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Campbell: Tolley’s 19th century education approach

Gordon Campbell on Anne Tolley’s 19th century approach to education

Remember National’s election promise to return New Zealand to the top half of the OECD tables? In government, its moves in education seem motivated more by a desire to return New Zealand to the golden age of Victorianism – when the three “R”s and a stern testing regime were seen to be all that a young lad or girl really needed. Certainly, its hard to see any recognition of 21st century challenges in the Key government’s decision to cut the expert advisory service for any subjects other than the three Rs, and to re-direct resources into supporting the new ‘standards’ regime that is due to kick in next year.

Not surprisingly, the moves to cut the expert advisory service for such subjects as science, music, art and physical education are being resisted by the teacher unions. From the outset, they have been no fans of the national standards policy, seeing it as an undue diversion of time and energy for teachers, most of whom are already heavily engaged in high levels of testing. Moreover, the policy is said to over-emphasise the benefits from a regime of continuous measurement of achievement, an approach likely to be self defeating in many, many cases.

Recently, such critiques have received international backing. The teacher unions have been able to point to the release in Britain only last week of a Cambridge University led study into the structure and quality of primary education. That study, the biggest independent review of primary education in Britain in 40 years, has issued a devastating set of criticisms of the centralization of education, the narrowing of the curriculum, and the impact of testing and standards on primary school children – many of whom the report considered, could be seriously affected by an early failure in testing of their three Rs competence.

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Among the findings : the Cambridge report has advocated both the scrapping of the British SATS testing in schools, and a delay in formal learning until the age of six. From the Guardian : [The] report found growing concern about the international evidence that finds that some children are put off school, if they feel they have failed formal lessons in the 3Rs at an early age.” In New Zealand, the teacher union approach has never been to minimize the importance of reading,writing and maths tuition, or the need for testing. What they have done is oppose a narrowing of the curriculum focus, and any related tendency to turn testing and standards into fetish objects, and ends in themselves. Both trends have more to do with political posturing, than with education.

Unfortunately, such tendencies are now apparent in New Zealand. Education choices are being narrowed. Schools, for instance, that have already poured resources into reading and writing work, will no longer be able to access the wider range of advisory services they now need. A blunt instrument is being used by government – largely for economic, not educational reasons – in a situation where a less centralised, and more selective approach was called for.

From a New Zealand perspective, one aspect of the reaction to the Cambridge University report in Britain has been particularly interesting. There has been a striking level of support from the Conservative Party for the retention of an expert advisory service across the entire curriculum.The Tories are doing so not instead of a concentration on the teaching of reading and writing - but because they believe the broad-based approach actually makes the task of teaching reading and writing skills much more effective. Here for instance is the shadow Tory education Minister Michael Gove, writing in the British press earlier this week :

“A broad and demanding curriculum – far from undermining reading, writing and arithmetic – reinforces attainment in these core skills. “Perhaps Education Minister Anne Tolley should be talking more to her British counterpart. Or at least explaining why she and her Tory colleague are treating the evidence on teaching outcomes so differently.

Clearly, the decision to narrow the scope of the advisory service available to our teachers makes no educational sense. It is being done in the service of a national testing regime at primary level that also makes little educational sense. This is penny pinching and political rhetoric, at the expense of our children and their future. The money at stake - $10 million – is a fraction of the amount that the government is planning to spend on the Rugby World Cup. Well, the battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton. But an emphasis on winning at rugby – and a Victorian Age type of education system – will be of little use against the challenges we face from globalization.


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