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Tony Ryall and the education sector

Tony Ryall and the education sector

Opinion: Martin Thrupp

8 August 2014


As Health Minister Tony Ryall signed off on his long political career recently, he said about the health portfolio: “You work with quality people every day who are dedicated to the welfare of New Zealanders. I wake up most mornings, and I turn to my wife and I say 'ugh. Imagine being Minister of Education'. That is a really tough job."

The clear implication is that education sector workers are not ‘quality’ and it was an unfortunate comment for a government minister to make. It will have reminded people in the education sector that while the Key Government has been on a charm offensive this year, its longer-term pattern has been dismissal, denigration and blame.

Another reminder of how appalling the Key Government has been in relating to the education sector was Nigel Latta’s latest TV programme. The main thrust of the programme was that our schools and today’s education were good! It was a refreshing change from the Minister of Education’s usual crisis account and the sort of barb that Ryall has delivered.

One of the strengths of Latta’s programme was that he recognised some of the complexity of what teachers are dealing with. He started with how the education system is baffling to most people and illuminated it a little.

Perhaps the complexity of the education sector also partly underlies Ryall’s cheap shot. What constitutes quality is not straightforward here. Education is full of uncertainty and heavily influenced by context. It is sometimes informed by evidence but can rarely be evidence-based. Randomised controlled trial with your Year 10 class anyone?

Education is even more complex than Tony Ryall’s dress sense. It’s an area where there’s a little bit of truth in many point of views. It’s also an area where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Educational problems often demand a cultural rather than a technical response from teachers.

As Professor Richard Pring of Oxford University has put it, ‘teaching as part of an educational practice must include deliberation about the end or values of teaching, as much as it does deliberation about the means or techniques’.

A New Zealand academic who understood much about the complexities of education is honoured with an annual lecture. Professor Emeritus Graham Nuthall (1935-2004) was famous for a series of studies in the subtle classroom interactions that influence learning.

My address for the Annual Graham Nuthall Lecture next month will be on National Standards, an area where this Government is allowing its enthusiasm for data and targets to damage teaching and learning in primary and intermediate schools.

Most educators remain concerned about central elements of the National Standards policy. This leads to what I suspect is Ryall’s main problem with the education sector, that it has continued to dispute much of the Key Government’s approach to education.

One response is to ask why there isn’t more outspokenness in the health sector also.
Many of Ryall’s ‘quality people’ have just announced they are going on strike for better pay. And anecdotally there are plenty of problems with health practice being distorted by targets and funding arrangements.

Actually it’s important that teachers and other education sector workers see themselves as playing a genuine part in making education policy. Education policy cannot just be implemented in linear fashion, it gets translated and reinterpreted at every level. Teachers don’t simply comply with policy and neither should they if we want a good education system.

Contestation of education policy serves valuable purposes. It circumvents and undermines bad policy. Tony Ryall might look down his nose at those in the education sector but like those in health, they are very dedicated to the welfare of New Zealanders.

And if they can stop a Government imposing bad policy – legend!
Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato.

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