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Heather Roy's Diary

Heather Roy's Diary

This week's guest columnist is Gavin Middleton. Gavin is ACT's Communications Manager and an education advocate.

In the same week that twenty top teachers were recognised for their work, a report commissioned by the Ministry of Education has revealed an accumulating lack of respect for their profession, a decrease in the number of students intending to take up a career in teaching, and a drop in senior teachers considering taking on leadership roles.

While it's encouraging to see good teachers rewarded, it's concerning that fewer people are willing to take the reins in tomorrow's classrooms.

There is no policy more important to New Zealand's long-term success than making sure our children are educated to a globally competitive standard. Educating a child improves not only their prospects for health, wealth and happiness, but also the prospects of their families and communities.

But because the effects of education aren't immediately measured, it is difficult to determine when the education system doesn't work. This is especially the case when "independent testing" is considered a dirty phrase, and when parents are denied the tools to compare their child's school against others around them.

Are we getting it right in New Zealand's schools today? The easy way to tell is by watching what happens to the children of politicians. When the children of Government Ministers sit alongside the children of builders, plumbers and truck drivers, then we will know the public system works.

Right now, however, the first cheque most new MPs write out is for their children's private education. Private schools are an option treasured by those able to afford them, and frequently desired by those who can't.

ACT has always focused its education policy on both improving the public system and allowing people to opt out if the local schools don't meet their children's needs.

Devolving school funding from Wellington bureaucrats to parents would encourage schools to be more responsive to the needs of their students. After all, parents and teachers know far more about what benefits their children than any number of bureaucrats.

Parents and teachers shouldn't be limited to a small range of state sponsored schools.

By tagging funding to individual students, more parents would have the financial means to choose which school best meets their child's needs - whether it was public or private, Catholic, Montessori, Kura Kaupapa, or specialised in a child's special needs.

Demands for more choice in education have traditionally come from minority groups, most notably African American communities in the United States. They reflect the difficulty of meeting the different needs of different children in a classroom where 20 or 30 pupils are instructed with the same material, to the same curriculum, at the same time.

Arguments against choice typically begin with questioning whether parents are capable of choosing a school, but even uneducated people living in low-income areas know whether the local school is working for their children. Many parents in South Auckland work a second job and forego any hint of luxury to pay for a child's private education, and before Labour reintroduced school zoning in 2000, hundreds of these families bussed their students to well performing schools across the city.

Giving parents the right and the means to choose between schools means more than giving them control over education - it also requires the ability to set up new schools to meet the demands of parents.

A few weeks ago, Heather Roy's Diary explained the difficulties encountered while trying to set up a small school.

In fact, ACT's book "Let Parents Choose" listed fourteen of the statutes and regulations that a school must comply with - even omitting the rules that burden every organisation, like the Resource Management and Employment Relations Acts.

Less bureaucracy and greater choice would not only make it easier for parents, it would also make education a more attractive career for job seekers.

The English writer Joseph Addison said "what sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the soul." Giving parents back the State's power over education - the power to shape the souls, the values and the futures of its citizens - would also be a great step forwards for democracy.

But the role that education plays in moulding the minds of future voters is not lost on politicians. Encouraging them to hand over control of education funding - and deprive themselves of a chance to hand out election-year goodies - would take a Government much bolder than the one buzzing around inside the Beehive today.

As Aldous Huxley (another English writer) said; "plasticine and self-expression will not solve the problems of education. Nor will technology and vocational guidance; nor the classics and the Hundred Best Books". The best thing that governments can do is to let parents see how their child is performing, and give them the power to take action if they are not satisfied.

That way, good parents, inspirational teachers and great schools can be celebrated - and most importantly - students can get the education they deserve.


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