Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tomrrow's Schools (2)

Some further background and random thoughts to last week’s blog on Tomttow’s Schools.

Resigning from the old Department of Education, I set up my own education consultancy in 1986. Now such people are plentiful, but back then it was a brave step. I became a regular commentator on education issues in the National Business Review. Late in 1987 there was a ring from the Beehive: would I like to come in and talk about working as an education aide for Prime Minister David Lange, in his capacity as Minister of Education? I would, and I did. There was a strip search of ideas and prejudices. A few days later I was invited to meet the Minister and his associate, Phil Goff. They offered me the position.

By the time I began work in early 1988, David Lange had publicly backed away from the idea of a flat tax. The dispute between him and his Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, erupted into the public arena. I had shaken hands on an education job; instead I had entered a war zone. The conflict between the two men dominated the political scene for the next two years.

That, as the novelist says. is another story; yet it is part of the background to the implementation of Tomorrow’s Schools. It sapped Lange’s energy and attention. However, I was still amazed at his stamina, commitment and enthusiasm, despite ill-health as well. My good luck was furthered in that his chief aides decided he should go walkabout, first to get feedback on the proposed reforms, and later to sell them. So instead of a desk-job, I found myself accompanying the Prime Minister up and down the country.

One submission on the Picot Report, released in early May 1988, began with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society but the people themselves and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.” I suggested to the Prime Minister that it would make a good beginning to the Tomorrow’s Schools document, as it summed up his attitude. He enthusiastically agreed.

Regrettably, one important Picot recommendation was not implemented. That was for an overarching Council, with the heads of the Ministry of Education, the National Qualifications Authority and the Education Review Office, plus three other prominent New Zealanders appointed by the Government. This Council would be charged with co-ordinating policies from the various agencies, and looking at long-term effects of educational decisions. That idea never got out of the hangar. Treasury claimed that it added another bureaucratic layer, and was unnecessary. The Education Ministry didn’t want conflicting advice being offered to Government. The result has been an on-going lack of co-ordination between the agencies, and outright competition in some instances.

The central hands-off approach on daily management advocated by Picot has been lost sight of, as the Ministry of Education and other agencies have reacted to policy directives or local inadequacies or failures. At its heart, the Picot report called for a top-down attempt to enable empowerment. Maybe that ‘top-down’ was an underlying flaw in the proposal. Or it could be that the attempt to delegate responsible ownership was never honoured. Instead, that old top-down approach remains, whether it be assessing achievement or producing the national curriculum. It also lacks one component that the Picot model possessed to a considerable degree – professional participation.

The administrative reforms, while massive in the primary sector had much less impact on the secondary. In 1996 I visited a German university and observed the horror of an elderly professor of teacher education when I explained that in New Zealand, the local school appointed its own staff. “How can you trust them to make the right choice?” he asked. When I said our secondary schools had always done this, he shepherded me away from his junior staff in case such heretical ideas might prove contagious.

Nearly 97 percent of our schools are state schools. Teachers have long enjoyed autonomy in their classroom, in the sense that they choose the resources and teaching methods to deliver the curriculum. But prior to 1990, especially in primary schools, they were very much under the control of central bureaucracies. Tomorrow’s Schools was an opportunity to move them from that dependency to greater self-sufficiency.

Teachers know their task is to try to move their charges along the same path. They know it is difficult. They know it takes time. They also know it operates best on a system of trust. Trust is a two-way process. It means accepting you cannot win every time. It means accepting that the person with whom you differ is sincere. It means not just digging in to retain the status quo. The reverse is that if you are not trusted and are treated as if you were out of the loop, you will tend not be open to such acceptances. Negative criticisms compound into distrust.

Government cannot change education by itself. Teachers know that without good will, exhortation rarely works. Charges of ‘provider capture’ should be dropped from the vocabulary. People in glass-houses shouldn’t heave bricks. As teachers have to accept that parents expect good learning for their children, so government has to accept that teachers possess professional expertise.

I saying this, I am well aware that some individuals bring the profession into disrepute. It must be the profession’s responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure such people are dealt with appropriately. Unless this is seen as working well, the profession itself will continue to face a lack of trust from the other stakeholders.

I had always envisaged a strong Teachers’ Council – of the teachers, for the teachers, by the teachers – as a way of empowering the profession. But then maybe I was naïve in denying political realities. As funder, government is always going to be intimately involved. The tax-payers’ dollar is at stake.

Moreover. teachers have to accept that government always has competing claims for resources. It is impossible to deliver on all demands. But unless one is involved somehow in the drawing up of priorities, one does not take ownership of them. improved education system.

At present the education debate is mainly about ways and means. It should be primarily about purpose, vision, and goals. It should be about issues such as how to balance choice and flexibility alongside equity and justice. It should be about how to enhance the learning of the nation’s young people. Unless we can lift education debate to that level, we shall see little change in the next decade as we stagger from one policy reversal to the next.

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