at the dumbing down of the New Zealand national curriculum, with its politically correct nonsense the Ministry of Education foists on our teachers - dictating how they teach.

I also looked at teacher training in this country, and what I found made my hair stand on end. In maths, for instance, there are no errors, just "alternative conceptions".

Teachers are known as "facilitators" and must be culturally sensitive above all else.

As one young graduate said to me when she was about to start her first job in South Auckland with 33 Maori and Pacific six-year-olds, "I teach according to what's in their heads, not according to their skin colour."

This story caused an outcry and generated a record number of letters to the editor in response - more than 30,000 words of letters - almost a complete magazine.

But it was also one of the stories that won for me the Qantas Press Fellowship to Cambridge University. I went for 10 weeks this year, and researched the Dutch and Swedish system of education.

I chose these two countries because in the same survey of literacy, the overwhelming majority of children from these two countries - not countries with pro-market governments - consistently did very well.

Why? Because the funding follows the child. There is no discrimination between who owns the school buildings - Catholic, Protestant, independent, government, Steiner, Montessori - and all parents have the right to choose.

This means schools must provide parents with what they want - overwhelmingly they want their children to achieve, to be safe at school, and to be disciplined.

And it is the fact that parents have the right to withdraw their children from failing schools - all parents, not just those with incomes that can buy places at private schools or within a tightly zoned residential area - that schools keep focussed on educating children.

Not focussed on what central government, or the teacher unions, dictates.

The objective of the Qantas Press Fellowship is to place someone in an academic, multi-cultural environment, turn them into a better person so they return to their own country and try and make it a better place.

I think this is a very noble objective. I came back to a country where the Minister of Education is ripping the heart out of provincial and rural communities by closing a massive number of schools.

These are good schools, with high standards, financially sound, and strong parental commitment.

This is part of an agenda to overturn Tomorrows Schools; re centralise education totally; remove parents' involvement from their school by having one board of trustees for around 200 schools.

This is the ultimate denial of parents' right to choose.

So with huge encouragement from Richard Prebble, and the help of some very generous donors to the ACT Party I have published this book "Let Parents Choose". An account of my research at Cambridge.

Generous supporters of the ACT Party funded it. People who believe, as I do, that the best way to achieve ACT's objective is ensuring that all children do well at school.

Ladies and gentlemen I don't believe that this is as good as it gets, as this Labour Government claims.

With 400,000 able-bodied people on welfare?

Around 25 percent of babies growing up in a single parent household - mostly a solo mother struggling on a benefit?

Half the population incapable of settling down with a good book because they can't read properly?

How can we deny young people the right to lead an independent and autonomous life and say this is as good as it gets?

Education, unlike other portfolios, is not too hard. It's not like weaning people off cannabis or alcohol. It's not like getting them to give up unhealthy food and cigarettes so the health of the nation is lifted.

Little children love to learn. We can't stop them learning. Like little boys banned from playing with guns - they'll eat their piece of bread into the shape of a gun and shoot Mum from the safety of their highchair.

Our schools used to be the best in the world. They can be again.

We could re-engage parents and families with education. My research found that one of the most important factors determining how well children achieve at school is having at least one parent involved in their children's education.

We need to take a fresh new look at how we deliver education in this country. We need to devolve the funding; the decision-making, the celebrations and the successes back to the school communities - the principals, teachers, parents and children.

Apart from ensuring strict education standards and financial accountability are met, the government should just butt out.

And to those, like the strident teacher union bosses, who would ban school choice because, they say, it might not help everybody, I just quote the words of Frederick Douglass, a nineteenth century black slave and freedom fighter in the US, who risked his life to help runaway slaves on the Underground Railway:

Douglass agreed that his methods, "as a means of destroying slavery, was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, but the thought that there was one less slave, and one more freeman - having myself been a slave, and a fugitive slave - brought to my heart unspeakable joy."

These inspiring words are similar to words I used to close my book, "Let Parents Choose".

It's time, I wrote, to tackle the problem of the lost generations.

The children left behind by the education system that fails them.

It's time to start throwing starfish back into the sea.

Starfish? Haven't you heard the story about the little boy who went down to the beach and found hundreds of dying starfish, left behind by the tide? He started throwing them back; when his father came down and asked him what he was doing. It was no use trying to save the starfish. There were too many. "You'll never make a difference," the father said.

Whereupon the little boy picked up another starfish, threw it back, and said to his Dad: "I made a difference to that one."

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