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Moving Schools From Good To Great

Moving Schools From Good To Great

Friday 7 May 2004 Deborah Coddington Speeches -- Education

Speech to delegates at the Visionschools Conference, Hotel du Vin, Auckland, Friday May 7, 2004.

"At Visionschools we believe more than ever that principals and trustees can make better decisions for their respective schools than any centralised body can. Our organisation firmly advocates self-management and governance of primary, intermediate and secondary schools - with local control extending to all resources, property, staffing and operational grants".

What's so hard about that?

I'm often asked why I'm ACT's education spokesman. Was I a teacher? Do I have a degree in education? Did I work in the Ministry of Education?

Actually, none of these. I don't have any tertiary qualifications. Under Education Minister Trevor Mallard's regime I wouldn't be allowed anywhere near children.

Early childhood? Hell no. I don't have a Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood).

Primary? Worse. I've never even been near a teachers' training college except when I wrote the story for North & South magazine in 2001 about teacher training. A story which earned me the unbridled fury and hatred of the teacher unions; enormous support from many teachers who are passionate about their careers and sick of being told what, how and where to teach; and a record number of letters to the editor - 30,000 words - to the magazine which nearly drove the editor spare.

So by now you have guessed that I'd never be accepted into any secondary school as a teacher - and the Teachers Council would reject my application for registration out of hand.

I clearly can't be trusted around children.

Which comes as something of a shock to me because I've managed to raise four of them. And raising children responsibly, in my book, means educating them.

As an early childhood "person of responsibility" as Mr Mallard likes to call them now, I was totally engrossed in my task.

For example, I repeatedly warded off what is known by psychiatrists as "attachment disorder". I did this - miraculously - without any training. I just held them in my arms and looking into their eyes, I rocked them back and forth.

I then moved on to stimulating their vestibular systems - channels of communication with others - and proprioceptive systems - which relate to producing and perceiving stimuli.

This was an interesting lesson involving bouncing them on my knees singing `Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross'. Another more vigorous lesson, not for the feeble, involved holding tight to a little arm and a little leg, then whirling them around and around like an aeroplane.

I became expert at developing their motor planning and co-ordination, and taught them basic trust and reciprocity with games of patty-cake and peek-a-boo. Often peek-a-boo would end in hysterical delight on the part of the child - not a lesson recommended to be held close to bedtime.

And then, in the interest of their growing up to be adults who can take responsibility for their actions, I taught them cause and effect. This can be a frustrating exercise, requiring the patience of Job. They would toss the food over the side of the highchair; I would retrieve it. Over and over.

I taught them to read before they went to school. Naughty, naughty. When they didn't know a word, I got them to sound it out. Tamarillo. What does it start with? T-a-m-a- and so on.

I should have shown them a red fruit and let them guess. Apple? Tamarillo? Dyed egg? So what.

As I wheeled them around the supermarket in the trolley I taught them to count. I taught my eldest, now 29, to name all the flowers in the garden before she was two years old.

I think you get my point. Quaintly, we seem to have forgotten the importance of parents as teachers. But researchers now know that the seemingly innocuous - and some would say ridiculous - exchanges that go on between mother and baby are crucial in establishing the building blocks for a rational, well-adjusted adult.

And does the Government come into these homes and carry out inspections, a la Education Review Office? Does the Ministry of Education set a national curriculum framework for mothers? Do they have NAGS and mission statements and commitments to the Treaty of Waitangi which have to be submitted to the Ministry before they are allowed to utter one word to their children, or open a book for their children - give them a cuddle or play a game?

And what happens in other countries when the state has had to take over completely the raising of small children?

In Eastern Bloc orphanages, where children have received adequate food, clothing and shelter but have been deprived of human contact, children display a syndrome known as `failure to thrive'.

They failed to gain weight and develop, even though all their bodily, material needs were met. They consequently cannot successfully integrate incoming sensory information so are easily overwhelmed by sounds, sights and tactile sensations.

They have difficulty responding to multiple commands, answering questions or performing tasks that require sequencing information.

And tragically this damage cannot be repaired. Once they pass through babyhood into childhood, there is no chance to go back.

As one writer/researcher observed:

"In a pathetic attempt to take care of themselves, many post-institutionalised children stimulate themselves by spinning and rocking, at an age when most children have outgrown the need to be rocked".

So when my children went on to primary and intermediate schools I continued to break the law, according to those who dictate who should be allowed to educate children, and what they should be taught.

I went to school camps, stayed overnight, and told kids off for being mean, admonished boys for not even being willing to try using the flying fox; chided girls for squealing when they saw a spider.

I helped with the kapa haka group; peeled spuds for the hangi; painted moko with my best Clarins eye makeup.

I judged all the children according to their attitudes, their spirit, and their character. Obviously I should have judged them according to their ethnicity, and made special allowances if they were Maori or Pasifika, in the interest of closing the gaps.

I showed them I was fallible, by admitting I didn't know the answers to some questions, and suggesting we look it up in a book. I should have let them go on a journey of discovery - in the interest of child-centred pedagogy - them advised them there is no right or wrong, just alternative perceptions.

And when they went to secondary school, I started to get defiant.

Yes apostrophes do matter, I said, when confronted with, "But Mr X says grammar and syntax stifle the creative writing flow".

Those of my children who learned a musical instrument very quickly found that they'd never be orchestra material if they didn't learn their scales. Learning scales never stifled the creative juices of Mozart or Schubert.

Neither did grammar and syntax hold back some of our greatest writers - my favourites - Hardy, Nabakov, Flaubert.

I got stroppy when one of my daughters who was learning Maori at secondary school complained to me that the teacher rarely turned up for class, despite being supplied with a microwave oven and television with video. One lesson consisted of watching a recording of an All Blacks game the teacher had missed the previous Saturday. When the teacher left, the microwave and TV went with her.

At one stage I had four children at four different schools. Come end-of-year prize giving or break-up ceremonies, I must have sat through hours and hours of pöwhiri and korero.

Don't get me wrong - I don't object to children learning Maori at school.

I urged my children to learn Maori while they were at school and had the chance. I welcome the greater use of Maori words and chucking them in to conversations in English - ka pai, kia kaha, have some kai, haere mai, whänau, mana, tamariki and mokopuna, türangawaewae, have a mimi.

But English took priority. It is the language they'll need when they travel the world.

I think by now you get my point. Education doesn't need the bossy boot of government stomping all over it. Compulsory education does need the state to oversee the accountability of taxpayers' funds and ensure children leave compulsory sector able to read, write and add up.

We all know that doesn't happen today even though both the current Labour Government, and the last National Government, moved increasingly towards re-centralisation.

In 2001 I was elected to the Board of Trustees of Epsom Girls Grammar School as a parent representative. I thought I was going to have some meaningful input into the school's governance and curriculum delivery. Alas, because of this Government's zoning policies I spent most of my time chasing up and investigating what looked like dodgy addresses. Parents hated me, and I don't blame them.

Why can't we let these parents choose their children's schools?

Is that so hard?

We let them choose their house, their car, the family doctor they send their children to - their Members of Parliament - isn't it patronising to say they aren't capable of choosing a school for their children? That only politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington can pick the best school for their children?

And why are schools like Auckland Grammar bursting at the seams?

One of the main reasons parents would crawl over ground glass to get their boys in is because of high education standards.

Auckland Grammar still has exams.

Yes, it has been forced to take the NCEA too, but it refused to dump exams. When the Education Ministry said we're going to dump Bursary, Auckland Grammar found another internationally recognised exam - Cambridge International - to take its place. This school, and many other popular schools around New Zealand, know that if our children are to take their place on the world stage, they need an education with qualifications recognised all around the world.

Is this why we pay our education taxes - to have our children saddled with an experimental qualification few of us can understand and which forces all children - extremely bright academically or the strugglers - through the same funnel?

Wouldn't it be great if every New Zealand school was a school of choice for parents? If parents sent their children to the neighbourhood school because they really, really wanted to, not because the Government said they had to?

That could happen. If good schools - and by good schools I mean the schools parents favour the most - were able to expand and new schools were able to open, then all parents could choose.

At the moment, the only families the Government thinks are capable of choosing a school are families with enough money to send their kids to a private school, or buy a house in a Grammar zone.

This Government doesn't think poor families can choose.

Imagine if supermarkets were zoned - if members of the board of Foodstuffs went around the Remuera supermarket checking that all the shoppers lived in Remuera or Epsom, and if they lived in Otahuhu or Papatoetoe they were told to get back to the supermarkets where they belonged?

I think Epsom Girls Grammar should be able to expand, take over the local college if you like, as a South Auckland Campus, so all families can send their sons and daughters to a great school.

We won't have great schools until will have competition.

That's how we should be spending our education taxes. We should follow what the rest of the world is doing - Wisconsin, Colorado, Ohio, Vermont, Maine, Washington DC, Florida in the United States; Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands.

They all have different systems. But all share the same principle: children should attend schools according to their parents' choice and the money provided by taxpayers for school education should follow parents' choices, whether to schools provided by government or to schools operated by the independent and voluntary sectors.

Some of these places have had parental choice for nearly 100 years. Others have recently introduced it. And what has happened?

Great schools. According to the latest research from UK Think Tank Reform, one of the most striking consequences of choice is that it has led to higher standards in existing state schools. The possibility that pupils may choose to move elsewhere has created a strong incentive for poor schools to improve.

Evidence from Sweden and America has shown that the greater the eligibility for choice, the greater the increase in standards. The Swedish Research Institute of Industrial Economics said:

"The extent of competition from independent schools...improves both the test results and the grades in public schools. The improvement is significant in statistical and real terms. The result holds for test results, final grades and for the likelihood that a student will leave school with no failing grades".

Is that too much to ask?

Instead this Government is removing choice. It is removing autonomy from boards of trustees, from principals, from teachers and from parents. It has been conducting network reviews and closing good schools, forcing the children to go to another school, not the school of the parents' choice.

Why is a small school automatically a bad school? Why is a rural school automatically a bad school? This network review programme has disrupted families, caused huge angst to teachers and principals, seen huge amount of resources wasted and worst of all, done absolutely nothing to improve the education of children.

Not content with state schools, the Minister now has his eyes on integrated schools. Under the present legislation, which was upheld internationally as an example of a civilised contract - in perpetuity - between the Crown and the Church, the Minister cannot close or merge integrated schools.

He wants to control them. He wants to bring them into the state sector. He wants to destroy their special character.

In conclusion I come back to the family analogy.

What makes a happy family? A great family? Certainly not perfection. We all know there is no such thing as the perfect family. Our children have tantrums in the supermarket, they wet their pants in the street, they swear at Grandma, they grow into teenagers and drink too much, smoke a bit of dope, crash the car, let us down.

But we love them unconditionally. We lie awake at night wondering where the hell they are, imagining them lying dead in a ditch, and swearing we'll kill them with our bare hands when they do get home.

But a great family is also one that learns from its mistakes. Is flexible. Is forward looking and wants its children to leave home ready, willing and able to choose their own destinies. To be autonomous, independent citizens, tolerant of others yet judgemental of wrongdoings, responsible for their actions yet free to make their own choices.

What is a great school? Well, like a great family it has less to do with bricks and mortar and more to do with people. The trustees and principals know their students are not perfect. They too make mistakes. But they are much better at correcting those mistakes quickly and efficiently. Schools can correct their mistakes overnight.

Central government takes 10 years to realise it has made mistakes, and another 10 years to correct them. In those two decades lie a lost generation. Children who cannot read a bus timetable. Children who can't give change in a shop. Children on welfare, in crime, with no future.

Great schools and great families are not so different in terms of what they want for their children. The difference is the Government. When it comes to education the Government should, as the children say, just butt out.

Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools in the UK, once dubbed Britain's most hated man, described the education bureaucracy beautifully in his bestseller Class War: He wrote:

"What we have is a vast ivory tower that grows taller by the day. Its inhabitants plan and plot, attend endless conferences, sit in meeting after meeting dreaming up schemes that secure, of course, their own establishment position, but bear little or no relation either to the corridors and classrooms of real schools or education as most parents understand the term".

I met Chris Woodhead last year when I studied parental choice in schooling at Cambridge University, England. I won this trip as a journalist, for several articles I wrote for North & South magazine. I mentioned one earlier, the story on education standards and teacher training. Called "Teach the Teachers Well", I reprinted the final paragraph in the book I wrote on my Cambridge Research, Let Parents Choose. I wrote:

"New Zealand needs a Minister of Education not captured by the Ministry, the unions or the academics who jump on the bandwagon of nonsense in teaching fads. A Minister who gives choice back to parents; more power to schools to dump inferior teachers and reward great teachers; who introduces a training system where providers compete for excellence in academic rigour, not taxpayers' funds. A Minister for Education, not a Minister for Teacher Unions."

Great schools will do more than just deliver great education. Great schools will start throwing starfish back into the sea.

Starfish? Haven't you head about the boy who found hundreds of dying starfish left behind by the tide and started throwing them back. His father tried gently to stop him, telling him there were too many, he'd never make a difference. At which point the boy threw another one back and said, "I made a difference to that one".

Thank you for listening to me today.


For more information visit ACT online at or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at

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