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Speech: English - National - Opening doors

Speech: English - National - Opening doors

Bill English National Education Spokesman

11 July 2004

Speech by National Party Education Spokesman Bill English to the 2004 National Party Annual Conference

National - Opening doors

The purpose of education is to produce good citizens, people who have the competence and the attitudes to take a constructive role in the life of this nation.

Every young person deserves the opportunity to fulfil their potential. It is in the interests of the nation that every young person deserves to achieve a basic level of competence.

Recently I visited a high school where the principal showed me a list of the reading ages of his new third formers. After 8 years of state funded education some were reading at age 9. Only 30% were reading at age 13.

Sadly, too many of New Zealand's young people do not gain the competence of citizenship in our schools. Our middle and high achievers are among the best in the developed world, but our lowest, are among the worst.

Many schools and teachers are doing a good job. For most children, improving their education is about making a good system work better. Our watchwords will be excellence, innovation, leadership, and energy. We want to give free reign to marvellous teachers, strong leadership and wonderful students.

But the state education system is failing to get the best out of too many children. In fact, the longer that disadvantaged children are at school, the further they fall behind.

It's a national mission. Today's children are tomorrow's workers. At just the time they need to be productive to support an ageing population, more of them will come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What can we do about this?

Education is not the preserve of Labour and the teacher unions; it is the enterprise of every New Zealander concerned for our future.

National will take back education for parents and children. Under National, parents will be restored to their rightful place as first teachers. And here is a parent's charter, principles for parents that will underpin our policy.

First. We can measure it. Too often in our schools, people believe that because they mean well they've done well. Good intentions are not enough.

For too long we have been told that education is a mystery, that the classroom is a black box no one can understand. And for too long we have been told that you can't tell whether a teacher is teaching and a student is learning.

For too long the education sector has been paranoid that information about them will be used against them.

Learning can be measured.

The good teachers do it now. The latest research shows that if teachers have data about a child's learning, they can use it to improve their teaching and the child's learning.

Confident schools are publishing this data in their newsletters.

You can't measure everything a child learns at school like discipline and trust, confidence and teamwork. But we owe it to our children to measure their ability to read and use numbers, because then teachers and parents and governments can know when it's not working, and they can fix it.

National will set national standards in numeracy and literacy, so that no child arrives at high school needing to learn how to read and write.

Secondly. Teachers Matter. Recent New Zealand research has shown that a good teacher can make a difference to a child's learning. It's always reassuring when academics and the millions of research dollars tell us something we already know.

We are not allowed to describe teachers as good or bad, so let's say some teachers are more effective than others. We have a lot of wonderful teachers - they know their subject, they know their students and the community they live in, they can create the relationships that make learning exciting. Unfortunately, unless you are a parent or in a classroom, you wouldn't know. Teachers are totally let down by the negative complaining face of teaching in the media. Teacher unions let their members down. I want teaching to be a valued high status profession that attracts our best young people. But another industrial round of protest and complaint, more union reps on TV claiming they are underpaid, overworked and stressed out won't be a great advertising campaign.

Surely it's not beyond fixing.

Teachers are treated like process workers - endless box-ticking for compliance. I support the high trust professional model. Give teachers freedom and be honest about the few who don't cut it.

I want more flexibility in pay and the tools for schools to organise their staffing to get the best results for the student, not the union. Teachers want the recognition most deserve, and the status of a trusted profession. One way to do this is set up a National Teaching Standards Board, independent of government and the unions. Teachers can volunteer to be assessed and certified by this board. What school wouldn't want to recruit staff certified as the best teachers by the best teachers?

School boards are so keen to employ more teachers they sell raffle tickets to pay their wages. Across the country 2700 teachers are paid out of schools' own resources.

Thirdly. Expectations Matter. The decile system is a tool for delivering more money to selected schools, but it's a lousy branding exercise. Teachers have always opposed league tables but decile rankings are worse than league tables. They rank the students who go to a school according to their home address and tell us nothing about what happens in the school. Everyone from the pupil to the parents, teachers, bureaucrats and politicians set their expectations according to the decile rating. Low decile equals low expectations. For those low decile schools that succeed there is no recognition. For those who fail there is an excuse. Again the research tells us what we already know - a teacher who expects more gets more. But it's hard to have high expectations.

Teachers are told from the time they step into teachers' college that children from low-income households won't succeed.

Parents and students get a strong message from government, an endless listing of statistics telling them that if they are poor and brown they won't make it.

I recently asked some Maori and Pacific teenage boys what they hear about their prospects. They told me that they are more likely to commit crime, be a teenage father, fail at school, be unemployed and receive a benefit and become violent.

And it's wrong.

National believes in the integrity and potential of every young New Zealander. We do not believe their future is a prisoner to the past.

Remember the demographics - today's young people need to be more productive than today's workers, to support an ageing population. So the whole community needs to lift its expectations. It's the best way, to support the parents and the teachers who believe in lifting their children's aspirations. So let's put aside the soft bigotry of low expectations, and the centralised bureaucracy that feeds it.

Fourthly. Parents are grown-ups. Labour always chooses bureaucrats, regulations, and unions over parents. The foundation of Labour's new Early Childhood policy is that the best opportunity for a pre-schooler is to get them into intensive and regular early childhood education as soon as possible - as long as it's run by the state. After I'd read the policy, I felt grateful I was still allowed to take my kids home, to unqualified supervision on unlicensed premises. The Government has done this because they don't trust parents to make the right decisions. Parents prefer a school with more discipline. They want to send their children to privately owned childcare. They want to employ more teachers than this government pays for. They want to know whether one school does a better job than another. They get worried that a dopey teacher can upset a whole year of their child's education.

In Timaru, where Labour closed 9 schools, 45% of parents drove past their nearest school. Trevor Mallard told them it was a problem. The parents told him it was the solution.

Parents have all sorts of reasons for doing what they do. We do not raise our children to feed the state school system, to fill its classrooms, and sustain its unions. We want our children's education consistent with our own values, and our own sense of citizenship.

So let's treat parents like grown-ups. Let's give them good information about their child, so they know what's going on. Let's tell them whether a school is doing as well as it can. Let's give them some choice. Teachers are allowed to choose schools, so why not parents? Teachers look for good leadership, good teachers, a community they can commit to. Parents aren't much different.

Parents aren't unreasonable. They pay taxes and want results. They know every child deserves a fair go. They worry about the children who don't succeed. They know schools can't teach everything from budgeting to sex, as well as the basics.

And most parents are the same, whatever their income. I want to say, particularly to parents of low-achieving children, National will work with you. The state education system has not met its promise to you.

The longer that disadvantaged kids are at school, the further they fall behind. We expect responsibility from you. You should have some choices, even if you don't have half a million dollars to shift to the right zone. And National will not tolerate predictable failure. For too long the system has misled you, pushing your children forward when everyone knows they are failing.

We will do whatever it takes.

And finally, keep the feedback loops short. There are no simple answers in education, no giant step waiting to be taken. Progress is hard earned. It happens when the people who can see a problem have the ability to fix it, not just to study it, record it, complain about it and hold a conference several years later.

The Ministry of Education has some good ideas - about one a year. It takes too long to think it up, get the money and change something. We need everyone coming up with good ideas, and schools who can change it now, not in 2 years' time. The numeracy and literacy initiative started 7 years ago and the majority of our schools are still not concentrating on it.

Bureaucrats collect vast amounts of information on issues they can do nothing about. They make rules that have nothing to do with learning. The staffing regulations stretch to dozens of pages. These are the rules for what and how teachers are paid. Rules take on average 5 years to change. It's all too slow; it's like elephants dancing when the kids are moving mice. That's why fewer rules, local flexibility and parent's choice matter; it speeds up the feedback loops. Good ideas happen faster and problems are sorted out sooner.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is so much to do to realise the promise of state-funded education. To open the door for every child to a positive role in our nation. And we will take with us down that road parents and teachers whose commitment we share.

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