Address to Annual Conference of Kip McGrath Education

  • Wyatt Creech


In my job, I visit a lot of schools.

A few weeks back I was introduced to a boy who was turning out some remarkable stories and art work. They told me that several months ago he'd been near unmanageable, and would not speak or pay much attention in class. Luckily his teacher recognised a spark there and delved deeper. She uncovered a minor problem at home and a much bigger one about the way he perceived things. This teacher then worked intensively with the boy to find solutions and show him new ways to work. The result was a huge improvement in confidence, these wonderful stories, and a complete turnaround in his behaviour.

Ideally that sort of intervention would happen in all classes at all of our schools. Unfortunately, we don't yet have the ideal world. We need people like yourselves to aid this 'turnaround' process.

Thank you for inviting me here today to open your Conference. I note that Kip McGrath Centres now tutor more than 10,000 children throughout New Zealand. That gives you quite a stake in education. I also see that most tutors in your organisation are ex-teachers who have taught in our education system and know the pressures and challenges both teachers and pupils face every day.

As the pace of change quickens throughout the world, more and more emphasis is put on the importance of education. To stand any chance in the world as it will be when today's pupils launch themselves, children need a good grounding in the basics, as well as an attitude towards learning that has them reading widely, thinking, questioning, adapting and evaluating.

It is improved education outcomes that will make our country's economic and social goals possible. If we get the recipe right, education, a cohesive society and economic growth will be mutually reinforcing. The skills, motivation and self-management learnt during school days have a life-long impact. What is learnt at school, and how, prepares people for life and for continuous learning. So where children are not moving as well as expected within the school system, organisations like yours are very valuable.

The number of children you tutor shows how high a premium parents put on education. Many parents now recognise that education shouldn't be something that happens only in schools - it requires support, encouragement and open-mindedness at home. Parents have a responsibility too. The popularity of "Duffys Books in Homes" scheme is just one example.

Any support services, such as yours, for students experiencing difficulties in learning should be a partnership, with the child at the centre. A partnership between the tutor, the parents and the school. It's important that everybody involved in helping recognises the student's particular needs and works together to ensure the best outcome. I am aware that not all schools happily accept the need for outside help in some cases - it may require a bit of bending over backwards on your part to establish that partnership at first. But I am sure that most reasonable people, when they see change and improvement, will come round.

As you know, learning difficulty is a complex problem with a great many causes. It needs to be approached with flexible programmes based on each child's individual needs. The kind of flexible, one-to-one tutoring you provide is a valuable addition to support services available within schools.

Until recently, special education, including services for children with learning and behavioural difficulties, was something of a poor relation. Not so much an abandoned aunt in the attic - more a difficult cousin taken out only rarely! It's been left to one side for years because it involves so many hard-to-solve issues.

But now we are trying to turn that round with Special Education 2000. This is one of my top priorities, and I want to see the long-standing problems in special education sorted out.

We have set a new strategic direction. The underlying base will ensure there is a clear, consistent and predictable resourcing framework. Last year's budget allocated an extra $55 million over 3 years for special education. In this year's Budget round we will be looking at proposals to further implement our plans for Special Education 2000.

We have separated out the resource needs of very high and high-needs students from those with moderate needs. I won't go into the arguments that defining those terms raised!

But now all state and integrated schools are directly-resourced through the Special Education Grant - SEG as they call it - another one of those nasty education acronyms. When I first became Minister the Ministry gave me a 10-page glossary of such acronyms; they use so many that without it you cannot follow the conversation. To outsiders it must sound sometimes as if we are speaking a foreign language. Anyway, the Special Education Grant it there now to provide additional assistance to students with moderate needs. This is targeted funding for students with learning and behavioural difficulties.

Schools can use these grants in the way that best meets the needs of their individual students. They may choose to use it for such things as employing an additional teacher to work with small groups, further professional development for class teachers, developing networks within the school for identifying student problems at an early stage, and purchasing extra help or tuition from various outside sources.

I think your organisation has a role here. I understand you have developed a new Support Services to Schools Division that provides tutoring assistance during school hours. Obviously, as Minister, I do not wish to endorse or condemn particular approaches put forward by private organisations. But under the Special Education 2000 initiatives I do see a place for the kind of assistance you offer. Individual schools make the decisions on how their Special Education Grant is used. Make your services known to them.

On a personal level, I know the value of your tutoring services. Two of my children have been Kip pupils, and we found our local tutor, an ex-teacher, very interested in the boys' progress and able to tailor a programme to suit their learning style. There was some muttering from their school initially, but it was soon accepted, and even encouraged when the school saw how the partnership could work.

I believe schools need to accept change and reach out to new ideas, in this as in other fields.

One field of major change and new ideas currently affecting schools is curriculum reform. Some of the curriculums schools are working with now are over 50 years old, and so not terrifically well-suited to today's world. Everybody recognises that curriculum change is needed. The on-going debate is over how fast the change should be and how teachers can manage it. What should and shouldn't be in the new curriculums is another debate again!

English - one of the subjects you are most involved with - is one of the lucky ones. The new English curriculum has been in place since 1993 and is generally well-accepted. To the relief of many parents, reading and writing are central to the new English curriculum. Its three strands are oral language, written language and visual language - in practice, often linked. Knowing how to read with enjoyment and understanding, how to write well for different purposes and how to understand English grammar are important parts of the curriculum. I imagine that quite a lot of your tuition work is concerned with those areas.

I recognise that many teachers within our schools do not have as much time they'd like to devote to one-to-one teaching. Those of you who are ex-teachers will sympathise. We are addressing those sorts of issues within a Workload Group I am chairing, and we hope to start moving towards some answers soon.

In connection with that, I'd like to correct some recent publicity in the sector. There were claims running around that the only OECD country New Zealand beats in terms of teacher:pupil ratio is Turkey - the rest of the world, according to this story, is way in front of us. It's totally incorrect.

This claim is based on a misinterpretation of out-of-date figures and invalid comparisons. The OECD figures used - or should I say abused - were gathered in 1992 and published in 1995. Since then there's been a 1996 OECD report based on data from 1994 - still out-of-date admittedly, but more accurate and with a more appropriate methodology. That puts New Zealand secondary schools in about the middle or average with a ratio of 15:1 - in front of Canada, Japan, Ireland, and U.K. among others. On top of that, an additional 1014 teachers were employed over all sectors in 1996, to further lower student:teacher ratios. That doesn't figure yet in OECD figures.

There are many areas of education we will be moving in over the next three years.

New Zealand has seen substantial social change over the last ten years. Full employment is no longer assured for everyone. Most people will change jobs or careers more than once during their lifetime - no more going for the gold watch! Many more women are in the workforce, and in a wider range of occupations. Differentials in income are widening, particularly between the skilled and unskilled. Our society is increasingly diverse, with a growing proportion of Maori, Pacific Island and Asian people. Information technology is breaking down many of the barriers of time, location and distance.

Education must meet the diverse needs of all our people and help them adapt to these changes.

My most urgent task when I took on this portfolio a year ago - apart from trying to solve the secondary teachers' pay dispute of course! - was meeting the challenge of growth. A population bulge is now passing through the school system - it's currently in primary schools and will hit secondary and tertiary next century. That puts pressure on teacher numbers, training, classroom space and funding support. Measures taken last year ensured we started this school year with all the teachers we needed. Planning for continued growth, through both teacher recruitment and training, and property matters, is on-going. While I can't say we have the problems beaten yet, they are under control.

Lifting New Zealanders' educational attainment generally, including those groups like Maori and Pacific Island people, is a major objective.

Good-quality early childhood education provides the foundation for children's later learning. There is a wide diversity here to meet differing needs, from Kohanga Reo and childcare centres to playgroups and kindergartens. An early childhood 'curriculum' has been introduced to set educational standards across the range. However more professionalism is needed in some areas, and greater access in others. Early childhood education is an area the coalition agreement placed some emphasis on.

In schools, curriculum and qualification developments, and teaching, administration and workload changes, highlight the need for professional development and support for teachers. There is considerable diversity in this compulsory sector - from a state system that includes area and middle schools, to the special character of integrated and independent schools.

Issues here I'm sure you've all heard about are a unified pay system within an integrated teaching service - what the media often terms 'pay parity'; workloads; teacher and board education, and whether or not to bulk fund. They're just some of the issues that are currently generating a great deal of heat - often without much light - in the school sector.

And in the post-compulsory and training sector - tertiary - we are catering for an ever-widening range of students through programmes starting at secondary schools, and in polytechs, universities, and private and industry training establishments.

More subjects and courses than ever before are being offered. A sign of the importance placed on education is the huge growth in the tertiary sector - an increase of almost 50 percent since 1990. Funding, as ever, is an on-going argument, along with several other debates. The comprehensive review of the tertiary sector, flagged in the coalition agreement, will address most of the issues.

Some specifics. To involve New Zealanders as widely as possible in consultation on education matters we will be following a "green paper/white paper" approach on many matters this year.

A green paper is a statement of Government thinking, and the reasons behind it. They are distributed widely for discussion, and submissions are called for. Responses are analysed and incorporated, then a white paper - a definitive statement on government policy on a particular subject - is released.

I have to say that 'consultation' is sometimes misunderstood. It certainly means seeking and considering various points of views. It doesn't mean 'negotiation' or 'agreement'. Where there are differing points of view, Ministers must choose the one that, in their view, advances education most overall.

There will be several green papers this year. The one on terms and holiday dates for 1998 is already out - you can catch a copy at your local library, Ministry Office, or through schools if you want to make a submission.

The next green paper, due out in a month, is on qualifications policy. Advocates of the Framework, with its unit standards format, believe it heralds the new future where the vocational/academic split goes the way of the dinosaur. Critics believe the reverse. This debate rages within educational policy groups - some top-flight educationalists even hold both viewpoints.

I believe a qualifications system to meet the needs of the 21st Century must provide an opportunity for all to emerge from school with a qualification that will set them up so they have a good basis to earn a living and contribute to New Zealand.

To offer real opportunity, we need a system with a wide range of subjects and many levels. It should be a system that can be built on over a lifetime and where qualifications are made portable between education providers.

The green paper will canvas the whole range of qualifications issues. Proposals will be up for discussion and the white paper will follow the analysis of submissions.

Further green papers will follow on the Tertiary Review, and on Teacher Education. I mentioned earlier the pace of change - one of its effects is that we need to look at how teachers for the 21st Century are being trained. We need high-quality teachers who have the skills to understand, adapt and improvise. I'm sure you have opinions on that - the paper is expected to be out in July.

Other key elements for the future are improving how we deal with behavioural difficulties and truancy; further developing information technology , including computer use and distance learning in schools; and putting in place earlier ESOL tuition for the 34,000 or so students who require it annually. Perhaps you can see ways Kip McGrath Education Centres can be involved in all of these.

Essentially we all share a common goal - a better future for the young people of New Zealand through better education.

Thank you for inviting me to open your Conference. I wish you all the best for the rest of the weekend's sessions. I am happy to answer your questions.