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Clark: Principals’ Federation Annual Conference

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Address at
New Zealand Principals’ Federation Annual Conference

Christchurch Convention Centre
95 Kilmore Street, Christchurch

1.30 pm

Thursday 3 July 2008

Thank you for the invitation to address your conference today.

It is a little over a year since I last spoke to you in your capacity as hosts of the International Confederation of Principals' World Convention held in Auckland. I want to acknowledge the tremendous job the New Zealand Principals’ Federation did as hosts and in showcasing New Zealand’s education system.

Let me state at the outset that I have total confidence in the New Zealand education system’s ability to provide world class education for our people at every level.

I am a product of New Zealand’s state schools and university system. That system gave me, my sisters, and my generation every opportunity to succeed.

What fundamentally motivates me is a strong desire to see today’s children, young people, and mature students, and future generations, have that same opportunity to fulfil their own potential, and contribute to our country and our world.

Our government is a significant investor in education, but I acknowledge that there is always more to be done.

I am proud of what we have done, all the way from the big expansion of early childhood education, through support for the sectors represented at this conference, to tertiary education.

It is important to me that our government has strong and positive relationships with you as education leaders, and that we work to support you in the extraordinary job you do to lead the education of our children and young people.

Over many years in public life, I have visited a very large number of schools in our country.

Almost without exception, I have come away from those visits with a feeling of great hope and optimism – and of strong appreciation for the work you and your staff do.

I know that in recent times there has been some discord about funding levels, and we need to work together to resolve that.

But let us do that on the basis of the vision we share for education as a transformational experience which develops the talents of each one of us – as you seek to do in schools throughout our country.

Your conference theme this week is ‘Learning Leaders, Leading Learners’ – acknowledging the critical role of supporting your learning and development, just as you support the learning and development of your teaching staff and students.

At that conference, I spoke about the priority of building a sustainable, knowledge-based society for New Zealand. I also said that building a world-leading education system was central to that task.

Today I want to talk to you about the importance of leadership in our education system in keeping with your conference theme of learning leaders, leading learners.

Recently the Ministry of Education completed research on the effects of various priorities in leadership on our students. It identified that principals have a significant effect on student achievement through the way in which they target resources, establish goals and expectations, plan and evaluate teaching, and ensure an orderly and supportive environment in their school.

But the strategy – or leadership dimension, to use the researchers’ terminology – which had the biggest effect was having principals who promoted and participated in teacher learning and development.

Examples of govt initiatives to develop school leaders

Our government has, over the past eight and a half years, made a commitment to increasing the range of opportunities available to new, existing, or aspiring principals.

The First-Time Principals training package was introduced in 2002, and since then over 1000 new school leaders have benefited. When one bears in mind that there are 2600 schools in New Zealand, it can be seen that this professional development initiative alone has had a significant impact on our nation’s schools.

In 2005, the Principal Development Planning Centre began, allowing experienced school principals to evaluate their own leadership skills and ensure that they are able to meet current best practice.

Since then, 445 principals have taken up the challenge the centre offers. 400 of these have been primary and intermediate school teachers.
Earlier this year, the draft Kiwi Leadership for Principals document was released, articulating the qualities and skills which help make great principals.

This whole suite of initiatives recognises that good leaders are made; they don’t simply happen. We may all have natural talent and aptitude for our chosen vocation, but to make the most of it we need to be continually learning and developing. This is as true of my job as Prime Minister as it is of your jobs as principals.

Performance of New Zealand’s education system

Overall, I take pride, as I know you do, in knowing that our education system performs well by international standards.

Our system scores highly in the areas of literacy and numeracy, special education, school improvement, and early childhood education. We are also recognised for our innovative policies and practice.

According to research carried out in 2006 by PISA [the Programme for International Student Assessment], only one out of 30 OECD countries achieved a higher mean score than New Zealand in scientific literacy; while just two countries achieved significantly higher scores than New Zealand in reading literacy; and just three out of 30 OECD countries achieved significantly higher mean scores than New Zealand in mathematical literacy.

I should say that I am satisfied with the way in which assessment is used in our schools as a tool to provide guidance for teaching and learning. I am totally opposed to the introduction of national testing.

So how can we build on these results ?

What we know is that while our average and top scores are impressive, we do have by OECD standards what is sometimes described as a rather long tail of low achievement – or in technical terms, high dispersion of achievement.

The OECD reports the obvious : that differences in attainment first emerge in children before they enter school.

So the focus we place on early childhood education is critical – and that has been a major area of investment for us in government, as we have worked to lift the quality of early childhood education and expand the number of places in it.

A very significant move has been the establishment of the 20 Hours Free policy for three and four year olds in teacher-led early childhood education from 1 July last year – and a very high proportion of those children in those centres are now covered by the policy.

I see this as the biggest expansion of the public education system since the First Labour Government made secondary education free and compulsory in the 1930s. It is also validation of the importance of early childhood education.

Following on from that we are currently introducing the B4 School health checks, which aim to pick up any issues which might impact on a child’s ability to learn at school – and then deal with those issues.

The next logical step has been phasing in the commitment to reduce class sizes for new entrants to one teacher for every fifteen pupils. We have committed the funding for an additional 762 teachers, plus capital funding to make this happen.

It is our hope that these investments in the early years will help overcome initial inequalities to the greatest extent possible.

Ka Hikitia

The performance of the education system for and with Maori is one of the most pressing issues we need to address.

The launch in May this year of Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success is a response to that challenge.

Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success - is a strategic framework aimed at improving Maori student outcomes through Maori enjoying education success as Maori.

It challenges us all to accept ownership, leadership, and responsibility for significantly improving Maori education by building stronger partnerships between schools, whanau and communities.

Pasifika Plan

Similarly, the Pasifika Education Plan 2006-2010 sets the strategic direction for Pasifika education through goals and targets in early childhood, schooling, tertiary education and education sector-wide.

Its goal is to increase achievement in early literacy and numeracy and to increase the level of attainment of school qualifications by improving engagement of young Pasifika people in their schooling.

Ongoing discussions with groups such as the Pasifika Advisory Group, Pasifika researchers, teachers and students are contributing towards implementation of this critical plan.

The New Zealand Curriculum

The revised curriculum launched late last year provides a flexible framework to enable schools to provide quality learning programmes, strengthen foundational learning in primary and intermediate schools, and improve retention and achievement in secondary schools.

I understand that 100 clusters have been created to give principals and other school leaders the opportunity to share ideas as they put the New Zealand Curriculum into practice in their local areas.

A further 62 clusters will be created, and sector leaders will receive a ministry grant to support their cluster’s work.

I could not end a speech to you today without commenting on the importance of the Schools Plus policy to the government – and I believe to New Zealand.

Historically, students left school early because there were plenty of low-skill, but relatively well paid, job opportunities. Increasingly though, they leave because the system has not engaged them, and they have found themselves unwilling or unable to connect with their teachers to achieve what they need to.

We all have an interest in making our schools the place of choice for young people to be, and the place where we can make education personal and relevant to them and their needs.

That is the essence of Schools Plus. We are serious about it. We will resource it, and it will be imperative to draw on the many examples of best practice in our school system to implement it nationwide.

Today I acknowledge you as education leaders on whom our country relies to develop the talents of our children and young people.

I wish you a very constructive and productive conference, and commit my government to working with you in the development of our education system.


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