Friday, March 6, 2009


For five years, most of them while Merv Wellington was Minister of Education, I held a position as an Assistant-Director Curriculum Development in the old Department of Education. Explaining curriculum development proved difficult. Mum asked “Why can’t teachers just get on and teach?” Life is rarely simple. That job partly existed because of the space race. The Russian sputnik and the resulting space race galvanised Western educators to enhance their maths and science programmes. To do this they moved from syllabus revision to curriculum development. Put simply, syllabus revision is about what is being taught, a sort of rearranging of the deck chairs of ‘content’. Curriculum development is wider, why and how the subject is being taught and can it be taught better, a re-design of the deck chair. Developments in maths and science led to similar developments in other disciplines.

In New Zealand a Curriculum Development Unit, (CDU) was created to lead this change. As well as sputnik other reasons existed such as the growing awareness of the need to dovetail primary and secondary syllabuses. The bulge of baby boomers passing through the school system created pressures as new schools were built in new suburbs throughout the country. With more secondary students staying on at school the senior curriculum needed attention. The CDU would be a ginger group to cope with growth and change.

Educationally, it was a time of confidence and excitement, {though it was a very masculine and Pakeha world). There was a consensus about education, parents, teachers. civil servants and politicians in agreement. The mood was liberal, progressive optimistic. Successive governments increased educational expenditure. CDU developed a fairly unique, consultative, interactive loop-back method of development involving a great number of teachers along the way. This meant a considerable buy-in to suggested changes, unlike overseas where teachers were often reluctant to accept the imposition of a top-down development. During the Holyoake years the camaraderie of the CDU was striking. It reflected a sense of common purpose. But the process proved very resource hungry. The formation of a Resources section within the Unit channelled the use of available funds to better usage but development was always being done on a shoe-string.

Before my time under Merv Wellington I had had an earlier stint in the CDU. I was seconded from the Hamilton secondary inspectorate to help co-ordinate the secondary education review. This is amongst the most exciting times of my education career. The unit was buzzing. Many officers had attended courses and conferences overseas. Comparisons were made and best practice discussed. Ideas like ‘schools without walls’ were being thrown around. The review itself was unleashing questions and fresh answers. Discussions about education, projects, ideas, classrooms visited saw ideas and ideals debated. There was considerable bucking of educational shibboleths. I anticipated lunch-time discussions eagerly. This was education as I imagined it could be. The place had a reputation at being anti-authority. My recollection is that it was a place of high self-respect with a likeable lack of respect for unjustifiable practice.

An exciting aspect of CDU was its international dimension. Officers were aware of developments in other countries and vice versa. There was a conduit role. During my Merv Wellington stint my fellow Assistant-Director was involved with on-going international assessment studies. A few officers went overseas to work on specific curriculum developments in third world countries. I was personally involved in two major projects. The first saw me organising of UNESCO seminars in New Zealand on Distance Education and the Teaching of Reading. The other, the Pacific Circle Consortium involved the production of school Pacific resources. This work meant I attended meetings in Hobart, Brisbane, Hiroshima and Honolulu, hands-on work that I found stimulating, satisfying and productive.

The country’s mood began to change as Britain joined the EU, the Springbok tour revealed deep divisions, youth unemployment hit high levels and our standard of living seemed to slip. From being the bright hope of the future, education increasingly became a scapegoat. Some were critical it wasn’t doing enough to cure social ills. Others claimed it pushed an unacceptable amount of social engineering. There was growing concern about burgeoning expenditure. This discontent provided a fertile seedbed for political criticism. Despite research evidence to the contrary, there was a constant beating of drums about falling education standards. Perplexed parents and worried teachers began to question the nature and pace of change. Even within the Department itself there was a growing weariness or maybe I should say wariness. A District Senior Inspector wrote to the Unit complaining that often change was not bedded in before more change was under way again. He used the metaphor of plants being pulled up to see if they were growing.

At the end of 1978 Wellington replaced Les Gandar as Minister. Right from the start he criticised the CDU for being an engine room for change. He considered it should be reined in. Social Studies proved a lightning rod with a new Forms 1-4 syllabus creating controversy. It was seen by a considerable number as introducing unnecessary sociology and anthropology into the classroom. Some teachers and many of the public hankered for the old ‘certainties’ of history and geography. It certainly lacked an awareness of economics.

Health proved even more controversial. Wellington inherited from Gandar an extremely liberal health syllabus which included sex education. Interest groups led a charge against the proposed changes. The post-war educational consensus collapsed. Historically Wellington can be seen as a Canute trying to stem an incoming pluralistic and global tide. But undoubtedly he represented the views of many Kiwis.
For six years there was a struggle between Mr Wellington and his officers. He set up his own curriculum review group to wrest control away from the unit. On becoming minister, Russell Marshall formed a new curriculum group, which proved supportive. But the seeds of unease had sprouted. When in 1998 the Picot Report advocated the abolition of centralised curriculum development there was surprisingly little comment or opposition. With the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools the unit abruptly went out of existence in 1989 after flashing through the system like a short-lived meteor for 25 years. With its going something valuable vanished from the national fabric.

I personally found Mr Wellington courteous. Indeed, I felt a grudging respect for his courage. He did not hesitate to make his feelings known about the Unit but he also showed an awareness of the dedication of its officers. He several times told me how much approval for his policies he had received from teachers as well as community leaders and members of the public. My history training gave me a feeling of the cyclic nature of society and I sensed his actions were part of a conservative backlash against an increasingly globalised and pluralistic society. These crosscurrents continue today.

The other side of the coin was facing the wrath of officers about my insistence that he was the Minister. One said “I’ve outlasted several ministers and I’ll outlast this one. You know as I do that his policy is crap.” When I replied he had no option but to accept it he exploded telling me what a species of low life I’d become. The word ‘turncoat’ stung. For a spell the relationship became rather frosty.

Much of my efforts involved seeking more resources. A group of us negotiated a deal with BP for that company to support the production of resources about energy use. The Unit would pay an officer’s salary to co-ordinate the enterprise. Several similar appointments were made. Some long-serving officers were upset.“It’s the Government’s job to supply resources. We’re selling our ideals for commerce.” As the debate raged I realised that there was a collision course between officers’ assumption of a bottomless bucket and government’s desire to balance the budget. Even so I did not anticipate the approaching wave called Rogernomics which swept aside and swamped our debates. Wellington’s regime was a tough time to be a middle manager. I add for the record that there were many good moments working with officers and teachers here and overseas developing new curriculum and the resources to support it.

After he won the 1978 election Muldoon asked for funding cuts, 3% across the board. To his credit Wellington never made them as deep and as wide as his master demanded. At the beginning the minister asked the teacher unions to discuss their priorities with him. I wonder what they would have said if he had persuaded them to come to that party. Increasingly I was hearing teachers at the time saying that the Unit was not as relevant as it had been in the old days. I suspect that is the nature of educators – some Golden Age. But it was good to be a bit part of it while it lasted.

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