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Maharey: Speech to secondary schools symposium

27 April 2006 Speech notes

Hon Steve Maharey: Hope to Reality: Making the difference for all learners
Speech to secondary schools symposium

Kia ora and good morning to everyone.

Thank you to the Royal Society and Hamilton Boy's High for the invitation to be with you and for organising this important event focused on "making the difference".

Now in its third year, the School Leaders' Symposium looks set to become a regular event and I am honoured to be asked to open your proceedings.

My comments will be directed to making a difference through education. Making a difference means ensuring that all young New Zealanders have the chance to reach their potential and make a contribution to our country.

For the purposes of our discussion today I am going to restrict myself to the compulsory sector.

In the Beginning¡K

As a member of a Labour-led Government, I trace my belief that education can and should make a difference, back to the first Labour Government. As part of its commitment to a just and more equitable society, the Labour Government placed education at the centre of its plans for social, political and economic transformation.

Clarence Beeby, the Secretary of Education at the time, noted "the appointment of Peter Fraser, ranked second in the Cabinet as Minister of Education, marked a dramatic turning point in official thinking about education". The intentions of the Labour Government were eloquently expressed by Fraser in 1939 in what I consider to be the founding charter of New Zealand's modern education policy:

"The Government's objective, broadly expressed, is that every person whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or in the country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers. So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system."


A careful reading of Fraser's words reveals five principles. The first four have to do with the provision of education and are:

1. equal opportunity: "every person whatever his (sic) level of academic ability¡K";
2. the right of citizens: "has a right as a citizen";
3. free education: "a free education";
4. generous and extensive provision: "to the fullest extent of his (sic) powers".

A fifth principle, concerned with "reorientation of the education system", commits the state to providing for the educational needs of all.

The first Labour Government's views gained widespread public support despite the existence of alternatives. Labour's approach entailed an optimistic view of the "pool of abilities" within the population and a positive endorsement of the state as the means of realising these abilities. Not everyone agreed.

A committee of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, for example, argued as follows in 1933:

"Speaking generally, the children of unenlightened parents would not gain benefit from a longer period at school and it was a matter for serious consideration whether, after passing the fourth standard, children of but moderate mental development should not be definitely prepared for the type of work for which their mental capacity and natural ability make them best suited, It might be that further education along general lines would not fit them for the modest role nature intended them to play in life."

Such views mean that, despite Labour winning a decisive victory in the 1930s, their educational policies were always to be controversial. In fact this was inevitable. Even today Fraser's words are radical and imply considerable public investment in the education system.

So let us skip forward to the 1980s when the educational policy debate came to a head.

The 1980s

There is not the time today to discuss in depth the attack on the Beeby/Fraser vision of education that was mounted in the 1980s - and there are many academic texts available for those who want to investigate further. For my purposes today, I need only alert you to the point that the attack went to the heart of what had underpinned education policy for forty years.

It was argued that:

1. education was not a public good but a commodity in a market;
2. that the relationships between education services and participants is one of provider and customer;
3. the free market not the state is the best way to provide educational services.

These views were widely shared among such influential groups as the Treasury, the National Party and the New Zealand Business Roundtable. In the run-up to the 1989 election Metro published an article - "The Lost Generation: Victims of the Great Educational Experiment" - which was typical of widespread media coverage of what was being seen as a "crisis in education".

This critique was not only concerned with the way education was provided, but also the ability of the Beeby/Fraser vision to deliver on the principle of equal educational opportunity - especially for Maori, working class students and women. Those questioning the status quo were able to turn to a growing amount of evidence showing that indeed the system was not meeting the needs of these students.

A major survey by the Royal Commission on Social Policy in 1987 came to the same conclusions about the ability of the system to realise the principle of fairness in its operation.

As the evidence mounted, and was provided from across the ideological spectrum, the pressure for change grew.

In the primary and secondary sector this was answered by a variety of reports calling for parent and community empowerment, efficient management of schools, accountability, contestable provision and local determination of conditions of employment for teachers and principals.

After the reforms

It's safe to say that the high tide of these market-oriented reforms has now passed, yet they have made a lasting impression on educational policy.

Today, parents and communities do have a say through Boards of Trustees. Schools now control their operations budgets and are constantly enjoined to be efficient and effective in their use of funds. There is strong accountability to the centre. The emergence of schools of special character has seen traditional state provision make way for a measure of choice. The spectre of such market-oriented policies as bulk funding, performance pay, deregulation of industrial relations and contestable provision of education can still be found in the political platforms of some political parties - but they do not attract much interest.

As we stand here, however, today the Beeby/Fraser vision is still alive and relevant. Primary and secondary education is still driven by the hope of equal educational opportunity and the state is still the provider of 94% of primary and secondary education.

We now know that, far from offering solutions that met the needs of all students, the market model made matters worse. In addition it did not reduce costs, it merely transferred them to the individual customer or 'consumer'.

An 1998 NZCER literature review of the 'quasi-voucher system' in New Zealand (of the type we had when zoning was removed), notes that:

"Parents try to avoid those schools which serve low income neighbourhoods. However, parental choice is exercised unevenly. It is difficult for low income families to exercise the degree of choice available to middle and high income families. The outcome is increased concentration and isolation of low income students."

Fiske and Ladd in "When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale" wrote that:
"The problem with applying the market solution to failing schools is that every child must have access to some school. If there is no room in nearby schools for children who are in failing schools, or if the nearby schools are also failing, political pressures coalesce to keep even a failing school operating. In light of this political reality, a preferred approach would be to figure out how to turn failing schools around."

Zoning, for example, meant that students could live right next to a school and be excluded from that school. Unfettered competition among schools, far from providing incentives for schools to improve, starved them of the resources they needed, thereby compounding all of their problems. Bulk funding rewarded schools that employed less experienced and lower qualified teachers.

So we arrive at the 21st century with our principles intact but aware that improvements had to be made and more are needed. We know the market is not the answer but can see that significant changes are needed to ensure that the hope of equal opportunity is a reality.

Where do we go from here?

So where do we go from here? Our starting point has to be that the implementation of the Beeby/Fraser vision did not meet the needs of all learners. Indeed, it is fair to say that Beeby and Fraser were not focused on the needs of individuals. They simply wanted to open education to those sections of the community that had been excluded in previous generations.

In this they succeeded. As the first member of my family to attend a university I am acutely aware that I owe a lot to Beeby and Fraser. They gave me an opportunity not made available to previous generations. But the education I received was delivered in a way similar to mass production - standardisation, central control, large scale and organisational hierarchy.

In other words the student had to fit in with the system.

In the light of what we know today, such education was unlikely to meet the needs of many learners, never mind the Maori, working class students and women that research showed were missing out.

The market-oriented critics of the 1980s could see that the education system was not designed to meet the needs of individuals and offered the market as a cure.

Having accepted that this is a dead-end what is the alternative? The answer lies in another reorientation of the system. This time, there needs to be an agreement that the system will become learner centered. Our aim must be to provide personalised learning.

Personalised learning demands a change in our approach.

Which means that we need to re-orient the system so that the learner is at the heart of it. It's about providing a flexible system where teachers, schools, communities and other groups can identify the needs of their learners and be provided with the tools and support to develop solutions that meet the needs of their learners, within the broader curriculum. It's also about having the measurement tools to capture what works, so that good practice can be shared throughout the system.

Personalising learning in a New Zealand context

This is the approach that Labour is following and it is a view shared by the overwhelming majority of people in the education sector. In fact, much of what we are doing in the New Zealand context is focussed on re-orienting the system to put the learner at its heart.

I'd like to run through some examples of how we're making education more learner-centred by looking briefly at how we teach, what we teach and how we assess.

How we teach

Our approach to how we teach involves a strong focus on the classroom teacher.

We know that effective teaching makes the most substantial difference to student achievement - research tells us that up to 59 percent of the variance in student achievement can be explained by effective teaching.

We also know that the best way to support teachers to meet a diversity of student needs, is by helping them to engage students in the learning process in ways that work for them as individual learners.

Teachers can make the difference when they are supported to have high expectations of their students, have up-to-date, in-depth knowledge of their subject and have the skills to teach and assess for the best possible learning outcomes.

Here are some examples of what we are doing to support teaching that puts the learner at the centre.

Professional development
Following on from successful pilots, literacy and numeracy professional development initiatives are being extended into secondary schools.

The work we are doing here supports teachers to see secondary school students as successful learners and acknowledges that we need to better understand students' lives outside school, their aspirations and what they bring to the classroom as individuals.

Strengthening the capability of inservice teacher educators
The INSTEP project is about recognising the key role of the providers of
professional development in influencing teaching practice,

Exploratory projects are underway at schools around the country to help us
understand more about effective inservice teacher education.

ICT
ICT provides us with a wealth of opportunities to tailor learning to the needs of our
students.

Schools throughout the country are increasingly using ICT to transform teaching
and learning through shared ideas, more exciting lessons and better online help
for teachers.

Since 2000 we have invested more than $300 million to ensure ICT is an integral
part of the learning environment in every school. Almost all children now have
access to ICT and the learning opportunities it offers, including broadband access
to every school gate, and more than 100 ICT clusters

What we teach

Our broad aim in terms of 'what we teach' is to provide every student with the key skills for learning and life. Skills that we hope will enable them to reach their full potential as individuals.

What we teach is underpinned by the curriculum. At present we are in the process of developing a revised, simplified curriculum, which will make it easier for teachers to focus on the needs of individual learners.

It will do this by:
- Refining and clarifying learning outcomes - the current seven curriculum documents will become one and the language will be made clearer
- Including a focus on effective teaching as one of the most important ways to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners
- Strengthening school ownership of the curriculum i.e. giving schools more scope and support on how they might design their own school curriculum; and
- Include material to support schools to improve communication with parents and communities

So far more than 15,000 students, teachers, principals, advisers and academics have been involved in this process.

This extensive consultation and feedback cycle has contributed to the draft revision of the curriculum which is due for release and further feedback later this year.

How we assess
In terms of assessment, our aim is to build a world-class assessment system that will ensure students understand their strengths and weaknesses and are recognised for the work they do. Equally, it needs to be able to provide high quality information to teachers, parents and employers.

NCEA has been developed to meet these challenges. The new secondary school qualification recognises the crucial role of assessment in improving learning.

NCEA consigns the "social filtering' that was the focus of our previous secondary school qualifications to the past. It gives students a strong sense of involvement in their own learning. And it recognises that when assessment is better integrated with learning, teachers and students get the high quality information about learning outcomes that they need.

A learner-centred approach also requires teachers to have good information about each student in their classroom. In addition to the comprehensive picture provided by NCEA, we are investing heavily in assessment tools that provide teachers with useful information and support them with programme planning and reflections on their own teaching.

Future developments
There is a large amount of work yet to do if we are to have a truly learner centred approach. Two areas of work that will help us with our thinking are the Schooling Strategy and the secondary futures project.

We will shortly be taking the Schooling Strategy back to schools in a series of workshops to give them the opportunity to think about what the strategy means for them. The strategy - subtitled making a bigger difference for all students - sets the direction for work in the schooling system for the next five years. It focusses on effective teaching and engaging families and whanau; and will be informed by evidence-based practice.

Secondary futures takes a longer term view - it is a project set up to encourage discussion and debate about the role and purpose of secondary education in New Zealand, twenty years from now. It's focus is on building consensus, testing ideas, implementation and change. This project parallels OECD work focussed on the importance of future-proofing our education system.
Conclusion
In my opinion the educational debates of the past two decades have left us confident in the following ways:

1. the Beeby/Fraser vision that represents our New Zealand educational tradition continues to serve us well;
2. the market argument is a dead-end but its critique has to be take seriously;
3. placing the learner at the centre of the education system (personalising) is as radical a notion as that conceived by Beeby /Fraser.

Our challenge today, as we examine how to make a difference - by which I mean ensure equal opportunity in education - is to reorient our system away from the organisation to the learner.

Do not underestimate how difficult this will be. Promoting equity through learner centred education is an ambitious project which will require a continued strong investment from government, a shared commitment from the education sector, and buy-in from families, whanau and communities.

But this approach is the one that will finally realise the Beeby/Fraser vision. And , I should note, it is absolutely central to the current Labour-led government's efforts to lead the social economic, environment and cultural transformation of New Zealand.

Transformation of our society requires transformation of our education system . For New Zealand the development of a prosperous and confident knowledge society means the development of new skills and knowledge. It will require a culture of continuous inquiry, innovation and improvement, risk-taking and entrepreneurship. This can only come from the education system.

This is a radical vision. If it is to work it will take leadership. Each of you will need clear and confident understanding of what is required, an optimistic view of what young NZers can achieve and a belief that the public education system can make the difference for all students.

It will only work if it shows measurable results.

We stand now at the end of a new century seeking to transform our nation. The power of education to drive that transformation is as potent as ever. But we can only exercise that power if education itself is transformed.

I wish you well in your work.

ENDS


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