Thursday, August 27, 2009

Secondary Education Review

My first stint in the Head Office of the old Department of Education came about because of the secondary education review. It was an activity that altered my life. Peter Boag; former PPTA National Secretary who had joined the Department as Director of Secondary Education, launched an initiative whereby every secondary school closed for two days to review its direction, structure, curriculum delivery - you name it, everything was up for grabs. It was an exciting concept - an attempt to let teachers take ownership. Peter said, "no custom is too sacred to be unquestioned."

Each inspectorate supplied a coordinator who was taken off ordinary duties. I drew the lucky marble for South Auckland. If the concept was exciting the experience was even more so. I attended as many reviews as I could. Sometimes I facilitated the day, usually by leading off with a series of questions. Many principals felt wary, concerned that their actions could be questioned and their authority undermined. But a few took the lead and in their schools the day was a roaring success. As word of this spread more and more schools followed confidently.

Ripeness was all. PPTA's 'Education In Change' and 'Teachers In Change' had proved leadership documents. Peter Boag made it clear that he visualised a two-step process. The teachers review first, and then widening it to involve the community. It was an attempted reversal of the top-down model, an attempt to stimulate reform by getting the practitioners involved.

Ormond Tate, the national coordinator won a scholarship to England. Peter invited me to work in Wellington to continue Ormond's duties in his absence. It became obvious there was a need for scrutiny of the proposals flooding in from individual reviews. Many things under the control of the school and its board of governors could be changed immediately. However, in many other instances, central rules and regulations blocked change.

Boag decided to ask Government for a review committee to investigate and report on those central blockages. His request got caught up in politics. Norm Kirk died. Bill Rowling succeeded. As part of the consequent re-shuffle, Hugh Watt, Kirk's deputy, was appointed High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. The incumbent, Sir Terence McCombs, last Minister of Education in the First Labour Government and after that principal of Cashmere High School, was brought home to chair a revamped group - the Secondary Education Review Committee. Ormond and I were joint secretaries.

Reflecting the times it was a large group. A cynic described it as a group formed to validate Sir Terence’s return home. True enough to sting but not the whole truth. Sometimes the right thing is done for the wrong reason. Makeshift the group may have been but it contained people of ability and conviction. The ex-ambassador with his dry wit proved a good chair, very concerned to do the right thing for secondary education, and determined to cut through the rhetoric.

The Committee first met in July 1975 and reported to new Minister, Les Gandar on 31 March 1976. Two members on the committee in particular stood out - John Rangihau, Tuhoe elder, from the University of Waikato, and Margaret Young, Hawera High School Board of Governors. John brought not only the Maori perspective, but also wisdom in a Confucian sense and a deep sense of compassion. At his request we met for one of our meetings on the Tira Hou marae in Panmure. Margaret, a Cabinet Minister's wife possessed energy and time - she became almost an unpaid third secretary. In swirling political currents she provided a lifeline to the policy-makers.

As the task neared completion Ormond and I brainstormed various titles. We liked "Towards Partnership", cribbed from Norman Kirk's "Towards Nationhood". The committee accepted it. We divvied up the writing of the various chapters. One Monday morning, fogbound at Hamilton airport, I sat down with a cup of coffee and started to write the final chapter. It just flowed out. Several coffees later it was finished, just in time, I had not heard the boarding announcement. I popped it into my brief-case and raced out onto the tarmac to the waiting plane. “You cut it fine,” the hostess said, pulling the door behind me. It barely needed an editorial pen. In it I developed ideas which I have written about consistently ever since.

‘Schools are increasingly caught in a paradox. They are expected to be humane places, where human dignity is respected and self-esteem fostered. At the same time they are expected to serve the modern industrial and technological world. The cry for educational decentralisation is a reflection of a larger social issue: the feeling by many individuals of powerlessness, alienation and distrust when faced by the large institutions our society has created. There is a further paradox for schools and society. Autonomy cannot be granted by decree, but the increasing demand appears to be for such a decree. Individuals desire freedom, but they cannot use this freedom to create a better life without support and encouragement. The secondary education review illustrates these paradoxes. The teaching profession and the Department of Education should feel encouraged by the success of the review to date. Teachers see it as making school-based decision-making legitimate and have asked for it to be continued.’

The tentative title is interesting now. The group saw the review as steps towards partnership. One interesting recommendation was that: "Each secondary school establish a Community-School Association and the Education Act be amended to enable such an association to be the major constituency of the school board of governors and to elect the majority of the members of the board".

A path-finder for the Picot reforms, at that stage the idea never left the hangar. Also, interesting and reflective of the era, in the chapter "A National Identity" there is no mention of The Treaty of Waitangi.

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